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Birthing Pains

Thoughts on Pittsburgh post-250

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There's a tired joke that says when the end of the world comes, you'll want to be in Pittsburgh -- because everything happens here five years late. But in a lot of ways, we're ahead of the curve. We just finished celebrating our 250th anniversary -- 18 years before the rest of the country will. And in some sense, the world already has ended here: The lesson of our first 250 years, in fact, is that the end of history doesn't have to be that big a deal.

I'm not saying it was easy. When the bottom fell out of steel industry, families, neighborhoods, whole communities just ... vanished. Those left behind faced joblessness, despair and foreclosure. Also, Bubby Brister playing quarterback.

But with a couple decades of perspective, it's worth noting that even when we were falling apart, we were still in the lead. When it came to collapsing, no one did it better.

Pittsburgh led the country in industrializing, and it led in deindustrializing too. In fact, our subsequent transformation -- from a manufacturing economy to one based heavily on financial services and health care -- has been mirrored by society as a whole.

Which isn't necessarily a good thing, either. As a Western Pennsylvania native son, Edward Abbey, once pointed out, when the biggest and glassiest buildings in your town are banks, your town is in trouble. Just ask anyone with a 401(k) what happens when you tie your future to Wall Street.

Somehow, though, Pittsburgh largely ignored the siren call of the dot-com boom, the real-estate boom, and the other financial schemes the rest of the country seized upon. Our widespread immunity to Wall Street Ponzi schemes may be the flip side of our hidebound resistance to change ... just as our "small-town feel" is the flip side of the "parochial" mindset people complain about. People like to gripe about Pittsburgh's resistance to new ideas, but just because an idea is new doesn't mean it's any good.

Even all those geezers we grumble about have an upside. As the Cleveland Plain Dealer pointed out in an envious story about our city, "The city's substantial elderly population, living on the safety net of Social Security, pensions and Medicare, is less affected by a recession than younger working folks." So look on the bright side, young Pittsburghers: Those old folks are shoring up property values -- even while they yell at you to keep off the lawn.

Many of our supposed weaknesses, in other words, have been a source of strength. Which is a lucky thing, because it looks like the western world is going to be following our lead for the next 250 years, too.

America as a whole is getting older ... and given the news from Detroit, it will continue to deindustrialize as well. And Barack Obama's election aside, America will probably give up its central role on the global scene, much as Pittsburgh has done. We are too deeply in debt, with too many IOUs held by too many rivals. Too many of us are fat and stupid, thanks partly to a culture that prefers us that way.

But even if decline is inevitable, we can still choose how to handle it. Will the American empire come crashing down like Rome? Or will it manage to retain some dignity, like Great Britain?

If it wants to follow the latter example, the country could do a lot worse than look to Pittsburgh for guidance. One thing Pittsburgh has mastered is the art of "managing decline," as former Mayor Tom Murphy used to put it.

Murphy thought "managing decline" was a bad thing, and obviously, it's not as snappy a slogan as "Roboburgh" or "The City With a Smile on Its Face." But really, "managing decline" is a better strategy than "making it worse." And honestly: Being a global leader ain't all it's cracked up to be. We bewail Pittsburgh's population losses today, but give little thought to the unhealthful crowding that once defined much of Pittsburgh's past. Our track record of production, like America's current level of consumption, was environmentally unsustainable. And while we've given up a lot, we managed to hold on to even more.

Of course, it's possible that when the end comes for the rest of the world, the results will be much messier. But hey -- even then, at least we'll have plenty of fresh water.

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