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Pittsburgh: Appalachia's Resourceful Creative City

PCDN Global

April 14, 2017

This post was originally published on progrss.comPittsburgh: Appalachia's Resourceful Creative City:

The Burgh. Steel City. Blitzburgh. City of Immigrants. Pittsburgh has been gifted with as many nicknames as bridges. As the largest metropolis nestled in the Appalachian Mountains, it was once the center of American steel, a proud, working-class city embedded with bridges, churches and a sense of place. Deindustrialization crept in like a disease during the 1980s, however, dimming the flame of a once-thriving city. Consequently, young Pittsburghers took off in droves to find opportunity elsewhere. Left grappling with the aftermath, the City of Pittsburgh has nonetheless persevered, despite its challenges.

Pittsburgh Circa 1902. (Thaddeus M. Fowler)

Pittsburgh Circa 1902. Thaddeus M. Fowler.

Over the last three decades, Pittsburgh has reemerged from its industrial ashes and forged a new identity, one that embraces resourcefulness, innovation and creativity.

With a flourishing startup community and over 176,000 people in the creative sector (expected to grow to 200,000 by 2020), Pittsburgh is attracting young talent once again. Coupled with its universities, music and art scenes, startup incubators, makerspaces, conventions, sports events, parks, trails, engaging neighborhoods and green initiatives, Pittsburgh has found a recipe to foster the next generation of specialists and creatives.

As a city where the new and old guard co-exist, Pittsburgh still has its challenges, whether it's bridging close-knit communities, dealing with blight or facilitating more diversity. No matter its issues, the metropolis has found buoyancy through one unifying characteristic—as a city of creative and resourceful makers, artists, blue-collar folks and entrepreneurs who take ownership of their surroundings to make it a better place.

From Immigrants to Urban Appalachians to Millennials

Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix on the Roberto Clemente Bridge. (Foo Conner | Jekko)

Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix on the Roberto Clemente Bridge. Foo Conner | Jekko.

As a city of immigrants, Pittsburgh attracted millions of workers with the promise of the American Dream through factory jobs. Supplying work and affordable housing, the city quickly grew, becoming a powerful industrial hub.

During the 20th century, masses of Appalachian natives and Eastern Europeans made the metropolis home, instilling the unique flavor of Pittsburgh. You can still hear echos from the past, whether in the architecture (by the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright, Philip Johnson and Henry Hobson Richardson) or the unique style of ‘yinzers’ (a term used to describe those who identify with the city’s history and traditions), who speak their own brand of “Pittsburghese” dialect.

Pittsburgh has since transitioned from a smoke-filled, industrial center to a leader in sustainable initiatives. This includes the world’s first LEED gold-certified convention center (David L. Lawrence Convention Center), first green college residence hall (University of Pittsburgh) and a “living building” known as the Center for Sustainable Landscapes.

Several prestigious schools and universities are located in Pittsburgh, including Carnegie Mellon University, University of Pittsburgh, Duquesne University and Point Park University. Researchers and health care students are particularly drawn to these facilities, including UPMC (University of Pittsburgh Medical Center), ranked #1 hospital in Pennsylvania. Between 2000-2012, the number of college grads in Pittsburgh rose by 29%.

Coupled with its arts, maker and startup communities, millennials (especially educated ones between the ages of 18-36) are making the decision to settle in the city and find their muse. Affordable housing and living costs make the proposition of moving to Pittsburgh even more enticing.

Yin Zhi in front of Randyland City Mural (Foo Conner | Jekko)

Yin Zhi in front of Randyland Map of Pittsburgh. Foo Conner | Jekko.

A Creative's Muse in Pittsburgh

Jazz Musician Mary Lou Williams Playing Piano Circa 1946. (William P. Gottlieb)

Jazz Musician Mary Lou Williams Playing Piano Circa 1946. William P. Gottlieb.

Whether you consider yourself an urban Appalachian, newcomer, yinzer or creative Pittsburgher, the city offers inspiration in many forms, including music, art, dance, film, architecture and culinary pursuits.

