30 Years: 'Hell with the lid off' to Most Livable -- How Pittsburgh became cool

Part of the 30 Years, 30 Changes series on the Pittsburgh region

How cool is Pittsburgh? Way cooler than folks would have predicted 30 years ago, when steel's collapse hit the region hard. At the time, many wondered if the city would ever recover from the loss of jobs, population and investment that underpin any thriving metropolis.

How Pittsburgh became cool

Since then, the region has managed to remake itself and its image, one ranking at a time.

Today it's almost commonplace for sources that bestow best-of titles to home in on Pittsburgh's finer qualities, giving high marks on everything from bars and ballparks to fun places and real estate prices. The region repeatedly rates among the best places for brains, roller coasters and robotics, starting a business, buying a house, raising a family, retiring and more.

The accolades started in 1985 with Rand McNally's "Places Rated Almanac," which dubbed Pittsburgh "America's Most Livable City." It drew snickers from incredulous observers -- including Pittsburghers, historically the first to trash themselves before some outsider beats them to it.

But the city's image slowly caught up with its rebuilt, redeveloped and reborn reality, and since 2000 the kudos have poured in, especially on lists for "Best Ballpark in America," with PNC Park always at or near the top.

Whether all the compliments have inspired people to relocate to the Three Rivers is hard to gauge, but they certainly haven't hurt.

Craig Davis, president and CEO of VisitPittsburgh, said the rankings by themselves won't reposition the city as a cool destination in the public's imagination, but each one helps move the picture further from the smoke-filled skies of yesteryear.

One of the most noteworthy titles: National Geographic Traveler named Pittsburgh one of 20 must-see places for 2012, saying: "Its mourning for its industrial past long concluded, this Western Pennsylvania city changed jobs and reclaimed its major assets: a natural setting that rivals Lisbon and San Francisco, a wealth of fine art and architecture, and a quirky sense of humor."

"That really resonated," Mr. Davis said. But it takes more than rankings to transform an image.

"We still have somewhat of a perception issue among people who've never been here," he said. "But once they see the product, they're usually hooked. Last year we brought in 240 meeting and convention planners and had an 80 percent success rate."

Conventioneers come for their event, he said, but with all the sports, entertainment, cultural and eating attractions, "They wind up bringing their families back."

PG graphic: Air quality, 30 years ago and today
(Click image for larger version)

Other lists in which Pittsburgh recently has landed among the top in rankings: brainiest city by movoto.com; top city for geeks by Wired magazine; best arts destination for midsize cities by American Style magazine; Most Livable City in America at least three times, by Places Rated Almanac, Forbes.com and The Economist; No. 1 Sports City by Sporting News; best football fans in the NFL by ESPN; best place to buy a home, Forbes magazine; No. 1 traditional amusement park (Kennywood) by the National Amusement Park Historical Association.

Pittsburgh is also at or near the top in rankings for the world's cleanest cities by Forbes Magazine; best travel destinations by National Geographic Traveler and Frommer's; top cities for culture hunters by New York Magazine; most walkable cities by the Brookings Institution; most stunning skylines by Forbestraveler.com, best "made-over towns to visit" by Lonely Planet travel guide; and most fun cities by Bizjournals.

And for its "Out" and "In" list for 2012, The Washington Post declared that Portland, Ore., was "out" and Pittsburgh was "in."

"Portland has overextended its welcome as the destination for hipsters who want to find themselves, while frolicking in beautiful scenery and reasonable rents," said co-listmaker Monica Hesse. "Pittsburgh is reasonable-rents, nice scenery, nice downtown, and the people are, in general, just far less insufferable."

Fellow Post style writer Maura Judkis, a Pittsburgh native, went a step further:

"Portland, with its elaborate facial hair and abundance of strip clubs, represents irony. Pittsburgh, with its working-class pragmatism, is the opposite: earnest and straightforward. It's a place where people drink cheap beer and wave their Terrible Towels without self-consciousness. Hipsters take faux working-class attributes -- brusque beards, Pabst Blue Ribbon and occupations such as butchery -- and integrate them into their lives with an ironic wink and a superiority complex.

"In Pittsburgh, you can find all of the above, only without the derision and affectation."

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Sally Kalson: skalson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1610. First Published October 19, 2013 8:00 PM


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