Theory: The Creative Class controversy

Professor Richard Florida's book.

Professor Richard Florida’s book.

In the last few months, Professor Richard Florida and his Creative Class theory, which has been widely discussed  in urban planning and economics in the last decade, has taken some punches.

The Creative Class theory, in a nutshell, suggested that when a city or neighborhood had a highly creative and diverse population – artists and members of the LGBT community, for example – that those residents were a ‘canary in the coal mine’ and an indicator of economic renewal and revitalization.

Joel Kotkin, in an essay for The Daily Beast in March, tore into many of the assumptions of Florida’s initial theory, as well as the way it’s been implemented in various cities across the country.

Last year, in another blog, I discussed my own experience in one of the Creative Class cities (Madison, Wisconsin) and an article by writer Frank Bures that appeared in Twin Cities magazine Thirty Two, which also debated many of the Creative Class talking points.

It’s clear that the economic benefits are not as robustly realized as Florida had theorized. I agree that there are several key parts of his theory that have splintered under intense inspection. (Florida’s response to the Kotkin essay can be found here.)

But I’m not sure I’m completely ready to throw out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak.

The main thing that always rang true for me in Florida’s theory is the idea of flexibility.

I’ve written a great deal about Pittsburgh in this blog, and I have a great love for the city. But at different times when I’ve lived there, I felt that it was very inflexible. It was a town that didn’t embrace diversity, or differences. It didn’t understand different approaches, or different ideas.

If we fast forward to 2013, Pittsburgh is a different place.

I don’t know that all artists, or LGBT people, are magic indicators. But it’s been primarily those residents who have made astonishing changes in Lawrenceville.

Of course, what few theories really delve into is the fact that in so many Rust Belt cities – and even here in Chicago – there are deeply ingrained institutionalized class and race barriers that bar many of our citizens from participating in that economic process.

To truly be diverse – and flexible – we need planning and programs that are truly flexible and inclusive. And while planning theory is helpful in that regard, reform and government involvement is what’s really needed to make that a reality.


Pittsburgh: As The Yinzer Turns

Did Pittsburgh become Chicago while I was sleeping?

Luke Ravenstahl

Luke Ravenstahl

If you’ve watched what’s transpired in Pittsburgh over the last few weeks, it certainly seems so.

Increasing political conflict in city offices, and the firing of the police chief, led to a surprise announcement this morning from Mayor Luke Ravenstahl that he would not seek reelection.

That announcement may not sound significant on its own.

But it’s a culmination of months of unanswered questions swirling around city offices, and around the mayor himself. And even before this latest scandal, Ravenstahl’s actions – and inactions – fed accusations and rumors about his professional and personal life.

Pittsburgh’s made some huge strides forward into the 21st century.

Will the next Mayor help nudge that progress along – or will they embrace the traditionalism that Pittsburgh is known for?


Take me to the river: new developments in Pittsburgh

Just a few weeks ago, I was talking about how frustrating it was that Pittsburgh wasn’t capitalizing on its riverfront spaces to the fullest extent.

This week, some positive news about Pittsburgh’s riverfront space was announced – and even managed to garner a mention in the New York Times.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s story about the project is here.  The project has been named Almono (after the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers).

The site was originally slated for an expressway that would go to rural Fayette County, but that’s been scrapped. According to the NYT article, a rail line will remain. Could this corridor be a possible site for a commuter train/trolley down the line? Pittsburgh has several train lines (a corridor along Route 28 is another) that are already in place – will multiple uses of these lines ever become a reality?

The site is slightly “up river” and east of the city, just east of the South Side neighborhood.

I’m very encouraged by this news and I hope that the developers get the involvement of the community around them in these early planning stages. The current plans call for mixed use properties, which is a great use of the space.

The report card for development in this area so far has been mixed. The South Side Flats (closer to the city) has capitalized on the busy elements of the South Side and expanded the footprint of that area.

But just a few miles farther up the river, the “fake town” mall on the site of the former Homestead steel works hasn’t done much for the area around it. Instead of bolstering Homestead, it’s drained all the remaining life from its streets. On a recent visit I drove down 8th Street and was astonished at how decayed and empty it looked. Another cluster of retail (devoid of any local businesses) is not the answer, so mixed use sounds promising.

Braddock is another nearby neighbor on the river, and its struggles have been well documented

So I hope that this project finds a new purpose for this existing space. I’ll be keeping an eye on the progress.

Striking a balance: authenticity and imagination

As a child of the Rust Belt – and one that came of age as the wheels of industry were collapsing and rusting all around me – I’ve heard many ideas over the years that were guaranteed to reinvigorate and revitalize these cities and regions.

