Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The ghost of Pittsburgh's past

Via Proud Pittsburgh I learn that National Geographic has named Pittsburgh the best city for "urban adventure." Although I think Pittsburgh's image problem is vastly overstated, quality of life measures are important, so it's good to top these kinds of lists. Which isn't to say I can't find something to complain about, like this description of the city:

Thanks to a 15-year urban renewal program, the city has been revived, morphing from a stronghold of industry into a place that better reflects the surrounding Allegheny Mountains. ...The same shift away from heavy industry that beautified the skyline has also reordered the economy...

That description makes it sound as though the region chose to give up steel production, and not that the industry declined over several decades before finally collapsing. Not that I blame National Geographic. For years, many of Pittsburgh's civic and corporate leaders have acted as though they are ashamed of the city's steelmaking past. They are all too happy to point out to newcomers that those ugly, smoke-belching steel mills are gone. True, the pollution is gone. As are the jobs--never to be replaced--that provided thousands of people with a middle-class living, as well as the profits that funded many of the cultural and educational institutions that we now rightly claim make the city so liveable.

Why do so many Pittsburghers want to run away from our past? Part of it is old-fashioned elitism. A lot of people turn their noses up at blue-collar work, and they associate the steel industry with much of what they dislike about Pittsburgh--like the way many residents talk, or their pathological devotion to the Steelers. It is also a reaction to the way many Pittsburghers cling too tightly to the past, which also is unhealthy. Yet it seems to me that we can work for the future without distorting or denying our past. Indeed, Pittsburgh's past provides many cautionary tales that we would do well to learn as we move forward--like the dangers in relying too heavily on a single industry for economic growth.

Pittsburgh's handwringing over its past reminds me of something that happened several years ago when I was in the market for a new car. I went to a Honda dealership in the hopes of test-driving a Civic, but there were none on the lot. So the salesman tried to interest me instead in a Hyundai Elantra. "Hyundais aren't like they used to be. They're good cars," he said.

That guy cost himself a sale. I knew nothing about Hyundais, but the salesman's pre-emptive admission that they once had a reputation for being shoddy made me suspicious. It makes me wonder if Pittsburgh might not have an image problem at all if the people charged with promoting the city didn't feel the need to apologize for it first.


Blogger Sean McDaniel said...

despite what some might say, i consider myself a pittsburgher (yeah, i live in the suburbs. but as a child i called the north side home. i didn't ask my parents to move to sewickley)...and i seriously, don't see too many people trying to deny the city's steelmaking past...except the white collar types who never did anything in the past but ride on the steelworkers' backs.

talk to any former mill worker or person who provide some sort of service to the mills (like a bar owner or a car dealer in homestead) and they'll gladly talk about the good old days of big steel.

however, you might not find the same to be true of an east ender who worked at US Steel's or Alcoa's headquarters.

i never worked in a mill. nor did any of my relaties. maybe it was the not so recessive lazy gene in our Irish DNA (please, no comments about ethnic slurs. we're allowed to slag our own.)but i'll never deny this city's grimy past.

as for the N. Geo. article, it is a shiny happy travelogue, not a history lesson.

as for the hyundais, they still stink...unless you like really tinny, tiny cars that make you feel like a circus clown every time you drive in one.

as for that pathological devotion, i guess i'm missing the irony or wink in your tone. but please, tell me what small percentage of people in this town (who aren't from elsewhere to begin with) who don't wrap themselves in black and gold year round?

as for devoted fans, the next time the St. Louise Cardinals baseball team comes to town, keep an eye open for the couple thousands fans from Missouri who wander around town and fill up a section or two at PNC park. they are the real deal and fanatic.

2:49 AM

Blogger Sean McDaniel said...

one more comment...i don't think the image problem comes from the so-called apologists. rather, just listen to any first time conversation between a native and a newcomer. inevitably, the native will ask this question, just about like this..."Why in the hell did you move to Pittsburgh?" I think that's a lot more damning (and insinuating that the new arrival made a mistake) than having a cheerleader out there saying hey, take a look at how well we cleaned up!

2:53 AM

Blogger EdHeath said...

I really wanted to say something about this post, then I realized I wasn’t sure what the post is about.

Think about it: if you had bought the Elantra, and then your friends told you about Hyundai’s reputation, you would have been pissed at the salesman for not disclosing fully. In any event, a car salesman will assume his customer will have done a modicum of research or know a little about cars, and so he will have to address well-known issues.

