The city’s rise-from-the-Rust-Belt story overstates how down we were and how up we are
March 1, 2015 12:00 AM
The sun rises over the 'New Pittsburgh' (2003)
By Christopher Briem
Thirty years ago, on Feb. 27, 1985, Rand-McNally published its Second Places Rated Almanac ranking all 329 metropolitan regions across the United States. At the time, the region deemed to have the highest quality of life, to the surprise of many both near and far, was Pittsburgh. Some may recall the outpouring of pride, let alone the cascade of regional marketing and public relations efforts, that followed.
The juxtaposition of Pittsburgh’s ongoing economic miasma with the nation’s highest livability score struck many as inexplicable. During the recent “Great Recession,” so named not by economists but by The Associated Press, the national unemployment rate peaked for a single month at 10 percent. Pittsburgh had peaked at a near-Depression level unemployment rate of 18 percent in 1983 and by February 1985 the metropolitan region was just ending a period of double-digit unemployment that had lasted for three continuous years.
No wonder The Associated Press asked incredulously, “What next? A city known to outsiders for recession-silenced steel mills, 9.1 percent unemployment and labor violence has been named the most livable city in the United States.”
Pittsburghers, especially young workers, found their city far more leavable than livable. The population of the Pittsburgh metropolitan region contracted more than any other in the country in the 1980s. People were voting with their feet and moving away in unprecedented numbers.
An estimated 227,000 more people departed southwestern Pennsylvania than arrived here between 1980 and 1990, with more than half of that exodus generated by the departure of those between the ages of 20 and 34. Any extrapolation of those trends portended doom for Pittsburgh remaining a major metropolitan area long into the future.
So much cognitive dissonance resulted from Pittsburgh’s top livability ranking and dire economic condition that at least one academic researcher, Geoff Loftus, a psychologist at the University of Washington, delved deeper into Rand-McNally’s methodology and faulted its conclusions. Pittsburgh had not ranked high in any one category but scored modestly across a range of factors. He disputed the weighting of the results and produced an alternative set of rankings from the same data. His results were published in an article in Psychology Today titled “Say It Ain’t Pittsburgh.”
Yet Mr. Loftus’ results did not quite throw Pittsburgh under the bus. In his reworked analysis, Pittsburgh still ranked No. 12 nationwide. Given the dilapidated state of the regional economy at the time, the result remained remarkable.
Mr. Loftus went on to work on subsequent versions of the Places Rated Almanac, and Pittsburgh repeated its top showing in 1987, falling only as far as third in 1989.
When the 2007 edition of the Places Rated Almanac again put Pittsburgh in the top spot, pundits and the PR machine again touted the achievement, but the results were really just part of a larger pattern. Pittsburgh had not faded into oblivion but had steadily redefined for itself a post-industrial future.
Though few noticed, and more than a few disbelieved, progress was taking place. The regional exodus slowed soon after the job destruction abated, and those who did not leave built a very different economy for the region than what had been set in place for more than a century.
Thank you, G-20
Today, the world’s perceptions of Pittsburgh have been turned on their head. More than any one event, the selection of Pittsburgh for the G-20 summit of world leaders in 2009 changed the way the world looked at the region. Mostly overlooked for decades, Pittsburgh had suddenly emerged into a post-industrial paragon of economic transformation.
Since then, the debate has been less about how Pittsburgh will continue to change than about who gets credit for the transformation that has taken place. Strong arguments have been made for the robots being designed here, the omnibus “eds and meds” economy, brownfield and riverfront development, shale and energy development, or possibly an affection for cupcakes. Long forgotten is “The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh.”
Despite revisionist mythos, Pittsburgh’s path to economic stabilization was far less clear in 1985 than it now is described in retrospect. At the time, most of the shuttered industrial plants remained in place — painful and visible reminders of so many jobs lost. Efforts to rebuild the regional economy, as often as not, focused on reopening the steel plants that had yet to be leveled, a strategy that yielded few successes.
The idea that Pittsburgh would not maintain a large concentration of the nation’s steel production was just too hard to accept. When that denial faded, the goal shifted to an equally impossible task of finding an industry that could “replace” steel in Pittsburgh.
If transformation has come to Pittsburgh, it is because there is no longer any one industry that defines Pittsburgh in the way steel once did. A new and diverse competitiveness has emerged as a result.
Nevertheless, it remains tempting to try to discern the next growth industry. But to what end?
The industries that will drive growth in the future likely have not been invented yet. The goal is to be a region agile enough to attract and retain investment across a wide range of industries and to do so long into the future.
It is important to revisit Mr. Loftus’s past doubts on just how well Pittsburgh is faring. Despite the headlines, Pittsburgh’s current economic trends really look best when compared to their anemic recent history, as opposed to benchmarking them against comparable regions. Challenges remain, as large parts of the region have yet to move on from the industrial collapse of the 1980s.
If transformation in Pittsburgh is real, it must be ongoing. Failure will result if we think we really have achieved some version of a “new” Pittsburgh. Today’s Pittsburgh will have to be as unrecognizable in 30 years as it was 30 years ago, when steel seemed indestructible.
Christopher Briem is a regional economist at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Social and Urban Research (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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