Representing the University of Pittsburgh, my daughter Elizabeth was the co-sponsor of a short course this month in conjunction with Konan University in Kobe, Japan. Its subject was “Global Cities: Pittsburgh and Kobe – Livability, Resilience, and Sustainability”; its objective was to explore the future potential for the two cities.
When she first discussed the project with me, I volunteered to help out and was rewarded by being permitted to provide one lecture, focusing on Pittsburgh’s resilience heritage. After all, how many times have we boasted of our ability to overcome major problems as “the Comeback City”?
I gave my lecture at 8:00 pm on Sunday evening, 9:00 am Monday in Japan. The audience was about two dozen undergraduate students at Pitt and Konan, plus a handful of other faculty associated with the class. The ease with which it is possible to reach so many people in so many different places via Zoom is impressive.
My argument proving the resilience of Pittsburgh was based on a chronological history of the city, recording crises and its response to them, plus a number of significant events that influenced its evolution. The first crisis, the invasion of the French into the Ohio Country in 1754 and their victories over Washington at Fort Necessity and Braddock at Turtle Creek, occurred before the city officially existed.
The response of the English and the provincials was General John Forbes’ successful expedition in 1758, resulting in the defeat of the French and their native American allies, and the destruction of Fort Duquesne. The symbol of this event is Nat Youngblood’s painting showing Forbes on Grant’s Hill, writing a dispatch to Prime Minister William Pitt reporting his victory and his intention to build a fort at the Forks of the Ohio and to name it Fort Pitt. The date of that event, November 25, 1758, is Pittsburgh’s official birthday.
The next crisis came in 1763 when Pontiac’s rebellion against the English and the settlers reclaimed most of the Ohio Country for the native Americans. All the English forts were overcome and destroyed, with the exception of Fort Pitt. Sheltering all the nearby settlers, it was under siege for fifty days until Colonel Bouquet’s relief column arrived and ended that threat. Five years later the Treaty of Fort Stanwix opened up this area to settlement; thousands of pioneers arrived and made their homes here.
The village of Pittsburgh prospered and became the Gateway to the West, the departure point for more settlers wanting to go down the Ohio River by keelboat to Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana. This prosperity was short-lived; in 1811 the federal government began its first major infrastructure project, the construction of the National Road. Connecting Cumberland, Maryland and Vandalia, Illinois, it provided an excellent alternative to Pittsburgh as Gateway to the West.
Fortunately Pittsburgh was already changing its focus to manufacturing, taking advantage of the readily mined coal in the Pittsburgh Seam, halfway up Coal Hill (now Mount Washington). Iron-making and the large-scale production of glass became the drivers for the city’s prosperity, a drive that suffered a major setback when the “Great Fire of 1845” destroyed over half of the city.
Reconstruction proceeded slowly until Andrew Carnegie introduced a new technology for making steel, providing jobs for thousands of additional people. Many of these jobs were filled by immigrants from Central Europe and the Deep South; jobs that were dangerous, physically demanding, and low-paying. Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, Pittsburgh was plagued by labor unrest, culminating in the Railroad Strike of 1872 and the Homestead Strike of 1892, both of which generated considerable destruction and loss of life. It took many years for labor and management to work out an equitable compromise.
Floods were prevalent in Pittsburgh from its earliest days; the 1936 St. Patrick’s Day Flood was “the final straw”. The combination of heavy Spring rains and rapidly thawing snow in the mountains raised the level of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers thirty feet, completely inundating much of the city. In response, a program to construct flood control dams was initiated, a program that has successfully mitigated this threat.
Pittsburgh reached its peak population, well over 600,000 persons, in 1950, primarily because of the prosperity of the steel industry, a prosperity accompanied by unparalleled air and water pollution. A massive redevelopment program, Renaissance I, successfully attacked these problems and several areas of the industrial blight.
Legislation prohibiting heating homes with bituminous coal and restrictions on industry helped clear up the air. The construction of ALCOSAN eliminated discharge of domestic and industrial wastewater into the rivers. Demolition of abandoned buildings and the construction of Point State Park rejuvenated the core city.
In the 1980s the entire steel industry in the United States suffered major setbacks. Pitttsburgh was hit particularly hard, resulting in the closing of nearly all of its major facilities. Thousands of steel workers lost their jobs forever. Recovery from this crisis has been in the form of a massive transition from an economy focused on heavy manufacturing to a services-based one diversified between education, medicine, and leading-edge technology.
Given the sobriquet “Ed-Med-Tech”, this economy evolved gradually and seamlessly between 1990 and 2010. This “bottom-up” evolution appears to have occurred from a “grass-roots” origin with little or no influence from government. Leaders in each of its three components exploited the transitional environment to accelerate growth exponentially.
Symbolic of this evolution is Pittsburgh’s biggest building. Originally constructed by U.S. Steel to be its corporate headquarters, it now sports a large sign, 841 feet above Grant Street, announcing to the world that it is occupied by Pittsburgh’s largest employer, UPMC, a healthcare provider.
The grandchildren of millworkers and coal miners today are University professors and robotics technicians and anesthesiologists. The resilience of the city is the cumulative resilience of its inhabitants. One must assume Pittsburgh will continue to respond positively to its challenges well into the future.