Friday, December 31, 2004

Pittsburgh New and Old

Pittsburgh is a new old city, or an old new city, depending on how you look at it. We have experienced severe population loss since the 1960s. We have lost at least 25% of our population. Much of this population loss has been due to de-industrialization and the loss of good jobs that would pay the kind of wages that could support a family. Imagine being that greedy!

As the jobs disappeared so did the people. Most people I have talked to who have left the city have relocated in the Sunbelt. They are turning up in places such as Charlotte, North Carolina; Atlanta, Georgia; and Phoenix, Arizona. In addition to the loss of population the city is aging. I understand that Pittsburgh has one of the oldest populations of any city in the United States, possibly with the exception of some areas in Florida. In their wisdom, city officials, city boosters, and philanthropic foundations have embarked on a strategy to make Pittsburgh more attractive to the 20 – 40 demographic crowd, which they refer to as “hip”, “cool”, “hot”, and other outdated and embarrassing adjectives. Maybe these people are hipper than we think; maybe they are so hip that they are being retro.

It is not just anyone in the 20-40 age cohort that Pittsburgh power brokers are trying to attract, they want a population known as “knowledge workers” who are expected to have well-paid professional jobs. In order to attract this crowd, some Pittsburgh funders have a bright idea – no, I mean that literally. They want to pay to have over a thousand plastic bubbles filled with some kind of luminescent substance and floated in the rivers. They also want to attach these glowing plastic bubbles to bridges. As if that’s not enough, they want to build wind mills that will be outlined with neon lights of multiple colors so that they will leave a glowing hallucinogenic-like trail as they spin in the night. If that doesn’t convince the knowledge workers that this is a city where the brains are, I don’t know what will.

Pittsburgh has become mesmerized by the ideas of Richard Florida, a former professor at Carnegie Mellon University. Despite the fact that Florida’s name suggests yet another area of the country younger Pittsburghers are moving to, he is embraced almost uncritically by those who are in positions to shape the city’s strategy for economic development. Florida’s idea is that we must make the city “fun” and “funky” so that it will attract and retain the aforementioned “knowledge workers”. These “knowledge workers” would replace the old fashioned formerly industrial workers now selling hamburgers at McDonalds, or greeting customers at Wal Mart.

Florida has been a big promoter of the future of Pittsburgh, and has inspired a great deal of confidence in our future due to his vision. Too bad he grabbed the first opportunity he could find to get out of town and teach at a university in another city, but it’s the thought that counts.

Florida’s idea is that the knowledge workers will be smart enough to graduate from the University of Pittsburgh or Carnegie Mellon University, yet dumb enough to want to stay here and work for, well – the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University – and also the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, which really is a business unto itself and has very little to do with the actual university.

Along these lines Pittsburgh foundations have supported a number of “neat” organizations, such as “40 under 40” to promote younger up-and-coming talent. Pittsburghers do this, even as they lay off more than 50 over 50, regardless of their experience or their skills. There are other organizations for exciting young professionals, or professional wannabes, to join. These organizations have nifty names such as “Pump” and “Jump” and “Kurplunk.”

Florida’s hip new ideas also center on, or have been translated as meaning, that Pittsburgh must attract more Asians (particularly young Indians) and Gays and Lesbians. The reasoning behind this strategy is that these populations are most likely to have disposable incomes, to boost our sagging real estate market while supporting our hip new retail outlets such as “The Waterfront” in Homestead and yet another waterfront on the South Side.

Additionally, they are believed to be willing to support the nightclub “waterfront,” otherwise known as the “strip district” between Lawrenceville and Downtown. Then there is the “waterfront” in Aspenwall, which is known as the “Waterworks,” and yet another “waterfront” in the Southside, known as “Station Square.” Pittsburgh, you see has many “waterfronts” and is planning a few more, such as the “waterfront” in Hazelwood, which doesn’t have a name yet. This is because we have three rivers that form a point, otherwise known as the “Golden Triangle,” which is perhaps the oldest and most celebrated “waterfront” of them all. When you visit Pittsburgh these days, and you say to a native, “let’s go to the ‘waterfront’,” they are likely to reply, “which one?”

