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First Person: Why this 24-year-old is leaving town

Pittsburgh is a city stuck in its transitional phase, and I can't wait around

Saturday, July 20, 2002

By Elizabeth Currid

I have lived in Pittsburgh for the past six years. And while my stay certainly hasn't set any records, these years have been some of the most transitional and monumental of my life.

  Elizabeth Currid ( currid@andrew.cmu.edu ) is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University's Heinz School of Public Policy and Management, where she was a research assistant to Richard Florida. This fall, she will be attending Columbia University to pursue a Ph.D. in urban planning. 

I've strolled through the Strip District markets on Saturday mornings, run the Pittsburgh Marathon, watched Fourth of July fireworks at the Point, hiked through Frick Park, graduated from Carnegie Mellon (twice), explored the art of Andy Warhol, visited Fallingwater, gone to my first Pirates game, marveled at the view from Mount Washington and watched sunsets on Flagstaff Hill. These are experiences that many of you have also shared. They are also experiences that make Pittsburgh distinct and wonderful.

I have watched Pittsburgh begin its journey from urban decay to a fresh, young face of the new economy in half a decade. And right there for a second, the city really seemed to get it. Flux, the art and performance events held at various places around the city, was being embraced not just by youthful Pittsburgh but also by the city's leaders. High-technology firms had sprouted up in research parks and lofts all over the city. Places like the Andy Warhol Museum and the Mattress Factory were not just becoming havens for the artistic community but also meeting centers for business and political leaders. Oakland's street life was teeming with the almost extinct punk culture -- one wouldn't find a better representation anywhere but London. The UltraViolet Loop, a Saturday night bus that linked busy city neighborhoods, was painting the town purple. And then, then it was gone.

Pittsburgh is a city stuck in its transitional phase. It has the insight and prudence to shed the glory of its past for its potential in the 21st century -- yet it lacks the gusto to take the final leap and risk investing in the type of amenities and goals that influence regional growth in today's economy.

Pittsburgh needs to see what is truly worth: It has one of the largest student populations in the country. It is home to world-class medical research facilities. Carnegie Mellon is on the forefront of the most innovative and progressive of high-technologies, and Pittsburgh is a city that is home to an ethnically and racially diverse student body. Our future has a stockpile of raw materials finer than Silicon Valley could ever dream of.

And this 24-year-old, like many others, is bailing because she sees a city that with all of this raw potential, fails to invest in the real assets it possesses. Pittsburgh is a city that takes for granted the human talent from its universities, the edgy, authentic, creative underground culture of its artistic and music scenes, and the economic and innovative assets of its world-class universities. Pittsburgh is still building stadiums for a population that is no longer the future of tomorrow. Future generations want open communities and vibrant neighborhoods, not just Downtown malls and new sports facilities.

Much ado has been made about Richard Florida's book, "The Rise of the Creative Class," and the latest Forbes magazine rankings, which put the Pittsburgh singles' scene at the bottom of the national heap.

Instead of remaining stoic, indifferent or frankly using the rankings productively, city inhabitants have been up in arms, with neo-conservatives bashing Florida, Forbes and any other progressive urbanist in the city. Why do we care so much? Is it because some of their critiques just might be true?

Pittsburgh needs to recognize that its future is in the youthful and creative minds emerging from its outstanding universities, its distinctive and authentic neighborhoods, its long legacy of being a home for immigrants from around the world and its authentic street-level culture that can be found in places like Oakland and Bloomfield. Pittsburgh's future lies in much more than professional football stadiums and financial incentives to businesses.

When I conducted focus groups with foreign-born students in the spring of 2001, their main complaints were that Pittsburgh failed to create the kind of 24/7 diverse and vibrant city that would make them feel welcome. They wanted restaurants that were open late and more green space. They wanted more ethnic celebrations and a sense of belonging, which would make them feel that they, too, were an important part of Pittsburgh. Some students had even suffered racial abuse on our streets. Pittsburgh should take these comments seriously. As the 2000 Census attests, immigrants are the fastest-growing population in the United States. In many ways, they are the future of economic and population growth in our country, and the backbone of the American legacy of freedom and self-determination.

Instead of railing against recent negative publicity, the city should take a moment to mull over what these observers and researchers are trying to tell Pittsburgh. Forge stronger ties between the universities and the city. Work to retain the talent coming out of our universities. Create more welcoming environments for our diverse student populations. Invest in our artistic community. Revitalize our abandoned but beautifully constructed buildings in the Strip District, Hazelwood and other historic neighborhoods. Capitalize on the uniqueness and diversity of our neighborhoods.

This 24-year-old is not leaving Pittsburgh because she thinks Carrie Bradshaw is cool or there are better bars and clubs in New York City. She is leaving because she feels that even though New York has 8 million residents and going strong, she still knows that it is a city that takes its young minds and its baseball stadiums seriously. She knows that New York is a city that understands the importance of all of its inhabitants and their diversity. And it is a city that is willing to take risks and invest in the intangible, like the arts, creativity and human capital. And she knows that even in a city of 8 million people she is accepted alongside the bluehairs, "Duquesne Clubs" and sports teams. She, too, has a reason to be there.

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