Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Scar Tissue Diaspora

Strange title for a blog post, eh? Maybe I'm spending too much time in Atlantic Canada of late, but I though you readers might appreciate another opinion as to why Pittsburgh is a strong city and worthy of emulation:

But Pittsburgh is making a comeback. Richard Florida seem to like picking on the city in his books but I like what I am seeing there. I'll have to get down and visit one of these days.

Saint John has a little Pittsburgh in her and maybe that is why I have always had a soft spot for the Port City. She was never as large but in her heyday around the time of Confederation, Saint John was as big as Halifax, Detroit and Baltimore (population). She was a major port and a key stop on the shipping routes. She was also the hub of trade between the Maritimes and New England. But along came Confederation and reoriented trade east-west in Canada. The national railway was put in as was the St. Lawrence Seaway and that marginalized SJ even more over time. Again, the slow burn - not the flashy exit. Even in the early 20th century, Saint John was easily the most dominant urban area in New Brunswick and still a fairly major player.

So it was quite sad for me to see Saint John actually slip into population decline in the last couple of Census periods. At the county level, the Saint John population today is about the same as in the 1950s.

And, of course, from an economic development perspective, as goes your most dominant urban centre, so goes your province. In order for New Brunswick to get back on the economic rails, we need a strong and prosperous Saint John.

Like Pittsburgh, I think that Saint John will make a strong comeback. These things take time - decades - generations sometime. But we are starting to rethink historical trade routes again. We are starting to rethink our industrial development policies. We are starting to understand the importance of our urban areas. People are actually thinking about roads, rail and ports and the long term impact of these assets to a province's economic development.

You might be rolling your eyes, but to lump Pittsburgh in with other struggling Rust Belt cities isn't accurate. Contrary to popular mythology, young adults are not leaving Pittsburgh en masse and the declining urban population isn't quite the crisis that many make it out to be. But don't expect a boomtown resurgence, either. The Pittsburgh "comeback" brings to mind the slow rise in water temperature that eventually boils the frog. Pittsburgh isn't leaping back onto the global stage.

I'm curious how people who view Pittsburgh as a comeback city came to think of it that way. The municipal debt and embarrassing casino project, not to mention the press about the notable aging of the population, have added to Pittsburgh's more common image as a dirty city in the death throes of urban decay. If you have not been there, then I think Pittsburgh would surprise you. Just the same, I'm a bit taken back by the mounting publicity painting the region as a beacon of Rust Belt renewal.

No comments: