30 years of change: A new direction for Pittsburgh

A portrait of Pittsburgh in 2013 and how much it has evolved since 1983

Morphing from steel industry collapse to eds-and-meds rebirth, from a too-gray place that young people flee to one that attracts them as a "green" center of culture and recreation, from a tale of Rust Belt woe to one of urban transformation, it is indisputable that the Pittsburgh region is a far different place than it was 30 years ago.

And by most standards, it would seem to be a far better place as well.

Since 1983, when the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published a special section chronicling the unique and worrisome issues confronting the region during Depression-level hits to its workforce, Pittsburgh has lost people, corporations, churches, schools and, yes, even a prothonotary.

In this series

  • Week 1:

    How Pittsburgh avoided Detroit's fate

  • Week 2:

    The transformation of industry in the region

  • Week 3:

    How it became a hip place to live

  • Week 4:

    What will be major factors in the future?

But it has rebuilt its economy; added museums, theaters and riverfront trails; replaced its sports facilities, airport and convention center; and reinvented the Pittsburgh Downtown as a place to live, while serving the thousands more who commute to it by opening a subway, busways and a highway to the north.

More than any of those earth-moving projects in the past three decades though, Pittsburgh has rebranded itself. While other cities built on manufacturing have struggled to find their way in the 21st century, highlighted (or lowlighted) by Detroit's 2013 bankruptcy filing, our no-longer-steel city has been fawned over in recent years by everyone from National Geographic to The Economist.

The flattery seems more timely than Rand-McNally's 1985 "Most Livable City" designation, now that a half-century of population decline has halted, with young people making up a large proportion of the people moving into the area. For most of the past half-dozen years, the local economy has outperformed the nation's and state's. Part of the evidence lies in the bustling offices, shops and restaurants at locations that in 1983 contained declining steel mills lining the Monongahela River, including at the Pittsburgh Technology Center, the SouthSide Works and the Waterfront complex.

Tom Murphy was a state legislator 30 years ago, with desperate men knocked out of work visiting his office for help. The region's jobless rate stood at 17 percent in early 1983, with one out of five people unemployed in some of the worst-hit industrial pockets such as the Mon Valley.

"We were losing 50,000 people a year out of the region," said Mr. Murphy, who went on to serve three terms as mayor in 1994-2006. "It was a terrible time. ... People didn't see a future for themselves in Pittsburgh."

He credits former Carnegie Mellon University president Richard Cyert as the visionary who spoke earliest and most persuasively in the 1980s about how the local universities could serve as the economic engine to resurrect the local economy. A succession of state programs such as the Ben Franklin Partnership and regional alliances such as the Strategy 21 initiative helped make that vision come true.

While Pittsburgh is no longer headquarters to such 1983 corporate powers as Gulf Oil and Rockwell International, the health care field has combined with the educational sector to provide a more stable economy in their wake. UPMC is now the region's largest employer and private property holder.

That restructuring, while painful for those tied to old blue-collar jobs that no longer exist, has coincided with success in claiming Pittsburgh's riverfronts for recreational use in a way that was never the case before.

And the Golden Triangle itself has changed just as much. Theaters, restaurants and apartments fill the Pittsburgh Cultural District in an area once known for Liberty Avenue's sleaze. Most of the Downtown department stores here in 1983 have closed, but hundreds of added apartments and condos have created a new neighborhood feel.

One of the clearest differences is in Market Square, where longtime entrepreneur Nick Nicholas for years watched a succession of cleanup and overhaul efforts sputter and stall. The most recent try clicked, creating a more European, pedestrian-friendly feel that draws crowds day and night.

The activity attached to the nearby stadiums, arena, convention center and theater district finally boosted all of the other efforts to revitalize Downtown, figures Mr. Nicholas, owner of nine buildings around Market Square.

"I've been waiting since the mid-1970s for what's happened in the last few years to occur," he said. "... I think people had a general desire for a Downtown renaissance."

Away from the city's center, the track record of revitalization is spottier. Many of the mill towns and neighborhoods that were starting to take on the appearance of ghost towns in 1983 kept going in that direction and never rebounded.

At the same time, suburbs like Cranberry and Peters have grown and prospered, and there have been surprising pockets of rejuvenation that would have been hard to foresee decades ago, such as around Lawrenceville and East Liberty.

Rick Swartz, executive director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp., said many once-downtrodden parts of the city look better and feel safer than in the past. One little-discussed improvement has been the razing of many public housing projects, which were magnets for crime.

In Garfield, East Liberty and elsewhere, he said, "the average resident has a better quality of life, a more predictable environment, an environment where you could really think about raising your children, and not have to think about fleeing your neighborhood as people did in the 1980s."

Many of the region's problems identifiable in 1983 may still exist -- too many government fiefdoms, a resistance to new ideas and people, the same crummy weather much of the year -- but the biggest influx of newcomers in decades suggests they're not the hindrances they once were.

"People have taken notice of what's going on in Pittsburgh and are coming in," Mr. Nicholas observed. "The end result is tremendous, and we've got to keep the momentum going."

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Gary Rotstein: grotstein@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1255. First Published October 6, 2013 4:00 AM


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