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Learning From Pittsburgh

January 06 2011 | 15 comments

Our nicknames:  Motown, The Motor City, or Auto Capital of the World.  They all indicate one of our past strengths…and one of our current challenges.  Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was known as Steel Town for decades.  But that city has reinvented itself.  Detroit 2020 visited Pittsburgh and found there were lessons we could learn.


From dusk until dawn, the Pittsburgh skyline is absolutely  gorgeous and quite impressive considering the massive architectural jewels have been erected from the ashes of a town once known the world over for two things, the Pittsburgh Steelers and steel manufacturing.

Rob Stephany of the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh told us, “We started losing our competitive edge in the 50s with the total collapse of the entire industry by the 70’s or 80s.”  The death of steel caused a mass exodus of families.  According to Stephany, “In 1983, the average unemployment rate for our 10 county area was 18.3%.  Today it’s under 8%.”

The story mirrors the Motor City where a number of factors including a downturn in the economy depleted our population.   “Both cities lost about 50% over the last 50 years,” Stephany told us.

Pittsburgh has demonstrated resilience and a willingness to act.  City leaders, donors with deep pockets and the brainpower of universities drew up a battle plan for reinvention.

Dennis Yablonsky is the CEO of the Allegheny Conference.  He says, “Like Detroit, we were once a place that was heavily reliant on one industry sector that when it had trouble affected the entire region.  Today our economy is very balanced and very diversified and as a result we’re able to weather some of these economic downturns.”  Diversification began by zeroing in on five sectors of the economy:  advanced manufacturing, financial services, energy, information technology and health care and life sciences.

One example of positive change is the 48 acres of land that used to be a US Steel mill.  It had been sitting barren singe 1967.  Then in 2009 it became the Pittsburgh Technology Center and brings in $1million dollars of tax revenue annually.

With 33 colleges and universities, including the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon, Pittsburgh has become known as the college city.  100-thousand students pass through.

Yablonsky says, “Our new sectors – the bio-technology sector, the information technology sectors which virtually didn’t exist 30 years ago, they’ve been created from whole cloth based on having world class institutions.”  With Wayne State University, U of D Mercy, Marygrove and a whole list of community colleges, the Motor City is not too shabby on the education front.

The financial sector in Pittsburgh is booming.  Two of the country’s largest banks are headquartered there.  And Pittsburgh has a health system ranked among the nation’s top ten.  As in Pittsburgh, health care is working in Detroit’s favor.  Detroit Council President Charles Pugh pointed out, “Certainly health care is one of our strengths.  In fact they’ve been our only growth industry in the last 15 years.”

Forbes magazine calls Pittsburgh the nation’s “Most Livable City” and signs of life are everywhere.  According to Yablonski, Pittsburgh is now a first class place to live, “And that makes it easier to attract businesses, which makes it easier to attract people.”

While in Pittsburgh, we visited South Side works.  It offers everything from upscale restaurants and a lot of retail.  In the 1960s the 123 acres were owned by a steel company.  Today the entire area is the heart and soul of the retail industry right in the city.

Older neighborhoods are being transformed and that’s creating better home values.  Three new sports arenas were built in the heart of Pittsburgh within the last three years.  They’re beacons of light and magnets for people.   You can come into town and park, have dinner and walk to any of the arenas.

Little Caesar’s founder and Red Wing owner, Mike Ilitch has the same idea for the Motor City – especially with talk of a new home for the Red Wings and Pistons in downtown Detroit.

Pittsburgh’s amazing reinvention attracted the eye of city leaders in Detroit.  Council President Pugh took a group to Pittsburgh to visit.  Pugh says, “One thing I love about what Pittsburgh has done: they’ve gone from being a town where steel was 70% of their economy and now it’s less than 20%.  Experts say the same must be done in the auto industry.  Battery technology and electric vehicles are just the start.  According to Council President Pugh, “As car production technology changes so should the companies we’re attracting here and incentivizing to move here to Detroit.”

