Sunday, January 17, 2010

Broken Pittsburgh Promise

In his book "The Paris of Appalachia", Brian O'Neill makes no bones about the importance of the Pittsburgh Promise to the health of the city. Short of devising another strategy to get at suburban money (see Mike Madison's latest post) and consolidating redundant government entities, a lot is riding on the Promise.

The problem is population decline and the shrinking tax base. Ideally, the Promise incentivizes more people to live within the city proper. What's not to like about free college education for all of your children? According to O'Neill, the region is yawning:

That's potentially 80 grand if a Pittsburgh family sends two children to college. Yet you don't hear people talking about it much. We just aren't used to news that good in Pittsburgh. Many just hear it and throw it in our massive too-good-to-be-true pile.

O'Neill then explores Pittsburgh's ambivalence and the need to change the culture. That's not going to happen. In fact, O'Neill interviewed two "outsiders" for his piece. Non-natives are much more ready to embrace the Promise.

Retention initiatives are doomed to failure. Cultural inertia is very powerful. Concerning migration modeling, we tend to underestimate these residuals. We provide one rational choice opportunity after another for a very irrational community. If the opposite were true, then young talent wouldn't continue to try to cram into Cool Portland (Oregon) or more software companies would take advantage of geographic arbitrage in Youngstown (Ohio).

The culture of migration is something to leverage, not re-engineer. O'Neill's book does work with this flow. He provides tacit knowledge of the advantages of urban living in a Pittsburgh North Side neighborhood. But his stories would better appeal to outsiders than locals (who have already made up their minds and are set in their ways).

With the right demographic identified, how do O'Neill and the Pittsburgh Promise reach a critical mass of prospective city residents?

I think the answer is locked up in the social media community.

My wife is a Pittsburgh native, raised in the North Allegheny school district. She has a geographically independent occupation in software sales. We have two preschool aged children and would love to raise them in my wife's hometown. The Pittsburgh Promise is an attractive offer, but the relocation logistics are daunting.

Where to look for the right neighborhood within city limits? Which school or schools might be a good fit? As you might imagine, my suburban raised wife has a host of concerns about city living. All these anxieties erode the advantages of the Promise. And while O'Neill's book is a good start for addressing the fears, a full court press is needed to cinch the deal.

The northern suburbs are the known commodity. We already know how to find a good neighborhood. We can easily compare the schools to the ones we attended. But the city is terra incognita. The Promise provides the necessary financial incentive. Missing is the intimacy of place that can help us feel like we are making a good decision.

We aren't looking to be urban pioneers. A community with other reformed suburbanites would be ideal. The Promise hasn't been in place long enough for one to take hold, but journalists such as O'Neill might bring to light a few of these seed residents. If he can't find them, then perhaps Pittsburgh needs to sweeten the deal and help mitigate the risk of being one of the pioneers.

I have to believe that the right neighborhoods already exist, particularly as far as expatriates are concerned. I'd bet there are cost effective options if you know where to look. The first step is creating the online environment where such knowledge can be effectively brokered. Partner the site with the Pittsburgh Promise with the stated intention to lure families to the city. Might some existing local nonprofit be in a good position to spearhead the initiative?

Most importantly, forget the city's surrounding suburbs. Bring in the people who will bring a cultural change with them. That's the only way to transform the regional mentality. Encouraging the young to stay will have the opposite effect. This will reproduce the parochial attitudes, the suburbs continuing to benefit at the expense of the inner city.


Stephen Gross said...

On a related note: As an urbanite myself, and having studied urban studies and planning for several years now, I am convinced that it is not practical to pursue a Convert-the-Suburbanites strategy to grow a city. Suburbanites--and suburbanism--are a fact of life in America. Urban life has been villified ever since the 1950s, and rehabilitating its image will take another 50 years. In the meantime, cities need to focus on convincing urbanites--especially latent urbanites--why this-or-that city is more-or-less desirable.

joe said...

I think you're onto something Jim, and hope folks locally will be receptive to new ways of engaging others on the topic.

Speaking as one who grew up in the south suburbs, moved away for 15+ years and returned to rent in the city for awhile, I had no real clue about what Pittsburgh the city has to offer (a lot). I suspect others looking to move back and seek a more urban living experience are in the same boat.

Maybe we need a Diaspora Days weekend or something...hold a contest to see how many graduates of local high schools from the 80s and 90s (near & far now) can place Frick Park on a map!

joe said...

Also, I hope we won't "forget the city's surrounding suburbs." A nuevo urbanismo island won't take hold in Pittsburgh; it must involve the inner boroughs and suburbs to thrive, some how, some way (Bellevue!)

And that's where the connections to the diaspora exist, yes?

BrianTH said...

Have you ever visited the City-Data Pittsburgh Forum? The people there (including me) field questions from people interested in moving to Pittsburgh, and will provide tailored advice on selecting neighborhoods.

Jim Russell said...

Have you ever visited the City-Data Pittsburgh Forum?

Indeed I have. Forums such as that one is what I have in mind when I suggest that social media could be a big help to the Pittsburgh Promise.

Mark Arsenal said...

Maybe I'm just weird, but I came to PGH over the course of two week-long vacations, and by the time the second one was done with, I knew the housing market, city limits, crime rates, transit system, business climate and job opportunities well enough to choose a neighborhood, buy a house, and plan my migration strategy.

This is from someone who had never been to PGH before the first day of that first vacation. What's so tough about determining where you want to live? Esp in a place like PGH with so much data available in libraries and historical archives. I guess being childless in my case is the big difference?

I dunno - I went through the same thing when I moved to Charlotte. I'd only lived there a few weeks and I already knew a ton more about the city - where to live, where to eat, where the best used book stores and libraries were - than any of the friends I met there who had lived there for years or even for their whole lives.

I think it's all about effort. If people are looking for "their city", they will quickly and easily find "their place" and all the attendant services. If they're just looking for a comfortable place that feels like any other comfortable place, they'll end up in cheap strip mall suburbs regardless of which city they end up in.

Lou said...

It's funny: I Was just talking about the "Ambivalance" of City boosters to my brother-in-law in Cleveland. We were discussing the recent NPR article about the Langston Hughes home renovation.

At least it seems to be a common problem.

Steve said...

I am convinced that it is not practical to pursue a Convert-the-Suburbanites strategy to grow a city. Suburbanites--and suburbanism--are a fact of life in America.

I agree with a caveat. One reason that people choose suburbs over cities is the quality of the schools (or perception of the quality of schools). Fix that and you would get some people who would move into the city from the suburbs.

Also, I hope we won't "forget the city's surrounding suburbs." A nuevo urbanismo island won't take hold in Pittsburgh; it must involve the inner boroughs and suburbs to thrive, some how, some way (Bellevue!)

Absolutely. With a city that's as geographically small as Pittsburgh, by definition the inner suburbs should be fairly urban (depending on population). The inner suburbs really do need to be included.