Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Pittsburgh Hot American City Of The Future

****Correction: Please see comments for clarification regarding the Praxis Strategy Group's Pittsburgh and Denver report. Looks like the Tribune-Review invented some content that I repeated here at Burgh Diaspora.****

"Pittsburgh, PA, will become the next hipster haven." Why? Click on the link:

With its affordable housing, thriving student population, emerging arts and hip-hop scene, and fast-growing job market, Pittsburgh is quickly becoming the newest hipster haven.

Emphasis added. I started blogging about Pittsburgh and brain drain six years ago. At the time, I couldn't have imagined that I would live to read such a claim about my favorite dying Rust Belt city. Fast-growing job market?

Indeed, Pittsburgh's rapid transformation over the lifespan of my blog is staggering. Unbelievable. Which brings me to a sensational claim I made to a writer for Salon:

“I’ve been saying to people in Pittsburgh for years, ‘What Seattle was in the ’90s, you’re going to be that big.’ And they’d laugh. But the data show it,” says Russell. “The editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette keeps saying the biggest problem in Pittsburgh is brain drain. And I’m like, you’re 20 years too late. Why are you torpedoing your own in-migration? When you’re running around saying you have a brain drain problem, what you’re saying to the world is, ‘We’re a loser.’ But if you can convince people the data are true as opposed to the mesofacts, then you open the sluicegates.”

Consider the sluice gates wide open. Don't pay attention to the nonsense warning about the population numbers coming from the Praxis Strategy Group. This turnaround doesn't deserve an asterisk. Yesterday's decline isn't a good predictor of the future.

Seattle is a great analogy for Pittsburgh. In "The New Geography of Jobs", Enrico Moretti traces the divergence of Seattle and Albuquerque. From the book:

Today most people think of Seattle as one of the most pleasant cities in America, weather aside. But when Microsoft moved there in the late 1970s, the crime rate was significantly higher than Albuquerque and there were 50 percent more robberies per capita. The quality of Seattle schools was mixed, museums were run-down, and the culinary scene, now so interesting and eclectic, was unremarkable. ...

... Just a few years earlier, The Economist had labeled Seattle the "city of despair." In an article on the alarming decline of the local economy, its correspondent reported that "the country's best buys in used cars, in secondhand television sets, in houses, are to be found in Seattle, Washington. The city has become a vast pawnshop, with families selling anything they can do without to get money to buy food and pay the rent." Expectations about the future were so low that a giant billboard appeared near the airport saying, "Will the last person leaving SEATTLE - Turn out the lights."

Fast-forward to 1989:

Pity Seattle? Or pity Pine Bluff, Ark.? The new edition of Places Rated Almanac lists Seattle as the most livable city in America, No. 1 out of 333 American metropolitan areas surveyed. Pine Bluff is No. 333, after ranking third from the bottom in 1981 and second from last in 1985.

Seattle folk are not so sure that being No. 1 is all that terrific. The city has been touted in a number of surveys in recent years as a wonderful place to live. Thousands of people have been flocking there, more than a few of them from California. Now, Seattle has slow-growth groups trying to control congestion and development and discourage more newcomers.

Seattle went from city of despair to most livable in about a decade. Of course, Microsoft had a lot (if not everything) to do with that. Microsoft moved from Albuquerque to Seattle because the founders of the company (Bill Gates and Paul Allen) grew up there. Seattle's subsequent boom was dumb luck.

Pittsburgh's boom is anything but. There isn't a Microsoft underwriting the dramatic change in fortune. The demographic devastation of the 1980s has taken decades to unwind. It's still unwinding. Despite the strong headwinds, the regional economy started to pick up steam about 5-years ago and powered (relatively speaking) through the recession. I suspect the handwriting was on the wall when Whole Foods opened (2002) in East Liberty. That makes today's "hipster haven" headline a 10-year journey out of a Seattle-like darkness. Rust Belt Chic is the new grunge.


MarkS said...

Just to clarify, there's no “nonsense warning about the population numbers coming from the Praxis Strategy Group” in the National Chamber Foundation Pittsburgh report. Population growth is not mentioned at all, nor is any other sort of asterisk.

There is a chart on pg 10 indicating that the region’s outmigration rate has been much lower than a typical metropolitan area over the past decade. It also notes that the region has the 7th-most educated 25-44 year old workforce (including 2-yr credentials) among regions with at least 1 million population. This is to point out the fallacy of "brain drain" narratives, especially for a place like Pittsburgh with high college student populations.

Population growth isn't really relevant to Pittsburgh because its top-heavy age structure causes natural decline.

The report is available here:

Mark Schill

Jim Russell said...


Thanks for the clarification and the link to the report. I've been searching for an online version. I just skimmed through the section in question. Looks to me as if the Tribune-Review is guilty of editorializing:

Despite the growth of jobs here, annual population figures are either flat or growing slowly, the report warns.

"Pittsburgh's new challenge is not in stemming an outflow of residents, but in improving its performance in attracting new ones," it said.

I'm not seeing such a warning in the report. I think you should ask for a correction:

keetz4 said...

Seattle's subsequent boom was dumb luck.

What a ridiculous statement. A quality boom, the likes of which Seattle has experienced, has little to do with dumb luck. Despite having lived in the PNW, you really don't seem to get the region and the assets and resources that have led to its successes......not just in Seattle but in Portland, Boise and Spokane as well. That ignorance does a disservice to your predictions for Pittsburgh.

Jim Russell said...


I'm referring to what Moretti wrote about the Seattle boom. There are many regions with great assets. Some boom, some don't. Moretti tries to explain the geographic variance.

How did the assets inform Seattle's boom?

Unknown said...

"Rust Belt Chic is the new grunge."

This may very well come true artistically, not just metaphorically. As a new in-migrant to Pittsburgh, I've been exploring the music scene as well as the entrepreneurial scene (you can keep the hipster scene, no thanks!)

There is a music creation community that should rival Seattle once it becomes better known. It's mostly underground, and may well lack status only for lack of a catchy name like "grunge."

J. Scott