The Next Page: 'The Story Behind Pittsburgh's Revitalization'

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Last month, national and international media preparing for the G-20 summit latched on to the story of Pittsburgh's rebirth and renewal. Michael J. Madison set out to tell a slightly different story. In his online publication "Pittsblog," the University of Pittsburgh law professor laid down a 10-part series: "The Story Behind Pittsburgh's Revitalization."

Mr. Madison spoke Friday at the International Urban Planning Congress in Amsterdam. His speech, "Decline or Renaissance: Two Views of Pittsburgh and the American City," was based on his series.

All 10 parts (13,000 words or so) are available at We present excerpts from Parts 1 and 2 below:

Question: Did Pittsburgh revitalize itself?

Answer: No; cities don't "revitalize" themselves, at least not if you assume that "cities" or "a city" can decide to do such a thing.

Has Pittsburgh been revitalized?

In some superficial respects, yes; in many structural ways, no.

Is Pittsburgh undergoing a renaissance?

Only if you focus on bright, shiny buildings in the Downtown neighborhood and in a couple of neighborhoods nearby.

Why did Pittsburgh need to do it?

Because Pittsburgh screwed itself up in a big way. In many significant respects, Pittsburgh's current success begins with Pittsburgh's massive failure.

As everyone in the world knows, for the first half of the 20th century Pittsburgh was the home of an extraordinary and extraordinarily successful confluence of industry and finance. Pittsburgh built the world.

The steel industry and related businesses were so successful, wealthy and powerful in the Pittsburgh region that they largely interfered with processes of entrepreneurship that might have diversified the economy. The demise of steel in the 1970s and 1980s was not a surprise; it was foreseen, and its effects -- which were dramatic and traumatic -- might have been mitigated. But planning for the transition wasn't done.

I'm not a fan of historical explanations (or prognostications) that rely too much on personal virtue and heroic figures. In the G-20 coverage, you no doubt read a lot about Pittsburgh's can-do spirit, about the resilience of its citizens, and about the never-say-die ethos that characterizes the region. (I've even contributed to that theme.) But other regions are happy to characterize themselves the same way, and truthfully. There's no credible way to claim that Pittsburghers are better (more entrepreneurial or innovative, faster, stronger, able to jump higher) than residents of St. Louis or Providence or Detroit. (Cleveland, of course, is a different matter.)

A new book from Pitt professor Franklin Toker, "Pittsburgh: A New Portrait," thoughtfully suggests that Pittsburgh's many neighborhoods are what keeps the city afloat. That's a common view and a highly romantic one. But I think that it's wrong. Pittsburgh's neighborhoods are strong, and they've provided an important social fabric for what remains of the city's population. Think of the neighborhoods, however, as a lattice that allowed Pittsburgh residents to hang on, but with little momentum of their own.

Sometimes, key individuals can be galvanizing in important ways -- both good and bad. More often and more important, however, are institutions.

And in some critical ways, identified above, Pittsburgh's key institutions let the region down. Hundreds of thousands of jobs were lost when the mills closed. Hundreds of thousands of people left the city and the region. Because so many of those mill jobs were highly paid, thanks to the successful efforts of labor unions to negotiate to help their members with both wages and benefits (steelworker wages increased in the 1970s even as demand for steel declined and steelworker employment fell), the amount of money that left the region with those people was likewise enormous.

Paradoxically, however, during this same period (beginning in the 1950s), other Pittsburgh institutions were working dynamically to move the city forward. In the short term, the most visible of those was the Allegheny Conference on Community Development (the ACCD), a private group of civic leaders (mostly from the business community, including some leading steel industry players) that partnered with the city of Pittsburgh (led by Mayor David Lawrence) and Allegheny County to address some of the city's most pressing environmental and infrastructure issues. The ACCD led efforts to clear Downtown Pittsburgh of the relics of its industrial past. Train sheds at the point were replaced by the Gateway Center towers, for example, and Pittsburgh's skies were largely cleared of the legendary smoke. The Port Authority and Point State Park were also products of this era, now recalled as "Renaissance I." Pittsburgh's leaders concentrated on the structure of Downtown and on some key infrastructure issues, and did so successfully, at precisely the right moment. With additional (if not always successful) investments in Downtown during the 1960s, '70s and '80s, Pittsburgh's Downtown retained a strong foundation on which current development has built.

Renaissance I and the ACCD have long been widely recognized for sowing seeds that paid off in the short term. It's important to recognize that those investments are paying off today, too, even if Pittsburgh's contemporary political leaders, and the modern ACCD itself, are far less equipped to negotiate regional solutions to environmental and infrastructure challenges than they were 50 years ago. Had Renaissance I not taken place, it is difficult to imagine Pittsburgh looking as relatively bright as it does today.

The second major institutional development of 50 years ago was one that attracted far less notice at the time and had relatively modest short-term implications for Pittsburgh. But it was a move that in time has made a world of difference to the city that now defines its economy in the popular (if inaccurate) phrase "eds and meds."

