Lessons for Detroit From Pittsburgh's Rebirth

Before jetting off to the Middle East and Europe, President Obama took care of another piece of international diplomatic business: He announced the city in which the U.S. will host the next G20 summit in September. His choice drew laughter and puzzlement from reporters and diplomats alike.

Pittsburgh? Are you serious?

As a proud native, I understand and agree with the president's decision. Pittsburgh's story is inspiring and impressive. It was a rusting steel-making behemoth that, through struggle, pain and creativity, retooled itself as a surprisingly vibrant, 21st-century leader in education, computer science, medical research, sports entertainment and boutique manufacturing.

By most measures—unemployment and foreclosure rates, to name two—Pittsburgh is an island of calm in the raging recession.

But I'm dubious about the next step in the White House's reasoning: Pittsburgh's success, officials say, offers hope that Obama's own economic policies will work for Detroit and other beleaguered cities and industries. No, in fact, it doesn't.

Simply put, what worked in Pittsburgh won't work for the auto industry, and what the president wants to do for Detroit isn't the kind of thing that worked in my old hometown. Pittsburgh's rebirth is about the grit, sacrifice and hustle of locals—not the sweeping plans and power of federal bureaucrats.

As the steel industry was dying, no one (certainly no one in Pittsburgh) suggested or would have accepted a federal bailout, let alone a federal takeover. There was and is too much pride and stubbornness; the Whiskey Rebellion was two centuries ago, but the suspicion of Washington's motives remains.

In its first heyday, Pittsburgh produced as much or more steel than the rest of the world combined. Even into the '60s and '70s, the sky on cloud-covered nights glowed orange, reflecting the pulsing fires of open-hearth furnaces along the rivers below.

When the industry faltered—hit by cheap imports, lax management, labor strife and declining domestic demand—steel's leaders sought and won years of tariff and quota protection. So to that extent, the city and its leading industry did turn to the feds.

But ultimately a sense of realism—a trait of the city that sometimes borders on bitter cynicism—won out. The locals realized that the old steel industry was a lost cause, and they moved on.

A way of making a living ended, but not a way of life. The old determination found a new focus, which wasn't anymore a lifetime job in the mill, but a college education—and more education.

And that, above all, has been the key to the city's survival: pride in and commitment to local education. The city school system avoided the kind of collapse that faced other urban centers; schools in surrounding suburbs of Allegheny County have risen in stature. This was largely a local choice, with local and state money.

The same is true with higher education. Pittsburgh is one of only a handful of cities with two institutions—Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh—in the 62-member Association of American Universities, a prestigious alliance of the nation's leading research schools. True, CMU and Pitt get a lot of federal research money, and federal grants and loans help pay the tuition of many of their students. But the schools wouldn't be what they are had it not been for the vision of locals, from Andrew Carnegie and Thomas Mellon to the thousands of Pittsburgh schoolkids who contributed pennies toward the construction of the main building on the Pitt campus.

Believe it or not, Pittsburgh today is a college town, with one of the highest ratios of students to full-time residents in the nation.

At the center of the university complex (there are dozens of other universities and colleges in the area) is health care; and again, its creation was the result of local initiative. Affiliated with Pitt, UPMC has become one of the nation's largest, most advanced (and entrepreneurial) hospital and health-care providers.

HHS didn't tell them to do it.

"Now we're the city of 'eds and meds'," says Ira Morgan, a savvy player in Pittsburgh real estate.

Morgan and others see a revival of manufacturing, too—but on a smaller, more dispersed scale. The old open-hearth behemoths are gone; the cleared land along the rivers is now home to startups in computer systems and software and metals fabrication. "The industrial parcels are cheap and the business in them is strong," said Morgan.

The key to all of this is civic pride and lots of time. The city, pretty much left to its own devices, suffered for two decades, its wounds salved by the Steelers and other local sports teams, but the pain was very real. Pittsburgh has half the population it once did (though the Allegheny County metro area has retained its size). Some graceful old neighborhoods are collapsing under the weight of crime and drugs, even as most of them remain remarkably well maintained.

But the point is that this is largely a local story, not a national one. The lesson for the auto business and the auto-producing regions is not the one that President Obama wants them to hear. It is that the old world will inevitably disappear, and that creating a new one is up to you, not someone else.