Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Pittsburgh and Detroit-A Tale of Two Cities


Detroit Decay


In the winter of 1954 Pittsburgh was about to celebrate its 200th anniversary. It was founded by the French in 1754 when they established a fort (Duquesne) at the point where the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers merged to form the Ohio. As a jumping off place to the west, it became the focal point of battles between the French and British and is often cited as the place where the French-Indian or Seven Year War, started. In 1758 the British overwhelmed the fort, destroying it. The next year a new, heavily fortified fort was constructed and named in honor of William Pitt the elder.

Like Pittsburgh, Detroit began as a French colony, short name, Fort Detroit.(The year often cited was 1701, although there was a community there much earlier.) As in the case of Pittsburgh, Detroit was turned over to the British, officially, as the result of the Treaty of Paris that ended the French Indian War in 1763.

Both cities grew as industrial powerhouses, although Pittsburgh's start was earlier with the growth of the steel industry. Both cities had extremely dominant industries and both developed powerful labor unions.

A striking divergence occurred in 1954. Pittsburgh declared itself "The Renaissance City." The political leader, Mayor David Lawrence, and the financial leader, Richard King Mellon, as disparate a couple one would ever consider, recognized that the steel industry was declining and the city would have to promote the development of new industry to take its place. They also agreed that the defining character of the city, the smoke from industry, had to be reduced if new industry was to attract the talent needed to bring the city into the future.

Over the next decade, the city became the poster child for urban renewal (mostly privately financed) with focus on developing its education and health services and facilities. In 1963 I worked on a projected demography of Pittsburgh. The result indicated that over the period from 1964-94, the population would decrease in half, from 600,000 to 300,000 with only one of its wards (14) maintaining its population (about 50,000). This projection was remarkably accurate. Detroit experienced an unplanned decrease in population of about the same proportion as the white population found refuge from the decay of the central city by moving to the suburbs.

I remember my first experience in Detroit in 1987. I went for a walk from an office building at lunch only to find myself lost in an area of dilapidated houses with boarded windows, panhandlers, dope sellers and streets with broken pavement. Where were the leaders of industry? They were in a suburb called Gross Point, minding their mansions and their yachts on Lake Huron. Where were the political leaders? They saw their future, not in giving to Detroit, but with as much as they could take from Detroit.

Today, Pittsburgh is cited as one of the leading cities in America with a prosperous work force, relatively low unemployment, solid potential for graduates of its nationally recognized schools of higher learning and a sound system of public education.

Detroit is bankrupt.