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Culture War Roundup for the week of April 8, 2024

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Pittsburgh: An Urban Portrait

For a while I've wanted to do a comprehensive survey of a city to examine it in terms of urbanism and the principles of what make a place a good place to live. In particular, I want to examine what makes certain places "trendy", and what causes some neighborhoods to gentrify while others stagnate or even decline. Most examinations of the urban environment are merely case-studies of a few neighborhoods that have seen change in the past several decades, for better or worse. But I think that those kinds of studies, while instructive, miss the big picture. Most cities are composed of dozens of neighborhoods, each with its own story and its own potential, and most are simply forgotten about. I've selected Pittsburgh for this exercise, for the simple reason that I live here and can talk about it as an insider rather than someone relying on news reports. You can talk statistics until the end of time, but the only way to properly evaluate a place is if you have a pulse on what the common perception of it is from those who are familiar with it. Before I get to the neighborhoods themselves, though, I want to give some preliminary information about the city so those who are unfamiliar (i.e. almost everyone here) can get the view from 10,000 feet. It also gives me the opportunity to present a few general themes that I've noticed during the months I spent researching this project. Note to mods: A lot of this survey will touch on a number of culture war items like crime, homelessness, housing, density, traffic patterns, etc. For that reason, I'm posting this in the culture war thread for now. That being said, there will be large sections where I look at nondescript parts of the city where I expect the discussion to be more anodyne, and I don't want to be hogging the bandwidth of this thread, especially in the unlikely event that I can crank out more than one of these per week. I can't really anticipate in advance what's most appropriate where, but I'd prefer to post these as stand-alone threads once I get past this initial post. If the mods have a preference for where I post these, I'll adhere to that.

I. The Setting Pittsburgh exists in a kind of no-man's land. It's technically in the Northeast, but people from New York, Philadelphia, and the like insist that it's actually more Midwestern. They may have a point; we're six hours from the nearest ocean, and the Appalachian Mountains are a significant barrier to transportation and development. No megalopolis will ever develop between Pittsburgh and Philly, and we're much closer to places like Cleveland and Columbus. We're also not assholes. That being said, nobody here thinks of themself as Midwestern. First, it's possibly the least flat major city in the US. Second, most Midwestern cities act as quasi-satellites of Chicago in the way that Pittsburgh simply doesn't. Additionally, being in the same state as Philadelphia makes us much closer politically and economically to that area than we are to places that may be closer geographically. Some people try to split the difference and say that Pittsburgh is an Appalachian city, but this isn't entirely correct, either; Pittsburgh is at the northern end of what can plausibly be called Appalachia, and is a world away from the culture of places like East Tennessee. There are close ties to West Virginia, but these are more due to proximity than anything else; for most of that state, Pittsburgh is the closest major city of any significance, which is reflected in things like sports team affiliation. And the Northern Panhandle (and associated part of Ohio) is practically an exurb of Pittsburgh, with a similar development pattern around heavy industry. But for the most part, West Virginia swings toward us rather than us swinging toward them.

The physical landscape can best be described as extremely hilly. For reference, I describe a "hill" as any eminence that rises less than about 700–1000 feet above the surrounding valley, with anything in that range or higher being a mountain. The area is built on a plateau that has been heavily dissected by erosion. Relief is low to moderate, ranging from about 200 feet in upland areas to 400 feet in the river valleys. The natural history results in an area where the hilltops are all roughly the same height, about 1200–1300 feet above sea level, while the valleys range from a low of 715 feet at the point to about 900–1000 feet at the headwaters of the streams. And there are streams everywhere. The most prominent ones are the three rivers (the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio), but there are innumerable creeks that spiderweb across the landscape. The upshot is that flat land is rare around here, and traditional patterns of urban development are difficult to impossible. Most people live on hillsides since the little flat land available is often in floodplains. Roads are windy and difficult to navigate; you may miss a turn and think that if you make the next turn you'll eventually wind up where you want to be. Instead, you find yourself winding down a long hill and end up in one of three places: In view of Downtown from an angle you've never seen before, at the junction with a state highway whose number you've never heard of, or in West Virginia.

What this means for the urban environment is that neighborhoods are more distinct than they are in other cities. While flat cities have neighborhoods that blend into one another seamlessly, Pittsburgh's are often clearly delineated, with obvious boundaries. The city is defined by its topography. One advantage of this is that a lot of the land is simply too steep to be buildable, even taking into consideration that half the houses are already built on land that one would presume is too steep to be buildable. The result is a lot of green space. Another advantage is that it means you get views like this from ground level. The actual green space itself is typical of a temperate deciduous forest, but with a couple of caveats — there's plenty of red maple, sugar maple, red oak, white oak, black cherry, black walnut, and other similar species, but not as much beech as you'd see in areas further north, and not as much hickory as you'd see in areas further south. There are conifers but most of them are planted landscaping trees. White pine and eastern hemlock are native to the area, but they're much more common in the mountains to the east. I should also note that the topography means that there are some weird corners of the city that have an almost backwoods hillbilly feel.

