“The Pittsburgh Conundrum,” John Russo’s piece in the American Prospect, does an excellent job pointing out the contradictions between the supposed re-birth of Pittsburgh as a prosperous and highly livable center for technological innovation, and the continued economic decline of its larger region, which has never shared in the elite spoils enjoyed in many of the city’s lovely neighborhoods.
Citing, among others, Joel Kotkin, Michael Lind, Bruce Katz, and Richard Florida, Russo details how Pittsburgh and its environs are emblematic of the challenges facing the United States’ economy, and how experts from across the political spectrum have offered varying diagnoses and wildly differing solutions to, among other things, the unaffordability of elite coastal metro areas, and the continued decline of the working class suburbs and smaller cities and towns outside of the urban core.
To me, the success of _parts_ of the city of Pittsburgh relative to the overall stagnation and decline of the region has a whole represent the limitations posed by relying on attracting Richard Florida’s Creative Class as an urban revitalization strategy. Other cities and metro areas are farther along in this regard – Downtown Chicago and Center City Philadelphia are islands of the privileged elite surrounded by, and hard-up against, entrenched economic distress, with the accompanying crime, blight, and despair. Attracting educated elites en masse does not translate to a more broad and universal middle class prosperity; rather it only magnifies inequality because it offers little ancillary opportunities beyond low-wage service jobs to the predominating members of the shrinking middle and working classes who lack advanced education. The scientists, programmers, corporate headquarters/front-office and accompanying professional services jobs (lawyers, bankers, consultants, doctors, etc.) are largely beyond the reach of most people outside of the upper middle class elite. Toward the end of the piece, Russo blames the vast disparities between metro areas, and, in places like Pittsburgh, within metro areas, on “…capitalism’s subordination of social needs to its economic necessities,” and concludes by pleading for urbanists to “…consider long-term strategies based on values, and not just spatial considerations, that address the concrete needs of people.” I found this broad platitude, without much in the way of new ideas, a bit disappointing.
There is a lot of hand wringing going on among most of the above-cited thinkers about the delta between High Cost Talent Magnet metros like New York, San Francisco, and Washington versus Stagnant metros like Cleveland, St. Louis, and, yes, even Pittsburgh, in spite of its small but growing oasis talented elites surrounded by the vast desert of working class decline. There is often discussion of how we could make High Cost Talent Magnets more affordable for the middle class by building our way out of unaffordability – intensifying density allowances, silencing NIMBYism, building vast rail systems like London’s Crossrail project to connect more outlying areas with the jobs in the core, and so on. We should instead be focused on what’s going right in a third group metro areas that are rapidly growing, and offer broad-based middle class prosperity in a diversified, sustainable manner. These places feature affordable housing, lots of available jobs at middle class salaries, and are not overly reliant upon boom-and-bust industries like tourism, retirees, and resource extraction. They include places like Dallas-Fort Worth, Salt Lake City/Ogden/Provo, Nashville, Charlotte, and Raleigh-Durham. The reasons for their success are myriad, mostly to do with being fortunate enough to have the right economic mix for the times. To me, the questions we need to be asking are whether, as a matter of policy, we can somehow replicate the conditions of the Fast-Growth metros in the Stagnant ones so that they too become magnets for middle-class prosperity, or if we need to have a Plan B.
As Russo noted in his article – how capitalism externalizes the social costs of prosperity – I wonder whether the stagnant regions are too far gone in their social challenges to ever solve the economic ones absent an incredible political revolution. I’m referring to the entrenched interest groups that speckle Stagnant regions that will go to great lengths to preserve their place in the status-quo hierarchy at the expense of the overall prosperity of the metro region as a whole. These include the miniature municipalities and neighborhood civic groups fighting to preserve their “character” through exclusionary zoning and NIMBYism, to the building trades who artificially inflate the cost of doing business and the accompanying good ol’ boy political machines. In other words, our stagnant metro areas have become “closed shop” metro areas. Absent politically-impossible feats like term limits for state and local elected officials, and metro-area-wide municipal consolidation, I don’t see things changing much for stagnant regions. The best they’ll ever do is attract small-ish concentrations of the upper-middle-class elite in a few neighborhoods, as Pittsburgh has done so well.
Assuming that Pittsburgh or St. Louis cannot transform themselves into Dallas or Nashville, let alone New York or San Francisco, in our lifetimes, Plan B is to literally help the disadvantaged residents of Stagnant metro areas, as well as other stagnant or declining rural areas and small towns, to leave and go somewhere better. We spend a lot of time focused on the health of a place that is declining, but if we really want to help the people who actually live there, why not provide grants or credits to families and households that move away from areas with high unemployment and low labor force participation to areas with available jobs and affordable housing? This would literally be subsidizing people to leave places like Youngstown, or North Philadelphia, or East St. Louis, and move to Provo or McKinney or Cary, where stable, middle class jobs and lifestyles await.
I would expect nothing less than tremendous resistance to this idea due to the emotional, cultural, and family connections people have to the places they live. But the factory jobs and other low-skill middle-class employment aren’t coming back to the Rust Belt. I would also expect urbanists to compare such an endeavor to the original sins of single-family home mortgage subsidies and the building of urban expressways – that is, subsidizing more sprawling, unsustainable development patterns in already-sprawling metro areas, adding to pollution woes and climate change. But to me that’s beside the point – aside from subsidizing the migration, we could also subsidize whatever livability and sustainability improvements we want in the prosperous regions too. Raleigh and Nashville thrive _in spite of_, not because of, their lack of pedestrian and transit-oriented development patterns, and if adding these things to the prosperous regions adds to their environmental sustainability, then I’m all for that too.