Thursday, January 12, 2012

Rust Belt Clichés

The Burgh is back and better than ever. You know the drill. Read all about it here and here. With that bit of civic boosterism out of the way, let's get real. Pittsburgh is dying:

The overall population dynamics of Rust Belt regions won’t change anytime soon. If the measure of success for an economic development program in Buffalo, Pittsburgh, or Cleveland were the addition of net new jobs in places that have seen steep drops in overall population and employment levels, then there would be no chance of success. That doesn’t mean, however, that longer-term growth is out of the question. And there are two countervailing trends underway: a tiny trickle of international immigration, and some post-recession retention of young people that can be attributed to the radical sorting underway in the overall economy. The decades-old Rust Belt phenomenon of losing young college graduates may be ending, or at least slowing, according to several studies of 2010 Census data, because there are simply not the employment opportunities in the Sun Belt that there used to be.

Emphasis added. I'll leave Buffalo and Cleveland out of this. Bruce Fisher means well. He is holding up Pittsburgh as a way forward for Buffalo. Enough with asterisk about population decline. It just isn't true.

I'm limiting the discussion to Pittsburgh's urban core and employment levels. Apples to apples, ladies and gentlemen. Today at Null Space:

Remember, I've pointed out in the past the incredible story that Downtown Pittsburgh is not only far from dead, but about as about as identically packed with jobs as it was 10, 20 and 50 years ago.  About as densely packed with jobs as 4/10ths of a square mile can likely support here given challenging transportation, parking and transit issues Downtown Pittsburgh has (all of which clearly have costs that seem not to have deterred investment Downtown of late).  There was an announcement last week of an entirely new PNC skyscraper, on top of the bigger one that was just built.  Also, the North Shore Connector is about to open and can only help push down parking prices which will benefit Downtown occupancy.

Emphasis added. Read the passage in bold, again. Do you believe it? Granted, it's counter-intuitive, kind of like brain drain that is really brain gain. Go ahead and lament the sprawl. Mourn the expatriates. But please review the numbers before repeating the Rust Belt clichés.

The demographics are moribund. The population is (was) aging. Yes, that was an exodus in the 1980s. That's not to say Rust Belt cities are imploding. That's not to say they aren't, either. The assumption is that all communities in the Rust Belt share the same plight. That damning narrative is accepted uncritically.

I'm not moving the goalposts to make Pittsburgh look better. We are trying to solve a problem that we have failed to properly define. I think the Rust Belt should drop the population discussion. It's counterproductive. In his own way, Fisher is saying the same thing. Don't judge a city by its population numbers. I'm saying, in Pittsburgh's case, I don't mind if I do.

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