Through a portrait of economics, networking, and arts in a struggling metropolis, Next American City discusses the history that once defined Pittsburgh and the questions that nearly every Rust Belt city currently faces.

In the last half-century, Pittsburgh has lost over 50 percent of its population. Today, according to a 2007 census report, this city of 312,819 residents is losing residents at a rate second only to New Orleans. While population loss is not unique to Pittsburgh, politicians, city officials and activists remain stumped: How can a city built on a blue-collar foundation adapt to the changing nature of the country?

Inspiring change

It’s just after 8 a.m. on a Thursday morning as Kyle Holbrook sits down to his first cup of coffee. He’s got a full schedule for the next 12 hours: He’ll oversee the ongoing painting of 26 murals; he’ll tutor more than a hundred aspiring artists; and he’ll negotiate with community members and leaders to decide what kind of art to paint where, and when. It’ll be a busy day, but nothing new to him.

Holbrook, a muralist and youth coordinator who runs K.H. Design, believes art is a way to give back to the community. “I’m interested most in what murals can do,” he says, “Not just beautifying and putting a pretty picture up, but the social aspects.” Holbrook was raised in Wilkinsburg, just east of Pittsburgh, an area known for its dwindling population, economic depression, high taxes and gang violence over the last two decades. Holbrook believes the key to changing Wilkinsburg—and other struggling neighborhoods like it—involves occupying youth in productive, non-criminal activity: Specifically, art. He, his students and his staff are responsible for hundreds of murals throughout Pittsburgh. “Getting kids involved, working together, teamwork and leadership—it inspires them, coming up with a goal and then working together to accomplish it.”

Gang activity runs deep in many areas where Holbrook operates, and while he’s careful to skirt the subject, his own former gang experience no doubt helps him bridge gaps between rival neighborhoods. “When you have kids from different neighborhoods working together on the same project, that really does something powerful. When you see murals going up, you know change is coming.”

Pittsburgh rose to international prominence in the late 1800s as a center for industrial manufacturing, particularly steel production. Faced with the same economic troubles as other rust-belt cities like Detroit and Cleveland, however, those industries all but disappeared. In the ’80s and ’90s, Pittsburgh wisely repositioned itself as a hub for medical research, world-class universities, financial services and technology firms. Now, as Pittsburgh transitions from blue-collar city to high-tech medical hub, many people and organizations are turning to arts to inspire change.

“A few months back, Americans for the Arts released a study detailing the economic impact of the arts in the ballpark of $166 billion dollars nationwide,” says “Creative Class” proselytizer, Richard Florida. “In addition, Pew Research Center recently found that for every dollar government invests in the arts there is a $5 multiplier effect. So, it’s not surprising that communities and public leaders are engaging the arts as a revitalization mechanism.” Florida believes the arts provide public leaders with a viable alternative to large capital investments such as stadiums and convention centers. Leaders can invest more cautiously and help foster the organic development of a creative scene.

“Economic development today, more than ever before, is about talent management,” Florida explains. “Regions that are successful in economic development are creating and maintaining a community that is attractive for creative workers. Creative workers are seeking communities that are open, diverse, and thick with amenities — a vibrant arts scene, good restaurants, [and] a safe community. Arts organizations need to be telling this story.”

The Arts of engagement

Dan Onorato, county executive for Allegheny County, believes the arts-inspired developments underway in Pittsburgh have already made a difference. “The arts communities are a key component to the revitalization of cities today … In Pittsburgh’s case, the Cultural Trust single-handedly saved the downtown area in the decade [when] it was declining. Now it’s the centerpiece of revitalization. It replaced the strip clubs with a cultural district. And, as a cultural district, it’s probably a lot larger than most cities our size.” Additional student housing is now being built downtown to support the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and Point Park University, as well as upscale urban lofts and new apartments developers believe will attract residents interested in downtown living and tired of a long commute.

And while the arts alone are rarely a major economic generator—especially since arts organizations rely heavily on contributions from private and corporate foundations, charitable fundraisers and donations, and state and federal grant money—they boost a city’s overall appeal to both residents and visitors. “It’s not the only thing, but it’s important,” says Onorato.

“When done in conjunction with addressing the public safety, addressing the crime, addressing public education, addressing economic development as a whole in the community—jobs, workforce, development—I think that art can play a major role,” says Khari Mosley, a local activist and organizer. He emphasizes, however, that art can effect more profound changes than simply making a city more palatable: “I think it’s important to use art as a catalyst, particularly in cities like Pittsburgh that have a lot of history and culture. It’s one of the primary assets we have.”

cathy-lewis_sprout-fund

Cathy Lewis, Sprout Fund.

