The Pittsburgh Fairy Tale
The articles appear every week. The premise is always the same: a rusty, industrial city once down on its luck has remerged as a dynamic hub of the tech economy. Manchester, the Ruhr Valley, Barcelona — all have had their moments in the limelight. But few cities have filled the role of urban fairy-tale princess for as long or as prominently as Pittsburgh.
Stories of Pittsburgh’s rebirth abound. Websites like Curbed and Salon explain to young professionals why it might be time to relocate from Brooklyn or Portland to the Steel City. The international press alights to investigate how cities overseas can follow the Pittsburgh model. The New York Times splashes Pittsburgh’s resurgence across its front page.
Recently, when Donald Trump pulled out of the Paris climate agreement, he explained that he “was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” The backlash was instantaneous. The city’s mayor and local and national media mocked Trump for his outdated view of the city. A Washington Post correspondent posted an image of a red hat that read, “Make the Burgh 1975 again.”
Tales of Pittsburgh’s rebirth are nothing new. Since the 1950s, observers and local boosters have routinely hailed the city’s successful transformation from steel city to tech town. What these accounts fail to ask, however, is why the Pittsburgh region, which openly bears the wounds of deindustrialization, has become the exemplar of tech-driven urban rebirth.
There is startlingly little data to support the conventional tale of Pittsburgh’s revival. In place of hard facts, journalists often provide impressionistic accounts of hip cafes, buzzing robotics laboratories, and neighborhoods that look like Bushwick. Occasionally they supplement these descriptions with the story of a talented new Pittsburgher who relocated from San Francisco in search of a more balanced life.
These anecdotes populate not only media accounts but academic research and public policy. Planners and scholars — including, most famously, Richard Florida — claim that the creative class’s lust for bike lanes and a dynamic nightlife now drives urban economies.
The biggest thing missing from all these stories is an honest account of the inequities and poverty that pervade the Pittsburgh region.
Pittsburgh itself has not been an important manufacturing center for more than a century. If journalists wanted to write about what actually happened to industrial cities they would need to travel outside of Pittsburgh and visit the scores of former mill towns that dot its outskirts: McKeesport, Clairton, Jeanette, Connellsville, Aliquippa, New Kensington. None of these or many other mill towns are prosperous centers of the tech economy.
School systems have closed. Once-thriving commercial districts sit abandoned. Water systems periodically fail. Homes crumble into the earth. Unemployment rates have hovered above the national average for decades, and people continue to move away in search of work.
The Pittsburgh region can be likened to Detroit — the most-cited example of urban decline — but turned inside out. In Michigan, capital fled to the suburbs, leaving behind a crumbling city center. In Pennsylvania, deindustrialization decimated Pittsburgh’s suburbs, while some parts of the city enjoyed relatively stable investment.
By the late nineteenth century, most manufacturing had moved outside Pittsburgh. All but one of the sprawling steel mills that once defined the city were in the suburbs. So were the glass, aluminum, and chemical factories, the massive Westinghouse plant, and the coal mines that fueled the mills.
Meanwhile, industrial firms and industrialists reinvested their surplus profits into the city. Even then, Pittsburgh boasted many of the features its boosters celebrate today: hospitals, universities, research labs, banks, corporate headquarters, museums, and leafy elite neighborhoods. For decades, only New York and Chicago had more Fortune 500 headquarters.
Factory relocation, the trademark of globalization, allows firms to pit cities and counties against each other and increase their profit margins. Pittsburgh businesses were among the first innovators of this practice. US Steel moved toward markets and transportation on the Great Lakes, Alcoa sought out electricity and proximity to the aviation industry in the western United States, and Westinghouse followed cheap and compliant labor down South.
You might think that disinvesting in manufacturing would disrupt Pittsburgh-based businesses, as their profits came from production. But there was no reason stuff needed to be made in the area, especially if companies could do it more cheaply elsewhere. Pittsburgh’s business community reimagined the city as a corporate center where white-collar workers would orchestrate and finance manufacturing that took place somewhere else.
