Pittsburgh: The Political Makeover of a Rust Belt City

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The Political Makeover of a Rust Belt City
Pittsburgh finally banished the old boys' network—but it took a generation.
By JIM O’TOOLE
February 04, 2014

On Jan. 10, his fourth day as Pittsburgh’s new mayor, Bill Peduto told a left-leaning crowd that his very arrival heralded a new dawn. “There has become a chasm, a canyon, between the haves and the have-nots,” he said. “Tuesday, Pittsburgh changed from an old boys’ network city to a progressive city.”

That may have been premature, and a bit self-congratulatory, but it was not too far off the mark. The city has changed, but in recovering from the steel bust and the crackup of the old order, the old boys’ club that steered the city through the bad times has faded. Gone are the days when a small group of white men could sit in the Duquesne Club downtown and hash out the city’s future; the industrial labor unions that for years dominated urban machine politics here have a less privileged seat at the table. Pittsburgh’s political world today is much more multipolar, with new groups competing for the resources of a government that continues to struggle financially despite the region’s overall economic turnaround.

The newer political players include most prominently the powerful “eds and meds” community—the universities and hospitals that long ago surpassed manufacturing as the region’s largest employers. Service unions have taken a place alongside the city’s traditional labor establishment, while brainy high-tech entrepreneurs, foundation executives and neighborhood groups vying for development dollars all jostle for position as they press the new city administration to back their priorities.

As for party politics, Pittsburgh is still an overwhelmingly Democratic town. The city hasn’t elected a Republican as mayor or even as a council member since before the Depression. Its Democratic Party still has an active structure of ward and committee officers. But the party’s clout has waned over the last generation, as have the influences of the industrial unions, the Roman Catholic Church and other large organizations that once provided an unchallenged and seemingly unchanging civic structure.

The city’s political shifts reflect the dramatic demographic changes of an old city getting younger—and helped produce it. Peduto, an enthusiastic 49-year-old former councilman who tweets almost as much as Cory Booker, ran on appeals to “the new Pittsburgh.” He embraced a trendy, bottom-up, community-based approach to development, in contrast to rule of power brokers that have characterized much of the city’s history. At the same time, he has forged alliances with the city’s large foundation community, whose resources are the heritage of the 19th-century fortunes of the industrialists who once made it the Steel City.

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I'm neither Democrat or Republican, but is this a potential lesson for St. Louis?

Is it time to push a "New St. Louis"?
First thoughts upon seeing this thread and that picture:

What a painful contrast between this picture and the one someone posted recently of downtown through the cables of our new bridge. Our downtown just can't compete visually with so many smaller cities. Frustrating. Also must be nice to be smaller market and know your 3 sport town status is not in jeopardy.

Tangents aside, this approach to collaborative decision making that boxes out antiquated psyches sounds very beneficial to STL.
What a painful contrast between this picture and the one someone posted recently of downtown through the cables of our new bridge.


A lot of it I think is that the Mississippi is so much larger of a river that it visually dwarfs anything near it. Plus the new bridge is a mile and a half from the downtown riverfront. Compare that Pittsburgh photo to views of Minneapolis from the Hennepin, 10th Ave, and Stone Arch bridges, where the river is also narrow, there are bluffs, and all three bridges (and more) go directly into downtown and both sides of the river are built up and inviting. If you want views like in Pittsburgh, there are a lot of geographic features working against it.
^Agree, but that doesn't make it any more palatable. I'd include Cincinnati on your list too. Add to that the Arch grounds essentially ruining density proximal to the river and our ancillary downtown a few miles west.

