Monday, February 13, 2012

Rust Belt Chic: Pittsburgh Taverns

Chicago is dying. If you are looking for a blue collar fix, then you must move to Pittsburgh or Buffalo. While Chicago's tavern culture wanes, it is cherished elsewhere:

Some cities celebrate old-fashioned taverns. The Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation organizes tours of local drinking spots, says Arthur Ziegler, the foundation's president. About 50 people participated in the December outing of the Society of Tavern Seekers. Many taverns are unknown even to Pittsburgh residents and retain historical architecture and signage. "It's all very appealing," he says.

In Buffalo, Marty Biniasz and Eddy Dobosiewicz founded Forgotten Buffalo, which leads tours of local sites, including pubs. "The neighborhood tavern became an oasis" for men who worked in steel mills and other factories, Biniasz says. A resurgence in interest is being driven by young people who "are looking for authenticity and are rediscovering there's a real heart and soul in these places," he says.

Emphasis added. That would explain why talent would skip Chicago and opt for Buffalo, Rust Belt Chic. Chicago may be more global, but the city is losing its "heart and soul". "Rust Belt" transforms from pejorative to desirable character.

No doubt, regional economics will privilege Chicago over other places in terms of attracting migrants. But such a boutique flow can jump start a Rust Belt city like it did in Austin or Portland. The resurgent interest in authentic taverns is a leading indicator of hipster migration. I witnessed such a trend firsthand while working at Al Nye's Polonaise in Minneapolis during the recession of the early 1990s. The two martini lunch generation mingled with art students from the University of Minnesota for wild Friday and Saturday nights. Look at how Nye's characterizes itself today:

Al Nye bought the place in the late 1940's, and being a machine shop foreman himself, he kept it close to it's blue collar roots. In 1964, his success at running the bar enabled him to buy the building next door for a dining room addition, which he renamed The Polonaise Room. Thankfully, all the 1960's hipster regalia is in full bloom at Nye's: the curved piano bar with Chopin portrait, the red carpeting, the dark wood paneling and the gold flecked booths. Like it has since it opened, Nye's still anchors the gateway to the Nordeast and continues to add to the funky, indescribably irreverent personality of this section of town.

I think the above place narrative captures the allure of Pittsburgh and Buffalo (as well as other Rust Belt cities). Neither city does a very good job of selling that brand. Regardless, the migrants keep coming.


Ryan Champlin said...

I haven't yet caught on to your definitions yet. You are adament that people, not places, develop. I understand that, though I think people develop places as well. So, I get that you understand economic development as people developing. But then you keep saying that other cities are dying for various reasons. So it leads me to believe that you think places do not develop but they do decline. But how can a city (or place) decline if it can't develop? I'm looking for clarification. Thanks.

Jim Russell said...

So it leads me to believe that you think places do not develop but they do decline.

I have a problem with how we define a dying city. So, I take the criteria applied to Rust Belt cities (obviously dying) and apply it to cities that aren't, in common parlance, dying.

Because Pittsburgh is losing population doesn't mean the city is dying. In fact, the hysteria surrounding Pittsburgh's supposed brain drain is the driving force behind my new understanding of economic development.

Pittsburgh the people is a wonderful story of economic development. Pittsburgh the place? Perceptions are just beginning to turn around. The economic metrics also look better. In my estimation, the development of people over place is beginning to pay dividends.