Chicago vs. Pittsburgh: Round 1

Tonight's post is the first of three in a blogging debate, in which Jim Russell of The Burgh Diaspora, who guest posted at Where last month, and I will discuss the relationship between Pittsburgh and Chicago, and which city relies more heavily on the other.

Nowadays, anyone following urbanism, economics, public policy, or related fields will have certainly heard of the theory that we are entering into an age of global urbanism where cities all over the world will be competing directly with each other for talent. Talent, we are told, will be more and more valuable as society becomes more technologically advanced, shifting even more heavily toward an international information economy. What you know, essentially, will become what you're worth. In this economic environment, megacities like Chicago will no longer merely be competing with New York, Washington DC, and San Francisco for talent; soon (already, many would say) Chicago will have to go head to head with London, Paris, Buenos Aires, Cape Town, Mumbai, Tokyo, Shanghai, Sydney, and on and on.

This is a fairly logical progression of events. The major city has always acted as a magnet throughout its history in human civilization. People come to the city to get a job, to prove themselves, to make their fortune. The individual reasons are myriad, but the inspiration is the same: people come to the city to improve their quality of life. It doesn't always work out that way, but that's the basic impetus. Chicago, then, has long needed Pittsburgh -- and other cities like it -- to sustain itself. The larger the city, the more daunting it is to dream-chasers and immigrants. Medium-sized cities, then, are a prime source of population for larger cities.

Without Pittsburgh, in the literal sense, Chicago would not crumble and blow away; to think so would be naive. But Pittsburgh is a part of a group of cities that, together, have allowed Chicago to experience its recent -- and rather stunning -- revival over the past two decades. As post-industrial Western megacities like Chicago, New York, or London began to try to pick themselves up after losing manufacturing jobs in the 1970s and 80s, they began to rely on what you could call innovation-intensive fields like biomedicine, design, information technology, and (of course) the arts. These are highly specialized fields, and ones that many traditional middle class workers were not trained or educated to particpate in. Megacities, then, needed to draw in new talent from surrounding smaller cities.

Here's where Pittsburgh gets the upper hand over Chicago. As a mid-sized city, Pittsburgh is large enough to provide a genuinely urban lifestyle while not overwhelming the newcomer. As a bonus, the city also happens to be an important center of higher education, with two of the nation's best colleges (U of Pitt and Carnegie-Mellon) located in the Oakland neighborhood of the city. Generationally speaking, this works in the city's favor because it becomes an excellent place for people to move from a smaller city to start a family, where the parents can take advantage of the lower cost of living and provide for their kids, who can then more easily take advantage of nearby educational resources. Pittsburgh is, for all intents and purposes, a creative class factory.

This happens around the country. Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Saint Louis -- all of these mid-sized cities have traditionally fed job-seekers into Chicago. Today, the competition is national, and Chicago draws more than ever from Seattle, Portland, San Antonio, Birmingham, San Diego, Denver, et. al. As the stakes are raised in coming decades, Bordeaux, Liverpool, Fortaleza, Adelaide, Fukuoka, Busan, Medellin, and Alexandria will all enter the mix. And not in the sense of traditional immigration, which creates ethnic communities, but in the sense of global creative class migration, which could create massive gentrified (or at least economically stable), internationally diverse areas in cities around the world.

Western society already operates as a sort of imperfect meritocracy. As this becomes more true, Chicago will need places like Pittsburgh more and more as it works to maintain and build its competitive creative core. Pittsburghers have the option to stay put; Chicago needs to convince them not to. It has to prove, however possible, that it can provide a better life. The burden lies with larger city.

(Photo from Flickr user -Nicole-. The original full-color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)

The Burgh Diaspora

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