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In Pittsburgh: Kevin Sousa is Right!

Kevin Sousa, Pittsburgh chef and entrepreneur extraordinaire, has a plan to rescue the Pittsburgh region’s signature communal failure, Braddock, Pennsylvania, by opening a high-end restaurant there. It will be an unusual restaurant, “Superior Motors,” with some local sourcing and some local hiring, but a high-end restaurant nonetheless.  The other day, EATER magazine published an interesting overview of Sousa’s prospects — can culinary tourism bring hipster credibility and economic success to Braddock? — and EATER included some quotations from me, expressing skepticism. I have my doubts about Kevin Sousa and Braddock.

But Kevin Sousa is right about something else and something bigger. Even if I believe that Superior Motors and all that won’t bring Braddock back, I’m cheering for Kevin Sousa and people like him.

Here’s why.

Around the same time that EATER published its piece, I started to notice a revival of the following interesting theme: Not only is Pittsburgh (city and region) “back” as a vibrant economic and cultural place, but its return and revival are due very specifically to the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, sometimes abbreviated the ACCD and known around Pittsburgh as “the Conference.”

That’s right: Pittsburgh is booming, and the ACCD is here to take the credit.  See this Pittsburgh Magazine story by the excellent Dennis Roddy and the new celebratory documentary film produced by filmmakers at Robert Morris University (press release here; video here).  Pittsburgh’s online media have jumped on the ACCD bandwagon. The Post-Gazette tells the story here.

This is revisionism of a high order, and Pittsburgh’s version of Whig history, meaning that the story of modern Pittsburgh is being re-told as a mythological story of progression toward ever greater freedom, liberty, and opportunity. Emerging Whiggish-ness in Pittsburgh argues that just about everything that you see around you today, Pittsburgh, can be traced to wise decisions made decades ago by a thoughtful, public-spirited elite.

This is nonsense, for several reasons — the last but perhaps most important of which is Kevin Sousa.

First, one starts with the ACCD itself.  In many ways it is both a remarkable success story and a remarkable relic, a public/private partnership that dates to the late 1940s and that was responsible for directing public resource investments in the 1950s and 1960s — clustered generally under the heading “Pittsburgh Renaissance” — that brought enormous benefits to Pittsburgh.  For reasons having little to do with the ACCD, in the early 1980s Pittsburgh collapsed, as the US steel industry collapsed. For nearly 20 years all the King’s horses and all the King’s men — meaning, the senior business and local government leaders who make up the ACCD — could do absolutely nothing to bring Pittsburgh back.  In bits and pieces the region made progress. Some new Downtown buildings were built; the rivers were made usable for public access and recreation. But the planning mentality that dominated Pittsburgh and the ACCD for decades simply ran out of steam. I arrived in Pittsburgh in 1998. Anyone not from Pittsburgh could see that the place was bereft of imagination. I’m hardly alone in that judgment; that summation is, in essence, what I was told when I arrived.

Second, during much of that time (let’s say the 1990s), the ACCD was in many ways a barrier to innovation and improvement.  I started my old blog, Pittsblog, in 2003, trying to figure out why Pittsburgh’s economy and culture were so flat.  In late 2005, I posted this provocation (later republished in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette), nominally about the end of the line for the top-down planning style of the ACCD but more importantly about how the Pittsburgh economy in general needed to be shaped from the ground up, rather than from the top down. That piece made me no friends at the Conference, but it made me a lot of friends in Pittsburgh’s business, banking, and not-for-profit communities.  I could have written a short book with the notes and phone messages I received afterward, many of them from Pittsburgh “names,” thanking me for saying what needed to be said — but that they could not say themselves. The ACCD was trying to pick winners for the future; what Pittsburgh needed was lots of new players in the marketplace.