II. The Region

I'd describe the larger region as a series of concentric rings. First is the city proper, which is small for a city of its size. While that seems like a tautology, what I mean is that the actual city limits are, well, limited, giving the city itself a proportionately low population compared to the total metro area. This is because PA state law changes in the early 20th century made it difficult for the city to annex additional territory. The result is that the boundaries were fixed relatively early in the era when America was urbanizing rapidly, and only sporadic additions were made thereafter. The next ring would be what I call the urban core. This is the area where the density and age of the housing gives what are technically suburbs a more urban feel than traditional suburbs; in many cases, these suburbs feel more urban than the later-developed parts of the city proper. These would include typical inner-ring streetcar suburbs, though Pittsburgh has fewer of these than most cities of its size. Most of the areas thus described are towns that developed as the result of industrial concerns, or suburbs of such towns. These are most prominent to the city's immediate east, and also include the innumerable river towns in the river valleys. These towns extend along the rivers for a considerable distance, but there's an area close to the city where they form an unbroken geographic mass. If not for limitations on expansion, they would likely be part of the city itself.

Next, we obviously have the true suburbs, by which I mean areas that developed after World War II but still revolve around Pittsburgh more than a regional satellite. Then we have the exurbs, which I define as areas that are developed, but more sporadically, and are often revolve around a satellite county seat rather than Pittsburgh itself. This is the area where couples looking for an extended date will get a hotel in the city for the weekend (My family makes fun of my brother for doing this because he lives in one of these areas but always insists that he's close. Nevermind that it would be ridiculous for any of us to get a hotel room in Pittsburgh if we weren't planning on getting seriously wasted.) Finally, we have the much broader greater co-prosperity sphere, which is roughly everywhere that falls within Pittsburgh's general influence, be it rooting for sports teams to being the destination when you need to go to a hospital that isn't crappy.

III. History I'll try to make this as quick as possible, since there are obviously better, more comprehensive sources for people who want more than a cursory review. The city was ostensibly founded when the British drove out the French during the French and Indian War and established Fort Pitt. The war began largely as a contest between the British and the French for control over the Ohio Valley, a vital link between the interior northeast and the Mississippi River. The site of Pittsburgh was particularly strategic, as it was at the confluence of two navigable rivers. The surrounding hills were rich in coal; combine this with the favorable river network, and the location was perfect for the nation's burgeoning iron and steel industry. This new wave of prosperity attracted waves of immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe, who later came to define the region. A number of satellite industries developed as well, including glass (PPG), aluminum (Alcoa), chemicals (Koppers, PPG), electrical products (Westinghouse), natural gas (EQT), etc. Pittsburgh's place as an industrial powerhouse continued until the triple whammy of the energy crisis, inflation, and the Reagan recession sparked a wave of deindustrialization that turned America's Rhineland into the Rust Belt. By the '90s the region was bleeding jobs, and much of the working-age population decamped for the Sun Belt. The outright population loss has stabilized in recent years, but the region is still slowly losing population.

The odd thing about this, though, is that in 1985, at what should have been the city's nadir, it started ranking high on the "liveability" lists that were becoming popular. The city had been making a concerted effort to reduce pollution since the '50s, and by the early 2000s it had become a bit of a trendy place to live. I don't want to speculate too much on why this is, but I think there are a few factors at play. First, the crime is low for a rust belt city; there aren't too many really bad areas, and the ones that exist are small and isolated. What this means is that there is a certain freedom of movement that you don't have in other Rust Belt cities like Cleveland or Detroit with large swathes of ghetto. Even in the worst areas, the only time you might find yourself in trouble is if you visit one both at night and on foot. Even the worst areas are fine to walk around in the daytime and I wouldn't worry about driving through anywhere, which is more than I can say about friends of mine's experiences in Cleveland or Chicago. Second, the housing stock is more East Coast than Midwest. Many of the neighborhoods have architectural character, as opposed to other Rust Belt cities that are nothing but rows of nearly identical derelict frame houses (though we have plenty of those, too). Third, the housing is actually affordable. People have been bitching in recent years about significant price increases, but it's still nowhere near the level the major East Coast cities or the trendy western cities. Years ago I met a girl who moved here from New York because she wanted to live in a brick row house but it was simply unattainable where she was. She looked at Baltimore and Philadelphia, which are true row house cities, but the ones she could afford were all in the endless expanses of ghetto. In Pittsburgh, meanwhile, you could snatch a renovated nee in a good area up for well under $200k, and rehabs were being sold for under $50k. You aren't getting them for anywhere near that now, but $500k gets you a nice house in the city, and if you want to do the suburbs you pretty much have your pick of 4BR 2000 square foot homes in excellent school districts. Finally, the outdoor recreation is better than you're going to get in a city of comparable size or larger anywhere east of Denver, and the hotspots don't get the crowds that the western areas do. In the Northeast you have to drive a lot father to get anywhere, and the places are busier. In the Midwest the cities are surrounded by corn, and the areas worth visiting are few and far between. In Pittsburgh, the mountains are only about an hour away, and the general area is hilly enough and forested enough that a typical county park has better hiking than anything within driving distance of Chicago. The mountain biking and whitewater are nonpareil, and that's still a secret to most locals.

