Friday, September 25th, 2009

Pittsburgh Renaissance?

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 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.

Topics: Strategic Planning, Urban Culture
Cities: Pittsburgh

17 Responses to “Pittsburgh Renaissance?”

  1. Indy Rock says:

    I've lived in Indianapolis the past 20 years yet my dad has also lived in Pittsburgh for about the same time. My parents were divorced when I was rather young. Anyway, I've had the privelage to see both cities extensively. And being the city buff I am, I find myself often times comparing these two cities. Of course I am more biased towards Indianapolis…

    A few interesting things that I have noticed are… While Indy and Pittsburgh couldn't be more different geographically, they are somewhat similar in other aspects. Both cities have long struggled with their national identiy until the past decade or so. Indianapolis is finally being seen as an economically diverse community that excells in amateur sports, medicine and computer technology start ups. Whereas Pittsburgh is being seen as a post industrial diamond in the rough. It excells in higher education, medicine and financial instituitions.

    Both cities also have seemed to shed their previous "notorious nicknames" Indianapolis for being a boring cowtown and Pittsburgh for being a decaying and polluted wasteland. Now both cities have shiny downtowns that showcase many grand attractions. However, once you get outside the polished central cities decay starts. In Indianapolis it's the industrial east side and south side. Whereas in Pittsburgh it's in pockets around their South Shore and outside their downtown interstate loop.

    The last thing the cities share in common is that they usually only make the news for very good or very bad reasons. For example, in Pittsburgh the murder of three cops by one estranged 23 year old in April or the muderous rampage that killed 3 women at an LA Fitness health club this past July. Or in Indianapolis the gruesome Hamilton Avenue murders in 2006. Or for the GOOD news, Pittsburgh hosting the G-20 summit along with winning the Stanley Cup and Super Bowl in the same season. Meanwhile, in Indianapolis for winning a Super Bowl then winning rights to host a Super Bowl the next year or the Indianapolis 500 etc.

    However, there are quite a few differences between the two cities as well. Obviously, the geography is completely different which leads to natural beauty in Pittsburgh but also terrible infrastructure dictated by the hills and valleys. Indianapolis also has more subtle geography which leads to a world class greenways system. However, we also have pretty piss poor infrastructure. No excuses there.

    Also, Indianapolis is MUCH more fiscally conservative than Pittsburgh. Indy has a surplus this year, whereas Pittsburgh may be severely broke in the upcoming years. One might argue that this excess spending in Pittsburgh has led to better transit and civic structures, but it also will contribute to a greater decline if they don't get out of the red.

    Lastly, civic pride is completely different in both cities. In Indianapolis people are proud, humble and even a bit too laid back sometimes. What I've noticed in Pittsburgh is that their civic pride or shall i say "Steelers Pride" is to the point of insanity and obsessiveness. Sports fans in Pittsburgh are almost a cult where the Penguins are Jesus, Steelers are God and Pirates are satan himself. While this may bode well for hardcore sports fans, it is completely excessive in nearly every other respect.

    Sorry to hijack the comments thread Aaron, I just thought I'd give my two cents (or two dollars). I'm sure there are plenty of things I missed but hopefully we can get some more dialogue about Pittsburgh. Didn't mean to make this a city vs. city debate. Thank you!

  2. Ray Garrigan says:

    This is an interesting thread. I don't know enough about Pittsburgh to comment on whether it is a model for other cities, though I was impressed by its built environemnt when I was there last year. Really great architecture, museums, churches, parks, and it's neighborhoods are walkable and urban.

    But Aaron raises an interesting point about a city's mindset. The group sociological characterization of a city and its impact on the city's development is fascinating. I don't know enough about midwestern cities, having only lived in Madison WI, though I've spent time in Pittsburgh, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Columbus, Minneapolis and St Louis. But your thoughts on Pittsburgh call to mind classes I took while attending PENN. My professor, E. Digby Baltzell, who coined the term WASP, wrote a book called Puritan Boston Quaker Philadelphia where he opined that the sociological characteristics of the founding religious groups permeated each city's pattern of development. He even noted how it affected a city's architecture, the development of the city's institutions and the way the citizens thought about their city. He included an analysis of the dutch origins of New York and its own unique development and penchant for flashy architecture(or perhaps that was in a later essay, it was years ago, forgive me).

