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Summit Spotlights 'Steel City's' Extreme Makeover

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Summit Spotlights 'Steel City's' Extreme Makeover


Summit Spotlights 'Steel City's' Extreme Makeover

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Now the leaders of those economic powers are meeting in a city that's been remade. Pittsburgh transformed its economy and now hopes to transform its image.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Pittsburgh's profile is on the rise. Bathed in the international spotlight, the city's reputation is climbing like one of the incline railway cars that scale the steep hillside along the Monongahela River.

(Soundbite of elevator motor, beeping)

Mr. CHRIS BRIEM (Regional Economist, University of Pittsburgh): This is Mount Washington. This is formerly known as the top of Cole Hill.

HORSLEY: From this vantage point, Pittsburgh native Chris Briem has a commanding view of the city. The coal in these hillsides and the barge-filled rivers below helped make Pittsburgh a steel-making powerhouse for decades, up through the 1970s.

Mr. BRIEM: All along the river here, I mean, you would see the glow from the J&L plant, the LTV plants, that glow would have been day and night.

HORSLEY: That glow faded in the early 1980s when one steel mill after another closed and more than 100,000 jobs disappeared. Briem, who's a regional economist at the University of Pittsburgh, says it took decades for the city to forge a new identity.

Mr. BRIEM: Steel defined Pittsburgh for a century. In this world where everything's more mobile, you know, investment's hyper-mobile, talent and 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.

HORSLEY: For Pittsburgh, the comeback's 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's taking place, has been hailed for its environmental design.

From this hillside, you can see Heinz Field, where the World Champion Pittsburgh Steelers play. Earlier this week, the stadium was home to a technology conference, where the CEO of Google fielded questions about innovation and the global economy.

Mr. PAVEN RAJGOPAO (Student): My question is about clean jobs and high-tech manufacturing. Do you think that these fields will ever completely replace the high volume of manufacturing jobs that have been lost over the last 30 to 40 years?

HORSLEY: Pittsburgh high school student Paven Rajgopao isn't sure if there's a clean job waiting for him. But this son of an Indian immigrants said after the conference, he wants to keep his options open.

Mr. RAJGOPAO: It's the future, so it's definitely possible.

HORSLEY: 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 job market is healthier than the rest of the country's, and more and more young people are deciding to stay.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

Unidentified Man: Can I get the...

HORSLEY: In the days leading up to this week's summit, young people crowded a tasting room at the Sharp Edge Beer Emporium, sampling brews from half a dozen G-20 countries.

(Soundbite of drink pouring, crowd chatter)

HORSLEY: Teacher Kate Benson says people who graduate from Pittsburgh's good colleges used to think they had to go elsewhere for work. Not anymore.

Ms. KATE BENSON (Teacher): I think that people have recognized, over the last decade especially, that it's a valuable place to be. You know, when it comes time to raise a family, you really can't beat growing up and raising a family in this city.

HORSLEY: That's encouraging news for economist Briem, who says Pittsburgh residents are often the last to believe in their city's revitalization. He's proud of all the attention that Pittsburgh is getting, but he cautions the makeover is not finished.

Mr. BRIEM: What I hope doesn't happen is that we think we've arrived somewhere, because the answer to moving beyond steel is not looking for that one thing that will replace steel. Nothing will replace steel. We don't know what industries will be growing in 10 years. For Pittsburgh and these lessons for everyone else is to not get trapped in that. I hope we're not left thinking that, you know, this is the end. This is only the beginning of wherever the future goes.

HORSLEY: Banners hanging all over town this week say Pittsburgh welcomes the world. A recession-weary world welcomes Pittsburgh's example that rebuilding an economy is possible.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Pittsburgh.

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