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.