I get tired of trying to explain to people why downtown is so "small" compared to other smaller cities/metros.
St. Louis' downtown is bigger than Cincinnati's, although Over-the-Rhine is an incredibly cool urban district (had STL not bulldozed Mill Creek Valley, it would be equally as impressive). However pathetic it is, we still have Laclede's Landing. Cincinnati's original riverfront district was wiped out completely.
The view from the new bridge may be sub par but the view from the PSB is awesome (at least looking to your right) I don't think its so much that downtown is small I think its that the Arch is so damn big it dwarfs everything else. Most people don't really get how big it actually is, or the river for that matter, since a lot of people assume the arch spans the river.
Back to Pittsburgh, do they just do a better job of marketing themselves in general? They lost around the same percentage of population in the naughts as we did, yet the perception for some time has been this is a city that is getting it done while not so much for us. Is there something real behind all the hype or do they just get the message of progress out better?
roger wyoming II wrote:
Back to Pittsburgh, do they just do a better job of marketing themselves in general? They lost around the same percentage of population in the naughts as we did, yet the perception for some time has been this is a city that is getting it done while not so much for us. Is there something real behind all the hype or do they just get the message of progress out better?


Pittsburgh has a much lower crime rate than St. Louis, which I think helps its national perception (and contrary to our region's default excuse, it's not because St. Louis is only 61 square miles. Pittsburgh's city boundaries are only 55 sq. miles).
^ correctomundo.... I don't really care what the crime rate is in any particular city or region.... just tell me what it is in the core. Our high crime rate is in large part a reflection of our extreme abandonment of large parts of our city and rapid sprawl in a slow-growth region. Trying to soften this reality by saying in effect, "well, if you bring in the entire region from O'Fallon, Illinois and O'Fallon, Missouri and beyond we're doing great!" Gimme a break!

As for broader messaging, though, I think there is something more to it. We're starting to see some good national stories about Cortex and venture funding, but perhaps its just our slowness in starting these types of things which we should have begun years ago that have cemented a reputation as a city mired in rust. I also believe from personal experience we may suffer more from having a greater degree of Saint Louis City haters in our region that say in Cleveland or Pittsburgh, where there seems to be greater civic boosting even from those who may have left the city. Sure there are going to be trolls commenting online about how Cleveland stinks and will always stink, but in general there seems to be more rooting for the Comeback City success story than here.
roger-- I don't necessarily think it's true that Cleveland and Pittsburgh have more boosters and fewer detractors than St. Louis. I have spent quite a bit of time in both cities, and in my experience, the defeatist attitude is especially pervasive in Cleveland, even moreso I think than in St. Louis. Pittsburgh may not have as many haters, but they don't seem particularly boastful about the city either.
I can't say for Pittsburgh, but I've definitely perceived more hate directed towards STL City from within the region that in Cleveland. Maybe its just me, but there really isn't a pervasive feeling that if you come downtown you're risking life or limb or eyebrows raised if you say you live in Cleveland proper. Things may have changed in more recent years since I've been there, but my perception was that while there is a lot of doubt about the future of the region and the city, there is pretty strong we're all in this together mentality. Maybe there is a stronger sense of defeatism or resignation than here, but I just don't see the city hate at the same level.

Certainly looking at online comments at stltoday.com or cleveland.com is not a scientific way to measure civic pride as most commenters at these types of sites are old geezers who want you off their lawn but looking at this recent story on how the loss of the Continental hub sets back the Comeback Cleveland storyline makes me wonder how quickly the comments would have devolved into how much the city stinks and general race baiting if it were Saint Louis.

http://www.cleveland.com/naymik/index.s ... to_ki.html

Sure there are a few negative comments about the city but overall its a measured discussion and most criticism is directed at politicians, etc. and not how the city is only filled with people who want to shoot you.
Can't argue with that, roger! I am embarrassed to share a metro area with the STLtoday-commenting nutjobs.
Politico had an accompanying story to the political makeover about The Robots that Saved Pittsburgh:
http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/ ... vkkg2JdXp0
(note that this is sponsored content)

Very interesting article that is great for comparison to Saint Louis. We do have a lot in common and in many ways a very similar story could have been written for us, however it does appear that Pittsburgh is a few years ahead of us.... they apparently are gaining population again and started its commitment to a more diversified, high-tech economy earlier than we did. But I'm hopeful we'll see the same success stories as well.