But for years, many of the ideas put forth to strengthen the core of cities like Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Buffalo was….to simply replicate the kind of businesses that were generating money and turning economic wheels in the suburbs.

What rust looks like in the 21st century...

What rust looks like in the 21st century…

That’s a sharp contrast to today, where many of the areas that are seeing renewal and revitalization are areas that are a part of the city’s history, or that capitalize on an existing part of the cityscape.

The Urbanophile (Aaron Renn) wrote about the value of authenticity in a recent post. The concept of authenticity was also the focus of several essays in the recent Cleveland-centric Rust Belt Chic anthology.

None of these cities need to be the “new” [fill in the blank with any city’s name]. The contemporary approach is to make it the best city it can be using its existing identity.

As many of America’s rust belt cities continue to evolve in the 21st century, government officials, planners and developers have to strike a delicate balance between reclaiming and protecting that authenticity and envisioning new uses, new places and new spaces.

The Rust Belt Chic advocacy group, and other Cleveland constituencies, seem to really understand this. The rejuvenation of the Lawrenceville section of Pittsburgh is a great example, too – using mostly existing spaces and scale to create a new place. There’s a newness and a revitalization to these spaces that respects its history and doesn’t reshape the space into a bland McMall space.

However, authenticity also means honoring the specifics of a particular city. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. That reality frustrates many developers and potential investors in our new corporate, economies-of-scale business landscape – which would prefer easily interchangeable solutions and fixes.

Detroit is, clearly, a city unto itself. I am encouraged by many of the positive things happening in Detroit. But while Detroit shares some of its ills and ailments with other Rust Belt cities, the scope of their challenges is unparalleled. And while reuse of a space makes sense for many other cities, Detroit has made a bold decision to go on a diet and shrink its developed space.

Buffalo is another question mark. There’s been a recognition in the last several years that Buffalo has some magnificent buildings and homes, and there’s certainly still life in the old city. But the questions remain – what economic engine can drive Buffalo 2.0?  Who can live in and maintain architecturally unique and important spaces in Buffalo?

Jobs are, for most cities like Buffalo and Detroit, the remaining missing piece of the puzzle. People are recognizing the livability of many of these spaces, and the potential these cities have. It will take time for any investment in new industries and in local businesses to really pay dividends. Pittsburgh’s partial resurgence is the result of groundwork that was mapped out thirty years ago.

Certainly, there are similarities in the Rust Belt experience. But as Aaron Renn said,  the turnaround for a Rust Belt region will not come from “chasing the same dreams as everybody else. It will be charting a unique path rooted in local history, culture, and geography, repositioned for the 21st century.”



Pittsburgh: Progress and Potholes

NOTE: While the city of Pittsburgh will be a frequent topic for this blog, this is the final post in this initial four-part series on Pittsburgh.

My initial posts about Pittsburgh may strike a casual reader as needlessly critical. (In my defense, it’s kind of the old, traditional Pittsburgh way to offer unsolicited advice, to friend or stranger, about their problems and potential solutions!)

So let me be clear: I love Pittsburgh. And I don’t want it to be the “new” anywhere.

For most of the time I lived in the proper “city” as an adult, I lived in Lawrenceville. In the early 2000s, Lawrenceville was on the precipice of something. Many of us could see it and feel it.

At the time, I was paying $300 rent in a building that likely wouldn’t pass fire code today, and our sidewalk was filled with broken glass and prostitutes, sometimes simultaneously. The same streets today are filled with vibrant shops, nice living spaces and a lot of people.

The transformation of Lawrenceville astonishes me, and makes me so happy. And more importantly, I don’t think L’ville lost any of its essential Pittsburgh qualities in its transformation. Hell, it launched Sharon Needles and a spooky, Terminal Stare-style drag queen is about as Pittsburgh as you can get!

On my recent visit home I saw a lot of encouraging signs, and I’ve read a lot of great stories about the continued evolution. Years ago, when I worked in retail downtown, I remember sections of streets near Forbes and Wood being so desolate during the day that it was not unusual (well, odd but not uncommon) to see a homeless person defecating on the street.

But there’s a definite renaissance happening with many buildings and spaces downtown, and it’s not just the tall skyscrapers owned by PNC. It’s smaller spaces, like the ones outlined in this article. (The comment section in that article? Interesting discussion.)

Another Post-Gazette article profiled an interesting mixture of “old” and “new” Pittsburgh – food carts and pierogies! (Again, interesting comment section.)