Pittsburgh has a well known past. Part of that past is unattractive pollution and a working class environment that would not be associated with the arts or culture. Those things have changed, yes? At what point, for you, is it ok to describe change and at what point does description become distortion? I don’t know, it’s like some guy saying “What’s wrong with steel work?”. Well, as I understand it, the pay was good because the hours and danger and working conditions were bad. You wanted to be able to afford a dryer because hanging your clothes on a clothes line meant they would get dingy.

Look, who cares where Pittsburgh was twenty years ago? I am wondering about twenty years from now. In ten years either a lot of the aged population will be dying or dead, or medicine will have found ways to keep them going. Meanwhile, the medical establishment that has grown up to support the area’s aged might be contracting, or might be still be booming, although not indefinitely. Meanwhile, our workforce will be small but I think relatively well educated, and there is no reason why the cost of living here will be any more relative to the rest of the country than it is now (unless our legislature does something really stupid). But in twenty years? Maybe you can make predictions for Vegas, but not here.

My point being that our spoke-people have enough to do in attracting people to the region without worrying about whether they are doing our past justice. They offer full disclosure because most people know Pittsburgh has a past, but may not know it has changed. For every person they might lose for a Hyundai like disclosure, they probably reassure three (OK, now I am randomly pulling numbers out of the air).

I drive a used 97 Accent, the only truly small Hyundai, which I picked up for $1200 (and I’ve put another $400 into in the year and a half that I have had it). It is an A to B car, stick shift and manual steering, and the A/C coolant has leaked. But it sips gas (relatively) and maybe I am keeping it’s rusted body out of the landfill. Hyundai’s might be clown cars to the folks from Sewickley, but it is a smaller footprint than your SUV. And that matters to me.

11:47 PM

Blogger Sean McDaniel said...

well, i know that JP lives in bridgeville, and I call avalon home...neither which would qualify as hot markets for range rovers.

check the antirust post to see what kind of footprint my bike (the kind you pedal) leaves.

i think JP was off base in the comparison of the hyundai to pittsburgh because there may well be a multitude of mechanical shortcomings in an elantra ...or they may have been worked out. doing your research is one way to find out...but if you don't, then the buyer better beware.

however, as for pittsburgh's industrial past, there are no secrets. nearly every trace of the good old days is gone...there are no "hidden" problems or mills around.

as for the explaining away the past, why not just say, sure, this was a great industrial center that fueled america's (and the world's) growth. And we're still proud of it. But we're a different town today...and we're still helping make the world a better place in different ways...though medicine...and hi-tech...and oh super bowl championships...

there's no need to apologize for the past...and there's no need to act as though pittsburgh is a second class town.

5:23 PM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

I haven't had time to respond to these comments, but let me state for the record that I do not live in Bridgeville, which is nonetheless a nice little community.

11:08 AM

Blogger Sean McDaniel said...

damn, brookline, beechview, bellevue...i get them mixed up sometimes. sorry. no slight intended whichever b-town it is.

11:17 AM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

All I was trying to say with the Hyundai story is that I don’t think it’s wise, when selling a product, to assume that the customer has the same knowledge about its history and imperfections as you do. “Pittsburgh: We don’t smell anymore” just doesn’t seem like a great sales motto to me. And I find it ironic that the people who are so insistent we move on from our past seem to be the ones so hung up on it.

But I suppose my real problem is with how we discuss our present, not our past, and how we discuss it among ourselves, and not with outsiders. The simple fact is that our economy has never truly recovered from the collapse of the steel industry. And as I’ve written here numerous, it has precious little to do with our image. We have real, tangible problems that need to be addressed, such as an aging infrastructure, an outsized and inefficient government, and high taxes. We’ll never solve these problems as long as we remain focused on how people perceive us.

11:55 AM

Blogger Sean McDaniel said...

"We have real, tangible problems that need to be addressed, such as an aging infrastructure, an outsized and inefficient government, and high taxes. We’ll never solve these problems as long as we remain focused on how people perceive us."

I agree with you 100 percent on the above issues. This past Sunday I checked out a couple open houses in the N. Hills (yeah,I know, there's the start of the problem there. but the homes were a block from the 11C busline and exist in a nice little street grid). even though the homes were affordable ($200,000 to $250,000) the taxes were ridiculous ($4,200 to $5,400 annually). But it's amazing how people from NYC, SF, Seattle and other bigger metropolitan areas will nearly swoon over the bargains they find here--even with the taxes.

as for the bloated government, aside from texas, that's an issue is the aging infrastructure.

as for focusing on image over infrastructure...image is a lot easier and faster to fix. that's why the post gazette and trib redesign their pages rather than actually getting better writers and editors.

9:16 AM


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home