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Sounded like a one hit wonder to me as well:


Jonathan Potts

As I understand it, and I don't know enough to speak in many specifics, the steel industry in Pittsburgh had a lot of friends in goverment and in civic organizations that conspired--for lack of a better word--to keep other industries out of Pittsburgh. Someone with more knowledge is free to make me look foolish--it wouldn't be the first time.

Ed Heath

There is a quote I remember through the prism of Monty Python that I should attribute to either Shaw or Wilde, I can't be sure which... I paraphrase here: "The only thing worse than being a single industry town is not being a single industry town"

Hmm, that doesn't sound as wise as I expected. Should I use the "stream of bat's piss" line or the "shaft of golden light", or is that all too obscure? ...


sean mcdaniel

interesting thought about the forces in power keeping other industries out of town. never heard that one before but it could be true. however, pittsburgh's always been a one industry town from the days of being the cork maker for the world to the number one producer of glass. steel was the last of the line. One reason that steel was king might be that it proved to be a relatively easy way to get rich. So anyone with enough money, land and labor would certainly bet on a sure thing.

As for being a one industry town, aren't most places? Detroit was the auto capital of the world...and honestly, i'm kind of stumped to think of many towns that absolutely ruled an labor instensive industry the way pittsburgh and detroit did for nearly a century.

and like many conspiracy theories, why would officials keep out other industries? what could have knocked steel off its perch? i think it was just a matter of simple economics. big steel equaled big money.

Jonathan Potts

I'm not a fan of conspiracy theories myself, so I'm not saying I believe this happened. The benefit to steel would be to keep labor cheaper.

Mark Stroup

I'm not sure if the following is true, but it could be confirmed. I've been told that during the '40s, '50s, and '60s, the top 80 percent of engineering graduates at Pitt went to work at US Steel. If that's so, it might have had a dampening effect on other industries.

sean mcdaniel

considering the geography of this region...any other industries would have had trouble finding space. as for the divesity of industry...pittsburgh once was in the top 10 or 12 for heaquarters of the country's biggest corps. if 80 pecent of pitt engineering grads went to work for US steel in those days, it makes sense. why try to find water in a desert? and considering the work ethic of the time, those grads knew that those were lifetime jobs.

Sam M

So then is it safe to say that there is no general consensus that "diversification of the economy" was a central accomplishment of the Renaissance? Or that such a development would not have been much of an accomplishment even if it did happen? That interests me a great deal, because I thought people agreed on that.

There do appear to be questions about how that might have been accomplished. Let's say you have 100,000 jobs in an economy, but 90,000 are in one industry. There are 1,000 in 10 other industries. [Numbers corrected from original posting.] That's pretty non-diverse. One way to increase a simple measure of "diversity," would be to get rid of the 90,000 jobs. It would then be a perfectly balanced economy.

Is that an exaggerated version of what happened in Pittsburgh?

Similarly, people spend a great deal of time praising the Renaissance for "cleaning the air." But wouldn't the air be pretty clean now anyway? You know, because most of the mills closed? That is, did THE central accomplishment of the Renaissance simply accelerate what would have happened--quite tragically, according to some people--on its own?

So: If the Renaissance didn't save downtown, didn't diversify the economy and didn't clean the air...

Mark Stroup

The switch from coal in railroads, tugboats, and home furnaces and cleaner burning coal technology in steel making gave Pittsburgh 30+ years of Renaissance hoo-ha. Not an inconsiderable contribution.

While the credit usually goes to the Lawrence and Mellon alliance, I tip my hat to all the Pittsburgh homeowners who had to shut down their coal furnaces because of smoke control legislation.

sean mcdaniel

okay...so what did the renaissance do? maybe we'll never really know because big steel would have died in the 1980s regardless and taken 10s of thousands of jobs with it...along with the work it generated aside from steelmaking. and it's hard to pretend that the renaissance was a failure without taking into account the demise of the steel industry.

but David Lawrence and his fellow believers truly trusted their instincts about what they could do to save a city that they saw slipping fast into squalor, especially downtown... a slide that was spreading into neighborhoods and sending white people to the suburbs and would have sent them there even faster if the decline wasn't stopped.

