My latest post is up over at New Geography. It’s called “Pittsburgh Renaissance?” and is a look at the Pittsburgh transformation story. You’ve probably seen one or more national media stories talking about the Pittsburgh turnaround and touting that city as role model for the rest of the struggling Rust Belt. I examine that proposition and come to the conclusion that while the Pittsburgh renaissance story is overblown, there is definitely legitimate progress there and hopeful signs for the future. I also look at whether or not Pittsburgh is a model.
One of those national media stories was a recent piece in Forbes called “Pittsburgh? Yes, Pittsburgh“. I recommend checking this one out since I’m quoted in it.
If you want to keep track of the Pittsburgh story through the blogosphere, the place to look is Mike Madison’s Pittsblog. Another great blog with a more wonkish take is Chris Briem’s Nullspace. And of course you already know the Pittsburgh story from the diaspora point of view from Jim Russell’s Return to Pittsburgh.
Speaking of Pittsblog, Madison recently completed an Urbanophilesque ten part examination of the Pittsburgh comeback. I’ll link to his series below, but first want to give my take on the matter of Pittsburgh’s “grit”. There’s a meme out there that Pittsburgh pulled through because of the unique grit and tenacity of its residents. Madison seems to think this is vastly oversold and I probably agree. However, there is something legitimately different about Pittsburgh. It’s what I label in my article, for lack of a better term, “provincialism”, and it is something you see in almost all the old middle America river cities. Pittsburgh’s got it, so do Cincinnati, Louisville, and New Orleans. I don’t know St. Louis or Memphis as well, but it wouldn’t surprise me if you see it there too.
Provincialism in this case is all about attachment to a particular locale, a sense of shared history, identity, and tradition, and of course, a half-remembered, half-imagined greater past. It manifests itself in all sorts of good and bad ways. You see it in unique local traditions, local cuisine, and local dialects. You see it in old families and old power structures and social markers. You see it in a sort of reactionary arch-conservative social state, even in places that are nominally blue. Low immigration and a very high percentage of people who’ve lived in a place their whole lives are also a hallmark. The river geography also led to stunning views, and often fragmentation into large numbers of dense, distinct neighborhoods. And of course it fractures the towns along geographic lines.
In Pittsburgh, you see this in yinzer dialect and cookie table tradition at weddings. In Cincinnati in Cincinnati style chili and local institutions like the Charter Party. In Louisville it’s about where you went to high school. Cincy and Louisville both exhibit big civic fractures, Cincy in its east side-west side divide, Louisville in its “ends”. I think this provincialism is one reason why Madison, Indiana, once the largest city in that state, preserved its old center intact as one of America’s most important historic districts. Cincinnati and Pittsburgh also seem to have suffered less than most regional cities from urban demolition.
I do believe this provincialism is one key to the Pittsburgh story. It creates emotional resonance for a place, even where people left. If you look at why, for example, Louisville and Dayton took such different trajectories, among them has to be the love of place that is so prominent in Louisville. Of course, there’s a down side too. It creates a short of haughty self-regard and smugness, and a resistance to new ideas and new people. Like most things, this provincialism is a double-edged sword.
Here is the story on the Pittsburgh turnaround from three of its best bloggers. First, here is Mike Madison’s series:
Chris Briem takes a look at this over at Economy.com in “The Decline and Rise“.
And Jim Russell’s take on the Pittsburgh turnaround is a New Geography, “Hyping Pittsburgh: With the Global Economy in Dire Straits, Hell With the Lid Blown Off Never Looked Better“
For another view, see “Five Things That Helped Pittsburgh Turn the Corner” over at PopCity.