If I had to pick a person to illustrate why my hometown endures, even thrives, I'd pick a young engineer from India by way of California named Priya Narasimhan. She teaches at Carnegie Mellon, worships the Steelers, and, among other things, has figured out how to embed a microtransmitter in a football to electronically measure first downs.
Don't laugh: the National Football League is considering using the device.
As many people know (and the G20 leaders are about to find out), Pittsburgh has long since ceased to be a corporate center of heavy industry and manufacturing—steel, coal, oil, aluminum, glass. Instead, it's a city of universities and hospitals ("Eds and Meds"), of green technology and robotics, of financial services and yes, even entertainment, in the form of sports and world-class museums such as the Carnegie and the Warhol.
Obama's decision to host the G20 economic summit here carries with it this implicit message to the world: yes, we are borrowing lots of money from you, but if you look at Pittsburgh, you can see that we have the brains and the determination to remake ourselves in ways that will insure our long-term solvency.
In other words, China: we're still a good bet.
We will be that safe bet if the G20, which meets here starting Thursday night, can keep the world committed to the policies that attracted Narasimhan: the free flow of ideas, information, goods, and people across borders.
Global recession, Islamist terrorism, and fears about China's growing economic might combine to make nationalist barriers look attractive once again. But the saga of Pittsburgh's first rise in the 19th century—and its rebirth in the 21st—show the value of open borders. Immigrants and foreign capital built the steel industry. World markets helped it thrive. Now a new generation of immigrants—this time highly educated ones—are developing new products for new world markets.
This is where I need to promise not to get carried away with admiration for my roots. This city's wrenching transformation from brawn to brain is laudable, and instructive, but wasn't and isn't easy, clean, or complete. The city's population is half what it was when I was a kid; surrounding Allegheny County hasn't grown; nor, appreciably, has the seven-county metro area.
There are sleek new office towers downtown, but also plenty of empty storefronts on the side streets and too many frazzled and broken people waiting for the late-night bus. Four out of five kids in the city schools are on food stamps; some of the city's oldest and proudest neighborhoods—including the Hill, made famous by playwright August Wilson—are in shambles. The once-proud (and high-paying) steel industry has lost 90 percent of its work force since the days when ol' Terry Bradshaw and Mean Joe Greene roamed the playing field for the legendary Steelers of the '70s.
And yet the exuberance and creativity you see and can feel in the city is real—a kind of nerdy chic that partakes of the old Pittsburgh (the unpretentiousness and unsentimental practicality) and mixes it with a new digital globalism in high tech and the arts. I wouldn't go so far as to declare that Pittsburgh is hip (and how in heck would I know, anyway?), but, with CMU and Pitt and a dozen other institutions, it is a college town.
There is only one other American city with two world-level research universities immediately next door to each other: Cambridge, Mass.
In fact, it was competition with Cambridge and Boston that led Professor Narasimhan to her greatest triumph of technological hustle so far: the "Yinzcam." (For those uninitiated in Pittsburgh dialect, "yinz" is the local equivalent of the Southern "y'all." As in: "I seen yinz gwon dahntahn for the Stillerz victory prayd!")
Using the built-in GPS capability of iPhones (and soon, BlackBerrys and other devices) and Google Maps, Narasimhan wrote a program that automatically collects and pinpoints citizen complaints and reports about potholes in streets and graffiti on public structures, and spits out reports—updated constantly—for local officials. In a city knitted together by hundreds of bridges and crisscrossed by streets famously Swiss-cheesed by potholes, the program was an instant success. "As soon as five complaints are collected about a pothole, the location instantly shows up on the city repair map," Narasimhan proudly explained. The system spits out a route map showing repair crews where to go, and what path to follow that uses the least amount of fuel. "Now dozens of cities want to use this technology. And we beat Boston!"
A native of Madras in India, Narasimhan was educated there and in Zambia before getting her Ph.D. at UC Santa Barbara. She came to CMU in 2001 to join its world-class computer-engineering faculty. In what can best be described as a spiritual conversion, she saw her first Steelers football game. "I used to think: football, violence, ugh! Now I love it." At CMU, she wears a Steelers sweatshirt, but she's a Penguins hockey fan as well. And now she is combining sports and engineering.
There is the chip-in-the-football program, well underway, as well as another one to put a microtransmitter into receiver's gloves. "That way," she said, "there will never be any doubt whether a catch is really a catch." She has developed a program to take raw footage of hockey games from arena cameras, and turn it into a "three-dimensional depiction of the game."
The Walt Disney Co. recently announced a relationship with CMU, which also happens to have one of the nation's best theater programs, and computer animation is a popular study topic there.
Hollywood on the Monongahela? It sounds preposterous, I know. Mickey Mouse. We'll take it.