    I suspect that the same type analysis can be applied to cities that go through a period of economic stagnation or decline. Those who are born into such declining cities and who are driven by power or fame may be tempted away from their city of birth to the current capitals of finance, government or media. Those who stay behind may do so out of obligation to family, lack of desire to leave the familiar, lack of drive to be at the top of their chosen career, or a definition of success that is less defined by fame and fortune and more geared to family and community. They trade the possibility of great notoriety travel and wealth for the comfort of home.

    A group collective of such a mind set is bound to have an effect on how such a city views itself and directs its future. Perhaps the city takes less risks, looks to travel down the familiar path, shows distrust to outsiders and is less willing to bring into their inner sanctum newcomers or those whose mindset differs. Perhaps they hold onto a past for lack of confidence in a future. Or perhaps they copy what is done by the more confident, economically vibrant cities for fear of following their own ideas, or mistruct in their own ability to direct their own future.

    Recently I read of a lawyer interviewing in Detroit (did I read this on this blog?) who had to write out on paper why he wanted to move to Detroit, because the interviewing firm could not believe that anyone who didn't come from Detroit would want to move there. If ever there is a city and region with a unique and complicated mindset it is Detroit.

  3. AmericanDirt says:

    I'm glad you brought this up in regards to Pittsburgh. My conjecture is based purely on hearsay, so it probably has little validity, except that I've heard it reiterated by multiple people over the years.

    Several cities in the greater Midwest with low population and economic growth carry an additional albatross that comes with that double-edged sword of provincialism. Call it smugness if you will, but it also seems some places just grow a bit "comfy" with their stagnance. A person living in Columbus (originally from New Jersey) left Pittsburgh after a few years because of frustration with how many social doors closed in her face. I've heard others complain the same way about Cincinnati and St. Louis too–that they are so used to being settled around a group of old friends that they become standoffish to outsiders.

    This manifests itself in well-preserved cultural traditions as you mentioned, but also a profound distrust of the sincerity of any non-native who wants to adopt his/her new city of residence by working collectively to improve it. The cherished institutions in these cities–the Charter Parties of Cincinnati, the krewes of New Orleans–often shun any newcomers. These are the same sort of places that consistently elect local boys and girls to the highest offices, who never even left town for college. (Boston has turned this last one into an art form.) I can't help but wonder if it would be hard or impossible for someone who didn't grow up in Pittsburgh to even run for something like a councilperson or an assessor. From my observations, you'd be hard pressed to find any major Latino settlement in either Cincinnati or Pittsburgh, mostly due of course to lack of growth in industries that target that demographic but it's also a chicken-egg scenario.

    Perhaps someone from Pittsburgh could challenge me (and I'd welcome it if they did), but my impressions of the Mount Washington neighborhood–and people's reactions when I mentioned it in a blog post–further indicate to me how easy it is for certain locales that have long suffered flat or negative growth to actually savor this stagnance as an alternative to the vicissitudes of modernity. Do the residents of Pittsburgh prefer neighborhoods like Mt. Washington to fall into blight and disrepair rather than see a new generation of ideas and capital come in and give them a new sheen? I'd withhold judgment on this because obviously the decision is theirs before it's mine, but this tension cannot help but complicate and stymie the growth these cities presumably crave.

  4. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    One thing I'd add to the mix: Indy is not as fiscally conservative as it might appear from its built environment. The same local survey that criticized Pittsburgh's debt load also pointed out that Indy has high per capita deb repayments. Also, Indy had a pension time bomb, but the state bailed it out.