The things that are working, the positive parts of Pittsburgh’s evolution, are led by people who understand that the city doesn’t need a “reinvention” as much as it needs ideas for repurposing, or re-using, the resources it already has in its wheelhouse.

I know Pittsburgh is a collection of neighborhoods, but for a suburban boy like me, downtown Pittsburgh is the crown jewel, and I worry about its future and the plans for its use.

Mistakes have been made, and not all of them have been as far back in the rearview mirror as, say, the Penn Circle urban renewal debacle or the plans for the (now demolished) Civic Arena that tore apart the Hill District

The space developed in downtown Pittsburgh is greater than what a smaller, more streamlined 21st century ‘Burgh needs.

Yet there’s still suggestions that we need to fill the empty space with more office space, or more retail, despite the high profile failures of the downtown Lazarus project  (subsidized, in part, by the city of Pittsburgh) and the Lord & Taylor debacle – where a historical building was torn asunder for a department store that (a) was a carbon copy of the store next door and (b) closed soon after it opened its doors.

I’m hoping that more progress is made in re-imagining what can be for the city, but it will take a continued commitment to new ideas and new sized solutions. Pittsburgh can’t continue to party like it’s 1949. We need more progressive ideas, and less cheap fixes that just turn into potholes. There are enough of those in Pittsburgh.

END NOTE: Full disclosure – I’ve mentioned PNC in this blog a few times. I worked for them for several years. I have nothing but positive things to say about them as an employer and a company.

However, it concerns me a little that so much of in the city is being built on their shoulders. Depending on one company, or one industry, to turn the wheels in the city is a mistake Pittsburgh made in the past – and one it should avoid in the future.

Pittsburgh: Confluence and Conflict

No, really - they built it right by the river!

No, really – they built it right by the river!

NOTE: This is the second in a series of posts about Pittsburgh. 

One of the most magnificent places to be in Pittsburgh is where two rivers (Allegheny and Monongahela) meet at a confluence (some might say ‘converge’) to form the Ohio River. It’s all about nature’s great planning skills, and how it all flows together so naturally.

Flow, and a sense of coalescence, is hard to come by in Pittsburgh. And that’s partly a result of the terrain of the area.

Pittsburgh has always been a collection of neighborhoods, with hills, valleys and geographic twists and turns serving as borders. Anyone looking for a north/south, east/west, numbered grid system in Pittsburgh will be sorely disappointed (and also very lost).

But some of what we see in present-day Pittsburgh is a legacy of a lack of planning, or a lack of smart planning.

There’s no better sign of this, in my eyes, than the shiny new building that scored prime real estate along the Mon. The new building is in one of the most visible areas in the city, bordered by one of the biggest LEED certified buildings in town,* and looking over to the expanding South Side Flats area.

Is it a hotel? A new office building? Erm, no. It’s the county JAIL.

And there’s not only one, but TWO large jail buildings on prime real estate. (The Golden Triangle, the small core of Downtown, is only a few blocks wide and few streets long.)

The other building, an old and imposing behemoth taking up a whole city block, is the former county jail, built in the late 1800s. (Remember the dingy, windowless scenes in the dungeon-like jail in The Silence Of The Lambs? The old county jail is where those scenes were filmed.)

Using that space as the footprint for a jail boggles my mind. But for all the beauty of its rivers, Pittsburgh seems to have little sense on what to do with the space along the river banks.

Chicago, my current town, has made a calling card out of miles of open lakeshore access. Many of us suffer through cold winters and corrupt governors because we get beautiful lakeside access for the rest of the year. Pittsburgh could have the same sort of success with its riverside space, but hasn’t capitalized on that idea.

And that’s at the heart of the biggest planning controversy to hit Pittsburgh in years. A local developer, Buncher, wants to redevelop the iconic Strip District neighborhood.

I completely understand why – it’s a wonderful, quirky neighborhood that sits between downtown Pittsburgh and Lawrenceville, my former stomping grounds and the biggest neighborhood success story in recent Pittsburgh memory. (Editor’s note: Look for an upcoming post on L’ville,)

And certainly, the Strip could use a bit of rethinking. It still has the marks of its earlier life as an industrial space. The buildings looks like they could, to borrow the Pittsburghese parlance, “use a good warshing.”

The Strip could also use a smart, inexpensive plan for a dense, inexpensive parking structure, rather than the rows upon rows of surface parking that gobbles up much of the land nearest town in the Strip. And the old wholesale produce terminal – a central part of Buncher’s plans – could use an upgrade, or a retrofitting, to take it to the 21st century.

