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Marketplace Scratch Pad

Ode to the Rust Belt

Scott Jagow Sep 22, 2009

This week, Pittsburgh hosts the gathering of world leaders known as the G-20 Summit. Pittsburgh? I’m trying to imagine Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel hanging out, drinking Iron City beer, stuffing their faces with a Primanti Brothers sandwich. I’m only teasing, of course. Pittsburgh’s cool again, didn’t you know?

Our very own Rico Gagliano lived there for 14 years, and tonight on Marketplace, he’ll tell us about his recent trip back to Pittsburgh. Here’s a sneak preview:

Call me biased… but I say the best place in the entire universe… is Jerry’s Fine Used Records in Pittsburgh.

Jerry’s is one of the largest all-vinyl record stores on Earth. He’s got almost 2 million albums. And he’s a living encyclopedia of classic girl groups.

…That’s the one I’m talking about: “Who Do You Love.” By the Sapphires. And I’m gonna play it for you.

Oh, the song is painfully appropriate. Who do I love? I love Jerry. And my parents who still live in Pittsburgh. I love the city’s bridges – most in America! – The tons of museums and parks…

…But in 1995, I left anyway. Followed by almost every friend I had. We young hipsters were the tail end of a migration that began over a decade earlier… with steelworkers.

The migration left Pittsburgh with an old, static population and few prospects for turning things around. But slowly, things have changed. Now, the city has jobs for the first time in a long time. Young people are moving there. There are new condos, night clubs, culture.

Have I mentioned the city’s mayor is 29 years old? Twenty-nine. From USA Today:

“I don’t even identify Pittsburgh with the steel industry,” Mayor Luke Ravenstahl says…

In a way, steel died so that Pittsburgh’s transformation could occur. The city’s image as a gritty, dirty town was earned in the early and middle 20th century, when the pollution belched out of local steel mills obscured the sun and, famously, required the street lights to be turned on at midday, says economist Lester Lave of Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business.

New jobs sprouted in clean industries such as education and health care, luring well-educated professionals to the city nestled at the confluence of the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio rivers. “Yuppies don’t live in polluted places. If Pittsburgh had not cleaned up, this transformation would not have happened,” Lave says.

Beyond Pittsburgh going greener, Rico points out why people have come:

In the ’80s and ’90s Carnegie-Mellon University ramped up its robotics and software engineering programs. The University of Pittsburgh developed one of the top non-profit health care systems in the country. Now companies like Google are setting up shop to tap into all that brainpower. Economist Chris Briem says the *challenge… will be keeping them here.

It’s a tough question; regions, you know, are all competing against each other in ways that they were never competing against each other in the past. Investment is hyper-mobile – it’ll go wherever it’ll get the best return. The talent, the population, the people, they’re ever-more mobile.

But it’s an encouraging sign for other Rust Belt cities, like my hometown of Buffalo. Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Cleveland – these cities have a tremendous sense of community that you don’t find everywhere. They have character. They have honest, hard-working people.

They have 20-foot snow drifts.

But many people who leave — they long to go back, if only there were jobs. Maybe people just say that because they’ve forgotten what a pain it is to shovel the driveway. I don’t think so. There’s something unique about that part of the country. Resiliency, toughness, determination.

And the food is … oh my, it’s unbelievable. Mr. Sarkozy might just decide to stay.

For the uninitiated, those are french fries in the sandwich.

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