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.

Over on the North Side, the city has used more of its industrial facilities to create an unexpected home for the arts. Down the street from Heinz Field and PNC Park, in a building opened in 1911 as a steel supply warehouse, is the Andy Warhol Museum. Though New York was initially the frontrunner for a Warhol museum, Pittsburgh—his birthplace and burial place, despite his famous quote, “I am from nowhere”—won the bidding war for what has become America’s largest museum devoted to one artist. Also in the neighborhood is an art center called the Mattress Factory, located, aptly, in an old Stearns & Foster factory. The museum features permanent and rotating installations created by artists-in-residence, and its parent organization has changed the face of the neighborhood, renovating buildings and nurturing other arts organizations like the Tom Museum and the New Hazlett Theater.

Downtown, the city’s Cultural District is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the rescue of Penn and Liberty Avenue from seedy sex shops, pornographic movie theaters, and prostitutes. From its beginnings in Heinz Hall, a former movie palace re-done in 1971, the Cultural District has grown to include art galleries, three renovated theaters (including an art movie house), the ten-year-old O’Reilly Theater, and the brand-new August Wilson Center for African American Culture, which will feature dance, theater, music, and spoken word performances.

Despite these success stories, Pittsburgh still has some history to revise. One of the most glaring mistakes of the last half-century was the building of the Civic Arena (now the Mellon Arena) in the Lower Hill District, which displaced roughly 1,500 families and 400 businesses in a mostly black community. Once a home of jazz and black culture with Art Blakey and John Coltrane dropping in to play at the Hurricane Lounge or the Crawford Grill, the area lost much of its vibrant heart, and control over its own destiny. Happily, the Arena (the oldest hockey rink in the NHL) is about to give way to the Consol Energy Center across the street, which is supposed to blend a little more seamlessly into the neighborhood.

Of course, after a hard day of international bloviation, some G-20 attendees may have had their fill of talking about economic renewal. If that’s the case, I recommend that they do what Pittsburgh’s workers have done for decades: head down to the South Side to an old steel bar like the Mill Site Tavern for an ice cold Iron City beer.