But Buncher’s current plans call for the space nearest the river to be private land, developed solely for the access of the proposed condo owners using that space. And so again, Pittsburgh fumbles the ball on the opportunity to open up an avenue of public space.

The city itself has had a rough road in terms of growing new business, especially new retail, in the downtown core. Part of the problem is the lack of real public space. Market Square has been revitalized in the last several years, with the new public square more accessible to people day and night.

It’s that kind of space, and the inviting storefront level activity along the square, that have re-energized that space. The new PNC office building and Fairmont Hotel a block away also helped. (For more on the planning effort re: Market Square, click here.)

Contrast that with Station Square, which is Pittsburgh’s one clear space for open riverside views. It’s still a great old space by the river (Station Square was an old train station) and it’s served by the one transit car line in Pittsburgh.

This photo shows the limits of the footprint of The Golden Triangle.

This photo shows the limits of the footprint of The Golden Triangle.

But the space has been overrun in recent years by big chain restaurants that have gobbled up the exterior space around the old station itself.

The inside of Station Square is like every other dying mall in the region, perhaps filled to 60 or 70 percent of capacity, and the restaurants are no more compelling than Applebee’s. Despite a unique, one of a kind space, few people flock to Station Square (unless it’s for the still-fantastic Gateway Clipper Fleet rides).

I think present-day Pittsburgh is suffering from a lack of cohesive planning. I’m not sure who made those mistakes, or when they happened, but I see it in neighborhood after neighborhood. Pittsburgh would definitely benefit from regional or metropolitan planning on a wider scale.

Pittsburgh has so many magnificent resources, and I know that there are many groups working to help plan the city’s next steps.

As with many other cities, private groups and advocates are fighting with entrenched politicians and chasing development money. It’s a private developer that’s driving the current Strip District project. And neighborhood groups are fighting back.

But the Golden Triangle itself is still a neighborhood in transition. I think everyone across the city – and those of us who love it – need to be advocates and defenders of its future, one where the beauty of Pittsburgh and all its rich resources are open to all her citizens.


The mysteries of Pittsburgh

I’ll be discussing several so-called “Rust Belt” cities here in the next few weeks.

PittsburghBut I’m launching a series of posts today on one particular city: Pittsburgh.

The choice of Pittsburgh is, in part, because of my own experiences: I grew up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. As an adult, I lived in city neighborhoods for over a decade. I still call it “home.”

But personal connections aside, I think Pittsburgh is a really compelling city to examine in this blog. Pittsburgh has been hailed as a success story (and rightfully so) of a city that lost its primary industry and managed to reinvent itself.

Pittsburgh is thinking about – or running right into – many of the issues of urban use, reuse, planning and development that are being discussed across the country.

And there are shifts in Pittsburgh’s suburbs, and the regions surrounding Pittsburgh, that fall into national trends (leapfrog suburbs, decay of first-ring suburbs).

Pittsburgh’s transit options (or lack thereof) are also very representative of the challenges many cities are dealing with, and I’ll be examining Pittsburgh’s transit issues, too.

There are some unique aspects of Pittsburgh – the geography, the resources and of course, the Pittsburgh accent – and I’ll be writing about those, too.


Intro: The Metro Stories

Welcome to The Metro Stories!

As we start 2013, I’m launching a new blog to write about the future of the cities and suburbs where we live and work. I want to examine the ways we build communities and connections, and rethink how we’ve traditionally grown and expanded our use of the land around us.

I also have a special interest in how we can reuse and find new purposes for space we’ve already developed. Many of these areas are considered “the rust belt,” and had been written off at the end of the twentieth century. But interesting things are happening in these communities, and I’m hoping to bring those things to light.


I’m a writer and journalist. Although I’ve technically always been a writer, my freelance career started about seven years ago. I wrote freelance pieces for newspapers and magazines, and also served a stint as a staff writer for an Internet job site.

My career and my life has followed an unconventional (and divergent) path, and in 2011, I decided to return to college. I’d hit the pause button on my prior stint in college, promising to return after a “short break.” That short break gave way to well over a decade of climbing the ladder and eventually carving out a pathway in the corporate world. I worked for banks (one) and insurance companies (two).

I’ve developed an interest in urban studies and planning because (a) it covers so much of what I was already writing about thematically, and (b) it encompasses SO MUCH of what we need to think about and plan for our futures: education, energy resources, infrastructure, transportation, housing, food sources and our economies, for starters.


So here’s the thing: I’m still learning about the issues and the history of urban studies and urban planning. There are many talented people who write about urban planning issues, and can amass and interpret amazing amounts of data and statistics. I’m not quite there yet.

