This story in the NYT Magazine about Braddock, PA and its “revitalization” front man, John Fetterman, should be read in conjunction with this David Pogue column about page numbers in e-books. How can the future deal with the past?
The Braddock story is really a Pittsburgh story, because Braddock, in many ways, epitomizes the communities left behind as big chunks of Pittsburgh get elevated in the national and international press via a “renaissance” narrative. Just a few miles upriver from downtown Pittsburgh, Braddock is still the home of the Edgar Thomson Works, the first and biggest of the giant Carnegie (now US Steel) operations in the region. At its peak, the Edgar Thomson Works employed roughly 10,000 people. Today it employs about 800. Braddock is now home to roughly one-tenth of its peak population. For all practical purposes, it is a shell of a small river town, bordered by “renaissance” Pittsburgh downriver, solid middle class neighborhoods and towns up the hill, to the north, and more fading mill towns up the Steel Valley.
Fetterman? He’s become the Harvard-educated showman dedicated to bringing Braddock back, repopulating it with urban adventurers and artists attracted by Rust Belt chic and cheap real estate. His money and his personality are Braddock’s chief assets these days, and the Times Magazine does a good job of exploring the conflict that results. Fetterman’s style isn’t really a Pittsburgher’s style; this is a team- and community-first region. Not because of any principled commitment to governance, but because that’s the culture of this place. Fetterman rubs a lot of Pittsburghers the wrong way.
The irony is that if Fetterman can’t bring Braddock back, or someone in Fetterman’s mold, then I doubt that it can be done. What places like Braddock need — what places like Pittsburgh still need, despite the misleading renaissance narrative — is leadership that leads to institutions. Leadership requires more than charisma, but charisma is required, or at least the force of individual human engagement in pursuit of vision. What holds the Rust Belt back, perhaps necessarily and inevitably, isn’t really the challenge of clearing brownfields and attracting new firms and residents. It is the challenge of history and culture that frames how one can imagine the future. Rust Belt chic is hip, to be sure, but it’s also all we’ve got, for now. Can you imagine a broadcast of Monday Night Football in Pittsburgh that does not feature video of steelmaking? Yet no steel is made in the City of Pittsburgh today, and only a modest amount of steel comes out of the region as a whole — nearly all of it specialty steel, not the giant pieces that framed bridges and skyscrapers. Who knows what Pittsburgh might become, even if it might become anything more than it is right now. But Pittsburgh has to find a way to put steel in its place, metaphorically speaking. To deal with places like Braddock without their becoming simply Steel Valley comeback stories.
David Pogue’s column on the Kindle reminded me of precisely the same point, situated in a technological context that in theory should be entirely free of that kind of analog historical, cultural constraint. Displaying hard copy page numbers in e-books on the Kindle and the Nook is useless and arbitrary, in a sense, just like citation systems for published judicial opinions today. I sometimes get a kick out of showing new law students actual hardbound volumes of case reports, so that they can make sense of those strange numbers and abbreviations that pass for case citations. The Kindle is the Braddock of the current digital environment: Historical and cultural constraints here, not physical constraints, are the keys to understanding the possible. No one needs “page” numbers in order to create a mechanism for pinpointing a passage in electronic text. There are no “pages.” The software can be set up to render the text in any way that the designers want — and that Kindle users will accept. There is only text. For now, software on the Kindle will allow readers to switch back and forth between old and new systems, a solution that may seem cheap and easy but that’s really in thrall to the past. I’m in no hurry to get rid of books. I don’t own a Kindle or any equivalent machine. But I wonder who the Fettermans of the publishing industry are and what they might come up with, if they were really left to their own devices.