Changing Gears
3:34 pm
Wed November 17, 2010

Reinventing Pittsburgh: Part 3

Drive east from downtown Pittsburgh and you’ll pass a church. At least, it was a church.

Today, the alter has been replaced with stainless steel casks of beer, and the pews are now a bar and tables. It’s another Pittsburgh transformation. Saint John the Baptist Church is now the Church Brew Works.

It’s one of those places people tell you: you have to go when you visit Pittsburgh. So, it wasn’t a hard sell to get a bunch of young professionals to meet there.

One of them is Robb Myer. He’s 35, and for a city reinventing itself, he is just the kind of guy you want to stick around. He’s from San Francisco. He came to Pittsburgh in 2004 to go to Carnegie Mellon and he stayed to start a service that will send a text message to your cell phone when a table is ready at a restaurant.

“For the first year, I really thought I’d go back to San Franciso area because a lot of stuff was happening there but I started liking Pittsburgh,” Myer said. “It has a small town feel, but it’s kind of a big city, and I thought it was a really good place to start a technology business.”

Many say as recently as a decade ago, you wouldn’t find many people like Robb in Pittsburgh. The sense that you can make it as an entrepreneur is very new.

It was the energy industry that brought Maura Nippert to Pittsburgh from Texas a year ago. Before she came north, all she knew about the region was on one of those little maps of the states she had since she was five. Each state had a little symbol.

“All I knew about Michigan was that there was a car on it. And I don’t know if it was Ohio or Pennsylvania, I just know that whole little area there was just smoke, and gears,” Nippert said.

Since then, she’s made friends and found things to do, but there’s still a sense that many people in Pittsburgh were born there, work there, and will die there, and Nippert says it’s not as welcoming to a Texan who’s used to overwhelming hospitality.

“If I had long term friends and family here, it might be a different story,” she said.

It was in just the last year or so that Pittsburgh appears to have reversed its decades of population decline. It’s evidence that more people like Maura and Robb are starting to settle in Pittsburgh. But, Grant Oliphant of the Pittsburgh Foundation says it’s too early to celebrate.

“I think the biggest risk for a community that’s at the point we are–which is a very exciting point–is that we get comfortable and slide back,” Oliphant said.

Pittsburgh has been buoyed by an array of partnerships and philanthropies that have collaborated to make a viable post-steel city a reality, but Don Smith says today’s success is still very new.

"I don’t know if we’re in adolescence yet or in our teenage years, but we’re clearly not ready to be on our own," Smith said.

Smith has spent a lot of time working on economic development in Pittsburgh. His organization, the Regional Industrial Development Corporation, is a nonprofit that is a big player in turning steel mills into things like technology parks. In order to be successful, though, he says Pittsburgh needs its businesses to be self-sustaining.

“People get tired. Funders get tired. The philanthropic community, which has been such a big part of Pittsburgh’s story, can’t fund things forever,” Smith said.

Yes, it’s now possible for a guy like Robb Myer to start a successful tech company in Pittsburgh, but it’s too early to call this the next Silicon Valley. Venture capital firms are not yet flocking en masse to Pittsburgh.

That said, it’s undeniable the city has been transformed for the better in recent years, but Grant Oliphant says not everyone is sharing in that success.

“The question of who’s been left behind is one of the most important ones that never gets asked when people are feeling good about the direction of a community or a region,” Oliphant said. “And, in Pittsburgh we actually have a substantial population that’s still being left behind.”

Between Oakland, where the big universities are, and the city center, there’s another neighborhood called Uptown. This seems like a place that has potential to come back, but it’s not there yet.

David Wohlwill is with the Allegheny County Port Authority, and he took me on a bus ride through Uptown.

“You can see a lot of the buildings. Some of them have not been well kept up. But others you can see they have been restored,” he said.

One plan is to put a bus rapid transit line between Oakland and Downtown. Wohlwill and the Port Authority hope that would encourage some development there. It could be a convenient place to live for downtown workers.

Or, travel through the Hill District and you really see the other Pittsburgh.

A new hockey arena built for the Penguins hasn’t made a dent yet in this struggling neighborhood. Many store fronts are boarded up. It has one of the highest murder rates in the county. It’s also overwhelmingly black.

“We have one of the poorest African American communities in America,” Grant Oliphant said. “That has got to change. If this community wants to move forward, that cannot be allowed to persist.”

But even in these neighborhoods there are some signs of hope. There is new housing going up and people dedicated to developing these parts of the city.

Cross a river to Pittsburgh’s north side and there’s another beacon of hope for Pittsburgh.

Bill Strickland runs the Manchester Bidwell Corporation. It’s a neighborhood center for anyone who needs help getting a future: school kids, moms on welfare, or those looking for a new job.

Strickland founded the center in 1968 as a refuge for inner city kids. Art was the original focus and kids can still fall in love with pottery and jazz here. Much like Strickland did when he was their age. Stumbling into a ceramics studio made all the difference.

“That’s where this whole thing started. Public school teacher saved my life,” Strickland said.

Over the decades, his center expanded beyond arts. After the fall of steel, Strickland stepped up job retraining. Those looking for work can train in the million dollar kitchen, or they can learn chemistry and quality control in the chemistry lab.

“Well, I got a couple PhD’s,” Strickland said.

The people who come here are young and old, black and white. They’re all treated with respect.

“Poverty is poverty,” he said. “Commonality is commonality. And, race is not a disclaimer or is not something that is prominently featured in what we do.”

It’s a model that’s making a difference. Like much of Pittsburgh, it’s a work in progress, but it is progress.

All over Pittsburgh, there’s confidence now. They think they can stay in Pittsburgh and get a good job. It probably won’t be in steel–though they still make speciality steel in the city. And, not everything is fixed yet. The population skews toward retirees and class disparities still exist.

This is a city, though, where leaders of universities, nonprofits, corporations, and even in some in government don’t wait for things to happen to them. They work together. They have goals. And, there’s foresight. It’s why there’s optimism from people like Bill Strickland.

“I think we’re now in the period of rebirth,” he said. “And, I’m happy to say that many of the races and many of the ethnic communities are coming back together with a new vision for a new city."