(hey, how many of you grew up in those wonder bread suburbs? how many of you live in black neighborhoods now...or in communities with a sizeable black population? do you worry about your cars and homes at night? do you walk the back streets of e. liberty after dark...or even in daylight?)

maybe the Renaissance leaders were delusional...but they weren't afraid to try...to offer solutions...and vision...which is more than what's served up here. anyway, this is how Mayor David Lawrence described the philosophy behind the renaissance:

"Our grand design in Pittsburgh has been the acceptance of a belief that a city is worth saving; that a successful organism in the plan of nature must have a head and nerve center; that the people of a city can take pride and glory in it in our own times as the Athenians did under Pericles or the Florentines under Lorenzo.
Perhaps we are all wrong. Perhaps the city is technologically obsolete. Perhaps the world of tomorrow will belong not even to the suburbanite, but to his kinsman, one step removed, the exurbanite.
But, in our design, we don't think so."

Maybe he was smarter than he believed...but can you fault his beliefs and convictions? (well, that was a stupid question. of course you can and do...constantly.)

So maybe Lawrence was wrong. but at least he tried. but maybe you might heed the words of a more current sage...Stephen Colbert, from his remarks during a recent college commencement:

But don’t be afraid to be a fool. Remember, you cannot be both young and wise. Young people who pretend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly just cynics. Cynicism masqueradesas wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying “yes” begins things. Saying “yes” is how things grow. Saying “yes”
leads to knowledge. “Yes” is for young people. So for as long as you have the strength to, say “yes.”

Take out the word "young" and that passage refers to a lot of people who post here. yes is the last word you'll ever see on this page...unless it's drenched in irony. cynicism and sarcasm...what are they good for...(and if you know the refrain from Edwin Starr's song "war" then you know the answer).

Sam M


At times it appears that you are not even making a good faith effort to understand my point of view. Talk about cynicism and sarcasm. But if you need for me to spell it out, here goes:

I have faith in cities. And I have faith in Pittsburgh. Fact is, I also have faith in humanity. In free association. Spontaeous order. Shall I go on?

I have no problem with people coming up with solutions for cities. By all means, I think Jack Piatt should have a go at it.

But I am concerend that all too often, people foist their ideas on others. They seize control. And they crowd out other ideas. By using politics.

So let's say I do come up with an idea and funding for downtown. Know what? Doesn't matter. Because Piatt is going to have exclusive rights to it for a year.

Let's say I have so much faith in my idea that I outbid him for the properties.

Nope. Not open to bid.

My idea is to open the city up to market forces. Auction the URA's properties off. maybe it will fail and 60 years from now Pittburgh will only have 150,000 people in it. That would be a smashig success by Renaissance standards. Yes, the collapse of Big Steel caused a whole lot of that. But every step of the way the people in charge have promised salvation. Have justified their bulldozing and taxing by telling us that this next project will do the trick. Has it? Honestly, has it?

And since you have such a hard time understanding--and are so quick to make accusations about my motivations--allow me to reiterate:

My idea is to open the city to market forces.

To take the politics out. To get the city out of the development game.

Honestly. You talk about my failure to come up with new ideas. Well where are yours? They appear to amount to supporting city hall's plan. Why? Because it's a fait accompli. Might as well support it. Do you really think its a good plan? You won't say. You only praise them for having ideas.

Well, go ahead and support it. But at its core it's the same as it has been for 60 years: Put the city's future in the hands of politicians and developers who can curry favor with politicans.

I am not saying that David L. Lawrence was a bad person. Or that Sophie Masloff was. Or Tom Murphy or Bob O'Connor.

I am saying that the model they have in place has been in place. Through two Renaissances. We are on our third. You don't have a problem with that. Fine. Just don't accuse me of being the one without any new ideas.

Jonathan Potts

Yes, and I fail to see why it is logical to support an idea that you believe is wrong, just in the name of doing something.

