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In Defense of Pittsburgh

“In 1979, the Pirates won the World Series, the Steelers won the Super Bowl, and Pittsburgh Died. Industry and the job market collapsed, residents whose families lived in the city for generations left, and Pittsburgh had to figure out how to come to life again.” Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, in 2014.

Pittsburgh as a city wasn’t established until 1758, but the area has gone by many names throughout history. At first, the Native Americans called the upper Ohio valley home for thousands of years. After decades of tragic and bloody battles, European immigrants held a collection of settlements around Fort Pitt, which later became Pittsburgh.

In the mid 1700s, we were the first “Gateway to the West”, before St. Louis raised its arch, which was constructed using steel manufactured in Pittsburgh. Although back then, we were known more for our construction of boats and more famously, our whisky, not to mention the rebellion it sparked.

In the early 1800s, we were called “Iron City.” We possessed an assemblage of highly-coveted resources including coal, oil, and natural gas which we exported and burned to fuel our factories. The smog from which lead to our next nickname: “Smoky City.”

In the 1860s, the Civil War and expansion of railroads spurred our industrialization. We were a manufacturing mecca known as the “Steel City.” Industrialists such as Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, Charles M. Schwab, and Andrew Mellon built an empire. An alternate name was coined by novel writer and essayist James Parton: “Hell with the Lid Off.” Though we remained “Steel City” up until the 1980s.

On December 26th, 1982, Bethlehem Steel announced it was eliminating nearly 10,000 jobs by closing operations, and Pittsburgh became the poster child for a post-industrial wasteland (regardless of whether we wanted to be or not). This title of “Post-Industrial Wasteland” was added to our list of nicknames. The 1980s were cataclysmal for Pittsburgh’s once-thriving population, as well as that of the surrounding areas. The subsequent closings of numerous industries left its people with deep economic wounds. The 2,300 jobs that were cut in the Pennsylvania mill that Christmas devastated the nearby area of Johnstown, where unemployment was already at 20 percent. The unemployment rate reached its peak of 27 percent in some areas, with the statistic only dropping when thousands of workers left the region to find work wherever they could.

Pittsburgh struggled, and the wounds from those years run deep within the city streets. But the path to healing those wounds is not through a return to steel and coal industry. Pittsburgh instead, rose up from the soot, and became a leader in robotics, technology, art, and music, and we earned our new nickname: “The Comeback City.”

Somehow, big name politicians seem to miss the memo. Every four years, a parade of presidential candidates comes campaigning through the swing states, takes one look at the abandoned factories around us, and determines that we are a city still suffering from the results of the opposing party’s policies. Instead of looking at our thriving tech industry, ground-breaking science programs, or rich art scene, they turn our painful history into a tool to further their political agenda.

A recent example popped up when our commander-in-chief rolled into town before being elected, and appealed to the nostalgia of former workers.

“It’s Steel City, and when I’m president, guess what? Steel is coming back to Pittsburgh!” Donald Trump proclaimed to cheering crowds of constituents who still yearn for the time when blue-collar work provided a comfortable life for themselves and their families. It’s hard to blame them. Industries like steel and coal represent jobs and a route to the American dream. Tech companies like Duolingo and Uber are virtual world replacements for what they knew as high-school language courses and taxi cabs. In a progressive society, the jobs these tech behemoths provide are desirable and promising. But these jobs may not appeal to a crowd of former laborers at a political rally.

It’s not likely that anyone believes steel can become a major industry in Pittsburgh the way it used to be. More likely, they hold on to the idea the way a bitter ex holds onto texts from a former lover. They dream about a time when they were happy and secure, but even they know that the only direction to go is forward–to heal, and find security in something more promising. For the bitter ex, it’s a more suitable relationship. For the people of Pittsburgh, it’s our tech industry.

If politicians really cared about the people of Pittsburgh, rather than the raw history that lends itself as a persuasive argument for votes in the rust belt, they would invest in our future. Steel and coal are dying industries, and the last thing that Pittsburgh needs is a second industrial death. Even the factories themselves have moved on.

What is now the Warhol Museum was originally Frick & Lindsay Co. warehouse in 1911 as a distribution center for mills and mines to whom they sold supplies. The former Westinghouse Electricity site now houses Urban Tree, a shop that creates custom furniture from reclaimed trees. The factories on the Strip District were repurposed into artisan shops. George Westinghouse’s Air Brake Factory is now the Pittsburgh Opera House. What once was mattress factory is now a well-known art museum. A former foundry now provides luxury apartments. The “Almono,” a riverfront brownfield formerly occupied by Jones & Laughlin and LTV Steel is now the site where Uber is testing the world’s first self-driving cars.

If we were to bring steel back, either the new industries would be pushed out, or billions would be wasted on future brownfields when the industry inevitably dies out again. I’m not saying the repurposing of Pittsburgh comes without its flaws. Gentrification is a large problem, and steps do need to be taken to ensure that success in future industries isn’t limited to just those with privilege and the lucky few with money and resources. There are still parts of Pittsburgh that are hurting and have a long way to go before it’s no longer suffering from the loss of the steel mills. But here’s a thought: Let’s give Pittsburgh the credit and future it deserves. The people of Pittsburgh worked hard to pull itself up by the bootstraps and become the Most Livable City (six times over, according to The Economist, Forbes, and Places Rated Almanac).

Politicians, stop using our history to manipulate nostalgic voters. Instead, take the money that you promised to invest in bringing steel back, and use it to fund the industries and talent we worked hard to get. We don’t need politicians to Make Pittsburgh Great Again; we’ve already done that on our own volition. We want to Make Pittsburgh Even Better. For everyone.

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