Can Pittsburgh face its real and severe problems?

After a crazy couple of weeks, I’ve spent the last couple of days trying to catch up on my ever-expanding Pocket feed and came across a great article by Aaron Renn (aka The Urbanophile) at New Geography. Renn argues that the Midwest, which includes the dreary Rust Belt, faces an uphill battle in terms of growth and success.

Of course, the Midwest and the Rust Belt suffered tremendously at the hands of the globalization and the shift to a service economy. But Renn’s article points out more social and political structural issues that are contributing to the Midwest’s slow growth. And as someone who’s lived in two Midwestern cities (Chicago and Pittsburgh), a lot of these hit close to home. Chicago is well-noted in the post, but Pittsburgh isn’t. So how is the Steel City being held back?

1. Racism

As of the 2010 Census, Pittsburgh is 66% White and 26% African-American, with the remainder of the population made up of small groups of Asians, Latinos, and multiracial people. In 1990, when I was a wee lass, it was even less diverse, with a 72% white population. And it feels very white: Gawker got some interesting commentary on racism in Pittsburgh in their “Most Racist City in America” search in 2012.

So Pittsburgh is very, very white. It’s also very segregated, though it is improving – the segregation index dropped from 70.8 to 68.9 to 65.8 from 2000 to 2010.

2. Corruption

Pittsburgh doesn’t have the world-famous corruption of a Chicago, but it does have a history of shady political dealings. The Post-Gazette did a great series on Pittsburgh and Allegheny County’s network of patronage, which grew out of Allegheny County Commissioner Tom Foerester’s tenure in the 1980s. The Post-Gazettedocumented $32 million in payments to network-related businesses by Western Pennsylvania government agencies from 2005 through 2009 and identified 31 local bond deals with which network financiers were involved since 2001.

3. Closed Societies

This is – or was – such a huge one in Pittsburgh. As Renn says:

In Cincinnati and St. Louis expect that the first question you’ll be asked is “Where did you go to high school?”

My high school graduating class had about 260 students (it was also 99% white). There were about 10 of us who did not stay in the immediate tri-state area (Western Pennsylvania, northern West Virginia, and eastern Ohio). And of the 10 of us who left, about a quarter ended up going back to the area. On one hand, this has created a very comforting, deep network of relationships between “yinzers.” On the other, I can’t imagine how difficult it would be (at least ten years ago) to move to Pittsburgh with no social connections.

4. Two-Tier Environment and Resulting Paralysis


Despite the plethora of high end companies, educated workers, and top quality universities, the Midwest economy was traditionally based on moderately skilled labor in agriculture and industry. This forged a work force that places too low value on education and which can even be suspicious of people with too much of it. Today’s agriculture and manufacturing concerns, at least the ones with jobs that pay more than subsistence wages, require much higher levels of skills and education than in the past.

Pittsburgh has done very well in combating this problem. While many Burghers still like to rally around the idea of the Arn City-drinking steelworker and the romantic perception of the city as a smoky, dirty hellhole (you can now buy a $28 t-shirt with James Parton’s infamous 1868 quote), education has always been a major part of the city’s fabric with Pitt, CMU, Duquesne, and others.

That said, Western Pennsylvania is still dotted with small towns – McKeesport, Braddock, and others – that feel miles away from the Golden Triangle and could very conceivably see the problems that Renn is talking about in terms of the new economy.

Now, Pittsburgh is in the midst of a miracle resurgence. How will these issues affect its rise and its perception as a Rust Belt darling? Well, a city can be economically successful and modern while still battling with these structural issues. My hope is that as the city continues to rebuild in the post-manufacturing era, it can begin to break down these barriers. The city has a fantastic mayor-elect in Bill Peduto, a good government guy and wonky urbanist. People with no current ties to the city are moving there as the city’s economy expands, and hopefully the city’s darkest environs will benefit from its continued growth. There’s a lot of good stuff on the horizon.

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