One local nonprofit founded in 2001, the Sprout Fund, shares that opinion; they help jumpstart innovative grassroots community projects. “If you want people to be invested in their community,” says Cathy Lewis Long, executive director of Sprout, “You need to invest in them. If you have a good idea, you should be given the resources to make that good idea happen. If you are given those resources, you’re more likely to feel connected to your community.”

Sprout provides resources in the form of “Seed Awards”: Grant checks ranging from $1,000 to $10,000. They consider each Seed Award an investment into projects that engage young people in civic activities and affairs. Sprout also manages and facilitates a public art program that commissions and installs a series of new murals in different neighborhoods throughout the city each year.

“For a community to be a vibrant community, it needs to have jobs, affordable housing, transportation and a high quality of life,” says Long. “All of the work that we’re doing—through the Seed Award program, the Public Art program, and other initiatives that we’ve run —fits into the slice of the pie that I would call quality of life.”

While Manny Theiner, curator at Garfield Artworks, doesn’t doubt the impact of arts on a community, he does concede economic realities. “If you don’t have some form of business earnings at some point or another, art can’t be supported. If people don’t have jobs, they don’t have money to attend events. If corporations aren’t making money, or if they can’t get something out of it, they’re not going to sponsor a jazz festival, or what have you. If Henry Clay Frick and Carnegie hadn’t exploited workers how many years ago, there wouldn’t be these foundations now. It all comes down to generating money out of labor and business.”

Theiner, both a fervent supporter and an outspoken critic of the arts, has spent two decades organizing Pittsburgh music events. In his curatorial capacity, he has booked an encyclopedic roster of musicians with a focus on the independent and experimental—Nirvana, Thurston Moore, John Zorn, Boris, and Ruins among thousands of others—maintaining a rigorous schedule of nearly 200 events per year. Profit has never been of much concern; he funds most shows out of pocket, from money earned teaching and as a freelance music critic.

“The arts can definitely be used as a method of—if you want to call it—gentrification, but is that an economy?” he asks. “Don’t people have to have jobs before they can move into an area and gentrify it? What kind of jobs are people even getting here that they would move to Pittsburgh? Are there any jobs being created anywhere [locally]? Our population continues to drop, right? Young people continue to leave and there are no real job additions, right?” He seems almost to be thinking aloud, hoping to work out a sound and pragmatic answer. But his voice carries a note of frustration, like he’s thought these questions through before to no avail.

“I don’t know if the arts, all by itself, can restart an economy,” he concludes. “What I see is people using the arts—whether it’s downtown or whether it’s here on Penn Avenue—I see them using it as a carrot on a stick to attract supposed investment.”

Networking for the next generation

If Pittsburgh lacks a sufficient population base for the arts to catalyze change, alternative community building strategies, such as social networking, may help set the stage.

The ongoing population loss is at heart a quality-of-life issue, agrees Mosley, who serves as campaign director for Pittsburgh United, a coalition of leadership groups focused on community initiatives in the North Side and the Hill District sections of Pittsburgh. He points out the immense changes in American culture over the past 40 years are magnified in Pittsburgh. Once a predominantly blue-collar workforce, the Steel City has had a whole generation grow up without the factories that moored their culture. Increasingly, universities, technology, and healthcare sustain Pittsburgh’s workforce. But many believe old habits in government and planning are hindering progress.

Residents like Justin Strong, co-owner of the Shadow Lounge, a café and music venue in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh, sense the futility of lingering in the past. “We’re running the city like we got 600,000 people, but we don’t. It’s like we just don’t want to let go [of the past], you know? It’s like you used to be the starting quarterback and then next year you’re on the bench, but you’re still bragging about last year. It’s like, ‘Cool, but that was the ’70s.’ Right now this is the situation.”

Pittsburgh struggles to retain and attract new residents, say young activists in the city, because of excessive taxation and a lack of local job opportunities. According to Strong, who has had several similar conversations lately, city leadership needs to take responsibility for change to happen. “What’s the biggest issue stopping [Pittsburgh] from going to that next level? Because it’s not a matter of we don’t have talent or we don’t have the amenities or we don’t have the attention of young people for a certain period of time. It’s once you get to that top level of leadership, it [becomes an] almost clan-like or tribe-like mentality: ‘No, it’s my turn to be judge; it’s my turn to be mayor. I’m next. Your family had it, now my family,’” says Strong. “On the leadership side of things that mentality needs to be scrapped, because everybody’s greasing everybody’s [palms] doing unnecessary [work] — whether it’s road projects or development projects, whatever — just so their friend gets the contracts and their union gets the work. We don’t need to do this, this isn’t necessary.”

