You must be new here, and you must be from a place even farther behind the times than Pittsburgh. Worrying about the city's image is so 1998. Back then, we openly aspired to being like Cleveland. City officials pointed to ballparks like Jacobs Field, "first-day attractions" for tourists like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and new Downtown shopping. If we only put our minds to it, city leaders pledged, we too could enjoy the same success as Cleveland.
Which proves you ought to be careful what you wish for.
You should realize that rumors of Cleveland's rebirth, like those of Mark Twain's death, have been greatly exaggerated. Amazingly enough, despite all Cleveland's nice new sports facilities and opportunities for the well-to-do to shop and get drunk, the U.S. Census Bureau issued numbers last month showing that Cleveland has the highest poverty rates of any big city in the country. Nearly one out of every three of its residents live in poverty. The school district has flirted with financial collapse for decades, despite the fact that more than half of the kids don't attend the full 12 years.
So, we really hitched our wagon to a star there. As Post-Gazette reporter Milan Simonich -- who seems to specialize in stories that dump cold water over just about every project his paper's editorial page endorses -- reported on Sept. 26, in Cleveland, "Poverty wears a mask." People who shop or go to ball games might easily never see any signs of its desperation. But that's because such projects work to conceal poverty and hardship, not cure them.
In fact, concealing real problems was a major concern for Pittsburgh decision-makers in the late 1990s. It seems strange to say it now, with the city teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, but there was a time only a few years ago that PR officials were insisting that our image problem was the biggest one we had. We had to "tell our story" about how successful we'd become at shedding our steel-making past and embracing the future. There were efforts like the "Regional Branding Initiative" whose stupidity was so massive it makes me tired just thinking about it. Suffice it to say there were "Pittsburgh fonts" created and Pittsburgh color palettes. (Those interested in what I had to say about such efforts at the time can Google the following phrases: "regional branding initiative" and "disemboweled sheep." That will take you right to it, assuming you still want to.)
One good thing about the city's current financial problems is that nobody is making noise about the city's "image problem." Nothing concentrates the mind like a good bankruptcy proceeding, as US Airways workers can attest. About the only embarrassing local booster effort you see these days is WPXI's insipid "Stand up and tell them you're from Pittsburgh" jingle.
And here's the thing: That song isn't even an original. It was based on a theme song previously used in that other comeback city: Detroit, Michigan. What's more, the song is 20 freaking years old. "Stand up and tell them you're from Detroit" was used by station WXYZ in the mid-1980s, back when anyone standing up and saying anything in Detroit was most likely to get gunned down with a sawed-off 12-gauge. This song is like the "Ah, Leah" of TV promos -- it's a song everyone except Pittsburgh got over years ago. I mean, we're not only stuck copying Rust Belt cities, but we're copying the ideas they had 20 years ago. We're constantly told that Pittsburgh needs a more forward-thinking image, but our PR efforts are more backward than the city itself.
Next thing you know, some local ad wizards will start campaigning for us to set our rivers on fire as a way to get attention.