Consider Pittsburgh on Sept. 23, 2009, the day before G-20 leaders began meeting in the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. Pride at being selected as the venue for such an august body was matched with the angst of coming challenges. It was a Pittsburgh whose image elsewhere differed little from what it had been for decades: a steel town suffering a steep decline in heavy industry, much like other rust-belt communities.
The chance to host the world's most powerful leaders and their accompanying cadre of media was a heaven-sent opportunity for the region to showcase itself. The media spotlight gave Pittsburgh a brief moment to tell the world that Pittsburgh's past did not define its present and certainly not its future.
The journalists and other visitors who parachuted into town almost unanimously agreed that here was a new, vastly different Pittsburgh than the one they had come to expect. No less than Britain's Financial Times proclaimed Pittsburgh to be "No Longer 'Hell with the Lid Off'," quoting from journalist James Parton's widely misunderstood description of 1868 Pittsburgh. It would become a media theme throughout the week.
This past week, city leaders say all the attention has delivered measurable results, including additional conventions, promising international business connections and visits from U.S. and foreign municipal officials hoping to emulate the region's transformation.
But should we believe all the hype? The question is really not what the world learned about Pittsburgh, but what Pittsburgh learned about itself.
When the G-20 leaders came to Pittsburgh, they were here to fix a struggling global economy. That work remains undone, but the summit was significant because it was here that the more expansive G-20 eclipsed the G-8 as the preeminent meeting of world leaders. Yet, just as the work of improving the global financial system remains undone, so is the work to transform Pittsburgh.
The projected vision of "new Pittsburgh" tempts us to think we have successfully completed a conversion from our manufacturing past to a knowledge-based new economy. If that is what we take away from our moment in the sun, we would have been better off to have not hosted the G-20 at all.
Pittsburgh's real economic history is not the story that makes it into headlines and speeches. The simplest versions of how Steel City became Knowledge Town belittles the depth of talent and assets that grew out of industrial Pittsburgh. There was no grand strategy that moved us away from our smoky past. No switch was flipped that one day made the region something that it had not been. We remain a product of our past in more ways than we acknowledge.
Consider the region's growing stature in educational services -- it rests entirely on institutions with legacies stretching back a century or more. Technical talent nurtured by the region's industrial flagships form the backbone of today's technology-based firms. Even the new mania over natural gas development harkens back to the core resource-based advantages that fueled Pittsburgh's evolution into an industrial powerhouse.
There is no tipping point between old and new. The Pittsburgh region continues down a long road that connects its past with its future.
When the G-20 summit concluded, Pittsburgh was the same place it had been a week earlier. Every challenge remained and the region still faced daunting problems of fiscal distress, anemic economic growth through an enduring recession and environmental challenges to our air, water and land.
The one difference was that maybe we no longer were trapped by our self-defeating self-image of Pittsburgh as "Hell" -- even though Parton's original description of the region, viewed from high atop what is now the Hill District, was never meant as a pejorative. The nascent industry of Pittsburgh was to Parton "the most striking spectacle we ever beheld." "Hell" was a description of awe and amazement that was later to be convoluted by others.
Today, Pittsburgh's success, if it is to be called that, in many ways reflects how deep our past failure had been. For decades following World War II, the region's business and political leaders denied Pittsburgh's loss of competitiveness in heavy manufacturing. Complacency led them to believe that steel would remain the dominant industry well into the future. The result was a steady if latent decline that became apparent only after it was too late to avoid catastrophe.
Then, local leaders focused on searching for the industry or two that would "replace" steel. Many still do.
But what economic success we have at the moment has come from a host of industries, none of which individually is anywhere near as important as steel was to Pittsburgh for a century. Their range has grown over the past decade -- from education and health care to financial services and specialized manufacturing -- but these, too, will not be growth sectors forever.
If we now believe that we have completed the transformation to a new Pittsburgh, we will be destined to suffer again the fate of old Pittsburgh. We don't know where future growth and economic successes will come from. Fostering a culture of perpetual change and encouraging local firms, governments, universities, schools and each of us individually to continually adapt is the only source of sustainable competitiveness.
After the steel industry collapsed, many thought continued decline was inevitable, that the region could never prosper again. Let us hope that the real impact of hosting the G-20 in Pittsburgh will not be the quick lift to our image, but the longer term effect of convincing ourselves that we can meet the demands of the future, whatever they may be.
Christopher Briem is a regional economist at the University of Pittsburgh's University Center for Social and Urban Research ( www.ucsur.pitt.edu ).