I’m in Pittsburgh this weekend for a family reunion and celebration—my great uncle is turning 90 this August, and the family from across the country has come out to Industry, PA (about 40 minutes northwest of downtown Pittsburgh) to mark the occasion and spend some time together. We all originate from an 18th century ancestor, and our original family farm lands and cemetery can be visited in western Pennsylvania’s Armstrong County.
While I’m a lifelong Pennsylvanian, it wasn’t until 2011 that I visited Pittsburgh proper. It’s a great city with a tremendously impressive legacy and a promising future. Since beginning to study the city I’ve been fascinated by it as an example of post-industrial success.
In light of Detroit’s recent bankruptcy filing, Time’s Friday’s piece on “Pittsburgh’s Lessons for Detroit” caught my eye. It very neatly describes Pittsburgh’s strengths:
Yet Pittsburgh has bounced back—smaller and smarter if still scarred. It’s economic base was a bit more diverse than Detroit’s and it has found a lifeline in higher-end metal and medicine, as well as robotics, computer science and other high tech areas. In metals, the region regained its advantage by going upmarket, focusing on high value specialty steels as well as aluminum and titanium.
In medicine, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center—which occupies what were the senior executive floors in the former U.S. Steel Building — became the region’s biggest employer. UPMC has made huge investments in Pittsburgh, but also exports its know-how to other countries. In technology, Carnegie-Mellon University has been a font of startups in computer science, robotics, and nanotechnology. The emerging field of biotechnology is a natural outgrowth for both of these institutions.
Pittsburgh has even benefitted from its limiting geography. It sits at the confluence of the Monongahela and the Allegheny rivers, which join to form the Ohio. The Allegheny defines its northern border. The city jumps the Monongahela, but it’s quickly stopped by the coal-bearing hills that once fed its mills. The Monongahela Valley’s communities were hard hit, too, but they are not part of the Pittsburgh municipality. Detroit’s geographic sprawl of 139 sq. mi. (vs. Pittsburgh’s 58 sq. mi.) is one of its main issues, because density promotes efficiency. Pittsburgh’s compact downtown core made redevelopment more efficient and more visible, even beautiful.
I’m looking forward to admiring Pittsburgh’s beauty from the top of Duquesne Incline tomorrow, and I’m eager to get back here as often as possible in the years to come.