Portland, Peduto and progressive politics: Pittsburgh is poised for creative new ideas

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Early Thursday, I tweeted a story from Salon that asked: "Is Pittsburgh the Next Portland?"

The piece by longtime Pittsburgh fan Jim Russell originally appeared on the website Pacific Standard and opened with this provocative lead paragraph:

"What does a dying city look like? Brains are draining. The population is shrinking or aging, or both. Vibrant, creative class cool Portland is the antithesis of dying. Yesterday, journalist Annalyn Kurtz tweets: 'See! The Portland labor force lost 25,000 workers in the last year.' "

The next sentence was the real killer: "What in the name of Richard Florida is going on here?" Pittsburghers of a certain age will remember when Richard Florida was just a local phenomenon. The Carnegie Mellon professor from 1987 to 2004 literally wrote the book on what constitutes a livable city.

Mr. Florida's 2002 best-seller, "The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life," explained how former rust-bucket towns like Pittsburgh were turning things around after decades of de-industrialization. The key to regional revitalization, according to Mr. Florida, was to devise public policies that were friendly to gays, young people, immigrants, bio-tech companies, teachers, urban homesteaders and university kids interested in becoming the next wave of high-tech entrepreneurs.

Mr. Florida's message became so popular among the suddenly lionized members of Pittsburgh's creative class that even the city's ruling class was compelled to pay lip service to it. Some of the ideas espoused in Mr. Florida's book were implemented around the edges, though Pittsburgh city government continued to operate as it has for thousands of years -- in a parallel universe animated by nepotism, corruption and bad taste.

There was a brief hope at the very beginning of the accidental mayoralty of Luke Ravenstahl, then all of 26 years old, that having a young person at the helm of city government could lead to an era of innovation, efficiency and creative thinking on Grant Street.

Alas, Mr. Ravenstahl turned out to be the oldest of old souls ever to occupy a young pol's body. He generated a ton of national press for being the youngest mayor of a major American city, but once everyone got past the novelty of his age, it was a big yawn. If anything, having a mayor experience growing pains in public was more unsettling than dealing with an older, more experienced pol who had come honestly by his boredom about actual governing.

What's interesting about the last few years is that despite the lack of an attentive mayor, Pittsburgh's nongovernment institutions managed to do enough of the right things to attract a sufficient mix of talent and investment to inspire envy in ostensibly cooler cities.

This is something that Mr. Russell zeroed in on in his piece comparing Portland to Pittsburgh: "As the economy recovers, I argue that Pittsburgh is the place to be," wrote Mr. Russell, a geographer who has been writing about Pittsburgh for years at his blog "Burgh Diaspora" and elsewhere. "Portland is the darling of the pre-recession economy. Talent production Pittsburgh is where we are headed."

Bill Peduto's victory in the Democratic mayoral primary feels like a necessary piece in our civic evolution. Even so, the 48-year-old Mr. Peduto isn't just a "youngish" technocrat whose sole concern will be to reboot Pittsburgh according to the path laid out in Mr. Florida's decade-old book. He's got his own ideas based on nearly two decades of public service and community networking.

It is a relief to finally have a mayoral candidate who we can safely assume has not only read Mr. Florida's book but is conversant enough with the ideas contained in it to separate the wheat from the chaff. It's also a relief to have a candidate who considers the black community a valuable part of this city's mosaic. Bill Peduto won't have to be briefed by aides on what the August Wilson Center is all about.

Jim Russell doesn't expect a West Coast or national audience to care about any of this, obviously. His analysis is more reductionistic:

"Knowledge workers hail from somewhere, likely a Rust Belt birthplace," he wrote. "Why compete with Austin, San Francisco and Los Angeles for software engineers when you can set up shop cheaply in Pittsburgh? Carnegie Mellon University graduates are in high demand. The mountain is moving to Muhammad. Portland doesn't have a CMU."

Soon Pittsburgh will have a Peduto for mayor and a lot of Portland's swagger and bragging rights. If this isn't enough of a tipping point for progressive politics in this town, then will it ever be possible here under any circumstance?

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Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631; Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.


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