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Changing Gears is spending the next few years looking at ways to reinvent the Midwest economy. Today, we kick off our first week-long series: Reinventing Pittsburgh. Once, it was the Steel City, just as Detroit was the Motor City. But while Detroit struggles to find its new identity, Pittsburgh is undergoing an enormous transformation, shifting to an economy that includes technology, medicine, education and yes, steel.

Can Pittsburgh be a model for the Great Lakes region? Later this week, we’ll be looking at how Detroit and Gary, Indiana, are following Pittsburgh’s lead. But first, we look at where Pittsburgh was.

Pittsburgh Skyline from Station Square
Photo by flickr user jmd41280

LISTEN TO THE STORY:
Download audio file (PittPartOne_web.mp3)

Download the audio here

___________________

More Reinventing Pittsburgh: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5

~

When I first got to Pittsburgh, I did something foolish.

I pulled over in a parking lot, grabbed my microphone and digital recoder, and headed straight for tailgating Steelers fans.

“Mind if I grab you for a second?” I asked a fan.

I was asking for it. I had come to Pittsburgh straight from Cleveland. The cities share steel, snow, and mutual hatred on the football field.

Even worse, they just happened to be playing the Clevleand Browns that day.

A man yells: “Cleveland sucks!”

OK, heckler man. But what’s so great about Pittsburgh?

This is what I heard from a sampling of tailgaters: “Everybody loves Pittsburgh. Even people who leave Pittsburgh love Pittsburgh like this guy here. It’s Pittsburgh; we know how to survive. All of our jobs are on the rise. Yes, Pittsburgh’s economy is booming.”

It’s like these people work for the chamber of commerce.

More people chimed in. “Pittsburgh is probably one of the most livable cities around. Meds and Eds. That’s the new manufacturing: medicine and education. We were very industrial and then they figured out we have to do something else. What are you laughing about? I’ve only lived here for a year. You should be knowing this stuff.”

They should know this stuff. This is a whole new Pittsburgh.

Photos by Erika Gatz

Unemployment is 7.4 percent: nearly two percent lower than the national average. And, recent census data shocked this city.

For the first time in decades, the population actually went up. Just a little, but it’s a sign the city has officially come out of its steel depression.

“I never have ever badmouthed US Steel,” said former steelworker Colin Meneely. “They paid me for every minute I worked.”

It’s not hard to find a former steelworker in Pittsburgh. I found him working in an office downtown.

Colin Meneely
Colin Meneely

Before it all collapsed in the early 80s, MeNeely spent many minutes working in the industry.

“I did,” he said. “I worked in US Steel’s Clariton Works as a tar plant foreman.”

It was good pay, good benefits, and you didn’t need a college education. But it was messy work.

“There’s always the danger of explosion or fire,” Meneely remembered. “It was a bad place to work. You didn’t leave your papers on your desk because they’d be dirty by the end of your shift.”

Steve Lee remembers those days too.

“When I first came to Pittsburgh to interview at Carnegie Mellon, I said this is the ugliest place I’ve ever seen in my life.”

It was 1971 and he went to Carnegie Mellon anyway.

“I’d come to school at the end of summer vacation and for two weeks, my eyes would run,” Lee said. “I’d have a sore throat just from all the junk in the air.”

Lee studied architecture. That meant he spent a lot of time working late into the night…and sometimes into the mornings. And, as dawn approached, he’d look out his window, and see a magnificent sight.

“The sky was just throbbing and red as the open hearth furnaces were being stoked.” Lee said it made him realize Pittsburgh is an amazing place.

“But I was very young,” he said. “I didn’t realize we were at a moment of huge transformation.”

That huge transformation was about to hit Colin MeNeely, the steelworker. The facility where he worked was shut down.

“I think it was 1982 and this area was just horrible at that time for employment,” he said.

Sabina Deitrick is the keeper of startling statistics. She’s with the University of Pittsburgh.

“This region lost 150,000 manufacturing jobs in roughly little better than half a decade: the early to mid 80s. And about 67,000 of them in steel alone,” she said.

This was not some long, protracted decline like the auto industry or manufacturing. Virtually overnight, 150,000 jobs were wiped out. News reports at the time covered the plight of steelworkers who drank more and felt aimless.

“It’s the magnitude and the speed at which those closings occurred that had just an incredibly strong effect on the deindustrialization of the Pittsburgh region,” Deitrick said.

There was no time for denial. The world had changed. Globalization, deregulation, choose your villain. Steel was over. And, the future was uncertain.

I asked Steve Lee to take me on a driving tour of the new Pittsburgh.

He now runs that architecture department where he was once a student.

Pittsburgh’s hills are San Francisco  steep. We’re heading down toward the city’s three rivers to the Pittsburgh Technology Center.

With steel a fraction of its former self, the air and water are pristine now. And, after a couple downtrodden decades, many steel mill sites have new uses.

One is home to biomedical research and students learning to be the next video game designers.

I asked him what it would have looked like here fifty years ago.

“Well, you certainly wouldn’t have seen the river and the bike path that’s running all the way along there–all the way to downtown,” Lee said. “This would have been huge shed buildings with massive rolling mills inside that were just creating just unbelievable sound.”

Across one of Pittsburgh’s three rivers is another former mill. It’s now home to condos and upscale retail.

Lee says it’s the former Jones and Laughlin site.

Look toward downtown and you’ll see the city’s tallest building. At the top are the initials for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

“For anyone from Pittsburgh, it’s not the UPMC building, it’s the US Steel tower, and it will remain that to everyone’s death,” Lee said. “But obviously, it’s a huge icon of the shift from basic industry to service industries in the region.”

Today, the hospitals are the biggest employer. There are 1600 technology companies. Google has added more than 150 employees there.

A generation ago, 40% of the economy was heavy industry. Today, no one thing dominates.

And, in those nearly 30 years since he was shown the door at US Steel, Colin Meneely has reinvented himself too. After clerking in the Port Authority’s law department, he realized he needed some education to get ahead.

“Graduated from the University of Pittsburgh at age 44 and went straight to law school,” Meneely said.

Before long, he was senior council at the region’s transit agency and much like the city itself, doesn’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about his days in the steel industry.

Special Thanks to: Erika Gatz, Rick Sebak and WQED, Tiffani Emig and the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, Carnegie Mellon University, Steve Lee, and everyone else who gave their time to help with this production.