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Pittsburgh and the Magic of Failure by Ben Schulman



In recent years, Pittsburgh has developed an almost exotic allure as a successfully reborn, recast city. Since its near complete collapse in the early 1980s, when 85,000 regional jobs were lost as the steel industry decayed, Pittsburgh has been shaking off demographic decline and slowly morphing into an updated version of its former self — if not as a manufacturing colossus, at least in terms of having thriving street-life, dense, small-scale development supported throughout its neighborhoods, and a sense of economic vibrancy. This percolating renewal culminated, or at least achieved validity, with President Obama's decision to place last year's G20 Summit in Pittsburgh.

Obama's decision to do so set off a small media frenzy about Pittsburgh's determined grit and resiliency, with odes from Newsweek, The Atlantic, and Forbes all heralding the rejuvenation of one of America's most overlooked urban jewels. Of course, the G20 boost was just landing on the tail end of a long-arc of reformation, as the New York Times had noted even earlier in 2009. On a recent visit just a few weeks ago to the city nestled at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, the amenities, vitality, and cultural options available seemed to be mammoth for a place of its size.

Walking through the Cultural District downtown, crossing the Sixth Street Bridge to the Pirates' PNC Park (adjacent to the Andy Warhol Museum), heading a bit north to the devastatingly beautiful Mexican War Streets Historic District (home to avant-art capital The Mattress Factory), crossing over to the hipster haven of Carson St on the South Side, exploring the teeming Old World-Bronx-circa-1950 feel of the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, scarfing down the overwhelming deliciousness of the Saturday morning open-air food market that is the Strip District, or randomly stumbling into a milonga during the Lawrenceville neighborhood's First Friday evening artwalks, it isn't easy not to get caught up in the Pittsburgh reincarnation story. (Not even mentioned: Oakland, home to Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh; Shadyside, the host to some of the most impressive homes anywhere in the country, and many other neighborhoods of the 89 distinct 'hoods that make up Pittsburgh proper.)

Like any place, the book on Pittsburgh is yet complete. Despite its successes, the city is saddled with a looming pension crisis in which more pensioners are due out money than there are currently city workers paying into the fund. The results of the 2010 census will again show a hefty population decline within the city limits, and the region has shown- up until recently- little growth in terms of international and domestic migration. But unlike places like Detroit or Cleveland, where a slow, spiraling decline of industry and population are exacerbating underlying dysfunctional conditions and dependency on old models of growth, Pittsburgh is undergoing a peculiar demographic turnover wherein more people are dying within the city than are being born and/or moving in at present.

Hence, the city is molting, literally discarding the remnants of its past. When the process is complete, which looks very close to occurring, the city left behind will be in some respects, a new, shining city on (many) hill(s). And an incredibly educated one at that, vying with Washington D.C. for the largest proportion of young adults aged 25-34 with post-graduate degrees. Pittsburgh booster and Burgh Diaspora blogger Jim Russell has been an incredibly insightful and influential voice when discussing Pittsburgh's structural strengths that bode well for its future. Noting the large amount of students from its universities and colleges moving in-and-out of town, Russell has posited that Pittsburgh's constant shuffling out-migration of students is actually an asset to the region. Much in the same fashion that cities like Chicago and New York consistently draw in and spit out people, Pittsburgh, on a smaller scale, now has the opportunity to do the same, keeping the homegrown ideas, businesses and most importantly networks, in place. After all, a globalized economy will lead to cities with a globalized network, regardless of actual population size. In other words, less could be more in this case.

This article however isn't intended merely to be a love letter to Pittsburgh and its champions. Nor is it to say that Pittsburgh is even necessarily an appropriate model for struggling, formerly manufacturing-oriented cities in need of what urbanist Richard Florida, a former Pittsburgher himself, has called "The Great Reset." The lesson to be gleamed from Pittsburgh isn't so much in what steps it's taken on its way to recovery. Rather, the lesson to be learned from Pittsburgh is what happened to it when its Great Recession hit in 1983.

It failed.

The steel collapse decimated Pittsburgh and its region, taking with it nearly 1 out of every 10 jobs there. Entire towns surrounding the city became obsolete. But it is because of that failure, that absolute bottoming-out, that Pittsburgh has been able to cast aside its past and emerge as a unique showcase of what a small, bustling, connected American city can eventually become. The example of Pittsburgh is to fail on the failures and invest in the attributes- granted, of which the 'Burgh had many, in its beautiful architecture, old establishment money, intact communities and ethnic organizations, and cultural trusts and universities- that a place already has. It is a tale not so much for cities facing similar problems to the Pittsburgh of 30 years past, as it is for the country as a whole in this stage of national transmogrification.

Like Pittsburgh did, the country needs to realize that failure is an option. Failure can be a catalyst for movement and for action. Failure can be a paradoxical assertion of American greatness. It is time for great structural changes that reinvest in our national attributes- granted, of which America has many, in its beautiful architecture, old establishment money, intact communities and ethnic organizations, and cultural trusts and universities- rather than band-aiding failed foreclosure prevention policies.

The current crisis could be used to rewrite the rules in regards to short-sales, allowing underwater homeowners to sell their properties without being penalized, as they are now by having the forgiven loan amount treated as taxable income. By freeing sellers from this penalty, in effect, the mobility of individuals to go where opportunities are increases, and the housing market loosens. As the aforementioned Richard Florida has mentioned, perhaps now is the time to get rid of the tax deduction for mortgage interest and enable the country to settle into new modes of habitation. Let's let Detroit shrink. Bring back the Public Option. We could radically alter the political landscape of the country for the benefit of all by adopting Neil Freeman from's Electoral Reform Map. By doing so, and combining logical population distributions into political constituencies, the increasingly marginalized communities that currently comprise our States could be eliminated, moving us past the versus mentality that simply infects the country and its politics to the point of stagnation.

There are many, many intriguing, innovative and encouraging ideas floating out there, and our collective fear of failure is the only thing preventing the nation from remedying itself anew. Maybe it's time to look towards Pittsburgh, a magnificent failure that now seems to be a wondrous place to do business in, a place to create in, a place to live. Riding the steep funicular incline to rest atop the city's Mt. Washington neighborhood, and taking in the vista of its Golden Triangle, some could even say a place of magic.

This post originally appeared at Gapers Block. Reprinted with permission.