One thing Pittsburgh benefits from is a lot more college students. Carnegie-Mellon and Duquesne are their WashU and SLU, but they also have a huge, rather prestigious state school (Pitt) which we just don't have. (They also have Art Institute housed downtown in a historic building as well as a dorm.) Missouri needs to put more resources into higher ed and it would be nice to make a bold move to establish downtown campuses for both UMSL and Missouri S&T. Railway Exchange could be a perfect spot.
roger wyoming II wrote:
Politico had an accompanying story to the political makeover about The Robots that Saved Pittsburgh:
http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/ ... vkkg2JdXp0
(note that this is sponsored content)

Very interesting article that is great for comparison to Saint Louis. We do have a lot in common and in many ways a very similar story could have been written for us, however it does appear that Pittsburgh is a few years ahead of us.... they apparently are gaining population again and started its commitment to a more diversified, high-tech economy earlier than we did. But I'm hopeful we'll see the same success stories as well.

One thing Pittsburgh benefits from is a lot more college students. Carnegie-Mellon and Duquesne are their WashU and SLU, but they also have a huge, rather prestigious state school (Pitt) which we just don't have. (They also have Art Institute housed downtown in a historic building as well as a dorm.) Missouri needs to put more resources into higher ed and it would be nice to make a bold move to establish downtown campuses for both UMSL and Missouri S&T. Railway Exchange could be a perfect spot.


This is a great article roger! Hope you don't mind if I requote it for the urban theory thread eventually. :D

I've visited Pittsburgh a few times too and honestly, the first thing you notice about the city is how many young people there are wandering around. On the streets, in the restaurants, in the neighborhoods, everywhere! It just seems more lively than much of St. Louis is, despite our shared rust belt past. It is also ahead of us in high tech development and has a major Google office (which despite rumors, doesn't seem to be happening here yet) This is what happens when a city is dense (sprawl limited due to geography) and has a huge state college in it.

It would be highly desirable if St. Louis built up a major state college within its boundaries and while it would take decades before it built up the sort of reputation that even a new large state college like VCU has today, and probably a century before could reach the significance of Pitt, its much better to get the ball rolling now rather than later.
I've lived in both regions (Pittsburgh and St. Louis) and I think that while they do have a lot of similarities, there are a lot of differences too. Quite honestly (and I know I am risking a lot of outcry by even vocalizing this), I think the biggest difference, politically, is the way that racial issues weigh so heavily on every discussion here. Not to say they do not in Pittsburgh, but not to the extent they do here. Yes, there's a lot of historical background to justify this, but nonetheless, IM(very)HO, sometimes it seems racial issues here take center stage on every single discussion about progress in St. Louis.

Tying that in with the gist of the article, could a "Political Makeover" like the one described in the article occur in St. Louis? Maybe, but I think there would be a whole lot of wrangling over racial issues, muddying the conversation and slowing progress. Should racial issues be ignored? Absolutely, positively not. I am just saying that sometimes they shouldn't be at the forefront of every major discussion like they seem to be in StL quite frequently. Hopefully a new generation will be able to move past that.
^I agree.

I think a lot of St. Louis' socio-economic problems and stagnation comes back to race, however, some people in St. Louis don't want to hear it. By the way, I love visiting Pittsburgh.

Cities that have seriously addressed inclusion i.e. racial, gender, religious and sexual-orientation disparities have been able to move forward and develop better economies - despite being imperfect. For example, Houston and Atlanta have had their racial problems - as well as Dallas - but what has caused those cities to move somewhat beyond their racial problems, in my opinion, has been leadership.

For highly-diverse cities, "Kumbayah" tends to work, in my opinion. The more citizens are united, the better-off a city seems to be. I believe once St. Louis becomes more "international" (without steering), it will see a vast improvement too.

Racial problems, unfortunately, are entrenched in the fabric of America so sadly we will always have racial problems on some level. But...how cities and regions address the problem of inclusion is what catapults them to a whole different level.
justme123 wrote:
I've lived in both regions (Pittsburgh and St. Louis) and I think that while they do have a lot of similarities, there are a lot of differences too. Quite honestly (and I know I am risking a lot of outcry by even vocalizing this), I think the biggest difference, politically, is the way that racial issues weigh so heavily on every discussion here. Not to say they do not in Pittsburgh, but not to the extent they do here. Yes, there's a lot of historical background to justify this, but nonetheless, IM(very)HO, sometimes it seems racial issues here take center stage on every single discussion about progress in St. Louis.

