There Are No Poor People in the Rust Belt

What?

In recent days, I’ve come across not one but two online features that celebrate contemporary Pittsburgh for its economic and cultural sexiness. Largely because of the regional tech economy, the millennials and GenXers who dominate it, and the insistence of Pittsburgh’s Old Guard that what you see today was always the plan for economic recovery after the collapse of steel in the early 1980s, Pittsburgh is back, baby! If this were Southern California and if there were waves on the three rivers, I could imagine Jeff Spicoli saying, “Hey bud! Let’s party!”

For the record, here they are:

It’s difficult to supply enough criticism of these two pieces. “Vapid,” “naive,” “a-historical,” “blinkered,” and “narrow” don’t begin to describe their problems.

The authors don’t deserve any of that. They came to Pittsburgh from the outside, were escorted around town by local boosters in Uber’s LIDAR-enabled autonomous vehicles, saw a cookie-factory-turned-into-Google-shop, and left. I’m known among friends and colleagues for critiquing what I call the “sexy robots” narrative of Pittsburgh today (as in: sexy robots — Uber, drones, etc. — are making Pittsburgh great!). The sexy robots narrative was on offer, and  the sexy robots narrative sold.

Instead, what truly irks me is the uncritical celebration of these two pieces by the proprietors of the sexy robots narrative. On social media, wander through the feeds of what I call the Pittsburgh techno-elite: funders, incubators, translational research and tech transfer service providers, Downtown business leaders and East Libertarian boosters and supporters. At last they have something in hand that unequivocally displaces the dual-exhaust, existing, slightly dusty narratives — “Pittsburgh replaced the steel industry with eds and meds,” plus “Pittsburgh is an underappreciated tourist gem, and it’s one of America’s most livable cities” — and they have flogged it (the narrative that drives both of the pieces linked above) without reservation.

That’s shameful.  If you want to sell sexy robots to venture capitalists, then by all means: sell sexy robots. But if you’re trying to celebrate rebuilding a community, then be truthful. Sexy robots won’t do it, and whatever Pittsburgh is today, sexy robots didn’t make it happen.

For more than 10 years, I published a blog about Pittsburgh (pittsblog.blogspot.com – it’s still there), in the style of “a Silicon Valley-native-comes-to-the-Rust-Belt.” An early theme of the blog was the need for Pittsburgh’s economic and political classes to move beyond the psychic and public policy obsession with rebuilding an industrial economy on the model of steel. Pittsburgh’s big company, big factory, big bank past was not a roadmap to the future. Diverse, nimble, flexible, entrepreneurial, technology and service-oriented – those were my modern-ish watchwords. “We don’t do it that way” needed to give way to “Break it, and they will come.”

But “you’ve got to put your past behind you” (Lion King-style) was my own naive self. The more mature theme of the blog was — and my message now is — the cultural cost of uncritically building a Silicon Valley-ish model on top of Pittsburgh’s industrial legacy. SV is a terrible place to live (despite the usually gorgeous weather); Pittsburgh should aspire to re-build economic sustainability with technology and service and inclusiveness and openness and entrepreneurially-themed institutions and should build all of that consciously and explicitly on the best legacy versions of its legendary community and neighborhood stability. (The best legacy, not the entire legacy, accepted uncritically.  The Lower Hill, for example.) That means significant continuity of values blended with changes in economic applications.  For IT geeks, call “continuity of values” the operating system, or the platform. Call “economic applications,” well, the apps.

Why the shift in tone, and why the hostility to the “Pittsburgh is where it’s at” meme?

One:  Because that – a more measured, skeptical view of Pittsburgh’s potential – may actually be good for business, even if you are part of the region’s techno-elite. It’s coincidental that Uber’s Pittsburgh HQ is just down the street from the first factory of the Westinghouse Air Brake Company. It’s also a story of continuity, and that’s got to be a good thing, over the long run. The best of the new builds on the best of the past. Continuity, not disruption, means stable business partnerships, customer relationships, political accountability, and community acceptance. Silicon Valley (the metaphor, as well as the place) is one disruptive episode after another. I can’t stomach the “Silicon Valley” HBO series; it’s painfully real.

As I wrote earlier: If you want to sell sexy robots, then sell sexy robots. You’re free to try to make money, hand over fist, and the rest of the community be damned. I may well be wrong about what is actually good for business.

So, more important:

Two: “There are no poor people in the Rust Belt,” which is both metaphorical and false. Metaphorical in the sense that “poor people” is a headline-grabbing stand-in for non-techno-elite populations, and false because there *are* these other populations (false, also, because “Rust Belt” is an outmoded label). There are thousands and thousands of people in Pittsburgh, young as well as old, who aren’t part of the region’s techno-elite, who aren’t helped or served by sexy robots and whose lives aren’t made better because a cookie factory is now largely occupied by Google. I still read actual newspapers, in actual print, so I see these people in all sorts of media as well as in my daily life. (That means that if you don’t seem them in your daily life, you can see them, too, at least online.)  “These Guys Really Like Trump” is the New York Times headline about older white men in Pittsburgh, but take Trump and politics out of that story and you read a very ordinary account of Pittsburgh men whose daily lives are filled with challenge and struggle on account of economic and technological change that has largely been imposed upon them.

That’s just the reference that popped up in recent days. It shouldn’t be difficult to search Pittsblog archives or NullSpace archives (Chris Briem’s blog) for information about challenges and struggles for women, for racial and ethnic populations, and for many, many others in Pittsburgh the city, Pittsburgh the region, and in Western PA generally.  Here’s a sample (a short feature about Pittsburgh from 2016, on Al Jazeera).

I don’t mean to paint the two men in the Times or anyone else as deserving victims or to invoke sympathy or nostalgia for an older, simpler time. Romanticizing the steel era is just as insidious as taking a Panglossian view of the present and future. The point is not that anyone’s anger or frustration or how they express that is automatically justifiable or defensible.

The point is that celebrating “Pittsburgh as a Day 1 City” and Pittsburgh as a city that will “Crush the 21st Century” (what does that even mean?) implies willfully ignoring large swaths of the population who still live here, who have hopes, goals, and needs not only for themselves and for their children, friends, and neighbors.  It doesn’t have to imply any of that.  There are plenty of ways to celebrate the gains that Pittsburgh (city and region) has made over the last decade and a half without dismissing the interests of those who haven’t yet participated in them.  The very best people to do that are Pittsburgh’s own techno-elites: the upscale denizens of East Liberty and Larimer, Second Avenue, Oakland, and Nova Place.

And — please — would someone not in the Burghosphere push back publicly and critically on the idea that what Pittsburgh experiences today, even in its techno-elite version, was somehow foreseen or planned by (Tom Murphy) or (the Allegheny Conference)?  Could someone provide, say, an update to this?