The Pittsburgh Transformation Story:
An Editor’s View

John G. Craig, Jr.
Former Editor
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

In the spring of 1963, Streuby L. Drumm, president of the Pittsburgh Regional Planning Association, with this paragraph, introduced Portrait of a Region, a four-volume examination of Pittsburgh underwritten by the Ford Foundation:

"Since 1920 there have been major changes in the structure of the regional economy; these changes are reflected in the Region's shifting patterns of land use, and in the locations within the region of employment opportunities and residential population. The present volume indicates that these changes have left behind them a residue of obsolete physical facilities and derelict land which threatens to impede the orderly development of the region in the future. The problem is one that this region shares with a number of the older metropolitan areas of the northeastern United States, but it is particularly acute here because of the rugged landforms which so limited and channeled development."

As I write this, 41 years have passed since Drumm set pen to paper, and though I do not have the advantage of his research and the extraordinarily insightful report that resulted therefrom, I can say without fear of contradiction that while profound changes have occurred in Pittsburgh during this period, the challenges remain very much the same. The skeletal remains from a century of industrial development appear to require at least another century to pass before they fully decompose and those "rugged landforms which so limited and channeled development" still remain
a compromising, if beautiful and immutable reality.

Yes, much has been done. In Drumm's day, the major accomplishments of what was known as the Pittsburgh Renaissance were largely in place and duly celebrated in his regional portrait. Smoke had been controlled by ordinance, flooding had been brought under much better control and a massive program to make over the dilapidated urban core, the so-called Golden Triangle, was in its final stages of development. The physical changes and the civic institutions created to do that work were innovative and successful to such a degree that the leaders of the responsible public/private partnership, David Lawrence, the mayor, and Richard Mellon, the industrialist, were praised in both the region and the world for effecting renewal on an unprecedented scale. The place, after all, had been "hell with the lid off" and the transformation had been profound.

But that was only Act 1. In 1963, the harbingers of even worse trouble ahead were clear to Drumm and anyone else who would examine the evidence. Pittsburgh, with 40 percent of its work force engaged in industrial manufacturing, a rate more than twice that of other large U.S. cities, was vulnerable, particularly so because the base industry, heavy metals, was at risk on competitive and environmental grounds. The best evidence of this was the slow but steady erosion of jobs and population in its river communities, well underway in the 1950s, that continued for two more decades. Then, after the second oil shock in 1979, the bottom fell out. The region lost 140,000 top-wage industrial jobs in three years, an unprecedented economic blow that would have shattered a lesser place.

Why did it not? In part, because U.S. Steel had funded its contractual obligations and did not renege, and also because the wealth created by industrial barons of the 19th century had legs and had stayed home. It underwrote great institutions like Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, very strong banks in Mellon and Pittsburgh National and the largest concentration of foundation wealth on a per capita basis of any city in the United States at that time. These great assets did not preclude misery and disruption, but they did cushion the fall. They also energized a second downtown renewal boomlet in the mid-80s dubbed the "Second Pittsburgh Renaissance." Even in the throes of dislocation, the region was thinking high-tech, thinking service economy, thinking brown field redevelopment. Thinking better days ahead.

The 10 years between 1986 and 1995 were confounding because what community initiative and investment produced with one hand
national preeminence in computer technologies, a boom in service jobs and continued investments in major transportation assets business cycles and the irresistible drag of industrial decline took away with the other. Pittsburgh was cleaner, the smog and inversions on summer days were fewer, the concentration of college students was among the highest of major U.S. cities, but Pittsburgh continued to lose population, job creation was sluggish, the median age of the population was high by any national measure and young people moved away in search of better pay and more stable employment. Tech start-ups arrived; Westinghouse disappeared.

The past decade has been characterized by more of the same. A major effort to refocus attention on the region's greatest asset, its water and rivers, has resulted in a third municipal building boom, with over $1 billion in public investment in new stadiums and a convention center in Three Rivers Park at the confluence of the three rivers. Major redevelopment initiatives at the sites of old steel plants have resulted in major new commercial, retail and residential development in both Pittsburgh and surrounding communities. For the first time in history, suburbanites and non-residents who work and shop in Allegheny County but do not live there have been paying a 1 percent sales tax that supports "regional assets" and provides tax relief to local government in the region's largest county.

At the same time these things have been taking place, Pittsburgh's municipal government has avoided insolvency in 2004 only by agreeing to become a ward of the state until it can get its income and expenditures in proper balance. The region's largest private employer, USAirways, has sought the protection of bankruptcy twice and slashed its local operations and work force. A recent study commissioned by the Allegheny Conference on Community Development called the region's water drainage and sewer problem among the nation's worst, requiring at least $10 billion to correct. Air quality also remains a major issue as well with the region in and out of EPA compliance, and the region is driven by debate over highway expansion and unmitigated sprawl at a time of continued population stagnation.

Pittsburgh today is, in sum, as fascinating and unique as ever. A beautiful place, caught between the consequences of its past and the pressures of a global economic dynamic that is evolving at an ever-quicker pace. Describing that reality is both a challenge and an unusual opportunity for editors and reporters, students of conflict and superlatives that we all are. So be forewarned, getting this story right demands caution when it comes to superlatives and a decent respect for the role of ambiguity in human behavior, most particularly collective human behavior. But within those bounds, there is a tale to tell at the confluence of the Monongehela, Allegheny and Ohio Rivers, a great American tale here for the taking.

John G. Craig, Jr., retired editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is involved in river development as co-chairman of the Riverlife Task Force and a commissioner of the Port of Pittsburgh. He is also president of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Regional Indicators Consortium.