Here’s a question to ponder, perhaps while you’re paddling a bright yellow kayak on the Allegheny River, taking in the cloudless Pittsburgh skyline punctuated by towers owned by companies such as U.S. Steel, BNY Mellon and PNC Bank: Are you looking at the nation’s most lucky city, or its least?
If you’ve never even considered the idea of kayaking in Pennsylvania’s second largest city, your initial thoughts on this question probably drift toward the unlucky. After all, Pittsburgh was enduringly described as “hell with the lid taken off” in the January 1868 issue of The Atlantic. In the midst of the great coal-and-steel era, writer James Parton noted that in Pittsburgh “every street appears to end in a huge black cloud, and there is everywhere the ominous dark-ness that creeps over the scene when a storm is approaching.” Although the black clouds were actually smoke-covered hills rising from each of the city’s three intersecting rivers, eventually a storm of sorts did hit Pittsburgh. During the later decades of the 20th century, the mining and manufacturing industries that undergirded Pittsburgh’s economy confronted increased competition from overseas and a changing market. And they crumbled.
By the 1980s, 75 percent of the steel industry had vanished, taking much of the city’s population with it. Pittsburgh went from being one of the nation’s 10 largest cities to falling far below the top 30 by the decade’s end. The situation was dire, says Donald K. Carter, director of the Remaking Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon. “We lost high-paying blue-collar jobs, primary jobs for this economy. We had the same amount of unemployment as in the Great Depression; we faced high levels of family violence, mental health issues. People were leaving the city in droves—it was so depressing.” For Pittsburgh, the needle appeared permanently pointed at unlucky.
Three decades later, Pittsburgh is on an entirely different trajectory. The economy has diversified, capitalizing on the presence of two top-tier universities, Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh, several federally funded research institutes and a population that’s far more educated than the nation as a whole. (More than 37 percent of Pittsburghers have a bachelor’s degree or more, in comparison to 28 percent of Pennsylvanians and 29 percent of Americans overall.) Apple, Google and Uber have opened major offices in Pittsburgh, while new companies such as 4moms, which makes high-tech and robotic baby gear, are starting up. Population loss is stabilizing and many young people are drawn to Lawrenceville, a neighborhood that is frequently compared to Brooklyn. (The next neighborhood to watch is the up-and-coming Strip District.)
The air is now breathable, while once-polluted rivers are open for fishing and boating, and lined with biking and hiking trails such as the Great Allegheny Passage, whose 150 miles connect Pittsburgh to Washington D.C. The arts are thriving in the city, and real estate developers—including hotel chains—are arriving. Among them: hipster-hunters like the Ace and Distrikt hotels, the latter in a former Salvation Army headquarters downtown. “We’re an overnight success,” jokes Bill Flanagan, chief corporate relations officer for the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, “after only spending decades working on making Pittsburgh better.”
While a few good breaks didn’t hurt—its location on the Marcellus Shale, for instance, powered a recent fracking boom—luck isn’t what accounts for the city’s transformation. Some of the same factors that brought the city to its knees have helped it rise again. Although the loss of the steel and coal industries was a body blow, the geology-and banking-fueled fortunes amassed in a pre-income-tax era by the likes of Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick and Andrew W. Mellon remained—and these families shared an intensely local sense of civic responsibility. Unlike other cities, in which foundations tend to have broader geographic missions, “most of our foundations have bylaws that mandate they do most of their giving here in Pittsburgh,” says Flanagan. “We get the full benefit of an incredible concentration of assets.”
These wealthy families have a history of collaboration in their charitable dealings, helping small projects to grow. For instance, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, founded by Heinz (ketchup) family money in 1984, purchased a historic Vaudeville-era theater to restore it to its former grandeur, and was then joined in funding its restoration by the foundation of the oil-rich Benedum family. This collaboration resulted in a new home for the city’s ballet and opera companies, the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts. Unfortunately, a red light district surrounded the theater so the Cultural Trust purchased nearby buildings and land and swiftly ushered those massage parlors and triple-X theaters out of business. These were replaced with loft apartments, restaurants, art galleries and innovative arts institutions such as the Bricolage Production Company and the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company. The neighborhood’s appeal to tourists and residents was cemented in the 1990s, when the city chose to locate its two new major league sports stadiums, Heinz Field and PNC Park, directly across a walking bridge from this curated arts neighborhood. It is now known as the Cultural District and draws some 2 million visitors a year.
Beyond bang for the charitable buck, this tradition of cooperation among the city’s wealthiest families and their philanthropies extends to especially collegial relations between local business and local government, as well as the universities. In the 1940s, such cooperation led to an all-out effort to clean up Pittsburgh’s skies and rivers, including self-imposed regulations. In the mid 1980s, local and county governments, universities, business organizations and philanthropies coordinated their state and federal lobbying efforts. These efforts secured an international airport terminal and federally funded research institutes focused on software engineering, robotics and organ transplantation—all important “gray matter” resources that have attracted tech companies to the city.
Cooperation between historic preservationists and real estate developers has also been a factor in the city’s impressive record of preserving historic buildings while keeping them for mixed use, notes Arthur Ziegler Jr., president of Pittsburgh’s History & Landmarks Foundation. One of the foundation’s early successes was the preservation of a Victorian-era neighborhood known as the Mexican War Streets, now home to the Mattress Factory, a noted contemporary art museum. This combination of historic preservation and new developments has been repeated around the city, and leads to desirable, walkable neighborhoods, notes Michael Sriprasert, president of the Landmarks Community Capital Corporation. And since such neighborhoods are very affordable compared to similar ones in larger cities, they are magnets for corporations looking to relocate or open new offices in the city—and for Pittsburgh’s many college students wanting to stay after their studies are complete.
Cooperative efforts will be key to the city’s future, says Flanagan of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, because Pittsburgh still faces big challenges. While none of these problems are as severe as they were in the 1980s, the city still confronts troubling statistical realities: Its population is aging and, though less than before, young people are still leaving. And while the cost of living is low relative to other urban centers, gentrification is inevitably pushing it up. But if the last 30 years have shown anything, it’s that Pittsburgh is used to working hard—and to working together to figure things out. So forget the question of whether this city is lucky or not. More important for Pittsburgh’s future fortunes, it’s smart.
This article originally appeared in the 2016 June/July issue of Worth.