Thursday, October 12, 2006

Sticks and stones

Pittsburghers need thicker skins, says Chris Potter. Amen:

But if someone wanted evidence that Pittsburgh is a hick town, they wouldn’t need to hear Miller’s remarks. They could just listen to the city’s response. They could look at the sneering Pittsburgh Post-Gazette headline about Miller’s remarks: “Semi-famous actress dumps on the Burgh.” (What’s this? “One of America’s great newspapers” faulting someone else for having delusions of fame?) Or missives like the following, posted in response to an online Us magazine story:

“[W]alk up to any native Pittsburgher you know and tell them their hometown sucks. After you pick yourself up off the ground, you’ll realize that you don’t mess with [a] ’burgh man.”

Damn straight! We will totally kick the ass of anyone who says we’re unsophisticated. Anyone who doesn’t praise our friendliness should die and go to Hell.

Of course, Pittsburgh shouldn’t be judged by what some steakhead posts online. But there is something typically Pittsburgh about all this outrage.

It is, after all, the flip side to the fetishistic glee we get from positive national attention. We have an unhealthy fascination with what the world thinks of us. Every mention of the city in The New York Times or Forbes inevitably prompts stories of our own, in which reporters cover the coverage. There’s an entire cottage industry in coming up with Pittsburgh “branding statements” and ad campaigns. Actually, it’s not a cottage industry at all: When the Pirates and Steelers sought millions of tax dollars for new stadiums, a key selling point was that they would market the city to the world.

This PR fetish is a local tradition. As David Cannadine notes in his new biography of Andrew Mellon (reviewed elsewhere in this issue), it dates back at least 100 years. During the early 1900s, he notes, the famous Pittsburgh Survey was commissioned to study the city’s living and working conditions. The Survey discovered horrific dangers inside the city’s factories, and an appalling lack of sanitary or human services outside them. But instead of changing the miserable conditions, local leaders tried to downplay them with a PR campaign.

“[T]he local press launched a vigorous counter-offensive, denouncing the survey’s authors as ignorant outsiders,” Cannadine writes; business leaders concentrated on “projecting a more positive image of the city across the nation and attracting new industries.”

Gee, launching a PR campaign instead of getting down to the nitty-gritty of trying to solve the city's real problems. Where have I heard that before?


Blogger Sean McDaniel said...

You know, I imagine this kind of reaction would happen anywhere, not just here.

as for the branding effort, travel around the web and check just about any city's travel bureau site and you'll find a branding message...Portland, it's not easy being green. Seattle: Soak it Up, Cincinnati: Have a Ball.

Until some other "semi famous" actress or actor slams philadelphia or des moines, we won't know how the media in those towns will react.

as for her comments, seriously, why add to the flap about it all? aren't potter's and your comments just fanning the flames?

You probably know what child experts say parents should do to stop a child's negative behavior.

Ignore it.

Ignore Sienna Miller...and ignore the reaction by the media.

9:04 AM

Blogger Judge Rufus Peckham said...

The most startling aspect of this incident was that folks in Western Pennsylvania couldn't fathom that someone would actually feel that way about our town. Well, the fact of the matter is that most people who haven't been here picture Pittsburgh as a rust belt city on the decline and probably can't imagine that it's very nice. That's a fact. As far back as I can remember, Pittsburgh has always tried to "showcase" itself to change that image, and nothing has done that. (Perhaps if you merged the city and the county, putting aside the infinite number of other controversies that would engender, all of a sudden Pittsburgh would be regarded as a "big" city, as happened in Toronto, and it would be afforded more "respect" on some level, for what that's worth.) It is a shame we are so defensive about our image. Perhaps we ought to embrace it. Instead of having a shopping nightmare at the Waterfront, perhaps we should have a museum celebrating this region's important steel and labor heritage.

6:42 PM

Blogger Mark Rauterkus said...

The judge mentioned "respect."

Respect doesn't come until it is given.

7:40 PM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

There's something else to consider. People from big cities make fun of smaller cities, and people from smaller cities make fun of small towns, and rural communities. I grew up in Westmoreland County, which many Pittsburghers lovingly refer to as "Cowtown." I understand that people in McKeesport make fun of Glassport.

In other words, no matter where you live, someone is always going to make fun of it. Is it shocking that someone who spends much of her time in London, New York, or L.A. would make fun of Pittsburgh? No. That doesn't make Pittsburgh a bad place. It's just human nature.

I'm inclined to agree with you about embracing our heritage, Judge. Too many people in this town want to run away from it.

8:20 PM

Blogger Sean McDaniel said...

Come on, a steel mill museum? And what place would Andrew Carnegie (or Henry Clay Frick) have in such an institution? I'm sure it wouldn't include Jonathan Yardley's admiring review of a new Carnegie book, which could be used to describe AC as a draft-dodging, union buster who made his fortunes on the underpaid and overworked. I'm not saying that's the truth. Then again, isn't truth just a matter of who is interpreting the "fact"?

It would be interesting to see which museum the Volvo liberals would flock too — the Frick for a nice wine and cheese concert on the lawn...or steel mill shrine for a beer and pretzels rock show in a parking lot.

You be the judge...but i think we've embraced the "heritage" that allows up to overlook the sins of our industrial forefathers to celebrate their virtues in the libraries and museums that bear their names — and the reasons they were able to bequeath such a legacy on the region.

1:36 PM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

I don't endorse the museum idea; just the spirit of what the judge is saying. And I'd be all in favor of a full accounting of the region's industrial history. The reason many people look down on our past has nothing to do with anguish over how workers were treated, or the dangers of working in the mills, however.

7:53 PM

Blogger Sean McDaniel said...

"The reason many people look down on our past has nothing to do with anguish over how workers were treated, or the dangers of working in the mills, however."

Sure, I know that. Everyone does (I hope). Too bad Pittsburgh never had its own Carl Sandburg to immotralize the city as the Steelmaker of the World, bareheaded, shoveling, wrecking, planning, building, breaking, rebuilding...

Nope, we didn't see a need to glamorize our industry (both corporate and personal). We just did it. But who knows what may have been if Pittsburgh had been the the City of the big shoulders.

As for the museums to the steel industry, leaving out the abuse/misuse of the workforce is a little like an antebellum King Cotton museum without mentioning a little thing called slavery.

as i asked earlier, soft jazz on the frick lawn on a soft summer night or the houserockers on asphalt in homestead? Where do you think you'd find more saabs and volvos and priuses?

10:08 PM


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