I've gone a bit off track here, but I want to make one general observation that I've noticed when studying the history of the city: Everything changes all the time, and there are no meta-narratives. The first statement may seem obvious, but when discussing urban dynamics, people often act like there was some golden era where everything was in stasis, and if we're still in that era then any change is bad and disruptive, and if we're not in that era then any change should be aiming to get back to that era. The meta-narrative is simpler: American cities developed in the 19th century, and grew rapidly during the industrialization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This was largely due to high immigration. Few had cars, so people needed to live close to where they worked, and public transit networks were robust. Blacks lived in segregated neighborhoods, and this was a problem. After The War, people started moving to the suburbs, a process which was hasted by not wanting to live alongside black people, who were gradually getting better access to housing. This white-flight drained cities of their economic base, and the new suburban commuters demanded better car access to the city core. Once decent neighborhoods were turning into black ghettos. The response of municipal leaders was to engage in a number of ill-advised "urban renewal" projects that which were blatant attempts to lure white people back into the city by resegregating the blacks into housing projects so they could build white elephant projects and superhighways. Then in the 90s hipsters were invented and they looked longingly at the urban lifestyle. Hip artist types moved into ghettos because they liked the old architecture, could afford the rent, and were too cool racially to be concerned about black crime. Some of them opened small businesses and white people started visiting these businesses, and the neighborhood became a cool place to live. By 2010, though, that neighborhood was expensive and all the cool spots were replaced by tony bars and chain stores and all the bohemes had to find another neighborhood. Meanwhile, the poor blacks who lived here before the hipsters showed up started complaining about being displaced from their homes, and now the same hipsters who "gentrified" the neighborhood are concerned about the effects of reinvestment on long-time residents.

This narrative probably fits somewhere, but the reality is often more complicated. One common refrain I heard from older people in the '90s was "neighborhood x used to be a nice place to live and now it's a terrible slum". Usually, the old person in question was the child of an immigrant who grew up in the neighborhood but decamped to the suburbs in the '50s. She'd return regularly to visit her parents, and watch what she saw as the decline of the neighborhood firsthand. The problem with this is that most of the neighborhoods I heard people talk about like this growing up were always slums. The only thing that changed about them was that they got blacker and don't have the business districts that they once did. Second, in Pittsburgh at least, the changing demographics in some neighborhoods is more in relative terms than in absolute ones. While some places did see an increase in the black population in the second half of the 20th century, most places did not. Before World War 2, Pittsburgh only had one truly black neighborhood, and even that was more diverse than one would expect. Blacks normally lived in racially mixed neighborhoods alongside Italians, Poles, Jews, etc. of similar economic standing. The changing demographics were oftentimes caused more by whites leaving than blacks moving in. It's also worth noting that some areas went downhill long before any of the factors cited in the meta-narrative really kicked in. People tend to be ignorant of urban dynamics in the first half of the 20th Century, which is viewed as this juggernaut of urban growth. No one considers that a neighborhood might have peaked in 1910 and gone into decline thereafter, because the meta-narrative doesn't allow for it. But in Pittsburgh, I see these sorts of things time and time again.

IV. The Housing Stock I mentioned housing stock in the last section, but I want to go into a bit more detail here because it's important when evaluating a neighborhood's potential for future growth. When Pittsburgh was first settled, most of the housing was simple frame stock. Most of this is gone, but, contrary to what one might think, the little that's left isn't particularly desirable. These houses tend to be small and in bad condition, essentially old farmhouses from when most of the current city was rural. Later in the 19th century, brick row houses were built in the neighborhoods that were relatively flat lowlands. Almost every row house neighborhood in the city is desirable, as these neighborhoods have a dense, urban feel. It should be noted, though, that through most of the 20th century this was housing for poor people, as most middle-class and above felt these were outdated.

Also from around this time is the Pittsburgh mill house. These are similar to what you'd find in most Rust Belt cities, and are proof that not all old housing has "character". These were houses built on the cheap and have often been extensively remuddled to keep them habitable. Most of these in the city aren’t exactly true mill houses, as they weren’t built by steel companies as employee housing, but most 19th and early 20th century frame houses fit the same mold. These were mostly built on hillsides and hilltops where building row houses was impractical. Not a particularly desirable style.

Combining the two is the frame row. These were built during a period in the early 20th Century when the area was experiencing a brick shortage. They aren't as desirable as brick rows but still have more cachet than mill houses, although the purpose for which they were built is similar. Most of these were remuddled at some point (by this I mean things like plaster walls torn out in favor of wood paneling and drop ceilings, window frames modified to fit different sizes, wood siding replaced with aluminum siding or Inselbric, awnings, etc.). By the 1920s and 1930s, the classic streetcar suburban style took over. These include things like foursquares and bungalows, the kind of stuff you see in old Sears catalogs. The brick shortage had ended by this period and the houses were larger and better-appointed, making them popular for middle-class areas. The remuddling on these was limited, and they’re highly desirable. After the war, more suburban styles took over, though by this point the city limits were mostly built-out so they aren’t as common as other styles. Most of the suburban stuff was built during the first decade after the war in odd parts of the city that were too isolated to have been developed earlier, though a fair deal was built in neighborhoods that were rapidly declining into ghetto in an attempt at stabilization. There’s nothing wrong with these houses in and of themselves, but they aren’t particularly desirable, as this is exactly the kind of development urbanists hate most.

There are obviously other styles, but the rest of the housing is either multi-family or infill housing that may or may not have been built with consideration given to the vibe of the existing neighborhood. The city has gotten better in recent years about building new houses to match what’s already there, but there are plenty of hideous miscues out there.

V. Neighborhood Dynamics

Pittsburgh is roughly divided into four geographic quadrants, based on the points of the compass. The East End roughly includes anything between the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers, and is where most of the trendy neighborhoods are. The North Side is anything north of the Allegheny; the neighborhoods in the flat plain along the river are mostly desirable, if less obnoxiously trendy. The South Hills are roughly everything south of the Monongahela; most of it isn’t trendy at all. The West End is everything south of the Ohio, and is beyond not trendy; it’s basically terra incognita to most Pittsburghers, as the neighborhoods are boring and obscure.

Pittsburgh officially recognizes 90 distinct neighborhoods, but the official geography isn’t entirely accurate. First, the official boundaries are based on census tracts that don’t always line up neatly with a neighborhood’s generally-accepted boundaries. Second, there are a number of bogus or semi-bogus neighborhood designations. Large neighborhoods are often split up into smaller geographic divisions (e.g. North Haverbrook, South Haverbrook, etc.) that may or may not line up with the way people actually talk. Conversely, some neighborhoods include areas that everyone treats as distinct neighborhoods but are officially unrecognized. Some neighborhoods had their names changed because the residents didn’t want to be associated with a declining part of the neighborhood; in some cases these new names caught on but other times they didn’t. For this project, I will be discussing the neighborhoods based on what makes sense to me based on having lived here all my life and knowing how people actually treat the matter. When necessary, I will use historic designations that don’t necessarily match up with the official maps, but this is rare. I will always make reference to the official designations to avoid confusion for those following along at home.

As I was examining the neighborhoods in detail in preparation for this project, a few things jumped out at me with regard to gentrification, stability, and decline. First, a gentrifying neighborhood needs a relatively intact business district. This could be nothing more than boarded up storefronts, but the physical structures need to be there; there has to be some indication that the place has potential, and it’s much easier for businesses to move in when they don’t have to build. Some depressed areas lost practically their entire business districts to blight, while others never really had a business district to begin with. This second scenario decreases the chances of gentrification even further, as there is often no logical place to even put a business district. The presence of a business district is important for two reasons. First, walkability is a huge selling point for people who want to live in a city as opposed to suburbs, and an area that’s dense but unwalkable is the worst of both worlds. Second, neglected neighborhoods don’t get “on the map”, so to speak, unless there’s something to draw in outsiders. Related to the above, there are two general kinds of businesses that can occupy a business district. The first are what I call Functional Businesses — grocery stores, dry cleaners, corner bars, banks, professional offices, hardware stores, etc. The second are Destination Businesses — restaurants, breweries, boutiques, trendy bars, specialty stores, performance venues, and other miscellaneous stuff that will actually draw people in from outside the neighborhood. There's obviously a continuum here, as, for example, a coffee shop could be either depending on how much it distinguishes itself, but you get the idea. Both are essential for a neighborhood to fully take off. There are plenty of areas with perfectly functional business districts that don’t get a second look because there’s no reason for anyone who doesn’t already live there to go there. But if a neighborhood consists exclusively of destination businesses then it will feel more like a tourist area than a real neighborhood; it’s a hard sell for someone to move to a place where they can get artisanal vinegar but not a can of baked beans. Often, the presence of a robust functional business district will stymie a neighborhood’s potential for gentrification. One thing I’ve noticed is that destination businesses rarely replace functional businesses, usually moving into abandoned storefronts or replacing other destination businesses. Functional businesses just sort of exist and don’t move out until the neighborhood has declined past the point of no return.

As I mentioned in the previous section, housing stock is another major contributor to gentrification potential. Urban pioneers have to look at a neglected neighborhood and see the potential to return to a faded glory. Houses that are worth restoring, not dumps that should have been torn down ages ago. The one exception to this is the spillover factor; if a neighborhood with bad housing stock is close to other gentrified neighborhoods that have great amenities but have become too expensive, nearby neighborhoods will get a boost from this, especially if they have intact business districts.

On the other side of the equation, decline follows displacement. The story of declining neighborhoods in Pittsburgh follows a pattern. First, in the 1950s and 1960s, civic visionaries sought to clear slums by replacing them with ambitious public works projects. Forced out of their homes, the residents of these slums needed somewhere to go, and moved to working class neighborhoods that were already in a state of instability, if not minor decline. (It should be noted that slum clearance was much rarer in Pittsburgh than in other cities, though some wounds still run deep). More recently, the city has demolished public housing projects that had become crime-ridden hellholes, but their problems only spilled out into low-rent, working class neighborhoods. What results is a game of whack-a-mole, where revitalization of one area simply leads to the decline of another. That’s why I’ve been less critical of low-income set-asides than I was in the past. I used to be totally free market on the housing issue, but it seems like an inflexible standard only ensures that poverty will remain concentrated, which does little to improve the situation of the poor. Section 8 was supposed to address this problem by getting people out of public housing hellholes and into regular neighborhoods, but it’s only worth it for slumlords in declining areas to accept the vouchers, and the result is that entire neighborhoods go Section 8. I grant that it’s better than things were previously, but I think things could be better still if we agreed that every neighborhood was going to subsidize the housing of a certain number of poor people. That way we can at least make it so the honest, hard working people don’t suffer unnecessarily, and the kids grow up in a more positive social environment. Maybe I’m being too idealistic, but it seems better than any of the existing alternatives.

Finally, a brief note on stability. Stable middle-class or working-class areas tend to be boring areas that are too far away from bad areas for any spillover or displacement to affect them. There may be some long-term factors that may lead to their eventual demise, but there are no obvious causes for concern. The flip side is that as much as some of these places have been touted as the next big thing, the same factors that keep them from going down also keep them from going up. One factor playing into this is the number of owner-occupied houses and long-term rentals. New residents, whatever their economic condition, simply can’t move into a neighborhood if there are few rentals and little turnover in ownership.

VI. The Neighborhood Grading Rubric

The initial goal for this project was to discuss what the future holds for these neighborhoods, and to discuss special considerations that factor into the whole thing (actually, it will mostly be about special considerations, at least for the big neighborhoods). One thing that’s important to this exercise is to discuss where the neighborhoods are at now. I initially developed a complex classification system, then scrapped it because it was too complicated and still didn’t explain everything. But as I got to thinking about it, I decided that some sort of grading was necessary to put things in proper perspective rather than rely on qualitative description. So I developed a much simpler rubric that should catch everything. I would note that the below isn’t to be construed as a ranked desirability ranking, although it will be made apparent that some of the categories only describe undesirable areas.

Upper Middle Class: This includes upper class as well, but truly upper class areas are rare enough to make this a distinction without a difference. These are highly desirable but may have gone past the point of trendiness to the point of blandness (though not necessarily). These include places where gentrification reached the point where it’s all chain stores, but also places that never really gentrified because they were always nice.

Gentrifying: These are the hotspots that everyone knows about. What separates them from the upper middle class areas, even if they are more expensive, is a sense of dynamism and a raffish air. Students and bohemian types still live here. There may be older working class homeowners who never left, and poor renters who haven’t been forced out yet. There may still be a few rehabs for sale at somewhat decent prices. Most of the businesses are locally owned, and it probably still has a functional business district from the old days.

Early Gentrification: This is the point where a neighborhood starts making the transition from working-class or poor to middle-class or trendy, but isn’t quite there yet. Most of the businesses are functional, but there are a few cool places for those in the know. The hipsters are starting to move in. People are buying derelict houses at rock-bottom prices and fixing them up. But the normies don’t know about it yet; tell most suburbanites you’re going to a bar there and they either think you’re going to get your wallet stolen or wonder why you want to hang around old people. The neighborhood is still rough around the edges, and may still have a decent amount of crime and a high minority population. It probably still looks rather shabby. It’s perfectly safe for those with street smarts, but it’s still sketchy enough that you wouldn’t recommend it to tourists.

Stable: Not necessarily boring, but not going anywhere. There’s probably a good functional business district, but few destination businesses. Every once in a while one of the destination businesses might become popular enough that people think the whole neighborhood is going to go off, but it never seems to happen. And that’s if it’s lucky. The upside, though, is it’s very safe, and affordable to buy here. This also includes middle-class black areas that suburban whites assume are hood but are actually rather quiet.

Early Decline: These are the neighborhoods that just don’t seem like they used to. Crime is up, property values are down, and the houses are starting to get unkempt. Most of the long-term residents are elderly, and the newer residents are transients who are of a distinctly different class than the elderly ones. They may be blacks who were displaced from nearby ghettoes, or they may be white trash. There’s increasingly conspicuous drug activity, but no gangs yet. There still may be a functional business district, but there is rarely anything destination, maybe an old neighborhood institution that is still hanging on. These are perfectly fine to rent in if you don’t mind a little excitement in your life, since they’re still relatively safe for normal people, but they aren’t places you want to commit to.

Rapid Decline: This is the point where gang activity has become a problem, and gunshots are no longer a rare occurrence. If there was a white working class here they’re now dead and gone, and if there was a black middle class they’re very old. Residential sections are starting to see blight and abandoned houses. There’s still probably a reasonably intact business district, but it’s entirely functional at this point and mostly caters to stereotypical ghetto businesses. It is, however, still well populated.

Ghetto: A neighborhood that has bottomed out; it can’t get any worse than this unless it disappears entirely, which seems almost inevitable at this point. Few intact blocks remain. If there’s any business district left it’s scattered remnants (though there’s almost always some kind of newsstand). There’s probably gang activity, but there’s little territory worth defending. The atmosphere is desolate and bleak, as the remaining residents are only here because there’s nowhere else to go. Crime, while still a problem, is probably lower here than one would think, simply because there aren’t too many people here to be criminals, and equally few available victims.

The below ones are special cases that don’t fit into the above continuum particularly well.

Deceptively Safe: These are areas that look sketchy as hell but are actually decent places to live. They are usually poor neighborhoods where the properties are in somewhat shabby condition but are occupied. Unique to Pittsburgh (probably), this also includes places that look like part of West Virginia was transported into the middle of the city. These are mostly very small micro-neighborhoods that are poor but just don’t have the population or foot traffic to support any serious crime. Buy low, sell low.

Projects: Pittsburgh has a few “project neighborhoods” that only really exist because it built most of its public housing in odd places where nobody wanted to build before. Most of these projects don’t exist anymore, so saying these are invariably bad areas is a misnomer, especially since one of the few remaining projects is a senior citizen high rise. Most of these are an odd mix of different uses that merit individual treatment.

Student Areas: Transient population, unmaintained properties, exorbitant rent for what you get, multiple unrelated people living together common, noise, public drunkenness, vandalism — everything a real ghetto has except violent crime and gang activity. This doesn’t describe all student areas, but areas where the percentage of students reaches a certain threshold have a much different dynamic than regular neighborhoods. First, these areas are relatively safe considering how dysfunctional they are in every other respect, and second, while the properties are in poor condition, there is little blight or abandonment because the slumlords know they have a captive audience. Also, the presence of a university usually means that the area sees a lot of outside visitors so more destination businesses develop, and there are plenty of places catering to students. Altogether a unique dynamic, though no one not in college would even consider living here.

That’s it for the preliminaries, stay tuned for Part I, where I discuss Downtown and the other “tourist areas” in its vicinity.

This is lovely. Please do more. Had no idea Pittsburgh was hilly.

A few questions.

Does CMU being the best CS university in the world affect the day to day of the average person in Pittsburgh? For example, the JHU's excellence at Medicine or Clemson at Automobile Engg. defintely seems to affect the economic makeup of their respective cities.

Does Pittsburgh ever feel like a college town? Upitt + CMU makes for 50k students not that far from downtown.

I've seen Pittsburgh compared to Seattle wrt weather, hilliness, whiteness and having tech. How fair is the comparison ?

I've got more written but this is taking quite a bit of research to do the way I want to do it and I've been unusually busy for the past month so my apologies for not getting the installments out sooner. In the meantime, I owe you answers to your questions.

Does CMU being the best CS university in the world affect the day to day of the average person in Pittsburgh? For example, the JHU's excellence at Medicine or Clemson at Automobile Engg. defintely seems to affect the economic makeup of their respective cities.

