Judging a Rusty Book By The Cover

I judged a book by its cover recently—Beyond Rust seemed like it would be a good read.  I’d learn more about Pittsburgh and the phenomenon known as the rust belt, and how some rusty areas came back.  The Pittsburgh Renaissance was aided by the Alleghany Conference and public private partnerships.  Through these efforts, thousands of acres of strip and otherwise mined land became parks.  New roads allowed more mobility and the modernization of tourist areas.

The author is an historian who has well documented the facts.  But facts need defining, ordering, and context.  Is the Pittsburgh Renaissance (capital R) just a name for the comeback of a great city?  Or is it a duly constituted organization with articles of association, letters patent, or incorporation?  The Alleghany Conference (capital C) seems to be a body, the membership in which and its mission is not discussed in any detail.  As for public private partnerships, this may mean nothing as in the current ubiquitous use of “our partners” in government or “we’ll partner up with…”.  Or it may mean some spot on the continuum of design, build, finance, maintain (DBFM).

The book often feels like one of those history books or local access TV documentaries on a small prairie city.  You have to know who and what is being talked about to know what’s being talked about.

But there are some nuggets.  We get the local perspective on the “coal wars” a time of industrial strife that caused more death in America than modern terrorism.  There are snippets on the fight for industrial safety and the use of new technology and mining techniques to generate prosperity, but reduce jobs.  Industrialist Andrew Carnegie’s steal works and mergers, and the emergence of US Steal is covered, and the region’s contribution to the war effort.     

During the daytime, people sometimes had to drive with headlights on and windshield wipers wiping because of industrial smoke.  Some smoky days killed people—reminiscent of the old Soviet East Block.  It was in Pittsburgh that fights for clean air took hold.  

This book deals with more than just a few important subjects.  One is the notion of ‘roads to jobs’ — still a notion applied to transport in cities.  Road improvement in Pittsburgh was supposed to connect areas of high unemployment with expanding suburbs.  Another is the value of sports stadia.  A third is the gigantic shopping centre—often called The Golden Mile or Miracle Mile.  And then there’s that great clean industry–tourism.      

There are a few cautionary tales in these themes which run through urban planning literature.  First, the Cambridge/Boston area high technology companies may be as much a function of being near several great universities as the quality of the paving.  If pavement were the key to riches, New Brunswick would be wealthy as a result of more miles of pavement per capita than most jurisdictions.  As for sports stadia, they do seem to make money for team owners through the rental of boxes, parking, concession sales and such.  But what the average citizen gets out of the deal has not been studied well.  And these days, shopping centres are being repurposed as office space, accommodation, or just being left abandoned.  

The fact is that there are only so many discretionary dollars to go around.  You may get to repurpose a few, but you won’t create much new money with any of these initiatives.

One of the tourism ventures covered in the book was the restoration of Ohiopyle House, a 37 room hotel.  Just after opening arson destroyed it—“mountain justice” said many locals who didn’t like change, being forced to move, sell their homes, or otherwise didn’t see the wisdom in developers and planners efforts.

We’re not entirely beyond rust.  

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