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Reinventing Pittsburgh: Part 2

The University of Pittsburgh's Center for Biotechnology and Bioengineering sits on the site of an old steel mill. It's an example of how the city transitioned away from its industrial past.
Zach Morris
Creative Commons
The University of Pittsburgh's Center for Biotechnology and Bioengineering sits on the site of an old steel mill. It's an example of how the city transitioned away from its industrial past.

When Dennis Yablonsky took over Pittsburgh's main development group last year, everyone was telling him it was time to brag.

"You know, we should be doing some kind of marketing campaign to let people know about Pittsburgh," people told him, "because you keep seeing those old images all the time."

The city had moved on from its smoggy steel mill days. How could he tell the world? Then, two months into his post at the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, anyone watching C-SPAN would have seen White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs entering the briefing room to announce this:

"The United States will host the next G-20 summit September 24th and 25th in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania," Gibbs told the press corps.

There's a pause and then the press corps laughs.

"Did I get a little murmur there?" Gibbs asked.

To Yablonsky, though, this was the jackpot.

"It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to get the message out," he said.

Finally, Pittsburgh was being held up as the post-industrial success story.

But to find out how the city got to this point, we have to go back: back before the new ventures, before the steel mills closed in the 80s, and even before the Steelers' Super Bowl streaks in the 70s.

This story starts just after World War II. People called it the "smokey city. "The steel mills were churning out half the country's steel.

You'd think the city would have been riding high. But Joel Tarr of Carnegie Mellon says all that success had a price.

"It was so bad that you had to have the street lights turned on at noon for a number of days during the winter and fall," said Tarr.

A film from the 1950s described the city this way:

"It was a grim city, a city you could taste in your mouth, a city that smarted in your eyes. Smoke blotted out the sun. It filled the lungs of every man, woman and child within its reach."

"There was tremendous concern about the future of the city," Tarr said.

Leaders from politics, business, universities and nonprofits all worried that the future of Pittsburgh was literally clouded by all the junk in the air. And, despite all their different interests and loyalties, these groups came together after the war to form the Allegheny Conference.

It's unclear who created it, but Professor Tarr says this combination was immensely powerful and started tackling the city's problems.

"I think that the Pittsburgh Renaissance, as it's called, is the first major effort by an industrial city really, not just in this country, but in the world, to improve itself significantly," said Tarr.

In the 1950s, the Allegheny Conference dramatically cleaned up Pittsburgh. Its work led to clean air and water rules and made the city livable.

That film from the 50s described the transformation this way:

"Today, Pittsburgh is no longer wrapped in the mist of its own making. Its rivers and skyscrapers can be seen from miles away by passengers of incoming planes."

Those passengers would see new parks and office towers going up downtown.

And, there was a lot of talk-very early on-about the kinds of things many industrial cities didn't think about until it was too late: a stagnant population, how to attract young people.

There were even early studies saying the economy needed more than just manufacturing.

But it wasn't until the 80s that those studies and partnerships were called to action. That's when the region lost 150,000 manufacturing jobs in just a few years. Don Smith of the Regional Industrial Development Corporation says the Allegheny Conference's past success was critical in the crisis.

"The fact that those relationships were already in place, that we had that experience of doing these partnerships, was fundamental in helping Pittsburgh respond to the economic dislocation that happened in the late 70s and early 80s," Smith said.

That's not to say this period wasn't one of hardship. There was plenty of soul-searching and cynicism. And, there was no guarantee that the Allegheny Conference or anything else was going to pull Pittsburgh back.

But something else was happening in the background.

Sabina Deitrick of the University of Pittsburgh says the city's colleges and companies were stepping up their research and development.

"That ends up being the basis of what develops into success in the latter part of the 20th century when the steel jobs on the mill sites disappear," Deitrick said.

The prominence of the universities only grew in the 1970s. Pitt became a biomedical powerhouse. It's now in the top 10 for government research grants.

Carnegie Mellon's president at the time had the foresight to make CMU a top place for computer science and robotics before most Americans even heard of a PC.

Don Smith says those decisions thirty years ago are paying off today.

"When you look at how many of the startup companies trace their roots back to the university either through tech transfer or through alumni and faculty starting companies, it's absolutely astonishing," said Smith.

The universities even have a formal partnership to help the economy through spin-offs and research.

Steve Lee runs Carnegie Mellon's architecture school. And, on a driving tour of the city, it becomes clear how all these elements actually work together to get things done.

Take, the Pittsburgh Technology Center that we visited in the first story: Until the early 80s, it was a steel mill.

Jones and Laughlin abandoned the property. A nonprofit development company took control.

The property rights were transferred to the Regional Industrial Development Corporation.

The Universities-working together-decided they wanted to develop the site.

But redeveloping a brownfield is risky so the nonprofits would absorb the loss if the project failed.

"People don't want to do new things or different things without the ability to take some risk out of the project," Lee said.

So with nonprofit backing, the universities opened biomedical and high tech research facilities.

"It's just like a shopping mall," said Lee. "You're looking for prime tenants."

The Universities in a sense became the anchor stores. And, in between, hundreds of people now work at private tech companies. It's a microcosm of the new Pittsburgh.

That's not to say there haven't been missteps says Bobby Vagt of the Heinz Endowments.

"We overstate if we say that Pittsburgh has avoided the foolishness of putting hundreds of millions of dollars into projects that were going to change the face of the city and didn't," Vagt said.

Pittsburgh built flashy stadiums and convention centers like many other Midwest cities.

There was also some luck in Pittsburgh's success. It missed both the housing boom and the bust, so it's not dealing with a glut of foreclosures like Cleveland and Detroit.

Real success, though, bubbles up from the bottom. Grant Oliphant of the Pittsburgh Foundation says his city eventually realized that.

"They stopped waiting for that silver bullet," he said. "It was waiting for that silver bullet that led to the depression."

This transformation from steel to new industries eventually made those those laughing journalists go from disbelief to amazement.

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