  5. Jim Russell says:

    Pittsburgh is an interesting riddle. I'm looking at it from a non-native/non-resident perspective. Mike Madison provides the non-native/resident look and Chris Briem is the native/resident. Mike is particularly sensitive to the provincialism (he is a Bay Area brat). His blog is a great archive of the barriers outsiders face in Rust Belt cities. He provides the tough love that Pittsburgh needs.

    I'm curious about what folks here think about Steigerwald's Pittsburgh piece in New Geography.

    Bill is both Pittsburgh native and resident. What do you make of his cynicism?

  6. The Urbanophile says:


    I read the Steigerwald piece. He's a libertarian, right? That piece has all the hallmarks of libertarian writing: everything the gov't does is terrible, general cynicism, and a sort of smarmy/smart-allecky tone that is rather off-putting to unbelievers.

    Every city also has its "hater" blogs, and he would appear to be a prime specimen of the species.

    In short, while he no doubt hits some good points, his style is unlikely to convert anyone to his way of thinking. The reality can't possibly be that bad.

  7. Jim Russell says:

    Yes, Bill subscribes to the libertarian ideology. But is the "hater" speech also uniquely provincial?

    I still struggle with the idea that Pittsburgh nativism or Midwestern nativism is unique.

  8. cdc guy says:

    Jim, that "nativism" exists is not particularly surprising. But Pittsburgh nativism, or Cincinnati nativism, or any other one, IS unique to its place.

    Aaron…it's not a "river city" thing, just an "old inland city" thing. After a time, immigrants stopped coming to those cities because lots of other places were accessible by road and rail. The post on the "Good Life" thread is dead on: get immigrants to come.

  9. cdc guy says:

    Ray, I was at Penn when Baltzell's book was published. It made quite a stir in Philadelphia; at the time, the Route 128 phenomenon in Boston was in full flower and gave that city a shine while Philadelphia was in decline. (If you're old enough, you know what South St. and West Philly looked like in those days.)

    Baltzell's hypothesis is no longer able to describe significant differences in current development patterns and built form, or in the respective cities' museums, symphonies, and Ivy League universities. As you know, two of the biggest donors to Penn in the last couple of decades were a Mormon from Utah who made it big in egg cartons and a Jewish Wharton grad who made it big in insurance…"Quakers" only because they went to dear old Penn like you and me.

    Today, there's probably not so much difference between the two cities, as the old-money Puritan and Quaker influence has diminished in importance.

    So I think there's a shelf life on "determining factors" in a city's development over time. Puritans would NEVER have funded The Big Dig. :)

  10. Ray Garrigan says:

    cdc guy – I was at PENN in the mid 80's and I haven't even thought about Digby's book since I was there, so I can't take issue with what you say (and I can't give particulars as to, for example, what the Puritan and Quaker characetistics were). However, I suspect there is still validity to what Digby wrote. For example, though the specifics of what Digby argues escape me, the overall take away message I was left with was that the elite (upon which the book focuses, and from a period starting from the 1700's through the the 20th century) of Philadelphia did not support their city's institutions at the same fervor that Bostonites did and Philadelphians sought their education at the elite prep schools and universities in New England (rather than those at home), and left their city to seek their fortunes elsewhere. In addition, the self effacing Quaker character led to a second city mentality and a more conservative less risk taking mentality (and that led to, for example an architecture that was staid and non threatening). Hence, though Penn is the country's oldest University founded by Ben Franklin (Harvard is the oldest college) it is consistently seen as the doormat of the Ivy League and is more of a professional school for the upper middle class of NY, NJ, PA, than the training ground of the elite and ruling class that Harvard became.

    One can argue if this is still true, certainly PENN's graduate programs are among the best in the world, but I think this argument still applies.

