Dispatch September 2009

Pittsburgh, City of Renewal

A native Pittsburgher explains why the city makes an ideal backdrop for this year's G-20 summit

When Robert Gibbs announced on May 28th that Pittsburgh would host this week’s G-20 summit, the press corps tittered in their seats. “Why Pittsburgh?” came the refrain from those whose only point of reference was the stock footage of molten steel shown after the commercial breaks of Steelers games. But to the average overzealous Pittsburgher (of which, I must admit, I am one), President Obama’s recognition of the city as a model for a world in economic crisis is vindication of something we've known all along.

At that May briefing, Gibbs said that southwestern Pennsylvania is “an area that has seen its share of economic woes in the past, but because of foresight and investment is now… giving birth to renewed industries that are creating the jobs of the future." True enough. If Angela Merkel, Silvio Berlusconi, Gordon Brown, or any of the other hundreds of foreign government officials (plus 4,000 journalists) are looking for inspiration on how to revive their economies, they could do worse than to walk through Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods, which brim with reminders that just about everything old can be new again. Got an abandoned ice manufacturing plant in the midst of an area otherwise brimming with restaurants and entertainment? Open the Heinz History Center, a regional history museum affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution. Got an old church on a corner near the University of Pittsburgh? Sounds like a great place for a hookah bar. It’s a common, almost expected story here.

The old emblems of Pittsburgh’s pride, the towering smokestacks of the steel mills, were torn down long ago (just three operating mills remain in the region), leaving acres of brownfield along the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers. Two of the most eye-catching redevelopments of this land are SouthSide Works and the Waterfront. Built in the early 2000s over the former Jones and Laughlin steel works, which made every steel product except heavy rails and armor plate, and once provided much of the pipe for the oil industry, SouthSide Works houses local companies such as American Eagle Outfitters and MAYA Design, and features so-called new urbanist design—i.e., it’s urban enough to have a charming looking “town square” but suburban enough for a Cheesecake Factory. The Waterfront, opened in 1999, is SouthSide Works’s big brother both in history and size; its location was once the home of the U.S. Steel plant and site of the bloody Homestead Strike, a clash between striking Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers and the armed Pinkerton agents contracted to install replacement workers. With big box stores, an enormous movie theater, numerous restaurants, an open-air mall, and tons of parking, the Waterfront might rival the mill in sheer moneymaking capability, thankfully without Pinkertons.

Across the river from SouthSide Works is the Pittsburgh Technology Center, the nexus of much of Pittsburgh’s Obama-hailed new industry. An industrial site since 1849, the center posed some unusual development challenges—years of smelting copper and making steel left ferrous cyanide and tar in the soil—but today its state-of-the-art glass and steel buildings are geek havens that have garnered Pittsburgh its new reputation, including the Carnegie Mellon Research Institute and the University of Pittsburgh Center for Biotechnology and Bioengineering.

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Caitlan Smith is an editorial assistant at The Atlantic.

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