Tying that in with the gist of the article, could a "Political Makeover" like the one described in the article occur in St. Louis? Maybe, but I think there would be a whole lot of wrangling over racial issues, muddying the conversation and slowing progress. Should racial issues be ignored? Absolutely, positively not. I am just saying that sometimes they shouldn't be at the forefront of every major discussion like they seem to be in StL quite frequently. Hopefully a new generation will be able to move past that.


Pittsburgh's racial tension is not so pronounced because Pittsburgh's African American population is only about a quarter of the city (quite a small percentage compared to other old industrial cities). I mean, there are a lot of cities like Portland, Seattle, Denver, Minneapolis, Austin, etc. where race doesn't seem to weigh as heavily. But then you realize that their minority population is comparatively minuscule and the context becomes a lot clearer. They simply don't have the same dynamics at play, period.
But then you realize that their minority population is comparatively minuscule and the context becomes a lot clearer.


not minorities in general, but specifically their Af-Am populations.
stlgasm wrote:
justme123 wrote:
I've lived in both regions (Pittsburgh and St. Louis) and I think that while they do have a lot of similarities, there are a lot of differences too. Quite honestly (and I know I am risking a lot of outcry by even vocalizing this), I think the biggest difference, politically, is the way that racial issues weigh so heavily on every discussion here. Not to say they do not in Pittsburgh, but not to the extent they do here. Yes, there's a lot of historical background to justify this, but nonetheless, IM(very)HO, sometimes it seems racial issues here take center stage on every single discussion about progress in St. Louis.

Tying that in with the gist of the article, could a "Political Makeover" like the one described in the article occur in St. Louis? Maybe, but I think there would be a whole lot of wrangling over racial issues, muddying the conversation and slowing progress. Should racial issues be ignored? Absolutely, positively not. I am just saying that sometimes they shouldn't be at the forefront of every major discussion like they seem to be in StL quite frequently. Hopefully a new generation will be able to move past that.


Pittsburgh's racial tension is not so pronounced because Pittsburgh's African American population is only about a quarter of the city (quite a small percentage compared to other old industrial cities). I mean, there are a lot of cities like Portland, Seattle, Denver, Minneapolis, Austin, etc. where race doesn't seem to weigh as heavily. But then you realize that their minority population is comparatively minuscule and the context becomes a lot clearer. They simply don't have the same dynamics at play, period.


Exactly, St. Louis is barely a top 20 city in metropolitan population, but it probably rounds out the top 10 in Afro-American populations, it has a noticeably larger black population that Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, and looks like a chocolate city in comparison to Minneapolis, Denver, Portland. Pretty much every old line city with a relatively large black inner city population is going to have these overwhelming racial tensions. Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Baltimore, Philadelphia etc. I would say St. Louis is actually one of the more milder cities in terms of race relations, considering we never had major race rioting during the Civil Rights movement.

With that said it is pretty well documented that more homogenous regions usually can get things done more efficiently, because unfortunately race has always been the hotbed issue in America, even overshadowing class in many situations. I personally think a dose of diversity may ease some of the black-white tensions in St. Louis.
Alcoa is moving their headquarters back to Pittsburgh from New York, where they moved to in 2006. It's only 10 employees, but I'm sure it's a big moral boost for Pittsburgh.

http://www.post-gazette.com/business/pi ... on=pgevoke
Imagine AT&T moving back to St. Louis. When Wheeler moved them (then Southwestern Bell) to San Antonio from here in the 1990s, he said it was because they had just invested in Mexico's biggest telephone company and wanted to be closer to the center of their holdings. Well, now that they are nationwide as AT&T, St. Louis would put them closer to the center of their holdings today.

They still have a lot of operations here. Would our Governor go to Dallas and make a deal to lure them back, similar to when Ann Richards flew to St. Louis to convince them to move to Texas in the 90's? I doubt it. MOLEG is in bed with Texas politics and seems to do whatever Texas commands for the betterment of Texas instead of Missouri.