Tag Archives: Pittsburgh

Guest Editorial: Making Your City Better Begins With You

Editor’s note: This guest editorial come from Brett Wiewiora, Founder and CEO of Onlyinpgh (http://onlyinpgh.com), a tech startup creating an online system to visualize an area’s sense of place and connect people to local happenings.

Take a second to think about the favorite places in your city. What types of places are they?  Do they tend to be places unique to your town? Are they places that the locals know but are otherwise off the beaten path? I know that’s the case with me.

My favorite part of Pittsburgh is an area called the Strip District.  It’s a part of town that retains much of the character one would expect from a turn-of-the-century open-air market.  It’s old school, and it’s full of life.  And especially on a Saturday morning when there are crowds of people coming and going, accordionists playing polka and lines out the doors of the city’s best breakfast joints, there’s no place that oozes Pittsburgh more. 

How did those places come to be? In most cases it was simply because someone decided to start something small. That great little sandwich shop where you work was probably started by someone with the simple goal of supporting their family. The local coffee shop on the corner was started by someone with a dream of being their own boss. The founders didn’t necessarily start with grand visions of creating an establishment that would become a cornerstone of the area’s “sense of place”—they were just taking a chance and doing what they wanted to do.

Making an impact on the world around you doesn’t have to be a David vs. Goliath situation and it doesn’t require solving all the world’s problems at once. All it requires is doing something positive and talking to people about it. Places like the Strip District are what they are because of the community created by so many people doing things they care about. When that happens, it makes an environment where positive action is encouraged and unproductive negativity is checked at the door, and that’s when the magic starts to take over.

So when it comes to revitalizing the cities, neighborhoods, and blocks that we care about, it starts with doing something small and positive. If you play an instrument, go out and start playing regularly on the street and see what happens. If there’s a corner store you love, go talk to the owners about why they started and what else they’d like to see in the area. And most importantly, if you see someone else putting something positive put into the world, think about what you can add to it.  It’s not just about stopping to smell the roses—real change happens when people stop to smell the roses and then plant some more across the street.

In the end, decisions are made by those who show up, and the same applies to revitalization. We all have the power to make a difference as long as we’re willing to take a chance. 

-Brett Wiewiora

Photo credit: Creative Commons licensed for commercial use, photographer sharonmleon

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Check out some of Pittsburgh’s converted churches

This multimedia project by student journalist Estelle Tran highlights two former church sites in Pittsburgh that have now been converted into other uses – one a brew pub and the other a concert venue and recording studio.

Places like this are what I love about Pittsburgh!

Any other good converted churches in your community?



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Filed under architecture, Economic Development, Featured, Good Ideas, Real Estate, Urban Planning

Guest Editorial: Seeing Through the Smog in Pittsburgh

When you’re an environmentalist, like me, spring means freshening up the table display for the green fairs, energy conferences, and Earth Day celebrations that invade parking lots, LEED-certified meeting rooms, and repurposed, old brick school buildings all over the city. Native plants are for sale, Rachel Carson’s name is affixed to a march or lecture series at least once weekly, and wrists get sore from signing petitions and postcards to go to the EPA.

For the Pittsburgh region, spring also means receiving bad news from the American Lung Association’s State of the Air Report, which ranks the cleanest and dirtiest air in our cities. (Pittsburgh always gets bad news.) Angry rebuttals from editors and think tanks are released almost as quickly, questioning methodology, sampling rates, and monitor locations.

Here’s the real truth: it doesn’t matter what the ALA report says. Whether your city is number 1 or number 55, many cities have high concentrations of particulate matter (PM), a pollutant linked to just about every ailment imaginable—like strokes, heart attacks, and cancers. New research is finding links to diabetes and decreased brain function. Our locally-sourced PM, from coal-fired power plants, coking works, and diesel vehicles, is a toxic jawbreaker of black carbon, slathered in heavy metals, sulfates, nitrates, and hundreds of other nasty bits.  Benzofluorene sounds pretty, but you don’t want to breathe it.

And yet you are. We don’t need the ALA report or any other ranking to know Pittsburgh is a concentrator of diesel pollution. No matter all of the other advantages cities offer, we have to face the legacies of old trucks, old bulldozers, old buses, old barges, old trains, and mostly old thinking. We have to move the ball forward, win the future, whatever cliché you like best. We have to employ new technologies, find deeper pools of resolve, get more creative in our partnerships and solutions, and keep stating our case: we deserve clean air.  (Our latest push is for cleaning up construction equipment—read more here.) Not just for our personal health, but for the economic health of our cities. I moved to Pittsburgh from Seattle, but hesitated because of its reputation for bad air quality. How many other young couples thought of Pittsburgh but chose somewhere cleaner?

What’s the first word that comes to peoples’ minds when they think of your city? Rebirth? Smog? Walkable? Polluted?

Love your city, and work to make that first word one you’re proud of. See you at the plant sale.

Jamin Bogi is Education and Outreach Coordinator for Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP) in Pittsburgh, PA.


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Filed under Editorial, Headline, the environment

Do Casinos = Rust Belt Desperation?

