(Re)Considering Pittsburgh

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Site preparation for the new Whole Foods Market in East Liberty

Thoughts on a changing city

Over the last several years, city boosters of all kinds – politicians, businesspeople, non-profit and foundation leaders, developers, and many other proud city residents have touted Pittsburgh’s transition from a dirty steel town to a clean, green, livable, family-friendly, creative, entrepreneurial, ‘Eds and Meds’, tech-driven sustainable city of the 21st Century. After many years “under the radar,” Pittsburgh and this transition story continue to garner recognition from outside of Western Pennsylvania. Indeed, Forbes Magazine regularly lists Pittsburgh as one of the – when not the – most livable cities in the U.S. and The Economist ranks it as one of the most livable Zagat Guide “Top Foodie City” that has appeared in numerous “top places to visit” lists and travel columns of national newspapers and magazines. It’s “the next” Portland, Austin, or Brooklyn.

Like all cities, Pittsburgh is undergoing change. Following the global political and economic restructuring over the last 45 years and the advent of the information age of the last 25, many cities have sought to re-imagine and re-position themselves within a closely integrated and interdependent global economy. Over the last decade or so, Pittsburgh city managers and business interests have advocated and invested in the development of a local/regional economy based on “high-skilled” industries such as technology, healthcare, education, and banking and on suburban/rural natural gas extraction. This economic shift has already brought about social and physical changes in and around the city, not all of which have been positive. Just like many other cities adapting to and asserting new economic identities, Pittsburgh wrestles with gentrification, displacement, affordable housing, public education, infrastructure, pollution, and job creation.

Recently, activists and others have disrupted the harmonious narrative of Pittsburgh as “the most-livable city in America.” They ask, “Most livable for whom?” This counter-narrative describes two Pittsburghs – one seen, the other seemingly invisible. One Pittsburgh is the hip, fun town with attractive and affordable neighborhoods and houses, great schools, microbreweries, artsy cultural events, accessible parks and trendy restaurants. It is the city of tech start- ups; it is the city of entrenched corporations. It is the city of disposable income; it is the city of disposable time. This is the Pittsburgh made by and for the “creative class.” It is the city of inherited privilege. The other Pittsburgh is the one that many do not see, even though it is right before their eyes. In this Pittsburgh, livable wages and employment opportunities are rare. Houses and apartments there are rented and seldom owned. Eviction, displacement, forced relocation, and trauma are common. Here, parents struggle to find safe play options for the children whose school systems fail them. In this Pittsburgh, environment-induced asthma abounds. So does lead paint. And so may lead water. Grocery stores and doctors’ offices are often long bus rides away. This is the invisible Pittsburgh built and staffed by the working and service class. It is the city of survival. While there is certainly much to celebrate about Pittsburgh’s transition from “Hell with the lid off” to the city that exists today. For many of its residents, Pittsburgh is still Hell, just with the lid on.

In the (Re)Considering Pittsburgh series of blog posts, we intend to explore Pittsburgh amidst the changes. Despite the similar structural situation and the similar issues that cities across the world face, how change plays out in each city is dependent upon its specific historical and contemporary political, economic, social, and environmental conditions and upon how those conditions relate to conditions elsewhere. Our topics will vary, but will be consistent in their commitment to critical, holistic thinking and inquiry.

Both of the Pittsburghs described above exist simultaneously and symbiotically with each other and with many other Pittsburghs in between. Their futures are intertwined and inseparable. Our hope is that our analysis will contribute to the creation of a Pittsburgh that is livable for all of its residents.