Pivoting a City: Can Startups Help More Than Themselves?

Pittsburgh has proven fertile soil for new companies, but the startup mentality may meet its match in a real town's legacy problems. 


The Hot Metal Bridge (flickr/kordite).

I have a tip for coastal-dwellers traveling to the brick-and-steel cities of the Rust Belt. It is a lame trick, and I am ashamed to admit that I used it. But it is useful and it is my duty as your faithful correspondent in the field to share it with you. 

If you find yourself in Pittsburgh, say, on a Saturday morning, and you want to get a quick tour of the neighborhoods in which you might find some interesting things, here's the shortcut: Go to Yelp. Type "hipster coffee" into the search box. Up comes a map of places that other Yelpers have helpfully labeled "hipster," which tends to mean places where dudes in funny t-shirts bring their laptops to work. These are the unofficial co-working spaces of the town. 

The last stop on a tour of Rust Belt startups.
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In a city like Pittsburgh, this data probe also tends to highlight neighborhoods where these people tend to live. This simple search pinpointed the Strip (historic district), Lawrenceville (the New York Times' "go-to destination"), the North Side (home of The Mattress Factory Art Museum), the South Side (the dense home of the accelerator AlphaLab), Squirrel Hill (east of Carnegie Mellon), and Garfield (home to sundry art galleries, Awesome Books, and the Center for PostNatural History). 

It's important to note that you don't even have to like hipster coffee to deploy this glowing tracer for MacBook Airs. It is just a sign that where startups go, a very particular kind of culture goes with them. You get fancy coffee from individual coffee plantations. You get an Apple store. You get Belgian beer places. You get vintage shops where you can buy many different things made of teak. 

But can start-up culture change a city?

Pittsburgh is a great place to investigate the possibilities of a start-up led urban resurgence because of all the cities between the coast and Chicago, it's the one that's farthest along the path towards techdom. It's got a world-leading research institution that focuses on artificial intelligence. Because the steel mills collapsed so quickly and so thoroughly, its leaders were forced to put together a long-term plan for the city's future. Here's how the New York Times summarized the situation in 2009:

"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."

Pittsburgh's transition has been proceeding for decades in fits and starts, benefiting some areas much more than others. A development plan begun in the 1980s successfully used the local universities to pour state funds into technology research.

And much of this story is real. Pittsburgh is a vibrant, fun place with cool neighborhoods, lots of young people, excellent universities, beautiful housing stock, strong tech companies. It seems like a great place to be an entrepreneur.

But can these entrepreneurs become the backbone of this city? Can they own its problems, not just its advantages?

Startups all over the country tend to be very white. And Pittsburgh, like many other major cities, has even more acute black unemployment problems than it does general ones. Unemployment data isn't broken out by city and race, but nationally, black unemployment was almost twice that of whites in 2011, peaking at 16.7 percent (!) in August, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

So, as long as we're thinking about scale, the biggest challenge facing Pittsburgh isn't how to make a vibrant startup scene (though that's not easy either) but how do you make one whose benefits extend beyond the edges of the start-up bubble?

* * * 

I'm outside StartUptown, a 10,000-square-foot co-working facility run by Dale McNutt, who lives here, too. This is ground zero for where Pittsburgh problems meet its new solutions. McNutt's been renovating the place since 2002, and it shows. The brick buildings are now set in a wonderful garden, and the whole place just sparkles with DIY flourishes. 

Around me, the streets are mostly deserted. Most of the houses seem occupied, but in poor condition. There are few businesses. Kitty corner from StartUptown, there is a mental health facility and the Jubilee Soup Kitchen. 

This area, which McNutt calls Uptown, might fairly be termed the lower reaches of The Hill, which was, in essence, the Harlem of Pittsburgh. The story of The Hill is sad. The community was leveled by an ill-considered redevelopment plan in the 1950s that displaced 8,000 families. It had a "devastating" impact on the community, one from which it still has not recovered. 

On the other side of Uptown is the Bluff, where steel mills once lined the banks of the river. There's not a steel mill left in Pittsburgh proper, but the old sites are now home to economic development groups like the Pittsburgh Technology Council and Innovation Works, in addition to companies and university facilities they've helped bring to town. They even named the street running adjacent to the river "Technology Drive." 

Downtown is precisely a mile to the west, and Oakland, home of the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon, lies a couple miles to the east. The street names around here sound aspirational to an outsider: Forbes runs east, Fifth Avenue runs west. 


Dale McNutt in StartUptown (Alexis Madrigal).

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