The answer is: ‘Yes.’ That’s according to MinnPost writer Steve Berg in a column about a proposed Minneapolis gaming venture.

He writes:

“aside from Las Vegas, a fantasy island built on gambling and tourism, I’m unaware of any U.S. city that has built a casino for any reason other than desperation. Failing Rust Belt cities build casinos. Detroit and Pittsburgh have them. Cleveland and Cincinnati are joining the list. Saginaw and Lansing, Mich., and Rockford, Ill., want to build them.”

I’d also add Milwaukee; Gary, Indiana and Erie, Pennsylvania to that list. I’m sure there’s other cities I’m leaving out.

And it seems that casinos are often sold to these cities as a way to promote jobs and economic development.

But Berg says a casino just seems to smack of desperation. He also points out Vancouver recently rejected a casino proposal, somewhat on these grounds: “[It] doesn’t fit with Vancouver’s global brand as the world’s most livable city, as the green capital of the world, as a hotbed for innovation in clean and digital technology in resource management,” according to Vancouver’s mayor.

More info on the Minneapolis casino proposal is here.


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Come to the opening of The Big Urban Photography Project’s first show

Rust Wire is proud to present The Big Urban Photography Project art show, featuring photographic interpretations of Rust Belt cities as seen through the eyes of their young residents. The show is the result of a multi-year collaborative media project that called on the region’s best documentary and fine arts photographers.

Over two years, we asked for open submissions of photography highlighting the unique blend of despair and hope in a number of cities. Dozens of amateur and professional photographers submitted images of Detroit, Youngstown, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Chicago, Grand Rapids, Toledo, Cincinnati, Buffalo and others. The art show will allow us to share hold up the best work as a tribute to the region.

The Brew House, 2100 Mary Street in Pittsburgh’s South Side, will host the exhibit.

The show will open with a reception from 6-9 p.m. Friday, April 15. We would love to see you -our readers and contributors- there.

Let us know if you are coming here. We would love to meet as many of you as possible.

We also plan to bring the show to Cleveland and Youngstown soon!

A special thanks to Theo Keller at The Brew House, Tirzah DeCaria and Kara Skylling for helping plan and co-ordinate this show!

-Kate & Angie

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Filed under architecture, Art, Featured, regionalism, Rust Belt Blogs, The Big Urban Photography Project, The Media

Fed Research Shows Positive Trend for Pittsburgh

This post was written by contributor Lewis Lehe. -KG

Stephan Whitaker, a research economist at the Cleveland Fed, has noticed two salubrious trends in RustBelt demographics:

1) between 2000 and 2008, college graduates rose sharply as a share of the work-force in several urban areas

2) in the future, the graduate share will keep rising as older, less-educated workers retire

This news is good taken at face value, because research by Ed Glaeser and other urban economists suggests cities thrive as idea-generating centers. When educated people interact face-to-face, they breed businesses and insights.

Educational Attainment of Working-age Adults in Fourth District Metro Areas

Working-age adults (2008) Degree share 2000 (percent) Degree share 2008 (percent) Change (percent)
Erie 151,718 22.5 28.2 5.6
Akron 386,990 26.1 31.6 5.4
Pittsburgh 1,235,251 28.1 32.7 4.6
Columbus 896,440 32.3 36.9 4.5
Lexington-Fayette 161,486 37.1 41.5 4.4
Mansfield 67,839 13.1 17.4 4.3
Youngstown-Warren 306,892 17.5 21.7 4.2
Cleveland 1,223,369 26.0 29.2 3.2
Cincinnati 863,150 28.6 31.7 3.1
United States 167,282,883 26.5 29.6 3.1
Canton 226,427 19.1 20.8 1.8
Lima 80,257 14.9 16.6 1.7
Hamilton-Middleton 195,416 25.9 27.4 1.5
Dayton-Springfield 508,775 24.4 25.8 1.3
Toledoa 419,227 21.6 22.9 1.3

Things I thought were interesting

Whitaker finds that Pittsburgh stands out in both trends, because we are gaining lots of graduates (mainly PA locals and international immigrants) and because our older workers are very uneducated—probably because they grew up in a city with steel mills. He speculates: “If the highly educated cohorts in Pittsburgh continue to phase in, the city will eventually have a workforce like a university town rather than a former industrial center.”

I also did my own comparison and found that the number of college-grad immigrants Pittsburgh gained exceeds the entire population of Bloomfield. I think this is a good thought comparison because Bloomfield itself is split between young college grads and old people. Here is a picture I took in Bloomfield that captures the tension:

These trends indicate Pittsburgh will probably become a better place for people like me to live. More college graduates will produce wider cultural variety, more startups, and less-corrupt politicians.  I’m excited about that, but I believe there’s another side to this coin: Pittsburgh’s graduate share will rise in part because it is not a good place for working-class men and women to move. It’s not necessarily a bad thing when you take the whole universe into account, though. After all, in order for some places to be good at attracting working class men and women, other places have to be good at losing them (or at least not gaining them). But it’s worth keeping in mind.