It's also worth remembering that it's not merely hindsight that tells us that much of the urban renewal that took place here was misguided. In "The Death and Life of the Great American Cities" written around 1960, Jane Jacobs could already foresee the failure with Gateway Center, the Civic Arena and other aspects of Pittsburgh's "renewal."

sean mcdaniel

sure you guys have a point about the free market aspect of it all...and today's PG story about the city looking at reducing or eliminating bus traffic on the forbes fifth corridor backs up Sam's view of too much influence by one person or group.

but that wasn't how the first renaissance worked. it was a collaborative effort to clear the city of blight. there was no remaking of the city's retail center...horne's, kaufmann's, gimbel's rosenbaum's and other merchants received no special treatment. and the heart of downtown's commercial district wasn't tampered with. the area from stanwix to the point was a real mess...no i didn't see it with my own eyes (well, maybe i did but i was too young for it to make an impression) but old timers around here will tell you that it didn't add anything to the city.

in short, the original renaissance wasn't trying to re-engineer the entire downtown region into an upscale haven of commercial and residential space. it was merely trying to clean up a good deal of squalor.

so, i'll go back to my original point...the first renaissance actually may have been a success...if big steel hadn't died. there's no escaping that fact...just as detroit continues to suffer from the woes of the auto industry.

as for that "first" renaissance...i consider it the only one...so far...the so-called second renaissance was merely a construction boom in the 1980s. maybe if downtown is transformed this time, the effort can be called a renaissance in hindsight.

one more point...downtown lost many retailers and other businesses over the years that had nothing to do with the alleged failures of the renaissance...gimbel's folded because the parent company in nyc did...rosenbaums' went out of business (as did boggs and buhls did on the north side — do you guys know about these places?) because of the demographic shift to the suburbs and a glut of department stores...downtown movie theaters went dark fast when suburban theaters started showing first run movies (again, do you remember when movies opened downtown and then moved to outlaying neighborhoods weeks later? Star Wars was one of the first big movies to open in the burbs here.)The Jenkins Arcade became obsolete when all the doctors and dentists moved their offices to be closer to where their patients lived in the suburbs, of course.

i'm probably not analytical enough (or patient enough) to study all the factors that led to the decline of Pittsburgh (and center cities around the country) as a commercial and entertainment center. but suburban sprawl is certainly a big cause everywhere...and in our case big steel accelerated the decline.

so maybe i don't always "get" your point about current efforts...but I think that most of the people who post on this site lack the historical knowledge and perspective to condemn the renaissance as a failure. it wasn't a program to bring new business and residents into the city...it was an attempt to clean up a very dirty, unattractive town.

Jonathan Potts

Unfortunately, not everyone who praises the Renaissance is as restrained as you are. To them, it did arrest the city's economic decline--which began long before the 1970s--and that is simply not true. This is important, because it is why so many continue to obsess over the value of image in turning our fortunes. Image is not unimportant--and goodness knows clean air and water are vitally important--but it keeps us from focusing on more vital issues.

I realize that people like me sometimes conflate the Renaissance with other urban redevelopment projects, such as East Liberty. They were not the same thing, but they were initiated by many of the same people, with the same underlying philosophy. Again, this is important because they still influence how we go about trying to change things.

Pittsburgh certainly was a victim of larger forces, but like so many other cities nationwide, we compounded our problems through flawed redevelopment strategies that we have been too slow to discard.

You are correct, historical perspective is important. I'm just not sure it's the critics of the status quo who lack it.

Sam M


It might be interesting to view the Renaissance as a simple effort to "clean up squalor," or something that "wasn't trying to reengineer the entire downtown..." etc. But I think that the effort was far more than that. Both in what it was and how it lives on on peoples' minds. Take a look at this:

"The goals of the Renaissance were environmental improvement (controlling smoke pollution and floods and treating sewage), downtown renewal, and transportation revitalization. The city undertook urban renewal projects in the Lower Hill, the North Side, and East Liberty, removing slums but also causing major social dislocations."

Thats not from me. That's from the MSN Encarta encyclopedia "Pittsburgh" entry. It was written by a history professor at CMU.


