In case you have missed all the preparations, 2008 will be defined in Pittsburgh by the celebrations marking 250 years of continuous settlement at the forks of the Ohio.
By many standards 250 years is just a passing way point in history. Rome clocks in at over 2.5 millenia. Even in North America, Jamestown celebrated its 400th birthday last year and this year Quebec City looks to celebrate 400 years since the first French trappers decided to encamp. So why celebrate 250 years of history in Pittsburgh?
Looking back at Pittsburgh's history should not just be an exercise in nostalgia, but a guide for the future. We celebrate the past because it defines our present and shapes our future more than we acknowledge.
Few places express such angst over the past as does Pittsburgh. Images of heavy industry are both a source of traditional pride yet decried as a deadweight anchor slowing our progress into the future. Some see a stark choice between visions of Pittsburgh past and the Pittsburgh to come. It is a false choice that confuses the issue of what defines Pittsburgh present.
Unlike many other regions in the country, Pittsburgh's future started yesterday. Where many regions have rapidly grown into places completely unrecognizable from what they were just decades ago, Pittsburgh remains a product of its long industrial past. Our people and institutions all have deep ties to Southwestern Pennsylvania. We must learn to leverage those strengths and not necessarily run from them.
Just look around to understand the importance of the past. Many of our neighborhoods would be fundamentally recognizable to our grandparents. That in itself is a testament to those who have worked to retain a cultural heritage that has been lost, or was never built in the first place, in so many other places.
Today more than ever we look toward our rivers as a source of pride and environmental stewardship, yet those rivers exist as we know them because of the massive investment put into the lock and dam infrastructure built over centuries. In fact the region's entire road, rail, bridge and transportation infrastructure is built upon a long history of growth and change across the region. A history that in most cases predates the age of current users of these transportation assets.
Economically, you can't deny the linkages from the past with our future. Even the newest Pittsburgh industries are here because of foundations built long ago. It would be the discovery of oil outside of Pittsburgh that would foster the creation of the Pittsburgh Oil Exchange and then the Pittsburgh Stock Exchange, marking the region as a financial capital. One of those financial fortunes would become the Gulf Oil Company. In 1949 a small part of that fortune would be donated by William Larimer Mellon to create a new business school at the Carnegie Institute of Technology. One of the program's earliest hires was a young Herbert Simon. Along the way to earning a Nobel Prize, Prof. Simon would create a Computation Center here in 1956 that would form the core of all that "Roboburgh" defines today.
That is just one example of how the linkages between past and present extend to even the most cutting-edge industries that exist in Pittsburgh today. It was a vast and profitable steel industry that would spread its wealth across many industries and build a science-and-technology infrastructure once unique in the nation. Few growth industries today do not trace some part of their history back to the concentration of technical expertise here because of our deep industrial past.
Even our cultural heritage remains dependent on the past. From Andy Warhol, whose Carpatho-Rusyn relatives settled here, to the many other immigrant groups that came to define Pittsburgh. They and their children remain a defining part of Pittsburgh. Future immigrants may come from different regions of the world than the immigrants of the past, but they will come for similar reasons, with similar goals, and they will contribute their energies to the region in many of the same ways.
So the choice between past, present and future is no choice at all. We often get hung up on the image we project to the rest of the nation and the role our past plays in shaping our future. Pittsburgh is transitioning between what it once was and what it will become.
With effort that transition will never end and we will perpetually look to evolve and change. Whatever path that transition takes, it will be a path taken step upon step, built entirely upon what came before. So we should celebrate Pittsburgh 250 precisely because Pittsburgh 300 is just around the corner.