Trade and commerce are two other key areas Detroit is looking to for economic growth.  Pugh told us the Ambassador Bridge has more commerce every day than any other border crossing in the world.

Back in Pittsburgh, Yablonsky says, “The problems developed over a long time here and the solutions took a long period of time.  So you just have to set your targets, work together and be persistent about it and you’ll see incremental progress, but it takes a while to get through all this.”

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  1. Gerald Robbins January 6, 2011

    I’m so disappointed with the whole Detroit 2020 project, Its nothing more than re-hashed old news. Pittsburgh? Come on… It is nothing like Detroit. They have half the population and the demographics are completely different.

    Get out of your studio in Southfield and go spend some time in the D. Look at the real problems. Years and years of crooked Mayors and City Councils have left the city in peril. Thank Goodness for people like Pete Karmanos and Mike Ilitch who are trying their hardest to revitalize our dying jewel. If Channel 7 really wants to make a difference, stop rehashing what we already know and making silly comparisons to cities with half the population and bring some ideas to the table. You finally had someone going after the crooked politicians and what happened? You fired him!

    Bringing awareness of the issues to your viewers is great, but you as a media have a responsibility to bring some viable solutions too! Show the real issues. Show the real problems in Detroit. Don’t pretty it up for ratings sake.


  2. MatteoLC January 6, 2011

    “LEARNING” from another Rust-belt city that has lost over 50% of it’s population? (a la Cleveland and Buffalo) I visit Pittsburgh several weeks per year, and must share with you that it’s not the paradise you made it seem on TV. Did their city PAY you for that story?

    Credit to them for one thing… They didn’t waste money on a river-walk that nobody uses (they have 3 rivers) – and instead cleaned up their downtown. Young people (not just artists and musicians) actually want to live in the city and do so without fear. Why would any suburbanite want to move INTO Detroit? Scary place – but you can walk by the river! (Until nighttime – when you better get back to Warren)

    Pittsburgh, however, shouldn’t be considered an aspirational example for Detroit. WE are a top 11 city and metro population-wise. They are not even top 25… I don’t want Detroit to be a miniature city with no National presence – like Pittsburgh. Look further East…Philadelphia is closer to what Detroit could/should be.


    AJ Reply:

    The days of Detroit being a “National Presence” are long over. Pittsburgh did, at one time, have quite a national presence, and it was top ten population-wise as well, however when steel collapsed they lost this presence. Sure, Detroit is top 11 now. It used to be a lot higher, and its going to dip a lot lower. Considering the current predicament, a Pittsburgh-esque result for Detroit would be a hell of a lot better than a continued descent into decrepitude. The whole point of this is to show how a city can recover from the collapse of its main industry and maintain a functioning a vibrant economy, not regain all of its lost population and become the city it once was.

    So, in conclusion, Pittsburgh should be considered an aspirational example for Detroit, seeing as it went from one of the most industrialized, polluted cities in America to the most livable. In fact, if Detroit can achieve half the success that Pittsburgh has, I would consider that a great success based on where it is right now…dying.


  3. Jim January 6, 2011

    I saw your commentary on Pittsburgh. I don’t share your feelings on Pittsburgh being such a great city and that Detroit can learn from them. My dad had Liver cancer and we checked into UPMC Montefiore. We thought UPMC was a great hospital until we got their and my dad had a liver resection. Come to find out the staff was rude; they do not take pride in patient care and basically gave my dad false hopes.

    The doctors only did the surgery for the money and we came to them to save my dad. if they were going to give my dad a grim prognosis they should’nt of performed the operations. He later passed Sept 4, 2009 at ST. Joe Hospital in Ann Arbor and they were no better.

    The doctors had a horrible bedside manner and my mother who had to face these doctors and their evil behavior alone half the time because my family and myself were at work. I would make it there once in awhile on FMLA but my mom received no respect and even told my dad that was going to die.

    Additionally the people are rude and uptight and try to ask someone even local law enforcement for direction to somewhere and you just get the cold shoulder. Remember we can boast about a place because it is news worthy, but there is always two sides to the story. And I am not too fond of the hospitals here in Michigan namely U of M Health System, St. Joe Mercy, Henry Ford, and William Beaumont.