    Boston, on the other hand was far more invested in its own institutions, was particular to its own prep schools and universities, and its children remained in the city to obtain prominence. The local knickname of Boston was "The Hub" or the Athens of America and Bostonites seem to have a love fest with their city. When I was at Penn, Philadelphia was called Filthadelphia (for its consistently trashy streets). 20 years ago I was reading about Philadelphia being the next great city, undiscovered, and experiencing a restaurant revolution, I am still reading the same type articles today. No one writes about Boston being undiscovered, its attributes are well known. Everyone knows that Boston is a University town. No one knows that Philly has more college students and universities than Boston.

    Philly still has a second city mentality and its own citizens seem to be unaware of how fantastic their city really is, and it is perenially being discovered in the travel press. Bostonites seem to be deluded in thinking their city is more important on the world stage than it really is. Perhaps much of the book is outdated, and perhaps I am behind the times when it comes to recent history in Philadelphia, but when I meet Bostonites and Philadelphians, the same character traits still shine through.

    Certainly Philly suffers from its close proximity to NY and DC which contributes to its second city mentality, but the book was tracing a collective mentality that was developing since the 1700's when proximity to NYC was not really an issue and when Harvard's dominence was not assured (as it is today). Perhaps Digby was right that characterisitics that can be traced to each city's founding groups helped shape the collective mindset that influenced the way the cities developed and may still be having an affect today (though perhaps diluted).

  11. Anonymous says:

    Steigerwald is from "Pittsburgh" in terms of metro, but he couldn't be any farther from the city in geography or thought. He writes for a righwing mouthpiece – the Tribune Review owned by Richard Mellon Scaife who spent the 90s using his paper and resources trying to taking down Bill Clinton. In any case, Steigerwald and the paper constantly bash the city proper (and I guess also in the rightwing site Townhall too).

    I would agree that some outsiders might find it hard, but I know several students who stayed and have enjoyed the city and region. Perhaps the transition from college makes making city connections much easier, but having such a large student community certainly has helped the region.


  12. Jefferey says:

    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.

    Hmmm. Louisvillians really do like their city, that is true. Most Daytonians are indifferent at best. But maybe this is false comparison as there are certain things in Louisville's economy that differentiate it from being an overgrown factory town like Dayton.

    Pittsburgh I can't for sure but based on my visits there it doesn't look like it lost its major industry. Sort of suprising as to how intact the city still is. You'd expect more of a dying city feel from the place (more like Cleveland), but it appears to be very active and busy. That neighborhood around the University of Pittsburgh is a good example.

    Maybe the so-called "Renaissance" is that the appearance of the city defeats vistors' expectations of urban decline. Does this extend beyond the visible bricks-and-mortar city?

  13. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for more great and insightful comments.

    I've got to get that book about Philly. Sounds interesting.

    Jim, Steigerwald strikes me as a fair standard type. Nothing unique to Pittsburgh – every city has at least one guy like him. Read, for example, Steve Bartin's take on Chicago also at NG. I think there is plenty that is unique or relatively unique to Pittsburgh, but Steigerwald isn't one of them.

  14. Jim Russell says:


    That's my sense as well. The urban cranks all make the same claim that their city is exceptionally bad or corrupt. I would argue that this also applies to provincialism. The structural problem is a chronic lack of in-migration. Along those lines, check out this paper about Appalachian cities:

  15. VisuaLingual says:

    Aaron, I'm glad you're tackling the term "provincialism," and I appreciate the way you're beginning to define it. It's something I started to consider some years back, actually before I moved to Cincinnati three years ago. I ended up referring to this set of characteristics as "provincialism," and I really appreciate its somewhat negative connotation.

    It's not necessarily a positive trait, but good does come from it, and it's interesting to consider Pittsburgh [and Cincinnati] in this light.

  16. The Urbanophile says:

    VisuaLingual, yes, I also notice this bigtime in Cincinnati.

    I do think it is very different between these river cities and some others. The local attitude towards place is extremely different in Indianapolis vs. Louisville for example.

  17. John says:

    Regarding urban demolition in Pittsburgh, see this video:

    The whole thing is worth watching, but go to 2:26 to see the difference between old and new Pittsburgh.

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