Not unless you live near campus, but I doubt that's the kind of influence you're talking about. I have a friend who works at the robotics lab but his place of employment makes no difference in my life. The so-called city fathers hype up our tech prowess all the time, but I'm guessing that all cities with any kind of tech industry do that, and Pittsburgh is still like 18th in number of tech jobs, so I'm inclined to say that any influence is minimal. The one exception may be in East Liberty; it gets a lot of hype for being recently gentrified and having a Google office near there, but for all the housing they're building I've never heard of anyone actually living there, and normal people don't hype the area up like they do other trendy areas. That's more of a discussion for the installment on East Liberty (there's certainly a lot to unpack there), but off the top of my head I'd guess that all the apartments are rented by techbros without social lives, which is why I haven't heard of anyone wanting to move there.

Does Pittsburgh ever feel like a college town? Upitt + CMU makes for 50k students not that far from downtown.

And Duquesne just outside of Downtown, and Point Park in Downtown, and Carlow right next to Pitt, and you get the idea. So yeah; any remotely trendy part of the East End with decent bus service is going to have a relatively high number of student renters, particularly grad students. I've never heard of any of them wanting to live in East Liberty, though. The only part that feels like an actual college town, though is Oakland, where you're right on campus, but being in the city makes it qualitatively different than if you're in a town that revolves around a huge state school in the middle of nowhere. I'll go into greater detail in the section on Oakland.

I've seen Pittsburgh compared to Seattle wrt weather, hilliness, whiteness and having tech. How fair is the comparison ?

I've never been to Seattle so take my response with a grain of salt, but I think it's reasonably fair. The climates are probably comparably dreary, but here we actually have 4 seasons with hot summers and cold winters. Our climate is mild compared to places like the Rockies and interior New England, but we're quite cold and snowy for a major American city. Culturally, though, I don't think that Seattle has the working class industrial history that gives Pittsburgh its sense of grit. I'd also wager that they're a lot less "ethnic" than we are; everybody here is Catholic and has names like Bob Schlydeki and Larry Deldino and you can still smoke in bars here. People I've know who moved here from Seattle are surprised by the amount of industry that still exists and the fact that working class people actually have accents. Most had assumed that the mills had died completely and that accents were an affectation from television that nobody had anymore.

I enjoy that your Greater Co-Prosperity Sphere includes Meadville but deftly avoids Youngstown (everyone avoids Youngstown).

I grew up in Cleveland and have been to P'burg many times and have had lots of Yinzer friends over my life. My sister lived in Erie for a number of years and your description reminds me a lot of Erie, but smaller and flatter. The ethnic/immigrant make up was very similar.

I'd not ever been exposed to the word "remuddled" before and for a moment thought you were typing "remodeled" in dialect, except you never once typed "Dahntan". You also never once mentioned the Steelers, which must have taken a lot of self control.

One thing I noticed living most of my life in the Cleveland area but visiting P'burg a lot; people in both cities have a poor sense of just how close the two are to each other. You can get from one to the other in under 2 hours if you really book it, but when I've asked people from both areas, who don't really travel to the other very much, how long it takes their estimates are almost always 3+ hours. Many guess more than 4.

The city where every house has the ugliest siding I’ve ever seen yet people keep using the same siding. I grew up there so I can make it fun of it. When I go back I notice how much of the city just had awful curb appeal compared to the rest of America. Maybe it just sticks out more being a hill town.

The big culture war angle here is your insistent that the poors be allowed a space in the good communities and I get the sense you think that will fix the poors. I’ve come to the belief it’s better to be separate and a lot of American cities have suffered because they could not do that. Leading to rational middle and upper middle class leaving for the suburbs and less crime and more control over schooling. If we just kept the poors from the city America would have higher productivity growth.

There are many reasons why Pittsburgh has had a rebound. One reason is not getting a huge Great Migration. The other reason is the topography leading to isolated communities which meant many areas could feel perfectly safe. As someone whose lived in Chicago for a long time we frequently would look at the news and see 10 shots fired a few blocks away at 4 am. Why would anyone want to live like that unless you were forced to. Sure you probably won’t catch a stray bullet (but you might as we literally have a case like a dead UC student on the EL catching a bullet). Life really is a lot better when you do not interact with the forces of ghettoization.

Also worth mentioning that a big reason Pittsburgh had appeal is all of the money Carnegie left to build up cultural institutions.

The sports teams are interesting. The big thing is they have won more than a city like Pittsburgh should win. The city not being in a big other cultural world like the coast means a rabid fan base. The diaspora means Pittsburgh fans are everywhere.

At the end of the day AC means that Pittsburgh will never be as significant as it once was. The existing infrastructure and cultural heritage will keep a lot of people there.

So I already made a post about the birdies. I don’t think you can talk about Pittsburgh without talking about their sports teams. I don’t think there is a city in the US more intertwined with its pro sports teams.