  4. Ben January 7, 2011

    I agree that these are two very different cities in geographical size, topography and population. Pittsburgh has some issues, no doubt it. But the very concept of evolving became more of an idea in Pittsburgh. Detroit needs to stop talking and start doing. Visits like this are helpful.


  5. PITTSBURGH!!!! January 7, 2011

    Don’t be haters….They were using Pittsburgh as an example. Sure there are differences …..WE don’t have CORRUPT people running our CITY….The people of Pittsburgh, love there city and work hard to keep the PRIDE of the Burgh alive!!!!!…So sorry for your loss JIM…..As for you MatteoLC..We would much rather be a miniature city with no presence (YOUR OPINION) then the MURDER CAPITAL OF THE WORLD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


  6. C. 'Hype' Currie January 7, 2011

    Definitely, Detroit can learn some lessons from Pittsburgh and any other city that eventually rebounded from having a “keystone industry” collapse in the previous decades. Gary, Indiana is in the same boat as well. It will take bold vision from both citizens and elected officials from the city and the metro area. The parts of Detroit’s economy which are not working mostly involve manufacturing. This cannot be over-stressed. Historically, Detroit has placed an inordinate amount of resources into assuming that the heavy-industrial manufacturing industry would be here forever. There was a time in which various factory and heavy-industry-related jobs were plentiful for local residents, whether they were simply a high school graduate, or even a dropout. At the risk of understatement, that era is over. From the 1960s forward, there has been both drastic and gradual disinvestment, by both larger corporations and smaller businesses, which has economically crippled the city of Detroit and made the metropolitan area much less prosperous than in the past.
    Manufacturing as an industry farmed jobs out to foreign countries while downsizing dramatically within our borders. Today, even entry-level jobs at various companies require some form of formal skills training, a degree or certificate. This prevents a high percentage of Detroit residents from even being considered for various jobs. Thus, even so-called blue-collar jobs are not a sure thing for anyone unskilled seeking employment.


  7. bju January 8, 2011

    I have wondered for years why Detroit couldn’t learn from the Pittsburgh experience. I have driven over there every summer for most of the last decade to enjoy their professional theater, and never run out of things to do in and around the city. We may not be the same size- or demographics-wise, but there’s a lot we can learn from another broken down factory town that reinvented itself into a great trip destination. They rehabed their old train station into a thing of glory with a Muer’s restaurant, an adjacent riverside plaza and mall people flock to, Just Ducky Tours that are a blast, and you can still visit their historic fort. We may not have the incline or the proximity to Fallingwater, but we have other attractions that would benefit if the city itself became more of a destination.


  8. Andrew Linko January 8, 2011

    Our new Lt. Governor, the State Senate ans State House, and the Mackinac Center forPublicPolicy could learn a lot from Pittsburgh’s revitalization, Pennsylvania did not have to become a Right To Work state, public workers wages, benefit, and pensions did not have to be reduced or eliminated. Pittsburgh performed its revitalization with cooperation from all sectors of the community, not simply blaming anyone. Cooperation, Attitude, is the only thing that will rebuild Detroit, not Conservative think tanks, Conservative editorials, or GOP elected officials placing blame on workers and the unions that represent them.


  9. Carl Kurlander January 9, 2011

    The change alluded to here is not easy or simple, but is something that can be replicated.

    When I moved back to my hometown of Pittsburgh from L.A. after a two decade career as a screenwriter (St. Elmo’s Fire”) and TV writer/producer (Saved by the Bell), it was so unusual that I ended up as a guest on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” for of all things moving to Pittsburgh. That was in 2003, and shortly after my wife and I told Oprah how happy we were living in what was the real life “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” where Fred Rogers had filmed his TV show, Fred passed away and the city of Pittsburgh, which a hundred years earlier had been the Silicon Valley of the Industrial Revolution, declared itself “financially distressed.”

