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Blue-collar spirit

Can Pittsburgh’s Blue-collar Spirit Rescue Itself From Gentrification?

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Once a booming coal town, Pittsburgh powered through a decades-long economic depression to rise from its steel factory’s ashes as a certifiable technology hub. Though easy to market as a Cinderella Story, the particular nature of Pittsburgh’s evolution is more complicated than a simple city-wide rebranding. Rather, the city serves as a bubbling microcosm of the United States as a whole: blue-collar values in tension with a progressive youth culture; neighborhoods traditionally populated by people of color suddenly gentrified, and a rapidly-changing job market in conversation with a resilient industrial spirit.

The glory of Pittsburgh’s manufacturing heyday is often obscured–both literally and figuratively–by the rampant pollution for which the city is infamous. Ironically, the city’s smoggiest, bleakest days were some of its most colorful: After Andrew Carnegie founded U.S. Steel in 1901, immigrants began pouring in from around the world, seeking work in thriving coal mines and steel mills. No matter one’s origin, the people of Pittsburgh built a culture of their own: one rooted in an honest, blue-collar work ethic.

And yet, the story of Pittsburgh’s decline is not an unfamiliar one. By the 1970’s, international competition put domestic steel at risk. Within 10 years, Pittsburgh’s steel factories were laying off hundreds of thousands of individuals in single sweeps.

The resulting cultural depression of the last two decades has had some predictable effects. The small towns surrounding Pittsburgh are rife with typical trailer park scenes: rusted out cars, meth labs, Walmart. Despite Pittsburgh’s fundamental humility, its core constituents continue to reel from this drastic shift. So much of the identity the city and its people had crafted was foreclosed and bulldozed almost overnight.

With Pittsburgh’s working class scattered to the winds, the 1990’s gave rise to a new face of the city; a glossy and expensive face. The influence of the high-profile Computer Science and Robotics department at Carnegie Mellon University combined with the state of-the-art medical research facilities as University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) established Pittsburgh as a hub of new technology.

By the early 2000’s, tech-based economic growth spawned a fresh series of city restoration programs. Lawrenceville, arguably one of Pittsburgh’s trendiest neighborhood (if judging only by the sheer volume of vegan bakeries and the exponential rise of rent), was once the focus of one such project. Rachel Webber of the non-profit Lawrenceville Corp. said in an interview that the area now boasts “25 blocks of independent businesses,” and the “largest concentration of women-owned businesses in Western [Pennsylvania].” Her organization sponsors regular community meetings between the neighborhood’s longtime residents and business owners, with the goal of fostering a dialogue about the changing face of the city, she said.

The combination of new, tech-based opportunities and youth-focused neighborhood revivals began drawing interest from major corporations, such as Google, and eager startups alike. When these high-tech offices began springing up in Pittsburgh’s abandoned lofts or in sparkly new real estate developments in the 2010’s, Pittsburgh’s change veered from gradual to exponential–with potentially dangerous consequences.

One could argue that Pittsburgh’s present status is a revival of the industrial spirit on which it was founded in the first place. The effects then and now are indeed similar: job growth, an influx of out-of-town transplants, and worldwide recognition as place where the future is being programmed. Yet the reality is, in 2017 many of the above are products of gentrification–a process that leads to disparities between race and class that are ultimately detrimental to any town. Appalachia, where poverty and income inequality already pose major issues to residents, is likely to feel the effects of gentrification even more rapidly.

As Peter Moskowitz outlines in his book How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood, low-cost housing in fringe areas is likely to attract a young, white, artistically-inclined demographic that eventually gives way to CEO-townhouses and Whole Foods. But Pittsburgh managed to skip this step entirely, as its powerful tech-focused residents instantly established the city as a sphere for an even more elite demographic, and an even more insidious form of wealth.

Michaela Kron, Senior PR Manager of language-learning startup Duolingo, admits her company chose Pittsburgh as its base for the reasons mentioned above: “One key factor [in Duolingo choosing Pittsburgh] was the lower cost of living and the fact that paychecks go much further here than in large cities like NYC and San Francisco,” she said.

Naturally, the city aims to brand itself to attract even greater wealth and thus expand the tax base. A quick glance at the official Pittsburgh website shows talk of campaigning for an Amazon.com Headquarters, installing bike lanes, and “healing the environment” amidst regular notices and governmental minutia. Though there are objectively positive things happening in Pittsburgh, creating such a sweepingly optimistic persona for the town also willfully neglects a significant demographic that, until not too long ago, literally powered the city as employees of its mills and factories.

Pittsburgh might bear more solutions to this conflict than it seems to realize. As Melissa Wade of Visit Pittsburgh phrases it, “Pittsburgh is proud of its blue-collar roots and it will never lose the mentality that great results come from hard work, no matter what the industry.”

She seems hopeful that it’s only a matter of time before Pittsburgh’s newcomers will adapt to the city’s legacy rather than attempt to bulldoze past it. “New Pittsburghers learn [our attitude] quickly just from interacting with the people who live here and [carrying] on the beliefs that have been established for generations.”

Kron’s perspective differs slightly: “While many people still view Pittsburgh as a steel town, that hasn’t been the case for a couple of decades,” she said. “Besides the fast-growing tech industry, there are many excellent museums and cultural institutions here.” She also points to Pittsburgh’s flourishing culinary scene as source of growth.

The city is rife with engineers, tradespeople, and union organizers who are only prevented from participating in Pittsburgh’s new face by the sort of Silicon Valley-elitism that has been dragged Eastward. Corporations should be responsible for adapting to the city’s hard-working attitude, as opposed to co-opting it.

Some companies have recognized this need and are already implementing changes. Kayla Conti of Google said that the company makes a concentrated effort to hire local talent to their 500-person employee pool. Additionally, the company has made visible efforts to be as involved in the Pittsburgh community as other long-standing companies. Their “Grow With Google” initiative is already active in 11 of the city’s public schools. It’s an experiment of which the results have yet to be fully realized, but a step in the right direction nevertheless.

Changing the exclusionary mentality is not a large demand. The infrastructure for inclusion is already in place, and all that must change is the approach these companies take; all that must flourish is the true industrial spirit.

Katie Fustich, born in Pittsburgh, lives in New York City. Her work appears in Vice, Jezebel, The Pacific Standard, Salon, and more. Visit her at http://katefustich.com