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On Being an Ambassador for Pittsburgh

[Cross-posted from Concurring Opinions]

By popular request, I’m posting this link to my brief appearance in this morning’s New York Times.  (Well, the link is popular in certain quarters, and I did receive a request to post it!)  The story has to do with tomorrow’s mayoral primary, in which Pittsburgh’s young mayor, Luke Ravenstahl, front man for an emerging Democratic Party machine that someday may do the elder Daley proud, is certain to defeat his two challengers, Patrick Dowd, current darling of local progressives, and Carmen Robinson, a well-liked but under-funded African American lawyer and former police officer.

For most purposes, neither the story nor the interview that preceded it have anything to do with my academic life, though the Times gives me credit for being a professor at Pitt Law.  Instead, the Times piece, like a recent interview that I gave Dutch TV (watch for it!) and a piece earlier this Spring for CNN (teased here, then preempted by the tragic death of a certain skiing actress and replaced by this blog post) are the products of what one Burghosphere colleague (Burghosphere is the extravagant name that we Pittsburgh bloggers have given ourselves) calls my status as an “ambassador” for the city.  My five-year-old blog about the many futures of Pittsburgh, Pittsblog, was one of the first local blogs, and while it now has plenty of company, it is still one of the dozen or so that try to bring a little light to the heat generated by Steelers and Penguins fandom.  Media search for light-generating media; they find me; I become a momentary local celebrity because I’m in the paper of record.  Rinse and repeat.

Still, underneath the hood, there is a connection to my research interests, whether or not you care about the Steel City itself. 

I began writing Pittsblog in 2004 because I had discovered that (i) Pittsburgh is a really great place, with lots of engaging history (as a young British officer, George Washington lost a battle nearby and thereby earned a reputation!) and amazing current resources and potential (Pitt!  CMU!  UPMC! amazing philanthropic traditions and accumulations of private capital!), but (ii) Pittsburgh was stagnating.  None of its potential was being realized, and no one seemed to care.  Part of the problem was structural (Pittsburgh had long been always a big-company, top-down kind of place, economically, politically, and culturally); part of the problem was conceptual, or you might say psychological.  Pittsburgh has little recent experience with the kind of bottom-up, let’s-build-a-company-and-change-the-world mentality that flourishes in some other parts of the U.S.  Having moved to the area from the Silicon Valley, where I grew up and which is a leading domestic example of that alternative mindset, I wanted to be a cheerleader for different ways of thinking about economic development, technology development, and the continuing post-steel hoped-for revival of the Pittsburgh region.  Above all, I wanted to spread the idea that risk, and the risk of failure, which Pittsburghers have long loathed, could be a useful addition to the civic mix. 

As my conversations with local friends and colleagues had it, how do you change the psychology of a city?  That has been my Pittsblog theme for the last five years.  One short answer is that you can’t, really (the long answer requires sifting through my older posts). But you can subtly help shift the frame of the conversation, both locally and nationally (thanks, CNN!), and you can push here and there indirectly on the idea that in-migration and “salmon” (native Pittsburghers returning from exile, or what some local wags call “gumbanders,” adopting a piece of Pittsburgh dialect) would really help move the local economic needle, because those folks have seen how it’s done in other parts of the world.  Failure is a lousy thing, but failure is something that healthy economies need, and it’s something that can be woven successfully into ways of thinking about prosperity.  Pittsburghers who have lived elsewhere have seen failure, and they’ve survived.  To map this on to my recent posts about law school faculties and institutional culture, getting individuals to see the path of the institution as something that is related to but distinct from their own work is difficult, but essential.  Sometimes the best way to do it is not to retrain the existing population, but instead to import folks who know about different ways of seeing and thinking. 

A second answer is structural rather than cognitive, and it gets closer still to my ongoing interest in commons institutions.  I’ve blogged at Pittsblog about what I refer to as the “entrepreneurship commons,” by which I mean that local economic development efforts need to focus not only on what I call “retail” development (for example, the incubator helps to find funding for one start-up at a time) but also on what I call “wholesale” development (for example, the legal profession assembles and makes available an array of firms and professionals who accessible to local technology developers, entrepreneurs, and investors at attractive prices). One of my favorite examples of the latter is a technology fair that a local tech umbrella organization put together with the Pittsburgh Penguins, as part of the Pens’ planning of its new arena. 

It is still very much a work in progress (the city and the region, as well as the blog).  And a third answer is that for a city that is a sports-mad as Pittsburgh, winning a championship or two (or six!) certainly helps the psyche.  So, while I’m no ice hockey fan, I’ve learned to appreciate Sid the Kid (Crosby) and Geno (Malkin) and the rest of the Penguins, who just finished a magnificant NHL playoff series with the Washington Capitals and are now gearing up to face the Carolina Hurricanes in the conference championship.  Let’s go Pens.