Tuscany, Barcelona, Croatia… the Rust Belt?

This weekend, the New York Times suggested Pittsburgh as a destination (for at least 36 hours) alongside these locales, and as of my writing this post, the article remains the most popular in the paper’s travel section. This isn’t the first time the ‘Burgh has made Times – in October of last year, the NYT highlighted the city’s cultural amenities, and burgeoning art and design district.

But the NYT’s appreciation of Pittsburgh didn’t begin just this past year: the city’s transformation was written about previously in 2004 as a cultural destination, in 2003 as a business destination. And just last year, (perhaps in the wake of our hosting the 2006 All-Star Games) Places Rated Almanac ranked Pittsburgh America’s Most Livable City. Our housing market is comparatively stable, and doing even better in the center city.

But for all this fanfare, there are naysayers. Ok, just one: Bill Steigerwald (columnist for Pittsburgh’s rightie newspaper the Tribune-Review) wrote a scathing rebuttal in the neoliberal Reason Magazine declaring Pittsburgh to be most leavable, and declaring it to be as demographically “doomed” as Western Europe. (The last I checked my money was worth half as much in Western Europe as it is here, which I suppose either proves him wrong or proves us especially doomed, but I digress.) Steigerwald bemoans “high tax rates, decades of moronic management, and the millions in subsidies handed to the Steelers, Pirates, and Penguins for their new playpens.”

The consequences? A purported exodus of youth and talent, right? Steigerwald reports that the city peaked with 604,000 in 1960 and now holds just 315,000. Yet he admits that in 1960, the Pittsburgh metropolitan area held 2.4 million, and it now holds… 2.3 million. I wouldn’t be the first to suggest this (that honor would go to local economic gurus Chris Briem and Harold Miller), but those numbers don’t exactly suggest a monumental outpouring of people so much as the comparative absence of immigration and large population of older people who are dying faster than they can be replaced.

So while natural decrease isn’t as bad as agents of the new economy fleeing like cockroaches from a light bulb, it’s still an issue. And the city also faces a number of oft-cited fiscal challenges, a crisis of identity, and the occasional angry C-list celebrity., Those stadiums the press seems to love were only pushed through after years of public acrimony and, according to some are of questionable merit as economic stimuli (and to others, are shiny amenities with few users to justify the expense of creating them). But what older, walkable, truly urban city doesn’t face similar challenges?

Of course, throughout the former manufacturing belt, there have been similar success stories – Cleveland to some is also most livable, and Baltimore has certainly reinvented itself (despite what you may see on “The Wire”). But in Pennsylvania, Allegheny County (home to Pittsburgh) garners more tourism dollars than any other county in the state – including Philadelphia. People are coming to visit “Hell with the lid off” – and spending money here. It might not be Manhattan, but considering the city’s past, doesn’t that count for something?


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