Getting to Know Pittsburgh: The City Has Embraced Me ... and Now the World?


Sep 19, 2009

This commentary originally appeared in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on September 19, 2009.

For once, my timing was impeccable. In the year since I moved to Pittsburgh from Southern California, it's become clear that I unwittingly chose the perfect moment in history to come here. What an exhilarating year for Pittsburgh this has been: a Super Bowl victory, an Elite Eight slot for Pitt b-ball, the Stanley Cup, the top ranking among U.S. cities by The Economist and selected by President Barack Obama as the site for the G-20 summit next week.

To the surprise of my anxious family, the winter was quite tolerable (except for the couple of days our icy driveway defeated our SUV). Spring was short but lovely, summer not nearly as oppressively humid as we expected. And we're relieved to be missing the wildfires that can erupt in the hot, dry Western summers and that currently rage far too close to our former home in Southern California.

The kids are on soccer teams they like and settled happily in their new schools. My husband is making the connections he's been seeking in the entrepreneurial world. And the dog is just thrilled with the wildlife that frequents our yard. Phew! This move thing seems to be working out after all.

As a newcomer I can offer little more than first impressions, but I've lived in other places and traveled enough, nationally and abroad, to know that Pittsburgh offers a quality of life that is the envy of many. As with many locales, Pittsburghers don't always appreciate what they've got.

On a flight to Pittsburgh last fall, upon overhearing me saying that I was about move to Pittsburgh, a 20-something in the next row loudly interjected, "Moving to Pittsburgh? DON'T DO IT!" triggering a planeful of laughter.

A new acquaintance in Pittsburgh, upon learning that we had just arrived, offered up, in all apparent seriousness, the business card of his psychoanalyst. My former fellow Los Angelinos complain about their own town, too, but tend maybe to be a bit more balanced, bragging about the sunny skies while admitting that the traffic is indeed a nightmare.

Pittsburgh's charms are in fact abundant, as my organization, the RAND Corp., well knows. We selected Pittsburgh as our third major U.S. location almost a decade ago. The selection process was just what those who know RAND would expect—careful and comprehensive, analyzed from all angles, including of course an abundance of metrics, charts and figures. Now that a few prominent rating systems have put Pittsburgh at the top of their lists, Pittsburghers themselves may well appreciate what we at RAND have concluded: Pittsburgh really is something pretty special.

A striking characteristic of the city is how genuinely warm and welcoming are Pittsburgh's people. I could fill this page with illustrations—dinner invitations from friends of friends of people I'd just met, generous introductions to movers and shakers in business and social circles—treatment that only Hollywood celebrities can expect in Los Angeles.

I should say that Pittsburgh at times seems designed for those already in the know. A few examples: School team tryouts that aren't posted or announced, perhaps assuming parents will relay the news by word-of-mouth. Directions on a printed invitation to a fund-raiser that instruct you to park "at the former Sportsworks parking lot," which is completely mystifying to someone who came long after Sportworks (whatever it was) disappeared.

Too many intersections lack street signs, or have street signs that don't match maps or have street signs that don't match the formal addresses of the buildings. Now, honestly, Pittsburgh doesn't have to be an impossible place to navigate. Cities like Los Angeles, knowing that they thrive on an influx of new residents, make it easier, in a few aspects at least, for newcomers to call the place home.

Many leaders of Pittsburgh, like their counterparts in other cities, clearly yearn for progress. The emergence from a steel economy to one more broadly based—and increasingly green—is impressive. But some areas, such as riverfront development, seem not to have progressed as quickly as one might have hoped.

No question, redeveloping Pittsburgh's riverfronts is an enormous task, and some impressive projects have been completed. Going forward, I know that thoughtful plans for the transformation of the three rivers and their banks exist, along with passionate advocates for those plans. And I realize that redevelopment is tied inextricably with economic prospects, which have been muted for quite a while. Nonetheless, that so much riverfront property harks back to the steel-mill days highlights the enormous amount of work still to be done.

Some of the most economically vibrant places in the world not only tolerate change, but embrace it. Pittsburgh's ability to do the same will prove either to be its Achilles Heel or, more likely I suspect, its economic development calling card.

That's why I think next week's G-20 summit could be a stirring event for the city. As the event approaches, excitement and anxiety grow side-by-side. Political and civic leaders have been working hard to explain to Pittsburghers why hosting this event is going to prove to be good for us, and to explain to the world why Pittsburgh was a good choice.

Of course, the two are related. Showcasing Pittsburgh's economic transformation will be good for the city only if we can leverage the national and international attention into additional business growth, more opportunities for the local workforce, an influx of new talent—all of which depend on a city culture that continues to embrace change.

And newcomers.

Susan Everingham is the director of the Pittsburgh office of the RAND Corp., a nonprofit public-policy research and analysis organization.

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