The long-term payoff of the 1950s investment in Pitt's medical school and research program has been profound. The Mellon investments in Pitt's medical school are also emblematic of a third and final major institutional force at work today: Pittsburgh's philanthropic community. The steel era in Pittsburgh enabled the accumulation of enormous wealth, much of which was concentrated in a small number of Pittsburgh families that, fortunately, had the wisdom and foresight to direct much of it to philanthropy. Much of that wealth remains at work in the region, distributed via foundations, and that funding has been essential to the sustainability of much of Pittsburgh's cultural infrastructure even as the collapse of steel undermined the region's economy in other critical ways.

Pittsburgh philanthropy has changed in recent years, and that change (like Pitt's strategic decision to grow its portfolio of federally funded biomedical and bioscience research) has contributed in a significant to the recent "brightening" of the city. Ten year ago, cultural philanthropy gave the outward appearance of noblesse oblige. When Pittsburgh celebrated its cultural communities, what it celebrated were the elite institutions that the philanthropic community and the upper echelon had long valued: the symphony, the museums and so forth.

Over the last decade Pittsburgh's foundations have started to take a broader and more forward-looking view of their role in the region, sometimes quite aggressively investing in artists and arts organizations that don't fit the Cultural District model, investing in social enterprises, and investing in infrastructure for economic development throughout the region -- this last being a role that in Pittsburgh was long reserved primarily for the Allegheny Conference. The philanthropic community is a long-standing Pittsburgh player that has taken on a new role.

What's behind Pittsburgh's revitalization or alleged "renaissance"? There is no doubt that Pittsburgh, as both city and region, looks cleaner and brighter and has a hipper and more positive cultural tone than it did even a decade ago. Its problems are far from behind it, but Pittsburgh has undoubtedly come a long way. Compared with 20 or 30 years ago, the changes are even more dramatic.

It's important to scratch the surface of this story, however. What about the now-vaunted "livability" of Pittsburgh?

First: Pittsburgh shines today partly because its peer cities continue to suffer so badly. By comparison with places like Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee and St. Louis, Pittsburgh is doing pretty well overall, and by comparison it was doing pretty well overall even before the recession that began last year. In the main, its peers have taken big backward steps more recently. But Pittsburgh has yet to make a substantial move forward.

In that context, Pittsburgh's "stability" may be a recipe for complacency rather than progress. Through a painful and unplanned process of natural "rightsizing" of population, economic activity and resources, Pittsburgh may have reached some "optimal" scale and be content to remain just the way it is. Is Pittsburgh complacent today? I don't think so -- but there are as many "complacency" ingredients in the contemporary social and political mix as there are "progress" ingredients.

The last Pittsburgh politician to push an aggressive "progress" agenda was Mayor Tom Murphy. He was responsible for at least as many spectacular failures (Downtown redevelopment) as successes (attention to the riverfronts), but the city ultimately rejected him. His successors survive in power via popular support for an approach better characterized by the maxim, "Don't just do something; stand there." Which Pittsburgh largely does.

Second: Because "livability" depends significantly on stable property values, it owes much to the relative lack of dynamism in the local real estate market over the last several decades. Right now, and from the perspective of real estate values, many homeowners in Pittsburgh are reaping the benefit of the region's inherent good sense. (The property tax system here is a separate question.)

But low and slowly moving real estate values also owe their stability to the fact that demand for real estate is relatively low, and relatively fixed. In this second sense, "livability" means that Pittsburgh is highly livable for the people who already live here, because not that many people are aching to move in. If demand were higher, real estate values overall would move higher -- and Pittsburgh's livability ratings might well decline.

Moreover, to the extent that there is meaningful demand for real estate in Pittsburgh, that demand is distributed unevenly across the region. Like most urban areas, Pittsburgh features its share of upscale, even outright rich communities. And some communities in the city and the region feature real estate that is astonishingly cheap by national standards -- partly because the surrounding economies are all but defunct, partly because of punitive tax laws that discourage sale and development. In this context, "livability" isn't necessarily a good thing -- because of the structure of Pennsylvania's tax laws, cheap real estate translates into poor public services.

The bottom line is that "livability" is of limited value as a measure of Pittsburgh's revitalization. Pittsburgh has some really interesting choices ahead. Downtown Pittsburgh may be safe and walkable and far more full of interesting things to do, places to live and sights to see than it was 10 or 20 or 30 years ago. Many of Pittsburgh's neighborhoods are livelier than they have been in a long time. All of that is a great thing, and Pittsburghers are justifiably proud. But low demand is a symptom of things that are worrisome: demand is linked to growth, to wealth creation and ultimately to the other (expensive) things -- infrastructure reconstruction, for example -- on which the region's continued "revitalization" depends.

Even stability -- staying the way that Pittsburgh is now -- requires change. It requires money; it requires investment; it requires new people and new capital to replenish the well as other people and capital leave. If these things remain low, Pittsburgh may remain "livable" -- but struggle in other respects.

Michael J. Madison is a professor at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Law and specializes in information law ( ). He started "Pittsblog" in 2003.


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