Rust Belt Renaissance PITTSBURGH AND THE FUTURE OF THE AMERICAN CITY
— JOSEF GOODMAN —
Pittsburgh may seem the last place to call the city of the future. Its population of 300,000 is less than half its peak 50 years ago. The once proud and profitable steel industry is now all but obsolete. New York has Wall Street and Broadway. Los Angeles has Hollywood. Paris has haute couture, and Rome has architecture. Even Philadelphia has the Liberty Bell. Pittsburgh’s biggest claim to fame is its football team. There is a crisis of the Rust Belt city in this country, and nowhere is it felt more acutely than in Detroit. The 2011 Super Bowl featured a commercial for Chrysler, the struggling automobile manufacturer. Eminem is driving through the city’s streets. A church choir and the beat of “Lose Yourself” is playing in the background as the narrator says:
This isn’t New York City, or the Windy City, or Sin City, and we are certainly not anyone’s Emerald City. This is the Motor City, and this is what we do.
Unfortunately, poetry, no matter how inspiring, can’t save a dying city. Detroit remains on the brink of bankruptcy. To the south, Chicago has witnessed an exodus of 200,000 people in the last decade alone. Baltimore is permanently associated with the urban decay of TV’s “The Wire.” Enrico Moretti crystallizes the crisis in The New Geography of Jobs, published last year. “The most dynamic areas in this country [in the aftermath of World War II] were manufacturing meccas like Detroit, Cleveland, Akron, Gary, and Pittsburgh. These cities were the envy of the world.” The identification of America’s prosperity with industrialization reached its height in the 1950s, when Charles Wilson, then-CEO of General Motors, famously said, “What is good for General Motors is good for the country, and vice versa.” In 1978, manufacturing employment reached its peak, with almost 20 million Americans working in factories. Then suddenly, the engine stopped and the car went into reverse. 4
Since 1985, the United States has shed an average of 372,000 manufacturing jobs every year. “If the current trend continues,” Moretti lamented, “there will be more laundry workers than manufacturing workers in America when my son, who is now 3 years old, enters the labor market.” It is widely acknowledged that Cleveland (population decline since 2000: 17 percent), Cincinnati (minus 10 percent), St. Louis (minus 8 percent), and other metropolises can no longer compete for manufacturing jobs with Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Thailand. However, Pittsburgh bucks this trend of failing Rust Belt cities. This city in western Pennsylvania has become a paradigm for the post-manufacturing American economy. The Austrian-American economist, Joseph Schumpeter, coined the term “creative destruction,” the way in which capitalist economic development arises out of the destruction of some prior economic order. Pittsburgh is a perfect case study in creative destruction. Out of the ashes of its moribund steel industry, a new Pittsburgh — one built on technology and research — has emerged, poised and ready to take on the 21st century. *** In the late 1970s, the U.S. steel industry was failing. Foreign competitors with lower labor costs and lower environmental standards were crowding the market. Coal and iron ore processing had become costly and inefficient. Oil prices, inflation, and interest rates soared. In 1979, the Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel Company suffered the largest quarterly loss — $561.7 million — in American corporate history. The episode evokes the recent travails of General Motors and Chrysler, except no bailout came to the rescue. Within a few short years, 115,500 manufacturing jobs vanished in Pittsburgh. The steel industry alone accounted for nearly 50 percent of the losses. The city was being talked about the way Detroit is now: Its very survival was in question. Marlee Myers, managing partner at the law firm Morgan Lewis in Pittsburgh, explained what was at stake. “This region had been dependent on the steel industry and the many jobs
that it provided. We were really at a crossroads. We could have gone the direction of other failing Rust Belt cities, or we could reinvent ourselves.” The city’s revival has been part organic and part good long-term planning. With regards to the latter, Clifford Levine, a fundraiser for the Obama campaign who has sat on both the Pittsburgh Planning and Zoning commissions, gives credit to public-private partnerships. “There is a long tradition of political and corporate collaboration, going back to 1945 when David Lawrence was elected mayor,” he told The Politic. At the time, Pittsburgh was considered one of the most polluted cities in America. A Democrat elected in a largely Republican city, Lawrence forged the now famous bipartisan alliance with Richard Mellon, the staunch Republican chairman of one of the largest banks in the country. Despite their political differences, the partnership drove a postwar urban renewal. “Half a century later, under the leadership of Mayor Tom Murphy, the son of a steelworker, public and corporate leaders came together once again,” Levine continued. “A decade and a half after steel, people were still expecting the industry to return. Murphy came in and said, ‘Forget that past. We need to reclaim our city.’” More than 1,000 acres of abandoned, blighted industrial land were cleaned up. Dilapidated steel mills gave way to thriving commercial, retail, residential, and public spaces. Murphy oversaw the development of more than 25 miles of new trails alongside the river, as well as the creation of urban green space. In total, Murphy leveraged $4.8 billion in public-private partnerships. “The support and growth of the universities can’t be underestimated either,” said Tim White, vice president of development at the Regional Industrial Development Corporation (RIDC). The city is home to a handful of institutions of higher learning: Duquesne, Robert Morris, Chatham, Carlow, Slippery Rock, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and Washington and Jefferson. But undoubtedly, the two strongest universities are the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), 5