This short-sightedness, which Strong calls a “Yinzer mentality” (“Yinzer” is slang for a quintessential local), diverts attention from inclusive community building; the impenetrable legacies, questionable “gift” contracts, and nepotism fostered by the status quo, he surmises, repel residents from civic action. It’s a common concern in Pittsburgh, brought to recent prominence by the case of City Councilwoman Twanda Carlisle, for instance, who faces corruption charges from an alleged kickback scheme with three accomplices involving tax dollars. And some accuse Pittsburgh’s 27-year-old mayor, Luke Ravenstahl, of attaining his position through dubious familial connections rather than qualifications (Ravenstahl has no graduate degree and no entrepreneurial background, but his father is a district judge, and his grandfather was a state representative; he attained the mayoral seat after Mayor Bob O’Connor’s death last year).

Mosley, much like Strong, believes diversity in leadership—whether at the nonprofit, private sector or government level—could help deter such actions, and help Pittsburgh compete with other American cities. And while touting the importance of diversity has become a platitude in the corporate and political worlds, Mosley’s all-encompassing view speaks to race, gender, sexual orientation and socio-economic class.

To help instigate such change, Pittsburgh has begun hosting networking functions, sponsored by young professional groups. Erin Molchany, executive director of Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Project, a networking group dedicated to advancing issues affecting young people, credits the accessibility of the leadership in pushing civic engagement to the forefront. Civic groups like PUMP, she says, do their part in turn by focusing on their constituency and making sure they are plugged into the community. “If you want things to change, you have to be a part of it. You have to own the change.”

“Networking is important,” Mosley says, “but there also has to be an environment that is supportive of developing young talent and young leaders … I think there’s a tendency not to give those opportunities. That’s the frustration that you see [when] there are many young people leaving for Atlanta, leaving for D.C., leaving for Seattle, leaving for Portland. It’s bigger than just networking. Anywhere you are you have to network. But I think that also the environment of the area has to be welcoming.” To make the city more inviting, in Mosley’s view, a new well of diversity has to spring from the top down. But some, mainly current leadership, argue Pittsburgh’s new course has already been charted.

Gentrification in moderation

While activists like Strong believe the city must attract new residents to shake up the stagnant social, political, and cultural landscape, others worry about the reality of gentrification.

“At the end of the day, it’s sort of a mud ball,” says Rob Stephany, executive director of planning and development for the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh (URA), about gentrification. “Some people who use the word like to just pick it up off the ground and throw it, see how it sticks. But if that person who threw the mud ball agrees to listen to the words that come back, it creates this really great conversation. The other side of the gentrification coin is, don’t do anything, and there are pretty intense implications to that.”

The physical distress unfolding in the city, Stephany says, partially stems from Pittsburgh’s shrinking population, but largely indicates a social malfunction—that the halving of the population in the last half-century has pushed Pittsburgh past its tipping point. “The population’s just not there to absorb it,” he says. Communities must either continue in vain to fill the vacant lots of blighted and abandoned properties with bodies that they no longer have, or else rethink their approach to redevelopment—for instance, converting those lots to parks, community gardens or expanded yards. But the creative approach runs the risk of squeezing out lower-income residents who have chosen to stay in the city.

“At the end of the day, it depends on how you define gentrification,” says Jeffrey Dorsey, executive director at Friendship Development Associates (FDA) and former arts district manager for the Penn Avenue Arts Initiative (PAAI). “We’re trying to guarantee … that we can make a valued change, to guarantee equity for as many people as possible. That’s what community development corporations do … if that happens in a way that people think is gentrifying, then I would say by nature CDCs are gentrifiers. So it just depends on how you look at it.”

Dorsey is referring to the area on Penn Avenue, just outside Pittsburgh’s downtown, where the neighborhoods of Friendship and Garfield meet. In 1999, the PAAI targeted a 12-block stretch of this avenue for revitalization, attempting to fill 16 vacant buildings with new tenants. Surrounding property values began to increase and now sell for around $170,000 on average per property. Buildings with a selling price of $50,000 in 1999 are now selling for $400,000. “So you could potentially say we’ve gentrified in Friendship,” says Dorsey. “I think along this corridor we’re very cognizant of who lives here. A lot of businesses struggled here for many years and considered leaving. We’ve now given them a value to their property, a reason to stay.”

Dorsey points out that giving residents a reason to stay is half the battle, but awareness of residents’ economic and social needs is integral during the redevelopment process. That lesson perhaps may ultimately pull Pittsburgh from the Rust Belt slump.

John Austin, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, summarizes: “It is imperative for urban leaders to help local native residents appreciate [that] some gentrification is a good thing. It can bring back and grow an economy in which native folks can participate—because without an economy there is nothing.”

Originally appeared in Next American City in December of 2007.

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