Beyond Bettis: Detroit and Pittsburgh

Sure, we’ve got Hines and Jerome, Troy and Ben. And hey – go Steelers! — for some of us, that might be enough. But there’s much more to sports-crazy Pittsburgh which, and surely this is not news to you by now, loves its football team with a passion reserved for only sons. We’re also deeply passionate about our city.

Once an industrial behemoth dubbed hell with the lid off, Pittsburgh is thriving today as a clean and scenic place with rolling hills, our trademark three rivers, and not a smokestack in sight. Across the river, the striking downtown view from Mt. Washington’s lookout was recently rated by USA Today as one of the top 5 in the country.

It’s just one measure of how far we’ve come.

So, Detroit, as news of layoffs hit your beleaguered city, know there’s hope. For we have known crippling unemployment, skies darkened by pollution and an ever-dwindling downtown.  Hundreds of thousands of jobs lost? We hear you. Who could ever have envisioned a Pittsburgh without steel?

Maybe that’s why we love those diehard Steelers. We can relate, especially this year when they wrote us off in mid-season. As the wild card team, no one dreamed we’d make the Super Bowl and why would they? We were seeded sixth. But then we did the unthinkable and beat Cincinnati. (Ha!) And then we beat Indianapolis. (Double ha!) And then we beat Denver. (Whoa!) The top 3 teams. In a row. On the road. Wearing our white good-guy shirts for God’s sake. The odds were stacked against us and we beat them.

Pittsburgh loves this kind of story because we’ve lived it.

When it comes to transformations, this city is the Super Bowl champ. No American city has suffered the cratering of an industry like we did. (For your sake, we hope we keep this dubious title.) And in a kind of reverse play, none has reinvented itself on the same level as we have.

As corporations downsized, so did Pittsburgh. It was sad to watch and it was hard to listen to all those naysayers. But then something amazing and unexpected unfolded. In the process of right-sizing over the past few decades, we found new opportunities and all kinds of potential for growth and rebounding. Luckily, along the way we had strong leadership (our late mayor, Dick Caliguiri in the 1970s) and all sectors of the community willing to fight for us — then and now.

Today Pittsburgh is a great place to live. It’s a small big city with all the advantages of a larger city — culturally, may I just say we’re kicking butt? — and far fewer problems. Our commute is short. It’s easy to network here and get in the loop. We have world-class universities and hospitals. A music and art scene that’s exploding. Really friendly people (we can’t stress this enough). Neighborhood bars where you can drink the legendary shot and beer as well as first-rate  museums and restaurants, scads of coffee houses and a long list of wide-ranging cultural events every week to choose from. And, oh yeah, a Super Bowl team.

How did we turn things around? Teamwork and a lot of fighting for what we believed in. We’re a lot like our football team in that regard.

Where some saw problems — abandoned factories — others saw opportunities. Artists loved the cheap, raw and gritty spaces in Lawrenceville and began moving in. It’s now the 16:62 Design Zone, a mecca for artists and architects, designers and craftsmen. The  long-gone-cold steel mill in Homestead morphed into the Waterfront, a huge mixed-use complex that is held up as a national model of brownfield (and infill) development within the retail industry. Throughout every part of the city, determined organizations saved and renovated treasured buildings which helped revitalize neighborhoods, one of our greatest assets, and create small businesses.

 The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, which pushed for the development of the impressive 14-block cultural district downtown, is now spearheading the massive residential complex next door. Suddenly, downtown residential housing is booming. As for those long blocks of blighted downtown buildings along Fifth Avenue, we’re working on that. PNC Bank just announced the new $170 million skyscraper with condos, a hotel, offices and retail.  
And of course we have the new Heinz stadium and beautiful new PNC ballpark, with  exceptional city views, that line the Allegheny River. That, too, was the result of civic leaders influencing change.  

It helps that, next to Seattle and their Gates Foundation, we have the most foundation dollars per person of anywhere in the country. The Heinz Endowments (we can’t possibly be grateful enough) was behind the design competition for the new convention center, now the largest green building, if not also the most stunning, in the country. They’re also helping to fund the Riverlife Task Force which is creating a necklace of bike and walking trails along the waterfront as they take back our rivers. All over the city, individuals and groups, big and small, are giving new life to education and art, social enterprise and cultural ventures. Converting industrial buildings into condos and lofts. Adding green space and improving public parks. Working for diversity. It’s inspiring.

Here’s another measure of how far we’ve come: Weeks ago, Google announced they were establishing an office here. Why Pittsburgh? The talent they recruited from Carnegie Mellon agreed to run the office but they didn’t want to leave town. Score!

If there’s any lesson in here for Detroit, maybe it’s this: refuse to give up and don’t listen to the negative faction clinging to the past. No matter how low you go — and we were limbo-low — you can rise again. Life is cyclical and at any stage of the game, there are  always plenty of problems. You hear about those all the time, of course, but not nearly as much about the good things. One thing we’ve learned is to keep an eye on the ball—the future, that is.  

 This year, for instance, we landed the All-Star game. Cool, huh? But not as wonderful as what you’ve got right now:  the glorious, awesome, be-all and end-all sporting event of the year: the Super Bowl. We’re simply thrilled to be in it. And for this week, we swear, there’s no place on earth but Detroit where we’d rather be. Go Steelers. And — hey, go Detroit!

Tracy Certo is a Pittsburgh-based writer and editor of Pop City, Model D's soon-to-be sister publication there.

Downtown Pittsburgh Skyline with Bridges

Downtown Pittsburgh

The Andy Warhol Museum

The new Convention Center

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger