The skyscraper best known as the headquarters for U.S. Steel now also houses University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), the region's largest employer. In the foreground is the environmentally friendly convention center where the G-20 leaders will meet.
The skyscraper best known as the headquarters for U.S. Steel now also houses University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), the region's largest employer. In the foreground is the environmentally friendly convention center where the G-20 leaders will meet. Keith Srakocic/AP
Pittsburgh has transformed its economy over the past two decades. Now the city hopes to use the attention provided by the G-20 summit to transform its image.
The glow from the steel mills that once churned along the city's riverbanks faded in the early '80s. It took decades for Pittsburgh to forge a new identity.
"Steel defined Pittsburgh for a century," said Chris Briem, a regional economist with the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Social and Urban Research. "In this world where everything's more mobile — investment, talent, skills and workers — and all these things are not tied to a geography the way steel was here, regions are going to be competing in very different ways."
For Pittsburgh, the comeback has been fueled by investments in health care, education and clean energy — industries the Obama administration wants to highlight. The city's convention center, where much of the summit is taking place, has been hailed for its environmental design.
Earlier this week, Heinz Field, home of the Pittsburgh Steelers, hosted a technology conference. Google CEO Eric Schmidt fielded questions about innovation and the global economy.
"My question is about clean jobs and high-tech manufacturing," asked high school student Pavan Rajgopal. "Do you think these fields will ever completely replace the high volume of manufacturing jobs that have been lost over the last 30 to 40 years?"
Rajgopal isn't sure if there's a "clean job" waiting for him. But he wants to keep his options open.
"It's the future. So it's definitely possible," he said.
In the 1980s, young people didn't see much of a future in Pittsburgh. Working-age families fled the city in droves. Now, though, Pittsburgh's unemployment rate is lower than the rest of the country's. And more and more young people are deciding to stay.
"I think people have recognized, over the last decade especially, that it's a valuable place to be," said teacher Kate Benson.
She was one of a crowd of young people attending a "beer summit" this week at the Sharp Edge Beer Emporium. Participants sampled brews from a half-dozen G-20 countries.
Economist Briem is proud of all the attention Pittsburgh is getting for its economic turnaround. But he cautions that the makeover is not finished.
"What I hope doesn't happen is that we think we've arrived somewhere," he said. "This is only the beginning of wherever the future goes."