Third, the story of Pittsburgh’s contemporary renewal, such as it is, is much more a story about the democratization and diversification of Pittsburgh’s economy than it is a story about planned investment in new economic sectors. My diagnosis (new players!) was hardly original, but I think that it has been borne out in practice. Pittsburgh is no bastion of cultural diversity, if that phrase is measured by generally accepted standards, and its economic renewal is distributed unequally across the city and the region. But the renewal, such as it is, is generally and rightly associated with the diversification of the local economy and with the emergence of numerous clusters of smaller firms rather than a reprise of the old Steel model (one industry to rule them all!). Almost by definition, the very structure of the new Pittsburgh demonstrates the impossibility of its being planned or directed.

Yes, large-scale resource investments at Pitt, at CMU, and at UPMC (and through Pitt, CMU, and UPMC) have had major impacts on the regional economy over the last 10-15 years. But those impacts have been recognized because of their small-scale, heterogeneous, distributed character. What was the biggest driver of the renewal of Lawrenceville (a leading renewed Pittsburgh neighborhood)? UPMC’s decision to relocate Children’s Hospital to that neighborhood. Why? Because of its spillover effects on street-level retail, restaurants, and real estate. The tech and retail cluster in and around Bakery Square was made possible by the redevelopment of the old Nabisco factory – after failed attempts to rehabilitate the factory as a factory, and with no specific, planned outcomes in terms of the business and retail cluster that would emerge.

Fourth, and last, focus on the dimension of that argument that has to do with people rather than with structure. That brings me back to Kevin Sousa.

There is a long-running debate in social theory (sociology, parts of economics, and so on) between the roles of social structure and organization, on the one hand, and individual agency, on the other hand, in understanding the character of society and how it changes. The truth is usually “some of both,” but emphasis matters at the margins (structure or agency?), and that emphasis can be translated into advice and forecasts. If society is suffering in some respect and improvement is warranted, do we put resources into new or different structures, or do we put resources into opportunities and capabilities for individual actors?

I am, for purposes of this topic, an “agency” person. I look around the Pittsburgh that I’ve lived in for the last decade and see the impacts of a large number of individuals. Call them entrepreneurs or innovators if you wish, but in many cases these are people who just get things done. They try things. Sometimes they fail. They get up and try again. The point of my 2005 Pittsblog/PG piece was that Pittsburgh needs to enable more of these people, with time, opportunity, money, partnerships, and so on.  (This New Venturist post from last September, by Greg Coticchia, makes many similar points.) These people are not following a Pittsburgh renewal game plan or guidance from the Allegheny Conference or anyone else. They are, in many cases, precisely the sorts of people (by neighborhood of birth, or by family or educational background, or otherwise) who would not be part of an Allegheny Conference planning process.

Kevin Sousa, native of McKees Rocks, is one of those people. I have never met Kevin Sousa, and it’s possible that he’s alienated as many people as he’s inspired. Innovators and entrepreneurs are often like that; they aim to succeed as much as they aim to be liked. That’s exactly why places like Pittsburgh need people like Kevin Sousa, even if people like Kevin Sousa fail as often as they succeed. Precisely because they try things, and because if people aren’t permitted to try things (if people aren’t encouraged, even), then good things may not happen. Bad things may not happen, either. But in advance, who knows which is which? Pittsburgh doesn’t need anyone to pick winners, and Pittsburgh isn’t where it is today because winners (people, or industries) were picked.

In short, I’m cheering for Kevin Sousa because Pittsburgh’s long history of the business and political elite telling the region what is good for it has come to an end — for better, rather than for worse. The storytellers at the Allegheny Conference won’t let their tale end without a fight, and that’s understandable. Celebrating the successes of that past is commendable, and sometimes it is even necessary. For much of the 20th century, Pittsburgh realized great things because of the ACCD’s leadership.

But the 21st century belongs to the rest of us.

3 thoughts on “In Pittsburgh: Kevin Sousa is Right!”

  1. “Almost by definition, the very structure of the new Pittsburgh demonstrates the impossibility of its being planned or directed.” This is so true. I applaud Kevin for giving it a shot. People who never had a chance are going to learn culinary work and have careeers. It has to start somewhere. Some good things will happen out of this. How many we don’t know, but someone is trying. “The ground up” is just as good way as any.

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