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#Pittsburgh Needs Bodies

20,000 new residents for the City of Pittsburgh by 2025? Mayor Bill Peduto aims low, but that’s not the real problem in the newly-released “Welcoming Pittsburgh” plan. [Welcoming Pittsburgh plan here.] Still, I’ll start with that. According to Aesop, the mountain labored and brought forth a mouse. But like many recovering industrial cities, Pittsburgh may have to get used to hoping to meet low expectations. Over and over again.

Back when I was writing Pittsblog, immigration and what I called “population churn” were favorite and frequent topics on that blog, linking population turnover (not necessarily population growth) to economic development and diversification. Samples:

In other words: Everything old is new again. The Mayor’s Office and the Downtown Powers-That-Be have re-discovered something that lots of people who are better informed than I am have known for a long time: Whatever the future of Pittsburgh may bring, the people who live here right now will need a lot of help in bringing it about.

You’re going to need a bigger boat.

20,000 people over 10 years? And that’s new residents; that’s not even a net increase. As Rich Overmoyer wrote earlier, how about 200,000? Aim high, Mr. Mayor.

The Mayor’s initial (campaign) focus was not on bringing immigrants to Pittsburgh but instead on keeping local grads here and on capturing the imagination of the Pittsburgh Diaspora and bringing *that* home. The new “Welcoming” plan, I’m happy to say, seems not to take that route — at least not explicitly.

But the plan largely ignores the relevant economic picture, which is, to say the least, not rosy. “Pittsburgh’s tech economy may be on the rise, but the higher tide hasn’t been enough to lift the overall startup ecosystem. …
For the second year in a row, the region ranked dead last among the nation’s 40 largest metropolitan areas in terms of startup activity, according to the 2015 Kauffman Index. In addition, the city finished 39th in producing new entrepreneurs, with an average of 150 of every 100,000 adults taking the plunge every month compared to 550 per 100,000 in top-ranked Austin, Texas.” [Post-Gazette story, reporting on a new Kauffman Foundation report.] Local economic development organizations are disappointed that their efforts have not borne more fruit, but the data are entirely consistent with Pittsburgh’s long-standing low rates of new and small business formation. Don’t forget the continuing drumbeat of reports that emphasize the region’s continuing struggles with poverty.

New residents are most likely to move to places where they and their families can find jobs, start businesses, and otherwise build sustainable lives for themselves. [Link to Kauffman Foundation report on entrepreneurship rates among immigrants.] Yes, as the “Welcoming” plan points out, Pittsburgh can do many things to make new residents and immigrants feel welcome and participate in civic life. But the most important thing that it can do is provide them with meaningful economic opportunity. The plan doesn’t talk much about that.

I know: Talking about economic opportunity as directly as I’d like seems to run headlong into a core Pittsburgh socio-political imperative, which is that the community (broadly defined) can’t reach out to increase immigration numbers or improve the lives of the relatively few immigrants who live here unless the community simultaneously improves the lives of the people who are already here. There are plenty of people already living in Pittsburgh who need help. The Mayor’s Office, launching the outreach that led to the recent “Welcoming” plan, wrote: “As part of the Mayor’s vision to grow Pittsburgh’s population by 20,000 new residents over the next 10 years, and to do right by those currently living in the city, the Welcoming Pittsburgh Advisory Council has been working to draft a plan that will help make Pittsburgh more welcoming and to build a more livable city for all of its residents.” That’s politics, not policy. Which is not to deny the need that exists in Pittsburgh. But ignoring the fact that bringing in new people requires creating economic opportunity for them is a political form of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.

Back to my initial point about the limited scale of the “Welcoming” plan. 20,000 new residents over 10 years? It’s conceivable that during that time the city and region will be pushed to build infrastructural resources (social, physical, economic) that will help the area transition soundly and economically into its next 75 years. But it’s more likely, I think, that 20,000 people will be such a drop in the population bucket that no one will be better off. The folks who drafted the “Welcoming” plan, and the Downtown Powers-That-Be, can pat themselves on the back for having said the right civic-minded thing.

I used to talk with Pittsburgh friends about the challenge of changing the collective psychology of an entire community. How could one imagine persuading Pittsburgh as a place to think differently about itself, as a way to getting Pittsburgh to accept the need to build a new future and then go about the task?

Even before I started Pittsblog back in 2004, I was curious about the disconnect between Pittsburgh’s amazing heritage, history, and collection of industrial, cultural, education, and financial resources — and its clearly stagnant economy. I was struck by the contrast between the hostility to the new that I found in such an incredibly textured place and the economic vibrancy of my native Silicon Valley, which has an obtuse disregard for history, culture, and community but which is relentless in its openness to novelty — new ideas, new people, new everything.

Over the life of Pittsblog, I eventually came to the conclusion that my interest in collective psychology led me to pose an impossible and wrong question. No one can get a city or region to think differently about itself; the people who live there think as they do for all sorts of historical, social, cultural, and economic reasons. And those things don’t change.

What does change are the identities of the people themselves. Hundreds of thousands of people, many of them Pittsburgh’s best and brightest, left the area during the 1980s. The people who stayed were committed to Pittsburgh (note the several meanings of “committed,” there). Should those people change their beliefs, their hopes, their commitments, and their attitudes — then, or now? I doubt it. Not only “should” they not, they literally cannot, not in any large numbers. Over time, some of them pass on, some of them leave. New people are born and raised here, they move in and out, and new people move in. They bring new attitudes and cultures with them. In Pittsburgh’s sexier, hipper neighborhoods today, in general you don’t see populations of current residents waking up and realizing that they were doing it wrong before. You see new people moving in and doing new things. Some long-time residents participate in that. The best of all of these groups blend the existing and the new – business, culture, building, civic practice. That’s how the psychology of a place changes. Like it or not, new people bring change with them.

The best thing about the new “Welcoming” plan is that in some indirect sense, it gets this point: The City needs to participate in change. If the City does a good job of that, it can contribute meaningfully to building a future for the region; otherwise, as we’ve learned to say, we get the passive “it is what it is.” The plan gets that change is cultural. And the plan gets that change both involves and requires bringing new people to the community. In deep and important ways, current residents are invested in the lives and neighborhoods that they’ve already built.

But — the deep “but” — when the plan focuses on welcome centers and making new residents feel as comfortable as existing ones, then building systems and infrastructures around those shared attitudes, the plan doesn’t have the courage of its own convictions. It’s possible to embrace the new, encourage the new, and manage the change that results when the commmunity reaches out in substantial ways to bring new people in. The full impact and benefit of that process can’t and won’t be realized if priority goes to making everyone feel culturally comfortable first.

Invest in economic opportunity. Build infrastructures to support that, and encourage, welcome, and accept current residents, the Disapora, immigrants, and all others who want to participate in it. People will most definitely come.