Friday, January 11, 2013

Pittsburgh And Seattle

I was recently asked to name three cities that have the best chance to be the next Portland. That ship has sailed. We should be looking for the next Nashville. Moving up the urban hierarchy, where is the next Chicago (#2 US city behind New York)? That would be Washington, DC. It's a game of using the old regime to understand the new economic geography.

I'm in awe of Pittsburgh's transformation. Playing the same game, what might the city become? I've already answered the question, settling on Seattle. The more I learn about Seattle, the more apt the comparison seems. It has gone from Rust Belt dump to shiny tech town in matter of a few decades. Microsoft moved from Albuquerque to Seattle via return migration. Now add to that the power of melancholy:

Countless Americans (and innumerable French artists and writers) have done their best work under la grisaille, as Parisians call their leaden ceiling. Ireland surely has more good writers and dramatists per capita than any country in the world. And in Seattle, you can’t walk outside for a snort of espresso without bumping into a newly published novelist who finally finished the tortured tome after escaping from somewhere with too much distracting sun.

Pittsburgh has its own la grisaille. My wife, a native, loves the climate. When I met Randy Pausch, of "Last Lecture" fame, my lasting memory of him is his stated regret of wasting so much of his life in a place where one couldn't enjoy the outdoors. In that regard, he hated Pittsburgh.

Born in Erie, I've lived in some gloomy places. But I couldn't hack it in Olympia, Washington. The dreary winter was too persistent. I've never been so depressed. The short days and constant clouds were debilitating. However, I do respond well to melancholy-fueled creativity.  In Pittsburgh, I can be functionally glum. I've experienced a similar balance living in northern New England.

Embracing the environmental determinism, Pittsburgh has the same mojo blessing Seattle. Creative thinkers can and do thrive there. It's an inspiring place that attracts talent because it develops talent. People develop, not places.

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