Sabina Deitrick is Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.
When we think about the Rust Belt, we usually picture the Midwest, but all major U.S. cities were once much more industrial, and all went through various steps of clean up and revitalization. What caused some cities to be defined as Rust Belt, while others seemed to avoid that label?
The Rust Belt was originally used to distinguish it from the Sun Belt, where the Rust Belt was the region experiencing manufacturing job losses. In the 1970s, New York City lost hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs, but it had financial services and health care jobs that replaced them. [In some respects, which cities were labeled as “Rust Belt” depended on timing]. By the time the term became widespread, in the 1980s, for example, Boston was becoming a high tech growth area, but earlier it was not looking too good. By that time, New York was becoming a global city, [a concept that didn’t exist prior to the emergence of] global financial markets. Areas of Chicago were part of the Rust Belt, but by the 1990s Chicago was growing sufficiently that [its Rust Belt legacy] is starting to be forgotten. Pittsburgh, Detroit, Buffalo, Toledo, Canton, and other cities had less diverse economies to begin with, so they felt their manufacturing job losses more severely.
To what extent did the cities draw upon the strengths of its existing industry, for example in the more specialized, high-end glass, chemical, steel or metal products industry?
[Pittsburgh’s transition certainly did depend on existing strengths.] When the steel industry collapsed, many steel workers left the region, but the region still had a set of educational institutions and people with knowhow and expertise who, in some cases, opened their own engineering or supplier firms. Maybe there are no huge steel mills today, but Pittsburgh is still dominant in terms of the specialized steel manufacturing equipment supply chain and knowhow. This is similar to glass in Toledo, where production has migrated overseas, but the local knowledge and expertise has enabled companies to move into higher-end products. Robotics in Pittsburgh is also related to local engineering knowledge and expertise, and was also tied to the investments of Carnegie-Melon University and the University of Pittsburgh. CMU, formerly Carnegie Tech, was originally the place where Pittsburgh educated its future steel industry management and engineers. Many of the workers in robotics sector may have come through CMU. Those industries [that required engineering knowhow] become natural places for transformation of economies. The workers that are already in the region can they parlay their knowledge into new companies and products.
Can you describe the role of public-private collaboration, such as between companies and government, or universities and the government, in creating spaces or policies that supported innovation in these cities?
Some might say Pittsburgh pioneered the Public-Private-Partnership (PPP). Going back to the 1940s and the collaboration between the “Melon Machine” and Pittsburgh’s Democratic Mayor David Lawrence the two groups worked together to create the Allegheny Conference on Community Development. The Allegheny Conference looked at what the city should do to [redevelop the downtown] as well as clean up the air and water. This was at a time when large corporations were not as footloose, when corporate leaders wanted to improve the living conditions of their home regions, while political leaders wanted to improve the environment of cities. The Allegheny Conference was one of the first such partnerships. Their effort to revitalize Pittsburgh included cleaning the water and the air, and [they were sufficiently successful that] people came around the world came to study it. Suddenly, Pittsburgh began to look [less like a polluted industrial city and more] like a modernizing mid-century city. It was certainly a huge part of the city’s revitalization.
How important is the environment to a de-industrializing city’s economic recovery?
In terms of environmental quality and the revitalization of Pittsburgh, as an urban planner, and not an economist, I tend to not see it as a causal relationship in one direction or the other, but rather intertwined. The cleanup of the air and water in the 1950s and 1960s was important, as was the 1990s effort to clean up the industrial brownfields—namely, the physical sites that had originally been the source of air and water pollution—and making them more attractive were another part of improving the quality of the region and the quality of life. In contrast, the communities in the Monongahela Valley that have devastated [industrial brownfield] riverfronts [that have not been cleaned up] are still not doing well.
What mistakes did city leaders make over the years in city revitalization?
As far as mistakes, I would point to the overall slowness of some of the revitalization strategies. In Pittsburgh, top economists reported in the 1960s that the city would have to change directions. At the time, the leadership wasn’t willing to listen. In the 1960s, leaders were wedded to the present-day situation, and thought anyone who envisioned a different city was a wacky futurist. Steel was the name of the game, even when it was already shrinking. The same was true in Detroit, where leaders tended to view any downturn as merely a part of a boom and bust cycle. To its advantage, Pittsburgh’s job losses happened they happened fast. Unemployment in Pittsburgh shot up to 17% in the 1980s, and people knew the jobs were never coming back.