Pittsburgh — City of Champions

dscn2797C’mon. You knew I had to write about the Steelers this weekend. The holidays are history. Weather in Northeast Ohio is terrible. So might as well just sit back Sunday with a cold Iron City and watch the Steelers as they try to grab another Super Bowl ring. Note to Browns’ fans: Steelers are running out of fingers and thumbs. You know what I mean.

But I’m really not writing today about football. I’m writing about cities, economic development and perception versus really. In the 1970s, Pittsburgh gained the title of “city of champions” — linked mostly to the good fortunes of the Steelers and Pittsburgh Pirates. And reinforced by a Sports Illustrated cover story highlighting Terry Bradshaw and Willie Stargell. But the other story and reality at that time was that Pittsburgh was just completing the first part of a long, painful economic transition — designated if you will a “renaissance” by the city fathers.

Now, with some ups and downs I’m sure during the past two decades, Pittsburgh still has a strong claim on the city of champions title. Not because of sports — but because it has transformed itself into a thriving, liveable city with a vibrant downtown and an economy that no longer relies on steel. And I believe this is reality — based on my recent visits to the city,  the conversations I’ve had with my parents and brothers (all lifelong Pittsburgh residents) and from a Plain Dealer article in November (available via the PD archives), “The Pittsburgh Plan: Five Things That Could Work Here.”

And the national news media is taking notice as well.  An article Wednesday in The New York Times — “For Pittsburgh, There’s Life After Steel” — said:

PITTSBURGH — This is what life in one American city looks like after an industrial collapse:

Unemployment is 5.5 percent, far below the national average. While housing prices sank nearly everywhere in the last year, they rose here. Wages are also up. Foreclosures are comparatively uncommon.

A generation ago, the steel industry that built Pittsburgh and still dominated its economy entered its death throes. In the early 1980s, the city was being talked about the way Detroit is now. Its very survival was in question.

Deindustrialization in Pittsburgh was a protracted and painful experience. Yet it set the stage for an economy that is the envy of many recession-plagued communities, particularly those where the automobile industry is struggling for its life.

“If people are looking for hope, it’s here,” said Sabina Deitrick, an urban studies expert at the University of Pittsburgh. “You can have a decent economy over a long period of restructuring.”

I’d like to have hope that this could happen in Cleveland and elsewhere in Northeast Ohio. Yet I don’t believe we have made the progress here in transforming and restructuring the economy and employment base that we’ve seen in Pittsburgh. That’s reality here — and no amount of advertising and public relations can alter it. Still, it’s not for lack of trying — or the work over a long period of time of many, many thoughtful, talented and committed people. See for instance the op-ed article in the Akron Beacon Journal this morning, “First lesson of bad times? Collaborate.”

So Pittsburgh remains the city of champions.

I’d love to have Cleveland challenge for that title — beyond football.

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4 responses to “Pittsburgh — City of Champions

  1. Perhaps Dayton could learn the lesson. Or not.

  2. Tough under these economic conditions for any city/region to make substantial progress. But I do wonder why some cities appear to be more successful at this than others.

    How does Dayton compare to Cleveland in terms of employment, housing, schools, ability to attract new businesses, etc. ?

  3. This is a great post, Rob. I’ve forwarded on to many Youngstowners in hopes that people will try to replace the steel stigma with hope. Maybe….

    • Ali, Hi. Hope you are doing well. And Happy New Year. I really do believe that Pittsburgh can serve as a model. It’s not easy; but transforming a city and economy can be done.

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