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

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

£70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

£60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Left in limbo: Refugee children in a processing centre in Brownsville, Texas  

Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Rupert Cornwell
Harman has said her gender affected her employment  

Gordon Brown could have had a woman as deputy PM. He bottled it

Joan Smith
Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?