Just when Pittsburgh is getting ready to blow out the candles on its (cup)cake, something like this happens — the sort of thing that Lenore Blum and Project Olympus are trying to avoid by building stronger connections between local academic labs and local business.
I thought it would be worthwhile to repost part of my reply here:
[T]he root cause is the same as it has been for all the economic questions in Pittsburgh: Jobs. If you have a good job (and live in the right neighborhood, and you don’t have to ride public transportation or go through too many tunnels) Pittsburgh can be a nice place to live. But if you can’t find a job, why stick around?
I don’t think I really knew how I felt until the moment when I knew for sure I’d be leaving. That moment came during the week in March when I scheduled on-site interviews with three major west coast tech companies and I still did not have anything in-process with any Pittsburgh company. Once I knew for sure that I was leaving, I started to feel that my only regrets would be leaving my friends and family here, not leaving the city itself. Then late May rolled around and the flowers started blooming, and I thought that maybe there were some things I’d miss. Then my wife reminded me that I found a great job in Seattle and I was S.O.L. in Pittsburgh, and I realized that there are flowers everywhere.
Incidentally, the one Burgh tech company that did contact me got back to me more than two months after I first inquired with them. Most of the Pittsburgh companies I applied to didn’t even bother to acknowledge that they had received my resumé. With Amazon.com, the total elapsed time between my first contact and an offer on paper was 29 days. Are there any good engineers left by the time the Pittsburgh companies get around to talking to them?
On top of this, I admit that there were things about living in Pittsburgh that bothered me, but the details of those annoyances are irrelevant. The point is that from my subjective perspective there’s good reason to be sour on the Burgh — it didn’t work for me.
Viewed objectively, however, my move is a perfectly normal, natural event. I looked for a job — focusing my search on cities that seemed like places where I would enjoy living — I found a job in one of those cities, and I moved with few regrets. This is how we do things in America, right? We move. My dad was born in Louisiana, my mom in Italy. Now they’re Pittsburghers and they like it there. My brother lives in New York, my sister in Dallas. My wife grew up in Ohio. My daughter was born in Austin. That people leave Pittsburgh is not strange. What’s strange is that we’re expected to retain a strong identity as Pittsburghers, instead of adopting full identities as New Yorkers, Texans, Seattleites, or whatever. It’s a weird, unrealistic expectation. The Pittsburgh emigrants I’ve met identify as belonging with their new homes, just like anyone else would. It’s a mistake to read Steeler fandom as a longing for home.
When thinking about economic development, I think that Pittsburgh itself could benefit from forgetting its identity for a while. Instead of treating everything as a unique Pittsburgh problem requiring a unique Pittsburgh solution, maybe it’s time to recognize that the small cities struggling to compete for jobs and capital largely face similar problems that admit similar solutions. It seems like a distraction to constantly focus on the “Pittsburghness” of the problems. The answer to emigration is immigration, whether in Pittsburgh or anywhere else. The way to spur immigration is through job creation. The way to create jobs is by creating an attractive climate for business. The policy instruments available for doing that are mostly the same everywhere (e.g. tax policy).
Despite my personal issues with it, there’s no denying that Pittsburgh has a great deal of innate charm. A big influx of capital and people with high expectations could transform it into the city that it likes to see itself as becoming. But I’m not getting any younger, and I can’t wait around for that to happen.