As one of America’s gateways, Pittsburgh opened its arms (particularly the black community) to the development of musical genres such as jazz, Doo Wop, rock and hip hop. Famous artists include jazz musicians Mary Lou Williams, Lena Horne, Billy Strayhorn, Roy Eldridge and Billy Eckstine; Doo Wop groups The Marcels, The Vogues and The Skyliners; bands Rusted Root and Anti-Flag; the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and rappers Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller. This encouragement of burgeoning music has translated to other artistic endeavors, fostering vibrant, creative and offbeat elements that have influenced everything from engaging murals to experimental film, dance and theater.

Home to a growing alternative-culture scene, the city plays host to several events, including Steel City Con (Comic Con), virtual reality (VR) meetups, medieval camping, and the largest anthropomorphic gathering called Anthrocon (also known as a furry convention).

Whether steeped in blue-collar influence, artistic fusion or eccentric expression, Pittsburgh seems to be a city geared towards a plethora of artistic inclinations.

Furries on Parade (Foo Conner | Jekko)

Furries on Parade. Foo Conner | Jekko.

Dreamers, Makers and Beyond

“We’ve taught kids today to buy what they want instead of make what they want.” – Unknown Author

Pittsburgh’s resourcefulness has bred a creative spirit uniquely its own. Making do with what’s available seems to be at the center of Pittsburgh’s core, and the city is brimming with myriad examples.

Once considered deeply religious (especially during the 20th century), Pittsburgh has witnessed a decline in population and interest that has led to many disused religious centers. Pittsburghers have seen this as an opportunity, however, and have repurposed many of these structures into theaters, restaurants and music venues. Some prime examples are the Braddock Community Cafe, Church Brew Works, Altar Bar, Church Recording Studio, Mr. Smalls and the Priory Hotel.

Church Brew Works (Daniel Lobo)

Church Brew Works. Daniel Lobo.

Michael Long, a custom furniture designer and builder, is a steadfast practitioner of taking ownership and doing what you love. In the 1990s, he repurposed a building that originally housed payroll and drafting for US Steel, now home to his business. From the top floor of his workshop, one can clearly see the location of the tragic 1909 Mckees Rocks Strike, where approximately 5,000 employees from Pressed Steel Car Company, along with some 3,000 from the Standard Steel Company, clashed with constables, armed guards and the state militia, resulting in over a dozen fatalities (some speculate it was closer to 22). The history is certainly palpable, giving the sense that Long is carrying a torch, as a craftsman, for those who fell victim.

Randy Gilson painting at Randyland (Foo Conner | Jekko)

Randy Gilson painting at Randyland. Foo Conner | Jekko.

On Pittsburgh’s Northside, Randy Gilson brightens up his neighborhood. During the 80s, he was part of an initiative that built community gardens in vacant, dilapidated lots. Everyone initially thought he was crazy. At the time, there were no adaptive reuse projects or even gardening associations, but that didn’t stop Gilson’s take-charge spirit. With a rain barrel in one hand and seeds in the other, he made it his personal mission to become a “guerilla gardener” and fight the blight with beautiful flowers and plants.

In 1995, Gilson had the opportunity to buy the building that would later become Randyland. With a credit card and a loan, he purchased it, made repairs and eventually bought an adjacent building.

Dubbed “one of the happiest people in America,” Gilson possesses an infectious smile and deep love for people. A waiter by day, he typifies the everyday man wanting to make a difference in the community in which he resides.

"You should have as many journeys as there are branches on a tree and as many dreams as there are leaves at the end of those branches. There is nothing we can't attain," he shares.

Randyland, considered Pittsburgh’s most colorful landmark, with its 40-foot-tall mural and whimsical courtyard, stands as a physical manifestation of his soul, one that he freely shares with everyone.

As he likes to say, “The wealth is not the size of your wallet but your heart.”

Leading the Way as a High-Tech Hub

It's not a fluke that Uber chose to set up an advanced Technologies Center (ATC) and pilot the world’s first self-driving Uber in Pittsburgh. Home to an abundance of makerspaces, fab labs, high-tech facilities, incubators and startups, Pittsburgh is quickly becoming a prominent hub of innovation and one that is serving as an example for the Rust Belt and several American cities.

Small business incubator Innovation Works and accounting firm Ernst & Young recently ranked the city #11 out of the top 40 U.S. metropolitan areas in venture capital investment. Founded in 2008, AlphaLab is a top startup accelerator program headquartered in Pittsburgh. As one of the first accelerator programs in the world, it has helped launch startups such as Jazz, Black Locus, NoWait, The Zebra and Shoefitr.

