Pittsburgh: model for the nation

Steven Beschloss says dysfunctional America should follow this region's prescription for revival

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For anyone who hadn't noticed, the sorry spectacle to raise the federal government's debt ceiling laid bare the deep dysfunction in Washington. It's no surprise that a just-published Pew Research study cited 82 percent disapproval of Congress.

Sadly, this is not a new phenomenon. Last year, 80 percent of Americans said Congress was doing "a lousy job"-- too influenced by special interest money, too fixated on their own careers, too unwilling to compromise, too careless with the government's money and too out of touch with regular people.

This underscores the downward trend over the last half-century of declining trust in government. In 1964, 74 percent of Americans said they trusted their government. By 2008, the number had dwindled to 17 percent.

The combination of an anti-government drumbeat and increasing disaffection with our political leadership has only hastened the public's disengagement with the political process. If you watch the ideological warfare played out nightly on the cable news channels, it may seem like Americans are ready to take up battle -- indeed, to do their duty as citizens -- but the fact is that it's the most impassioned from the margins of the left and right who are taking part and driving the public discourse.

It's easy to watch the partisan bickering, then turn the channel. It's easy to blame our politicians for the country's failures. But it's important not to forget that in a democracy all of us are responsible for the leaders we have. "Government belongs to those who show up," former House minority leader and tea party sponsor Dick Armey told a USA Today reporter before the 2010 mid-terms. The tea party used that reality to great effect.

We have reached a point where we need leadership that's focused on solving problems. That means choosing leaders who don't see cooperation and collaboration as dirty words.

It also means seeking models from outside Washington -- at the state and city level -- that can provide insight on how our nation can move forward. I would suggest that Pittsburgh and the Western Pennsylvania region offers just that.

We can rewind to the 1940s when Democratic Mayor David L. Lawrence allied with Republican financier Richard King Mellon to shape the city's Renaissance Project, giving Pittsburgh a new lease on life at a grave moment of decline and worry. It's worth recalling how Lawrence described that economic development effort to revive the city and bring together a complex coalition of interests: "This is a Pittsburgh project, not a Democratic or a Republican project."

In the 1980s, when the region was waylaid by the loss of more than 150,000 jobs and the exodus of more than 100,000 residents, Pittsburgh could have clung vainly to past glories and given up. It could have suffered the same grim fate as its Midwestern cousin, Detroit, unable to disconnect from its deep focus on a dominant industry. After all, it was clear that the federal government was not going to sustain troubled mills or stem the relocations to non-union states or lower-wage destinations offshore.

But just like our nation's current crisis, it meant recognizing the urgency and the depth of the problem -- and the need to work together to find a solution.

As I see it, the region's leadership took advantage of its history of strategic cooperation, legacy of civic-minded philanthropy and belief in its ability to change course. The city acknowledged its troubles, took stock of its strengths and charted its way out of an economic mess.

That included recognizing the value of the region's universities and medical centers, the potential to reconfigure its economy and shift toward emerging opportunities in such fields as computer science, engineering and biomedicine. But it also required long-range thinking and government initiatives, the hard work of partnership building and a public-private consensus on the region's agenda.

That was seen in 1985 when Mayor Richard Caliguiri, the presidents of Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, and the Allegheny County commissioners partnered in a "Strategy 21" report -- a plan that was reinforced a decade later when the Allegheny Conference combined with CMU President Robert Mehrabian to reassess the goal.

That's a playbook worth consulting not only because it's a blueprint of Pittsburgh's process -- it's also a reminder to national leaders that success takes thought, strategic planning, clarity of purpose and a willingness to assert what you are for, not just what you are against.

What was included in that 21st century agenda? Capitalize on existing strengths by supporting advanced manufacturing and technology, financial services and energy; leverage university-based research to spur new businesses and commercially minded R&D; rebuild Downtown's cultural zone, which had fallen into disrepair; enhance the city's natural assets along the riverfront to create a more appealing destination; and revitalize dead and rusting mills for new purposes.

Perhaps the most compelling shift can be seen in the refocus on education by the region's younger generation. As University of Pittsburgh researchers Sabina Deitrick and Christopher Briem found from 2009 data, nearly half of Pittsburgh's workers aged 25 to 34 have earned at least a bachelor's degree, placing the city among the top five metro areas nationwide. Even more impressive, that same age group sits atop the nation with the percentage holding a graduate or professional degree. This is in stark contrast to the schooling of those over 55 who may have counted on steel jobs when they came of age and then lived through the industry's collapse.

This new emphasis means that young and educated people are finding reasons to come and stay, a welcome sign after more than a generation of accomplished (and not so accomplished) young residents headed elsewhere for opportunity. Still, the region continues to struggle with an aging population, more deaths than births, a dwindling population and an inability to lure sizable numbers of immigrants -- all factors that hark back to its troubled past and raise lingering questions about the region's long-term health.

But at a time when America needs a blast of inspiration -- to remember the value of common purpose and the need to work together to solve problems -- we can find in Pittsburgh's story a constructive way forward.

Steven Beschloss ( sb@stevenbeschloss.com ) is an award-winning journalist and co-author with William C. Harris of "Adrift: Charting Our Course Back to a Great Nation" (Prometheus Books). This essay draws from the just-published book's chapter on Pittsburgh and other cities.


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