A few notes on the Pittsburgh Story
The coming of the G-20 to Pittsburgh is really all anyone can talk about around here (well, aside from Troy's knee). Over at Pittsblog, Mike Madison has been running a series with his take on what has happened to make Pittsburgh the subject of so many glowing national and international stories over the past year or so. Now, Mike is much more of a skeptic - especially regarding Pittsburgh - than I am, but I think his take is sound and worthwhile, if hardly definitive. One post in particular, I felt obliged to comment on, more or less as follows:
A couple notes to what I think is a basically correct argument, about the myth that Pittsburgh has thrived after deindustrialization by dint of hard work and "grit.":
Mike's point about sitting around waiting for Big Steel or Big Something Else to save the city is a really important one. In 1994 I was interning for a regional heritage/tourism org and talked to some fellow interns who were living in Johnstown for the summer. They described to me the crowd in local bars as "old men sitting around waiting for Big Steel to come back." Even then - 15 years ago - such thinking was a thing of the past in Pittsburgh. I'm sure there were a few bars like that, but they were a relic, not the dominant way of thinking in the city. Instead, the focus was on how to turn the new things we were doing (biomed, robotics, computer science) into the Next Big Thing. There was always the underlying, ancient mindset of hoping for the next Carnegie or Westinghouse, but the social and political discussion in the city was all about moving forward. As a concrete example, I'll note that, when the Hazelwood works were going down a few years later, there was interest from an outside company in building a modern coke works there, and the reaction was overwhelmingly negative. I can't vouch for the reaction you'd get in other parts of SWPA or elsewhere in the Rust Belt, but it was clear that, by the late 90s, the city had decisively abandoned the Big Steel mindset.
The other thing I want to talk about is "grit." I guess it depends how you define it - there's a certain bullheaded, romantic notion that I agree is inapt to describe what has happened. But there are 2 quotes that I think are relevant for describing the Pittsburgh mindset. One is from Laurie Graham's "Singing the City," and I don't have it exactly, but it's to the effect that, in Pittsburgh, there's a sense that a desk job is what you get if you don't want to work. Now that's a very blue collar, outdated way of thinking, but I also think it has left remnants in the region's workforce: outside employers are often pleased at the productivity they find at their Pittsburgh locations, and I think it ties back to the idea that jobs are for working at, in a very practical, hands-on way. The other quote is actually about Chicago, but I think it applies equally here (and surely throughout the Rust Belt): "I've always been impressed by people from Chicago. New York is talk and LA is flash, but Chicago is work." The gist is similar, but it clarifies exactly what Pittsburgh is not about: talk and flash.
Mike writes, "I know a lot of enthusiastic and energetic movers and shakers, in the arts, in the neighborhoods, in politics, and in entrepreneurship -- and they aren't 'gritty' at all" Well, I know the same kinds of folks, and I disagree with his characterization. To me the clearest example is a local reading series that has a serious national reputation (they are booked well over a year ahead, and have to turn down requests from established authors). Its founders are from the region, but not the city, and lived away from here for a long time before coming back and, soon after, starting this series. And in conversations with them (they're close friends), the distance they see between themselves and their counterparts in places like NYC and SF is clear, and it's precisely around the kind of issues I'm getting at. The acclaimed NYC reading/performance series The Moth came to town recently, and it was oozing with self-congratulation in a way that frankly disgusted my friends. The Pittsburgh reading series is all about getting top-flight talent and presenting it in a comfortable, cheap, and unpretentious setting; the New York reading series is all about letting everyone know how great the NYC reading series is.
I could list other examples - from the arts, from the neighborhoods - but I think you get my point. The reading series and its founders aren't "gritty," but they sure are Pittsburgh.