Self-Driving Uber (Foo Conner | Jekko)

Self-Driving Uber. Foo Conner | Jekko.

Located at Bakery Square, home to corporate offices of Google and UPMC, is the workshop and fabrication studio TechShop Pittsburgh. Offering over 16,000 square feet of space, TechShop is touted as the world’s first open-access workshop, bringing together makers, artists, entrepreneurs, instructors and pupils in a community-centric environment.

Its goal, along with providing leading-edge facilities, equipment and classes, is to “democratize access to the tools of innovation” in a collaborative and creative environment.

As stated by Justin Harvilla, Techshop Member Ambassador, “There are a lot of TechShops across the US. Every shop is different. Here in Pittsburgh, we do see a lot more businesses being run out of the shop than most shops do. Pittsburgh has this feel right now… ‘We are going to do it, we are going to do it now, and I’m the one who’s going to do it.’” Justin continued. “What we see is entrepreneurs come in, and they are creating product in the shop that they then sell, and they also use this space as their office. Anybody is welcome in the shop. It’s a place to grow.”

TechShop Soft Arts. (TechShop Pittsburgh)

TechShop Soft Arts. TechShop Pittsburgh.

BoXZY, a Pittsburgh company that offers an all-in-one 3D printer (laser etching, printing and CNC milling), raised $1.2 million through Kickstarter, the most successful campaign to date for a Pittsburgh startup. Co-founded by brothers Joel and Justin Johnson, they had been bouncing around the country in search of a port to anchor, eventually settling in the Burgh. For them, the city checked all the boxes, including affordable housing, cheap living costs, tax breaks, topnotch research facilities and a community of like-minded people.

All of these elements have led to one of America’s great sleeper cities of tech, one that is paving the way to becoming an innovation leader not only in the Rust Belt but all of America, while being under the radar.

Joel Johnson at BoXZY (Foo Conner | Jekko)

Joel Johnson at BoXZY. Foo Conner | Jekko.

Challenges for the Future

Like any other city, Pittsburgh is not without its roadblocks.

As a city of close-knit neighborhoods, Pittsburgh has developed pockets of vibrant artists, innovators, professionals and working-class families alike, reflecting the colorful makeup of Pittsburghers. Nestled in the protection and familiarity of their respective communities, people are connected to the feeling and culture of their stomping grounds. Some Pittsburghers may rarely venture outside these lines or even cross over the closest bridge (which is quite the feat considering how many there are). This has led, unfortunately, to issues of isolation and lack of integrated diversity, something the city has been trying to address.

With a current city and metropolitan population of over 305,000 and 2.36 million, respectively, whites account for about 65% of the population, followed by blacks at over 26%, Asians at 5%, and Hispanics/Native Americans/multi-racial/other rounding off the list.

According to the Pittsburgh Technology Council (PTC), “Pittsburgh has almost all of the essential components to build a 21st century economy, but the one notable exception is its inclusiveness of people of color, of foreign-born decent and same-sex partnerships.”

Organizations such as the Center for Engagement and Inclusion (CFEI) and Vibrant Pittsburgh, address issues of diversity and inclusion in the workforce. As stated by Vibrant Pittsburgh, it believes “a more diverse and talented workforce means a more vibrant future.”

Pittsburgh has also dealt with issues of blight and disinvestment, especially in more vulnerable areas. One organization that has taken up the mantle is GTECH Strategies. The nonprofit employs several tactics to "transform vacant spaces into thriving places everyone can enjoy” and improve neighborhood well-being.

GTECH Northside Ambassador Project Crew. (GTECH)

GTECH Northside Ambassador Project Crew. Alexander Denmarsh.

Without its 446 or so bridges, the City of Pittsburgh would be rendered a fragmented collection of isolated valleys, hills and river plains. Just as the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers meet to form the Ohio, there's a sense that Pittsburgh will continue to serve itself well by merging its diversity and talent to ensure a prosperous future for all Pittsburghers, built on unity and collaboration.

The #CreativeCitiesUSA Pittsburgh Editorial project was made possible with the support of: 

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