Pittsburgh’s Persistence: Sustaining the "Steel City"

Posted: July 24, 2016

By Rachel Robbins


Officially founded in 1758, Pittsburgh was named after British statesman William Pitt. Its abundance of coal and the three rivers, the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio, quickly attracted the steel industry. Pittsburgh soon became known as “the city that built America” (“A Very Brief History of Pittsburgh”). The steel industry eventually collapsed, but Pittsburgh did not, WHY?

Several factors set Pittsburgh apart from fellow ‘boom and bust’ towns. City officials emphasized a more sustainable approach to revitalization involving the environment, economy, and culture of the unique area. In order to gain a richer understanding of the typical boom and bust cycle, it is important to examine and compare Pittsburgh to similarly affected towns.

Fellow Boomers and Busters

Detroit, Michigan is a prime example. Between the years of 1910 and 1950, the city experienced the boom of the auto industry and became known as the “Motor City.” By the 1940’s, however, manufacturing jobs began to spread across the country leaving Detroit with an ever-fleeting population. In fact, the city’s total population dropped from 1.3 million in 1950 to 714,000 in 2011. The increasing abandonment has led to a major infrastructural problem. In the declining economic state, many residents struggle to maintain private properties or pay their taxes to maintain public properties (Maynard). Today, Detroit’s population continues to decrease while the crime rate increases. As a result, residents continue to flee the area and migrants avoid it.

Figure 1: Percent Change in Number of College Graduates From 2000 to 2012

Figure 1: Percent Change in Number of College Graduates From 2000 to 2012

Provided by The New York Times, the data in Figure 1 represents metropolitan areas’ attractiveness to college graduates aged 25 to 34. With a -10% change in the number of college graduates moving to the city, it is evident that Detroit struggles to attract new residents. In fact, it is the only city listed to experience negative growth.

Another example lies just twenty-five minutes outside of Pittsburgh. Braddock, Pennsylvania became the home to Andrew Carnegie’s first steel mill in 1873. At the peak of the steel industry, Carnegie, an influential businessman, owned nearly 40% of Pittsburgh’s steel production; Pittsburgh itself produced 60% of the country’s steel. Unfortunately the decline of the steel industry came in the 1970’s. Like Detroit, Braddock faced population loss and crumbling infrastructure. The small town lost over 50% of its population between 1990 and 2000. With great efforts from their mayor, John Fetterman, the town is finally beginning to make revitalize, but they have a long road ahead (“History”).

Boom and Bust

Pittsburgh experienced its “Golden Age” between 1870 and 1910. During this period, the city’s population rose from 86,076 to 533,905. Recall, Pittsburgh was producing 60% of the country’s steel and became known as the “Steel City.” The accessible metropolis was able to ship steel with ease. Like Detroit and Braddock, though, Pittsburgh experienced a downfall. In 1959, steelworkers went on a 116-day, industry-wide strike; The halt in production led other cities to import their steel from elsewhere. This, in turn, drove many Pittsburgh steel mills to bankruptcy. By the late 1980’s, 75% of the city’s steel companies dissolved. Soon after, the population decreased and infrastructure crumbled (“A Very Brief History of Pittsburgh”).

Despite the similarities to Detroit and Braddock, Pittsburgh has defied the boom and bust odds. Based on its stability in healthcare, culture, environment, education, and infrastructure, the city consistently ranks as the most livable city in the continental United States. VisitPittsburgh CEO, Craig Davis says it best: “This city has come far because of the determination of collaboration and of perseverance. There’s been a conscious effort to invest in arts, culture and the environment as an economic development strategy. And, that has paid off nicely”.

Culture and Community

Established in 1984, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust encourages revitalization through the arts. The organization was a key player in the development of the city’s Cultural District, a 14-block area dedicated to history, arts, and entertainment. Full of life and renovated theaters and galleries, the district attracts locals, tourists, and businesses alike (“Pittsburgh Cultural Trust”). Foodies, sports fans, shoppers, concert goers, and adventurers are also attracted to Pittsburgh’s vibrant downtown. It offers restaurants, bars and nightlife, sports and events, shops, and outdoor activities, including biking, kayaking, and paddle boarding.

Appreciation for the city’s culture and history tends to bring residents together. Pittsburgh’s countless festivals and events are eagerly awaited and well-attended. The Three Rivers Regatta, Arts Festival, and Light-Up Night are just a few examples. The city encompasses a rare and true sense of community. Love for the city and its history is instilled at a child’s first incline ride. Despite leaving town for jobs and college, those born and raised in the city often return as adults. As seen in Figure 1, Pittsburgh has become a popular destination for college graduates.


Loving a town is easy to do when it is as clean and eco-friendly as Pittsburgh. It was not always this way, though. During the Golden Age, the smog was unbearable and soot made it impossible for downtown employees to commute to work without a change of clothes. During the years of the steel industry rise, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development was established and transformed Pittsburgh into one of the first cities to adopt smart growth practices. The conference worked quickly to pass smoke-control legislation in the hopes of purifying the air. The revitalization of “the Point” can also be accredited to the conference. Acres of factories were removed and replaced with green space and an iconic fountain. The land became known as Point State Park (“A Very Brief History of Pittsburgh”). Below is a look at the Point’s evolution:


Pittsburgh Before


Pittsburgh After

Today, Pittsburgh officials continue to prioritize environment. The city’s Office of Sustainability constantly works to improve environmental quality (Pittsburgh). In 2009, President Obama hosted world leaders in Pittsburgh for the G-20 Summit. Time tells us, “...Obama said he chose Pittsburgh to showcase the city's reinvention from an aging industrial town into a tech-heavy, eco-friendly metropolis with a burgeoning alternative-energy sector” (Fletcher). Although leaders in Detroit and Braddock make impactful efforts to protect the environment, the collaboration and early environmental action of Pittsburgh is unmatched.


Also unmatched is Pittsburgh’s speedy economic recovery. Although the city heavily relied on the steel industry, the economy did not stand on steel alone. Other notable businesses include: Westinghouse Electric Company, founded in 1886, and the H. J. Heinz Company, founded in 1869. Pittsburgh was the third largest corporate headquarters in the U.S. by 1970 (“A Very Brief History of Pittsburgh”).

Now home to numerous additional companies, Pittsburgh, is a leader in innovation, business, healthcare, and education. Economic developers and revitalization coalitions hope to continue sustainable progression. The Regional Industrial Development Corporation of Pittsburgh addresses infrastructure issues through renovations of old factories, thereby attracting innovative businesses. Their most recent project-- a building in the Lawrenceville neighborhood-- brought a robotics company to the city. The corporation is also linked to the renovation of an old Nabisco factory, now home to Google Pittsburgh.


Efforts like these combined with its environmental and cultural attractions brought Pittsburgh back to life following the collapse of the steel industry. Although these efforts continue to sustain the city’s expansion,  Pittsburgh is still far from perfect. Poor inner-city education and a lack of public transportation need attention. However, the city has a history of making comprehensive, sustainable decisions. I have no doubt it will continue to do so. After all, it is the city that built America.


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