In contrast, I thought this was worth highlighting: “Columbus and Cincinnati both experienced large increases in their populations of unskilled immigrants. In Columbus, the nondegreed immigrant adult population increased from just under 30,000 to over 46,000, and the equivalent population in Cincinnati increased from 19,700 to 29,600.”

Since unskilled immigrants are the working class of the working class, I say hats off to Columbus and Cincinnati for providing an attractive place for these families to live. Doubly so for Columbus as it is also a highly-educated city.

-Lewis Lehe


Filed under Brain Drain, Economic Development, Education, Headline, regionalism

Cities…they’re like Happy Hour

Editor’s note: This post comes from contributor Lewis Lehe, and contains his trademark blend of straightforward economics and quirky humor. -KG

A question for the ages
Today I posed a seemingly obvious question to myself: Why do we care about saving the cities we live in?

Some of us care about carbon emissions, but people were concerned about cities before we knew about climate change. I like living in the city because I would rather spend an hour reading my Kindle on a bus than sit twenty minutes in stop-and-go traffic, but that doesn’t explain why I want other people to live in Pittsburgh with me. In fact, the more people, the more traffic.

One obvious answer is that cities are full of people, and people care about people. But the death of a city often means people simply moving to other cities. Why do I care about tipping people’s decisions towards living in Pittsburgh, where I happen to want to live? (The exception is when a city dies because Godzilla attacks it.)

A blinding insight
The real reason we care about dying cities, I believe, resembles the reason our coworkers ‘huphs’ if Kate or I skips happy hour. Partly, it’s because Kate and I are interesting, smartly-dressed, and fabulously wealthy; and to be seen with us confers a kind of status…a discerned worldliness typically obtained only by the possession of a rare violin or Oscar invitation. You could say our presence is “de rigueur.” But mainly it’s because happy hour is only happy with lots of people. If you see someone downing five beers alone at happy hour, they’re unhappy no matter how cheap the Iron City (or Great Lakes Elliot Ness) is.

Just like how happy hour requires a group to be fun, businesses require a critical mass of customers to earn profits. Try finding a gay bar in rural California, and you’ll have a hard time, not because it lacks gays or because the place is stiflingly intolerant, but rather because the population is so sparse that there are not enough gay people near any one spot to sustain a gay bar. That’s why there might be more (underground) gay bars in homophobic Tehran (population 7.8 million) than in San Francisco (population 815,000).

Living in a dense, populous place means there are critical masses for more types of businesses. I only eat Ethiopian food like once per year. I doubt most Pittsburghers eat it even one third that often. But there are enough of us that our occasional trips make the restaurant Abay viable year round. This gives me a really neat experience occasionally, and it’s a godsend for those who eat Ethiopian weekly. It’s usually the people, not the specific buildings, that make a place. This is why, time and time again, residents of Tokyo have rebuilt their tiny cardboard skyscrapers in the wake of a Godzilla attack.

The idea of the critical mass is related to an economy of scale. Restaurants, bars, museums, and even concerts have high fixed costs, and, to a point, low variable costs, so they need enough customers that the average revenue per customer exceeds the average cost per customer.

Usually we hear about economies of scale with giant factories, and that’s a useful analogy in a way: just like economies of scale make more experiences available, they can also make our experiences into better values. Bus fares would be way cheaper if more people lived in the areas where my bus runs. My commute from Shadyside to South Side Works is a pretty fixed cost–one bus, one driver, one insurance policy, etc. So if twenty people rode the bus with me, we could each pay one dollar instead of two. Some buses, such as those on the East Busway, run at capacity in the morning, so it might seem like adding more riders would not lower costs, since the cost can’t be diluted any further. But more riders would mean more buses running, and more buses running means more frequent trips…or even express buses that make fewer stops but go faster.

To summarize, living next to other people gives us more options and makes some of our options cheaper. That is why we want people to live in cities with us. When they move away, they erode the critical masses, and it’s as if we ourselves moved a little farther out into the country.

A bold vision
I think it’s important to define why we want people to live in cities with us in selfish terms like I have above, because young urbanists are sometimes characterized as do-gooders…as though we want people to live in cities because (a) we know what’s good for them or (b) we hate the crass materialism of suburbia. But actually, deep down, I think some of us want other people to live next to us because (a) we know what’s good for us and (b) we want to have more nice things for less money. In the American political landscape, you are much more likely to be taken seriously if you’re fighting openly for your own interest. (I also think that, in the climate change debate, an underrated argument is “I bought all this beachfront property and I don’t care about those coal miners if it means I lose money.”)

A new moral code
Finally, considering the scale economies behind the curtain of urban living casts many supposedly community-spirited actions in a different light. If you organize to stop a condo development in Squirrel Hill, then you’ve made my life in Shadyside worse: those condo-dwellers might have given the East End the critical mass needed for a sorely needed cheap southern restaurant…or an extra bus route. When people rally to stop new development, they presume a new building is the only thing we’re missing out on. They should actually feel they are snatching newer and cheaper experiences from residents citywide.

-Lewis Lehe

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