The region’s image as polluted, decrepit, and working-class was inimical to this new vision. Executives, engineers, managers, and their wives no longer wanted to live in the Steel City. Beginning in the 1950s, business leaders started telling the story of a “valuable man” who left Pittsburgh for New York or Los Angeles because he could not face life in the region. Pittsburgh had smoky air and lacked cultural refinement; its slums were “a hurt to the eyes.”
The city’s elite, under the leadership of Richard King Mellon, banded together in the 1950s to address these problems. Under the aegis of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, they led the wholesale redevelopment of Pittsburgh. They dammed rivers and passed smoke-control laws. They cleared large swaths of downtown and surrounding neighborhoods, erecting office towers, luxury condominiums, parks, an arena, and a mall. Local business and the state made enormous investments that prioritized the interests of white middle-class and wealthy residents at the expense of the working class.
Through these investments local elites and corporations transformed the the region’s economy. Major firms built shiny modern office towers and research laboratories. Investors moved capital out of local plants, expanding into new sectors and regions. US Steel financed the first Disney World hotels. Alcoa built Century City in Los Angeles and vast apartment complexes in Manhattan. Westinghouse developed large swaths of the Florida coast.
In the late 1950s, industrialist Henry Hillman moved his family’s fortune out of coal and steel and into West Coast real estate, before turning to venture capital and leveraged buyout firms. By the 1960s, Hillman had replaced Mellon at the helm of the Allegheny Conference and was investing some of his fortune in Pittsburgh’s redevelopment. Today, you can easily read his influence on local buildings’ facades. Students at the University of Pittsburgh study in the Hillman Library, while computer scientists develop software in Carnegie Mellon’s Gates-Hillman Center and oncologists pursue research at the Hillman Cancer Center.
Since the 1950s, Pittsburgh’s ruling elites and business community have poured money into nearly everything except local manufacturing. Unsurprisingly, this continual siphoning of capital has devastated workers and residents of the area’s mill towns. Faced with the inevitable social and economic fallout of these investments, the region’s elite needed to make people believe that Pittsburgh’s rebirth served the common good.
A solution presented itself in the early days of the Cold War: technology. Everyone loved scientists and engineers! They won the war. They made jets, satellites, rockets, plastics, and television. They would end illness, hunger, and poverty. Making the city a hub of the tech economy lent a progressive veneer to the business-focused redevelopment scheme while attracting federal research funding.
The Allegheny Conference and its allies crafted a new image for Pittsburgh. In 1956, Westinghouse’s president renamed the Steel City the “Research Capital of the World.” Brute labor and coal drove old Pittsburgh; brainpower would become its new primary resource.
Redeveloping Pittsburgh around technology had two major advantages. First, the ever-elusive tech worker justified everything Pittsburgh’s business community wanted to do. At different times, they’d claim that slum clearance, tax breaks, or regulatory changes were all needed to lure tech workers to the city. Second, the Allegheny Conference told residents that this focus would push capitalism in a more compassionate direction. In the old Pittsburgh, a few monopoly-sector firms exploited workers to benefit the Mellons and the Hillmans. In the new Pittsburgh, tech workers developed reactors, robots, and immunotherapy that would benefit all.
The oddest part of the story of the new Pittsburgh is that it always ends up back where it started. An industrial city miraculously transformed into a center of the tech economy in 1956, 1963, 1985, 1999, and 2016. Perhaps the most telling instance came in 2009, in the midst of the financial crisis, when the Obama administration brought the G-20 to the city because it was “a model for turning the page to a twenty-first century economy.”
The Pittsburgh passion play keeps running because it presents a very useful myth: that capitalism can creatively transform cities for the common good. A closer look at the region reveals that this is far from true. Pittsburgh’s revival benefits the few, not the many. Doctors, bankers, and engineers find prosperity within the city, as they have for more than a century. But outside and within the city limits, residents suffer from the same (or worse) poverty, racial injustice, and environmental degradation as anywhere else in the United States.
Contrary to the media hype, Pittsburgh’s tech-driven story is all too common: the city was remade for businesses and wealthy homeowners. And poor and working-class residents have been left behind.
Patrick Vitale teaches geography at Eastern Connecticut State University.