Friday, January 13, 2012

Pistols At Dawn: Pittsburgh Versus Portland

San Francisco is "Portland with jobs". That search generated some traffic at my blog. The quip is all about Portland's jobs problem. The first thing that comes to my mind is Aaron Renn's (The Urbanophile) "Nikki Sutton Story":

Eager to be in this great physical setting and around more people who shared her values, Nikki moved to Portland without a job in the early 2000’s. (She originally thought she had one, but it fell through right as she was moving). She spent 14 months looking for serious employment, but couldn’t find it. In the meantime, she worked at the Banana Republic flagship. According to her, the entire staff was in the same boat – people who wanted to live in Portland but hadn’t been able to find employment in their own field.

Since it gave benefits to part time workers, Nikki also applied for a retail job at Starbucks. She was told there was such a backlog of applications it would likely be some time before she even got a call back. Yes, there appears to be a long waiting list for jobs at Starbucks in Portland.

After more than a year of this, she was lured back to Indianapolis by an actual job offer from a local architecture firm. After working there for some time, she launched her own firm, Level Interior. She’s also active as a model and fashion stylist. I’m personally very impressed with her work.

Portland put the cart before the horse. Riffing off of one of my main themes ... local development for people, not places:

Policy should be assessed by impact on people, not places. In the recent past, policy has arguably been too heavily focused on public expenditure to turn around declining places, and paid too little attention to individuals, housing costs and amenity differences.

Move to Portland and be somewhere. Move to Indianapolis and do something. Portland is a wonderful example of great placemaking. Placemaking to what end? Portland is attractive. Portland is winning the war for talent. Portland is San Francisco without jobs.

Now about that Pittsburgh is better than Portland thing:

This ought not to be about Pittsburgh versus Portland. As it happens, Pittsburgh does have a lot going for it. The city, more than any other former industrial Mecca flourishing in generations past, has found a way to reinvent itself as a flourishing small metropolis connecting the East Coast and the Midwest. And admittedly, Portland has its problems: we need jobs and greater diversity. But Pittsburgh and Portland, rather than rivals or as combatatants in some kind of cool-cache duel, both represent the rise of the small city at the expense of megalopolises like New York, DC and Los Angeles.

Gone are the days before the Internet and ease of travel when small cities' most talented artists and entrepreneurs felt they had to migrate across the country forever in order to find attention, investment and advancement. Today Mark Rothko wouldn't have to go to New York to become Mark Rothko.

The great diaspora of the 21st century will not be immigrants foreign and domestic heading to two or three American cultura capitols. It will be one that favors the Copenhagens, Kyotos, Portlands and Pittsburghs of the world - not to the same centers of smog, hubris and spit of the past. There is no Ellis Island today but an archipelago.

No surprise, The Washington Post list sticking a fork in Portland-chic struck a nerve. Nobody puts Portland in a corner. Portland and Pittsburgh need to stick together and take on those big, bad alpha global cities. The "world is spiky" my ass.

Great people make great places, not the other way around. The hubris of architects and urban planners is astounding. Sorry Michigan, cool is not an economic development strategy. Attracting/retaining talent is a means to some end, not the end itself.

What's in and what is out is a "cool-cache duel", all in good fun. I'm more concerned about the Portland Way. Is it a good idea? Should Detroit try to emulate the success? Some snarky journalism struck me as a good way to broach the subject. Pittsburgh is suddenly Creative Class hip. That's funny, right?


Anonymous said...

Interesting read. I moved to Pittsburgh from Kazakhstan. So I love it here lol. I work for a super major oil/gas company and Pittsburgh is just on the verge on going through an energy boom like no others. The Marcellus shale.....and now the Utica shale. Chevron created its first new business unit in Pittsburgh in 30 years. This dynamic will set Pittsburgh apart from most. Royal Dutch Shell is looking to put an ethane cracker in the metro area.....that alone would bring thousand upon thousands of jobs as a ton of idustries will move next to the cracker. The two counties south of Pittsburgh is seing a gold rush. I like this city...

Brendan Crain said...

Re: the above comment: go figure, my favorite city is finally about to boom, but it's for the absolute worst reason that I could possibly imagine. Fucking oil. Worst punchline ever.


Re: Portland vs. Pittsburgh: I think the WaPo's point was that Pittsburgh is becoming a more favorable city exactly because it eschews Portland's crunchy piety for a more un-self-conscious earnestness. Post-boom, post-bust, we're less interested in irony than in clarity, as a society. We are, in short, tired of the bullshit, and Pittsburgh is a no-bullshit zone. At least, that's what I've always loved about it...

Jim Russell said...

Brendan, The boom would be more for natural gas than oil. In fact, the most valuable resource may be the liquids that come up with the gas (see the ethane cracker reference). But the resource boom is only part of the surprisingly rosy picture.

Anonymous said...

It's nice that Pittsburgh is now considered a hipster mecca, but for those of us who have made lucrative careers out of creative work, it's no consolation. I've been on the market for nearly a year, applying to many different positions. Often, I'm interviewed and then told I'm too old or expensive. I also had an offer for a senior mgmt. position fall through, and I was replaced by a new grad with no management experience.

The opportunities I am even qualified for are few and far between now that I'm mid-career. The jobs I have my eye on are held by people who've been in those positions for a decade or more, and who aren't going anywhere. I suppose I could throw my career away and work at Starbucks or Crazy Mocha, but I am the primary income-earner in the family, and cheap as it is here, I can't support my family on $9/hour, 30 hours a week, even with our total housing costs, including utilities, coming in at just over $1K a month. My unemployment pays 3x more than local coffee shops.

Sure, the coastal cities are expensive, but their creative opportunities are a lot more plentiful and feature a lot more churn, which opens up more positions, more frequently. And that's where I'll need to go. It was a nice idea for me to try to make it here, but apparently a top-notch portfolio with blue-chip clients, a stellar track record of performance and revenue generation, and a solid reputation as a creative still aren't enough.

I can see why Pittsburgh is appealing for young people who want to make art or music on the side, and who dig the appeal of being financially comfortable with a PT barista job, giving them more time for their art. However, I now have adult responsibilities and a career track, so that lifestyle isn't desirable or even possible for me. My peers all left by 2006 to pursue their careers on the coasts, and are making more money and landing better jobs than I could ever dream of here. And nice as it is that Pittsburgh has a large 18-24 population, it's really lonely when you're trying to socialize with urban mid-career professionals in their 30s and 40s.