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Pittsburgh’s Culture Class Turns Rust into Gold

If there was any doubt about hipsters and the “culture class” sparking urban success that doubt melts fast when you consider Pittsburgh.

Yes, if you didn’t know it already, Pittsburgh is hip. Very hip.

The city has traded its “Iron City” soot for the sparkle that urban theorist Richard Florida calls the “culture class.”

If there is one secret weapon the three-rivers city uses to attract this crowd it's the hard-driving Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. The Trust has worked for decades to curate a 14-square block Cultural District (part of the riverfront Golden Triangle), an area once better known for hookers and strip joints than today’s pirouettes and craft beers.

Not 14-Blocks of Stuffy

Pittsburgh could have easily banked on an iconic, architecturally significant, Gehry-esque cultural “center” (full disclosure – I love Frank Gehry), but they didn’t. They went for the whole enchilada -- an entire chunk of downtown. And it’s not like it’s 14 blocks of stuffy either.

Yes, the Cultural District is home to the city’s big-time art and entertainment scene and its glorious legacy theaters, but it’s also a full-blown playground of live contemporary music, modern dance, visual arts, symphonies, original theater, ballet, film, and sit-able public spaces.

When you have people pouring into this district it means a lot of other opportunity can work its way in around the edges, too, including eating, shopping, and living.

The district, once a dark and gloomy hulk of yesteryear now has over 90 shiny retail shops, 50 dining establishments, eight public parks and art installations, and a dozen art galleries. If you’re young, it’s the place to be, especially on “Gallery Crawl” night, or if you want to see the Blue Man Group, comedian Ron White, or Swan Lake.

Does culture sell? According to the Cultural Trust, the district attracts over two million visitors a year.

Creating Creative Hubs

Studies by consulting firm EY show New York ranks number one as the global creative hub, with London second, but smaller cities like Pittsburgh can compete if they put their collective minds to the task.

“Creative and cultural industries are not mere products of the wealth of these cities, they are also crucial to their appeal to global talent,” Florida says in referring the list of creative cities.

Pittsburgh is enjoying some strong new branding too because of the changes it’s made in attracting arts, culture, and talent.

The old steel center regularly ranks high on the “Best Places To Live” lists, with culture and arts named as the major reason. This is in combination with its top-rated universities, its strong tech industry, good health-care systems, sports teams and the rejuvenated riverfront. But give it up for arts and culture, it painted the way for today’s “new” Pittsburgh.

“We do it because it’s part of what we do—provide art that people can’t get elsewhere,” says Kevin McMahon, president of the city’s Culture Trust. “We believe in providing a very balanced approach to our artistic programming, making sure that there’s something for everyone.”

The Trust works hard to bring in the big Broadway-style shows, but it also knows that the offbeat and cool are big drivers too. It works with ArtPlace America to underwrite creative diversity.

ArtPlace is a decade old collaboration of foundations, federal agencies, and financial institutions that works to position arts and culture front-and-center in community planning. It works with cities on “creative placemaking,” that is, making art and cultural projects come to life in urban centers, or what they call “arts intervention.”

City As An Orchestra

Of course, Pittsburgh is not keeping this all a secret or is alone in using culture to spark downtowns.

It's all about seeing a city as an "orchestra," says Manny Diaz, Miami’s former mayor and author of "Miami Transformed."

What makes a city appealing, he believes, is “everything coming together at once,” from safe streets, nice parks, a vibrant music and arts scene, strong schools, and the big one -- jobs.

"They key, at the end of the day, is people,” he says. “The question is, how do you get people to move back into the city?" says Diaz, a former president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Building a “Culture Class” is one big solution, he believes, too. But it takes a lot of foresight, planning, and money, and dreamers to make it work.

In Pittsburgh, there would be no music without the city’s well-heeled legacy foundations: Heinz, Mellon, and Benedum. Their combined financial force and long-term guidance allowed Pittsburgh to make its transformation from hollowed out Rust Belt memory to a symphony of dynamic urban living competing for talent with cities three or four times its size.

But another secret to its success is that Pittsburgh stayed authentic.

“No matter what your aspirations are, do a little soul-searching first and make sure whatever you do is authentic to who you are (as a city) and what you are as a community,” Cultural Trust president McMahon says. “Figure out what you are, then think creatively about capitalizing on that.” U:F

Robert Z. Chew is an author, speaker, and editor of Urban:Fix Magazine.


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