Rupert Cornwell: 'Steel Town' shows US the art of survival

Out of America: Pittsburgh, heart of the rustbelt, reinvented itself after industrial collapse in the 1980s. Its rebirth offers hope to other smitten cities

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The man who is tired of Washington DC is not necessarily tired of life. So last weekend, my wife I and decided to get out of town for a couple of days. The ideal destination had to be within comfortable driving distance from the capital, full of culture, history and excellent eating, all in a magnificent natural setting. So we went to Pittsburgh.

Yes, Pittsburgh, "Steel Town", the cradle of American heavy industry, where the furnaces used to blaze night and day, and the air was so thick with smoke you could hardly breathe. "Hell with the lid off," was how the 19th-century Boston writer James Parton described the place, adding that "the first feeling of the stranger is one of compassion for the people who are compelled to live in such an atmosphere".

Not any more. Last weekend my first feeling was envy. Oh yes, they do still manufacture steel in these parts, but it's little more that a footnote now to a hugely diversified and reconfigured local economy. Indeed, the most tangible reminder of the molten metal that was the city's lifeblood is the name of Pittsburgh's indecently successful NFL team, the Steelers.

The city that once offered a passable imitation of Dante's Inferno has now been voted by such publications as Forbes magazine and The Economist as the most liveable in the US. But most important of all, Pittsburgh is a perfect antidote to the fashionable doctrine of American declinism, and to the belief that the rustbelt is forever doomed.

Even after the recession of 2009, Pittsburgh's plight three decades ago is hard to imagine now. In little more than five years, the region lost 150,000 manufacturing jobs, almost half of them in the steel sector, as cheap competition from abroad swamped the inefficient and protected local industry.

In places like Detroit, as synonymous with automobiles as Pittsburgh was with steel, decline was gradual, barely noticeable at first. Not so around Steel City, where in some mill towns the jobless rate in the mid-1980s was worse than in the Great Depression. But in retrospect, the speed and completeness of the collapse may have been a blessing. Something had to be done – and it was.

To be fair, even in its bleakest hours, the city had a lot going for it. Its 19th-century tradition embodied the best, as well as the worst, of American capitalism. Think robber barons, and you think those Pittsburgh magnates Andrew Mellon and Andrew Carnegie; yet these two were philanthropists as well as ruthless businessmen. "Wealth is not to feed our egos," the Scots-born Carnegie famously declared, "but to feed the hungry and to help people help themselves."

They poured their money into libraries, universities and charitable enterprises that in the 1980s were there to help Pittsburgh back on to its feet. In truth, the seeds of reinvention were sown much earlier, in the 1950s, when the city realised it had to clean up its act – literally – if it was not to be choked to death by polluted air and stinking rivers. But from the 1980s on, Pittsburgh was remade. Hi-tech and service industries such as banking became its driving forces; the population, reduced by half from its mid-20th-century peak of 650,000, began to rise anew.

In 2007 the transformation was complete when the rusty old US Steel Tower, emblem of the company part founded by Carnegie, became the new headquarters of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, one of America's most prestigious hospital groups. What Pittsburghers call "eds and meds" had become the industry of the 21st century.

But that's not what makes yesteryear's Steel Town so terrific to visit today. There's a simple rule about American cities. The best ones are those set within tight physical limits: Manhattan on its island, San Francisco enclosed on three sides by its bay and the Pacific Ocean, Seattle wedged between Puget Sound and the mountains. The worst are those that sprawl without natural constraint – Phoenix and Houston, to name but two.

Pittsburgh falls emphatically into the first category. Its setting surely cannot be beaten, wedged between steep banks where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers join to form the Ohio. The best way to arrive is from the south, through the three-quarter-mile Fort Pitt tunnel. As you enter, you are driving through the hard, wooded hills of Appalachia; when you come out, a forest of gleaming skyscrapers is close enough to touch.

Not surprisingly, such a place has always made history. Thanks to its position at the head of the Ohio, in America's early days it guarded access from the East coast to the rich lands of the Mid-west and the Mississippi valley. During the Seven Years War with France, Pittsburgh was a vital prize, captured by the British in 1758 and renamed in honour of the great minister in London who ran the war.

Compact and muscular, it is one of America's few real walking cities. Someone wrote that it has more bridges than Venice. That may or may nor be true. But Pittsburgh's are very different bridges, not delicate constructions of brick and marble, but brawny and practical, of weathered iron girders, carrying railways, streets and interstate highways, one after another as far as the eye can see.

Spiritually too, the places couldn't be more different. Venice can boast Bellini, Titian and Tintoretto. Pittsburgh's most famous artistic son is Andy Warhol. Venice is dying, elegantly and gently. Pittsburgh breathes rude rebirth from every pore.

And therein, perhaps, lies its real significance for bruised and demoralised middle America, wondering whether pre-recession prosperity can ever return. Yes, Pittsburgh has been fortunate, in its geography and its inherited industrial ethic. And while its jobless rate is currently 2 per cent below the national average, it has pockets of poverty and deprivation like every American city. But if it has reinvented itself, there is no reason why the other great cities of the rustbelt – Cleveland and Buffalo, even Detroit – cannot do so too.

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