OK. So the environmental stuff happened. Or at least accelerated what would have happened anyway. As for "downtown renewal," I think the Fifth/Forbes corridor--and the fact that it still requires tens of millions in subsidies--speaks for itself.

And is transportation "revitalized"? Have you been on Skybus lately? Are the parkways unmitigated success stories? Is the local transit system the envy of other cities? I don't think so. In fact, I think that the city is still struggling to make something work with Maglev. With a tunnel to the stadiums. With busways. Etc. Honestly, I think that, like a lot of cities, Pittsburgh is trying to cope with the mistakes of the 50s and 60s rather than build on a whole bunch of success stories.

So fine. Pittburgh is like a lot of other cities. But the mythology surrounding the Renaissance forces us to think of ourselves as different. Because the Renaissance was a wild success. Despite the fact that downtown is a mess and the roads are a mess and the city is broke and the Lower Hill is gone.

Despite all that, people still use the "Renaissance" terminology to talk about good stuff happening in town. Even the people at Kilplingers did it recently.


The Post-Gazette, falling all over itself to praise millions in subsidies for a new PNC skyscraper (a move that looks an awful lot like something out of the 1950s) couldn't resist calling the project "the next Renaissance."


So you can say it was a simple clean-up effort. But I think it was more than that. The Renaissance has become a part of the Pittsburgh's narrative. The word means different things here. Something more than "urban renewal." In much the same way that the steel mills have become "steel mills." We were "leaders" in steel. And we were "leaders" in urban planning. And for some reason it is important for us to continue thinking of ourselves as that lead dog.

So who knows. Maybe some of the things the Renaissance accomplished would have happened anyway. And maybe some of the things it didn't accomplish were beyond the control of the people in charge. I am sure it did something.

But I think that any assessment of Pittsburgh's future HAS TO take the failures of the Renaissance into account.

Why? Because people keep talking about repeating the Renaissance--without a hint of self-consciouness or criticism. The lesson they appear to have learned from it is that urban planning is good. Action is good. David L. Lawrence and his ideas are good. Somebody at city hall should DO SOMETHING. There ought to be a law. Maybe a skyscraper. Or a train. No a skyscraper. A stadium? Two stadiums? Well a stadium can't work without a train, now, can it? Hmmm. Maybe granite countertops.

Maybe that comes across as snide. But isn't it worth just a minute of reflection? Isn't it worth asking if we ought to be using the institutions, the lexicon--and the ideas--of urban renewal plans hatched in the 1940s? And shouldn't we reserve just a little bit of rhetorical firepower for people who refuse to do so? Or only give lip-service to it while going back to the same ideas/institutions/lexicon?

Seriously. Ask youself this one question: Let's say you went up to David L. Lawrence when he was at the height of his power and said, "Sir, I have returned from the future. And I am here to report that Pittsburgh has half as many people in it as it once did. It is so financially unsound that the state had to take over. And downtown is such a mess that the government is in charge of building corporate headquarters and apartments for people who won't live here otherwise."

Do you think he would view that as a success?

Sure. To be fair throw in a bunch of good stuff about CMU and PNC Bank and UPMC.

But just on the weight of the debt and the mess downtown and the population, don't you think he might rethink things?

I do.

All I am asking is that the people who do have a chance to rethink things actually rethink them.

Maybe you don't like the direction in which I would steer things. But I do, in fact, have a direction in mind.

John Gombita

Yes the URA should auction every property its own back to the private sector. City government has no business being in the real estate market. The power that they need to wield is in zoning by which they can steer the private sector to meet the city's needs.
Also the legislature in Harrisburg needs to act to make the "non-profits" banks,health insurers, universities, et.al to pay some portion of property taxes. Pittsburgh isn't the only distressed city in Pennsylvania it makes me wonder "are all of Pennsylvania citys and towns run by collective idiots?" no the tax structure has been made ineffective by the state legislature. If Pittsburgh could collect property taxes from the curret group of "non-profits"
the funding woud be available for public works and police which could go to repairing and policing the infrastructure and inviting more private sector investment.

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