Geeking Out on Post-Industrial Renewal: Back to Pittsburgh

What does it mean for any city or region to transform from a “post-industrial city into an innovation powerhouse”? That phrase is the tagline on a series of stories being developed and posted this month (end of January through February 2018) by Geekwire, which has parachuted from Seattle into Pittsburgh, piggybacking on the media circus surrounding the Amazon competition for its second headquarters, the so-called HQ2. Pittsburgh has submitted a bid; it’s made Amazon’s first cut; the nominal buzz is that Pittsburgh’s post-industrial, CMU-led robotics-and-tech credibility makes it both a plausible Amazon player and a fair stand-in for post-industrial renewal generally. After steel, le déluge, so to speak. In this case, that’s a good thing. Take that, Madame de Pompadeur!

So far, Geekwire hasn’t impressed; the Pittsburgh exotic rather than the Pittsburgh ordinaire has dominated its coverage (“What is this Pittsburgh-ese that they seem to speak?“). But these are early signs. Let us hope that there is better reporting – deeper, more engaged critically – to come. Pittsburgh is no “innovation powerhouse” today – not yet at any rate. The top-down tone of both public and private sectors is too pronounced and too assertive when it comes to Pittsburgh’s hits and misses; C-suites and their agents try to lead the news and are doing their best, I know, to guide what Geekwire sees. The innovation-and-entrepreneurship culture doesn’t yet have the organic inertia of, say, Denver, or Austin, or even Nashville. (Did I hear someone say a thriving city has a vibrant, public, bottom-up arts culture to complement a vibrant, public, bottom-up business culture? Hmmm.) Some readers here may remember that this theme – “what does it take to re-establish a region’s confidence in itself?” – was my topic at an earlier blog, Pittsblog, for nearly 10 years (2003-2011). In the spirit of helping along both Geekwire and observers of a similar cast of mind (“what’s strong and weak about the state of Pittsburgh today?”), both local and national, I’m going to re-post a few of Pittsblog’s proverbial greatest hits.  Right or wrong, I’m mostly sticking by my guns.

The following, for example, is from an April 2011 post titled “Removing Barriers: Entrepreneurship and Innovation in Pittsburgh.” I’ve edited it here and there to remove out-of-date references. In spirit and substance, however, I’m confident that it’s just as true today as it was in 2011. Is that a good thing?

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There Are No Poor People in the Rust Belt


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!”

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What I Didn’t Know About Pittsburgh, #1

Carrie Furnace and the Oakmont Country Club. George Westinghouse and the Pittsburgh Opera. These things go in pairs – Pittsburgh’s industrial history and its contemporary arts and cultural resources.  Having written about Pittsburgh for close to 15 years, I’ve learned about a lot of those pairings.  What’s good for the bank account often turns out to be good for the spirit.

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#Pittsblog: Imagining Pittsburgh

Contemporary Pittsburgh is still mostly missing a writer who distills its emerging, collective voice, meaning a forward-looking imagineer to complement the marvelous visual nostalgia of Rick Sebak.  The expressive identity of the city and region are probably the things that I’ve wrestled with the most since moving here and writing about the place myself, on and off, for close to 15 years.  And when I come back to the topic from time to time — what defines Pittsburgh, in various ways, and what anchors its evolution? — this is the theme that pulls me in.  How does Pittsburgh talk about itself to itself, and how does Pittsburgh talk about itself to others?

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