    Mr. Rogers used to show what we make on his program and many of those factories are no longer in Western Pennsylvania. In 2005, we ended up beginning to document whether the city that built America with its steel, conquered polio, and invented everything from Aluminum to the Big Mac, has, like many post-industrial cities, been challenged to reinvent itself.

    Much to our own amazement, in the subsequent 5 years, the city– through much collective effort– had a remarkable ‘comeback story” as Google opened a Pittsburgh branch, talent which had left Pittsburgh began to return, the city hosted the G-20 where it was called “a model for the future”, the city was twice named “America’s Most Livable City”, and of course, the Steelers symbolically twice one the Super Bowl. (I’ll avoid mentioning the Penguins here.)

    Of course, this is a process, and Pittsburgh is not “there yet”, but the key has been a change in mentality and the way many Pittsburghers and outsiders are now viewing themselves.

    Not to plug, but this movie, “My Tale of Two Cities” which has been called not a “Roger & Me”, but a “Mr. Rogers & Me” has now played in over 20 cities including Windsor Ontario and on Capitol Hill last year, is coming to the Detroit Institute of Art on February 26 at 4 p.m.

    We hope this will be an opportunity to have a dialogue with city leaders and others who care about how Detroit can reinvent itself as it was in Windsor and other cities.

    If you want to be part of this dialogue, please feel free to contact us at or see for more on the movie.


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  12. Don January 17, 2011

    Three new sports arenas were built in the heart of Pittsburgh within the last three years.

    False!……Heinz Field and PNC Park opened in 2001.

    Only CONSOL Energy center where, ahem, the Pens call home opened this year.


  13. Renee McCarthy January 17, 2011

    In 1984, my family became a product of Pittsburgh’s population loss. We were driven ironically, to the state of Michigan. My husband had worked through his college years at a Bank in Pittsburgh. They paid for his undergraduate degree from Robert Morris University. When he graduated with a 3.8 GPA from the University in 1984 he could not find a job in Pittsburgh. It was sad. Not even the major bank would hire him, even though they paid for his education. He found work with EDS. A company owned by General Motors. We moved to Flint Michigan. My husband was an accounting major, and yet, EDS hired him and trained him in a different field. He worked for them for many years and when EDS was sold to AT Kearney, he transferred over. He now works for a different consulting firm and five years ago worked for the City of Detroit to revitalize the city. His background as a Pittsburgh native proved instrumental in that project.

    Growing up in the City of Pittsburgh all I can remember when I was young was opening my front door and seeing smoke and red skies. I know now that that was the steel mills work of art in the air. I think it was Mark Twain that wrote, “That the skies in Pittsburgh looked like a living HELL”. That was not too much of an exaggeration. My breathing problems are probably a direct link back to the City.

    It is a city that I love. When I see it now I am amazed at how it has changed. It has always had the friendliest people, but now it has more beauty, spirit and education. It has a great sports following, tremendous arts (theater), fantastic outdoor athletic attractions and their museums (Science Center) are some of the best in the world. Their roadway system needs a lesson from DETROIT.

    My family and I love going into Detroit. We have season tickets to the Tigers, we go to the Theater, We go to Red Wings games and we never miss a July firework show in Detroit. It seems to me though that many people who grew up in the suburbs of Detroit won’t do the same. They think my family is crazy to spend time in Detroit. We eat at as many different places in Detroit as we can. Some how Detroit needs to attract those Michigan residents back into the city and let them see what a wonderful time they can have in downtown Detroit.

    Detroit is extremely, area wide, bigger than Pittsburgh, but there are lessons to learn from great change. I think Pittsburgh has great knowledge to be learned. It doesn’t matter the size. You just need to take the info and run with it. If the people of Pittsburgh are willing to advise, then the employees of Detroit City should listen up.

    Great job on your 20D20 piece on how Pittsburgh had a comeback and so can Detroit. Thanks for that wonderful reporting.

    A girl from Pittsburgh who also loves all that Detroit has to offer.


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