There is yet another prospective waterfront for the “knowledge workers” to support, which is known as the “North Shore.” Prospective commercial development would be located between the PNC Ballpark, which is where the Pirates lose baseball games, and the Heinz Stadium, where I think the Steelers might be currently winning. The North Shore also has fancy new buildings that grace the skyline, such as the new Alcoa office building, which is largely aluminum and glass, and the Carnegie Science Center, which is so close the water it is almost in it. The North Shore “waterfront,” however, extends to inland areas where you can no longer see an actual body of water. This is to expand marketing opportunities for realtors, and potential commercial opportunities for retailers.

The North Shore is located in an area that was formerly known as the City of Allegheny, before it was incorporated into the City of Pittsburgh. This happened around the turn of the last century. The main drag of the old business district is the new home of prostitutes who were forced out of downtown when the city was trying to clean up its image by building the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

The Cultural Trust makes sections of downtown attractive, with bright lights and large outdoor video screens. The O’Reilly theater, the Heinz Music Hall, the Benedem Center, and the Byham Theater host the Pittsburgh Symphony, Broadway performances, live theater, modern dance and other entertainment. The School for the Performing Arts, a location for budding young artists and performers, is also located in the vicinity, as is the David Lawrence Convention Center, which few national organizations can fully utilize due to the lack of adequate hotel space and the dead commercial environment in downtown at night.

Prostitutes used to run the area that currently surrounds existing hotels. Maybe that could have been an attraction for convention-goers, but the prostitutes have all been pushed across the river. When they walked the streets of downtown, the area was alive with people after dark; now that they are gone, nighttime city streets are like a ghost town. I don’t know if the prostitutes brought street action, or if the street action brought the prostitutes, but now both are gone.

The North Shore stops, abruptly, where older African American neighborhoods are located. Then it becomes known as the “North Side.” Unlike the Asian Indian population, and Gays and Lesbians, Pittsburgh does not show any signs of wanting to attract or retain its African American population, who are pretty much seen as a nuisance, just like the old steel workers. This is especially true of educated blacks who “forget their place” and want to cause “trouble” by applying for jobs. It’s not that Pittsburgh has glass ceilings for African Americans exactly; a better description would be to say that the city has iron walls.

The University of Pittsburgh (one of the centers of “knowledge worker” employment) has conducted of series of studies of indicators of economic disparity between blacks and whites in 50 major U.S. cities of comparable size to Pittsburgh. For every positive indicator of economic success for blacks, relative to whites, Pittsburgh ranked among the bottom three cities. However, for every negative economic indicator for blacks Pittsburgh was right up there among the top three. I think this goes to show that Pittsburgh is able to be first in something.

It’s not as though the Urban League or the NAACP in Pittsburgh do anything to help matters. Mostly they throw banquets for each other, congratulating themselves on being good at, well – throwing banquets for each other. Maybe Pittsburgh can improve its image concerning blacks when it constructs an African American Heritage Museum, to extend the cultural center across Liberty Avenue. If that doesn’t show Pittsburgh’s good will towards blacks, the city can always actually put blacks in the museum on display to show what the city used to look like before gentrification was fully implemented.

Our favorite mode for dealing with the problem of racial disparity is – denial. This is because, overall, Pittsburgh is a very polite city with a governing consensus between private Republican wealth, low-key but highly active philanthropic interests, and a noisy City-County government apparatus run by Democrats. Contrary to our historic image as being a fighting steel town, Pittsburghers really don’t like controversy – at least not the kind that will challenge the status-quo. Then again, all that’s left of the steelworkers is their union building, which is still one of the skyscrapers downtown so there must not be much to fight about. Not all controversy is off limits, however; when it comes to bold and daring controversial fashions as promoted by Pump, Bump, and Kurplunk, – we thrive off of that kind of quirky energy.

Pittsburgh also boasts the Warhol Museum (a tribute to Andy Warhol, who was born in Pittsburgh and escaped to New York and never looked back) and the Carnegie Institute Art Museum. These two museums are indicative of the City’s eagerness to claim its place in modern art, and to capture all that vibrant energy that appears to be escaping in droves. So, despite the pot holes and crumbling neighborhoods, as contrasted against the sparkling downtown skyline, the many over-priced waterfronts, and the ever-expanding downtown cultural center for entertainment without corresponding retail, Pittsburgh is a city that is kind of new – even though it is also still kind of old.

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