What I CAN offer is my skills as a writer and a storyteller, and my own experiences. My family hails from one of the rustiest Rust Belt cities around (Johnstown, Pennsylvania) and I spent my childhood in a suburb of Pittsburgh. I’ve lived in many places in the Rust Belt and elsewhere, and I bring that perspective to this blog.

This is my writing and my work, but I also hope that some of these posts will become a conversation, and I welcome comments, questions and debates.

Lights, camera, action: where we make media

A few weeks ago, the Urbanophile – one of my favorite blogs and one that covers urban studies, cities and economics – featured a guest post that discussed Manchester, England and some of the changes to the city’s economy after the steel industry and other manufacturing collapsed.

It’s worth a complete read (linked above) but let me give you the Cliff Notes version: Manchester developed some sustainable alternate industries in the arts and entertainment sector, including music, film and television production.

Manchester, in many ways, is very similar to Pittsburgh, my hometown.

Pittsburgh has been active to a certain degree in film. The Pittsburgh Film Office has been working with Hollywood productions for over twenty years, and they’ve managed to attract really amazing films to be partly or completely shot in the ‘Burgh.

The latest Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, may be the largest in scope, but it’s not the only one: films as varied as Silence Of The Lambs, Wonder Boys, and Abduction have been filmed in Pittsburgh. (The movie I Am Number Four was filmed at my old high school.)

Pittsburgh has a lot of amazing vistas and a diversity of scenery in its neighborhoods that makes it an ideal place to film.

But hosting a film for a few weeks is different than having a dedicated film or television studio where ongoing work can be done.

For a few years, I wrote a blog about daytime soap operas. Initially, it was an analysis of the content of those shows. But I found myself also writing a great deal about the economics of making those shows. They’d become expensive to produce. Set storage alone in an intensely dense space like Manhattan was a massive strain on production budgets.

One show in particular, the now-cancelled Guiding Light, had a very public battle with economics that showed on air. In order to reduce production costs, the show’s executive producer and production company tried some inventive ideas, including filming on permanent sets, renting a large house in rural New Jersey for filming, and switching to digital cameras.

One thought struck me then, and it’s just as true of any TV show (or film) as it is for a soap opera. If New York City and Los Angeles are the two more expensive places in the country – for real estate, for cost of living, for everything – then why are we almost exclusively producing entertainment there? 

I can understand the pluses of Southern California weather, and the cluster of Broadway talent in New York City. But it seems like a no-brainer to me to diversify – significantly – where we produce entertainment so it can be done in a more cost-effective way.

We aren’t using coaxial cable to relay TV programs any more, folks. Digital cameras can go anywhere, be anywhere and film anything at any time.

Where else should shows be made? Well, there’s probably a lot of places that a sustainable industry could take root.

Take Chicago, my current city. There’s a host of talented actors here, enough to fill several shows. (Heck, the members of Steppenwolf alone are hardly strangers – John Malkovich, Terry Kinney, and Laurie Metcalf – also known as Jackie from Roseanne – just to name a few.)

There’s a studio sitting empty here – perhaps you’ve heard of Oprah Winfrey and Harpo Studios? – with lots of ready-to-roll space for a film or TV production.

And a production that isn’t made in NYC or LA might have the unintended side effect of – gasp – not having the everyone-lives-in-NYC-or-LA tunnel vision that so many shows seem to have.

Pittsburgh doesn’t have the ready-to-go space yet, and I wish that infrastructure would happen.  I’ve had an idea where it could happen for years.

There’s a small city adjacent to Pittsburgh called Braddock, an area that was hit hardest when the steel industry collapsed. The mayor of Braddock, John Fetterman, has been on TV and in the New York Times trying to find a new lease on life for Braddock. It’s already gained a reputation as an artists’ community.

Braddock has – and I intend no offense by saying this – a substantial level of decay, and has wide swaths of land where existing buildings could be razed or renovated into a large studio production space.

And then, if I wanted to be really super-crazy, I’d suggest that a program could be set up to help unemployed or challenged young men and women learn trades (like sound, lighting, or production) that could be parlayed into steady work.

Music, television, newspapers, books, and films – all of these media platforms have changed drastically in the last few decades. I think in order for these platforms to survive, the people who create and the people who deliver them will have to explore new methods of making them, and new methods of getting them in front of an audience.

EDITED AUGUST 7, 2012 TO ADD: I was incorrect in saying Pittsburgh does NOT have substantial studio space. According to a CNNMoney article, there’s a studio with 300,000 square foot of space. My apologies.