Sunday, November 23, 2008

Pittsburgh Calling

"India Calling" is the title of this article in the Sunday edition of the New York Times:

My firsthand impression of India seemed to confirm the rearview immigrant myth of it: a land of impossibilities. But history bends and swerves, and sometimes swivels fully around.

India, having fruitlessly pursued command economics, tried something new: It liberalized, privatized, globalized. The economy boomed, and hope began to course through towns and villages shackled by fatalism and low expectations.

Many second generation Indian immigrants to the United States are returning to their ancestral homeland, a place of surprising possibility. The irony is that this tale of two countries is undergoing a role reversal. India is a promising example of the good that can come of brain drain.

Pittsburgh is "A Tale of Two Cities":

"I think the two lines that are the takeaway for the city -- that we need an infusion of dreamers but dreaming is contagious, and then Franco saying, it's great that people went out there to explore but we've got to find a way to bring that talent back to Pittsburgh. Talent, come on back to Pittsburgh."

It's no coincidence, says [Carl Kurlander], that the movie is being screened during Thanksgiving weekend. It's the perfect time to say come on home for more than a harried visit. After all, the filmmaker says, Time magazine just headlined a story about Pittsburgh, "Finding One Economic Bright Spot on Main Street."

More than a century ago, Pittsburgh was fertile ground for dreamers and inventors, from 22-year-old George Westinghouse and his air brake to a young inventor named Charles Martin Hall who helped to found Alcoa. "He was 22 years old, he decided to come to Pittsburgh because it said, if you have talent, if you have ideas, we will back you, we will take a risk. Pittsburgh, now is the opportunity and time and, again, the opportunity is there for Pittsburgh, it's got to grab it."

The analogy between India and Pittsburgh is far from perfect. But both homelands are beacons of opportunity during an economic crisis. Generation X, my generation, are the Rust Belt's children. Our parents left the region seeking work in the wake of the industrial collapse. We aren't "shackled by fatalism and low expectations." I can look at Pittsburgh in the light of what it might become, not how far it has fallen. I see possibility where others see hopeless parochialism and the paralysis of an outdated political machine clinging desperately to power.

Pittsburgh and India do face many of the same challenges. And, as Vivek Wadhwa has recommended, the United States should now learn from its protégé. Return to India (R2I in geek parlance) is a template for Rust Belt expatriates. Pittsburgh in particular is the disciple turned guru. Cities across the country we need to learn how to recover from economic collapse. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh is getting younger while just about everywhere else is getting older. The housing market is secure, not in freefall. Pittsburgh is a port in the current storm.

Pittsburgh is calling.

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