I also think when talking about history we need to consider in detail the Scotch Irish who settled Western PA. Geographically Western PA isn’t close to Tennessee but the cohort who settled it most certainly fits Appalachia. It is different from Tennessee as there isn’t a large black population AND due to the steel mills there was an influx of Eastern Europeans. But the founding cohort impacts the history and today of the city strongly. It isnt surprising that the Whiskey Rebellion was a Pittsburgh thing. In less historical terms, you need to discuss yinzer culture

It is different from Tennessee as there isn’t a large black population

The Knoxville Metro Area is (from a bit of googling) only 5% black, Nashville and Chattanooga are about 15% black, whereas Memphis is 47% black. There is a distinct west-to-east gradient across Tennessee where as you go east, the state gets a lot more Appalachian and a lot less black, especially in Knoxville butting up against the Smoky Mountains.

I've lived in both Knoxville and then other deep South parts of America, and at least in my experience, Knoxville was way less invested in typical Southern cultural topics (antebellum South + Civil War), and much more culturally invested in Bluegrass, Davy Crocket, Daniel Boone, and the early settling of the frontier. And if memory serves, eastern Tennessee almost went the way of West Virginia during the Civil War, and for similar reasons.

Pittsburgh and eastern TN have significant differences, of course, but I think there are distinct similarities.

One of the things I find really interesting about Pittsburgh, relative to its Rust Belt neighbor cities, is just how much less black it is.

If you compare it to Cleveland or Detroit or Milwaukee or Chicago, it's just a much less black city. I had read before that that's because its population boom happened relatively early compared to neighboring cities, and so that boom overlapped less with the Great Migration from the South, but I'm not sure about that.

And because it's barely had any in-migration for the last half a century, it also has a tiny Hispanic population, too. So you end up with a city that is, by national standards, really quite old, and really quite white (although the boundaries of older white ethnics from previous immigration waves are still somewhat visible if you look for them).

In a way, it's kind of a natural experiments of sorts, about the long term effects of different immigration histories. My impression of Pittsburgh is that, as the Rust Belt declined and deindustrialization continued, instead of partially decaying into a giant ghetto like a lot of other Rust Belt cities, it more just kind of aged in place (with a ton of younger workers leaving) and went into a partial hibernation state... which proved to be a giant boon with the rise of New Urbanism, because it meant there were lots of stable, originally working class, walkable, mostly functional neighborhoods with business districts that could slowly transition to appealing to a younger demographic. All this is helped by being a 4 hour drive to D.C. and a 6 1/2 hours drive to New York - I've particularly met a ton of D.C. expats in Pittsburgh who moved because they wanted to have kids and couldn't make the economic math work in D.C.

All I can say is…Tanger and Karlsson both gave me mini heart attacks last nights (with Tanger playing a key role giving up two first period goals and EK giving up two third period goals) but both scored key goals (and none were more key than EK’s OT goal). Let’s go pens!

Blacks lived in segregated neighborhoods, and this was a problem. After The War, people started moving to the suburbs, a process which was hasted by not wanting to live alongside black people, who were gradually getting better access to housing.

There's a bit of history missing from your model. During [The Great Migration]( from approximately 1930-1970 large numbers of Blacks moved up from the south to take advantage of factory jobs and social programs in the rust belt.

So the urban whites were fleeing a crime wave from new arrivals to the city, not longtime neighbours.

A someone who went to University in Pittsburgh this is all very similar to the experience of the city I had. Particularly the section about getting super lost because of one wrong turn or missing an exit.

Yep, I've only been to Pittsburgh a few times but the first time (in 1993 or so) I ended up in some decayed industrial area near one of the rivers and had a hell of a time finding my way back. (At night, naturally)

'Always a slum' With the 8-10x rate of homicidal violence between blacks and whites, and a roughly similar disparity in other forms of crime, it's fairly obvious one sort of 'slum' is a much more pleasant place to live.

I'm also skeptical of the 'always a slum' claim, as we have basically no slums in Czech Republic apart from the few Gypsy areas. Slums are not an inevitable part of life. They disappear once people have enough money to keep buildings repaired.

It is not about money. It is about attitude of the people living there towards life. It doesn't take too much of money to not throw trash on the street. Poor places look worn out but tidy. Slums look like slums because the majority of people living there don't gives a fuck. We had in our country - they demolished a ghetto to resettle in renovated socialist era prefabs. Guess what - they started giving out slums vibe almost immediately.

once people have enough money to keep buildings repaired.

The people also need to have the desire to keep the buildings repaired and their environemnt free of refuse. (as a perfect example, see any gypsy "gheto" in the EU). The people aren't exactly poor there, for every two poor families there is one "well enough" to have a properly painted house. And yet the neighborhood streets are always litered with trash. There are randomly scattered burned out cars or tires. (for some reason it's always old car tires without the wheel rims).

The people are unable grasp the concept of shared communal ownership or are seemingly fine with trash littered everywhere.