From Steel To Tech, Pittsburgh Transforms Itself Some people still call it the Steel City, but the soot from a bygone era is gone. It's been replaced by efforts to transform the city into a high-tech center. And with an unemployment rate that's lower than the national average and 1,600 technology companies, the city is well on its way.
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From Steel To Tech, Pittsburgh Transforms Itself

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From Steel To Tech, Pittsburgh Transforms Itself

From Steel To Tech, Pittsburgh Transforms Itself

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Melissa Block.


And Im Robert Siegel.

We're going to hear now about steel. Or more precisely, about the legacy of steel here in the U.S. Gary, Indiana, once a thriving steel town is still a steel town but its hardly thriving. And we'll hear more on Gary in a moment.

First to Pittsburgh, the place that some still call the Steel City, has reinvented itself. Its unemployment rate is nearly two percent better than the national average. Plus, it's home to 1600 technology companies and a growing population.

Dan Bobkoff of the Midwest Public Radio Collaborative, Changing Gears, walks us through just how Pittsburgh transformed itself.

DAN BOBKOFF: The first thing you should know about Pittsburgh is it's serious about its football.

Unidentified Man #1: Anybody selling tickets?

Unidentified Man #2: Cleveland sucks.

BOBKOFF: On game day, it's like the whole city piles into parking lots near Heinz Field. Fans wear the Steelers logo, still based on the mark of the steel industry. But you dont hear much about steel when you talk to tailgaters.

Ms. MELISSA ZABELLA: All of our jobs are on the rise.

Mr. KEVIN Clark: Yes, Pittsburgh's economy is booming.

Ms. DAWN BOREN: Pittsburgh is probably one of the most livable cities around.

Mr. ANTHONY NEFF: Meds and eds, thats the new manufacturing. Medicine and education.

BOBKOFF: Thats Melissa Zabella(ph), Kevin Clark(ph), Dawn Boren(ph) and Anthony Neff(ph).

Pittsburgh has come a long way from the early post-war years when it produced half the country's steel and a lot of its soot.

Joel Tarr teaches at Carnegie Mellon University.

Professor JOEL TARR (History and Policy, Carnegie Mellon University): It was so bad that you had to have the street lights turned on at noon in downtown Pittsburg a number of days during the winter and the fall.

BOBKOFF: That was no way to live and the city's future was as murky as the pollution gripping it. But in this period, a surprising coalition formed to clean things up. Leaders from business, universities, nonprofits, and government joined together to create smoke controls and clean water rules.

Even so, when Steve Lee came to Pittsburgh in the early '70s to go to Carnegie Mellon, steel production was still taking a toll.

Professor STEVE LEE (School of Architecture, Carnegie Mellon University): And I'd come to school at the end of summer vacation, and for two weeks my eyes would run, I'd have a sore throat just from all the junk that was in the air.

BOBKOFF: Lee eventually became enamored with the steel town. Today, he's the head of the architecture department where he was once a student. And he remembers those late nights studying in the '70s when he'd look out his window.

Prof. LEE: The sky was just throbbing and red as the open hearth furnaces were being stoked. And this is an amazing place. But I was very young. I didn't realize we were at a moment of a huge transformation.

(Soundbite of a news clip)

Unidentified Man #3: Now, U.S. Steel for its part, says it will go ahead with plans to shut that mill on April the 1st. Seven hundred and ninety people will lose their jobs...

BOBKOFF: By the early '80s, the steel era came to an abrupt end. This was not some long, drawn-out decline like the auto industry. Virtually overnight, 150,000 manufacturing jobs were wiped out. Many blame deregulation and foreign competition.

(Soundbite of a news clip)

Unidentified Man #4: The closing of the mill hits much more than just the 1200 workers inside.

Mr. COLIN MENEELY (Attorney/Former Employ, U.S. Steel): I never have ever bad-mouthed U.S. Steel. They paid me for every minute I worked.

BOBKOFF: Colin Meneely was one of those forced to reinvent himself.

MENEELY: I know a lot of people today take the position that, you know, they weren't treated right. Well, you know, suck it up and move on. It's what you have to do.

BOBKOFF: Meneely went to college and law school in his 40s.

Education played a role in the city's reinvention, too. Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh became powerhouses in computing, robotics and biotechnology. Companies were spun off.

And as Steve Lee shows me on a driving tour, these sectors started replacing steel.

Prof. LEE: There's Sunoco, Aristech research facility...

BOBKOFF: A former mill on the river is now a bustling technology park. In recent years, that coalition of groups that helped clean up Pittsburgh in the '50s used those established relationships to make projects like this happen.

Prof. LEE: So the building site is fully occupied.

BOBKOFF: Of course, not everyone has benefited from Pittsburgh's turnaround. There are still poor neighborhoods and racial divisions. But it's a long way from the general despair of the '80s. Today, no one thing dominates Pittsburgh's economy.

(Soundbite of a crowd)

BOBKOFF: At a church turned into a brew pub, you now find people like Robb Myer, who started a company that will text your cell phone when a table is ready at a restaurant. Myer is from San Francisco but stayed in Pittsburgh after attending Carnegie Mellon.

Mr. ROBB MYER (Entrepreneur): But I kind of started liking Pittsburgh. It has a small town feel but it's kind of a big city. And I thought it was a really good place to start a technology business.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (Press Secretary, White House): One quick announcement before we get started...

BOBKOFF: This transformation is still very new, as White House press secretary Robert Gibbs learned, as he announced Pittsburgh as the site of last years G-20 Summit. It was a time to showcase the city's progress to the world, but he couldn't get any respect for the place.

GIBBS: In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

(Soundbite of murmuring and laughter)

Mr. GIBBS: Did I get a little murmur there?

BOBKOFF: But Pittsburgh residents aren't laughing. There's a strong, proactive movement there. This is a city that doesn't wait for things to happen anymore. And that's why other cities trying to emerge from their industrial pasts now look to Pittsburgh with envy.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Bobkoff.

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