Pittsburgh: Built to last

1 May 2019 by Tom Otley
Pittsburgh (iStock)

Long known for its heavy industry, Pittsburgh has reinvented itself as a thriving tech hub 

Pittsburgh deserves its moniker of the Steel City, even now that the steel works have moved away. First, there are the 446 bridges, many made of the material, that span its three rivers – the Allegheny, the Monongahela and the Ohio. Then there is the Steel Building – at 64 storeys, one of the tallest in the city, and displaying its dark steel exterior as a badge of pride. Even its NFL team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, is named after the city’s best‑known export.

More than any of these, there’s the character of the people – friendly, welcoming and yet pragmatic, no-nonsense, and with a touch of toughness; a bit of steel, you might say, coming from the shared heritage of this industrial city. This was a tough, hard-working place, and you get the sense that no one wants to forget that history. Why should they, when it has left such a legacy for today’s citizens?

For Pittsburgh is the city that made America. Its steel went into rails that opened up the continent, and provided the skeleton frames for the skyscrapers that came to define its cities. As that industry moved abroad, Pittsburgh suffered, although not as badly as many other places, and today it has been reborn as a high-tech centre, meaning visitors see regeneration rather than decay.

Proud past

Walk around Downtown and you quickly find yourself examining brick and stone-cast frontages of 19th-century commercial and office buildings, many now converted into apartments. Grand civic buildings slow your step, while the huge theatres dating from a century ago – and refurbished many times since then – still welcome audiences.

Historic buildings have also been renovated by several hotel companies – the Distrikt Hotel (distrikthotelpittsburgh.com), for example, part of Hilton’s Curio Collection, is an impressive reimagining of an old Salvation Army hostel, with the restaurant in the former gym. There is no sense of faded grandeur to Pittsburgh; the city is celebratory of the past, but very much looking forwards.

Domestic tourism is increasing, but for international visitors direct flights are a big help. The city welcomed the return last month of British Airways, which is operating a four-times weekly service from London Heathrow. The smiles weren’t just because of the route’s commercial importance. BA’s return was viewed as a vote of confidence in a city that has seen many ups and downs, but for the past decade has most definitely been on the up.

Room to grow

The airport is a good symbol of this growth. At its peak, in the 1990s, Pittsburgh International served 100-plus destinations with more than 600 flights per day and 20.5 million passengers annually. At its lowest, in 2013-14, this fell to 37 destinations and 7.8 million passengers – a decline that was completely out of the hands of the airport and the city. US Airways, which used it as one of its hubs, moved away. The effect was instantaneous.

“When the hub left, the airport was in pretty big trouble,” says airport chief executive Christina Cassotis. She points out that Pittsburgh wasn’t alone: “The entire Midwest lost its hubs: Cleveland, Cincinnati, Minneapolis, St Louis, Memphis, Nashville. It’s just that Pittsburgh was the first to go.”

When she joined in 2015, Cassotis was clear that the airport’s future was in point-to-point traffic, and in that it is succeeding. Of those 21 million passengers back in the nineties, 15 million were on connecting flights, so the 9.7 million point-to-point travellers of today represent an increase. The airport is also building for the future, breaking ground on a US$1.1 billion terminal designed by Luis Vidal (responsible for Heathrow’s Terminal 2), which will open in 2023.

There is certainly room for expansion. “We have 3,500 hectares of land,” Cassotis says, “making us the seventh-largest airport in the US, and we have four working, maintained runways.” The airport is building a 79-hectare “Innovation Campus” inspired by Amsterdam Schiphol, featuring office and industrial space plus a “town centre” with shops and restaurants. With the discovery of shale gas on airport land, the intention is to build a micro-grid to subsidise its operations and lower the cost of airlines using the airport, encouraging further services.

“We also have the advantage of the whole airport being a foreign trade zone, meaning companies can manufacture and assemble without paying duty if they ship out,” Cassotis explains. “Everything we can do to lower the cost of someone moving there will be an incentive.”

Business friendly

This practical focus on providing companies with what they need to stay in the city or set up here is emphasised by its elected officials. “Pittsburgh, probably of any US city, has the most to offer for the cost of doing business,” says Rich Fitzgerald of the Allegheny County Executive. “If you go to San Francisco or Boston, you’re paying US$800,000-US$1 million for a house and a lot for square footage for commercial premises. In Pittsburgh, that house is US$200,000, so [the likes of] Google can afford to attract talented people into their operation at a competitive price. That’s why we’ve got so many companies wanting to have operations here.”

Of the companies that have remained in the city, Pittsburgh Plate Glass is one of the best known. Founded in 1883 and headquartered in an unmistakeable building that looks like a cathedral made of glass, it is now one of the world’s leading manufacturers of paint, coatings and special materials, manufacturing several products for the B787 Dreamliner, including its electrochromic windows.

“Pittsburgh is our historic home,” says Arthur Pang, in charge of government affairs for the company. “We’ve never left, but the reason we are still here is because the city has a great workforce thanks to Carnegie Mellon University [CMU] and the University of Pittsburgh.”

It also has little problem attracting workers to the city. “I’m an example of that,” Pang says. “I moved from New York City several years ago, and in my mind there’s no doubt that Pittsburgh has a higher standard of living and a much lower cost.”

The new BA link is welcome because the company has more than 2,000 workers in Pennsylvania, predominantly in Pittsburgh, and another 2,000 in the UK. Pang also points out that the city has “a regional proximity to lots of places” and that the transport connections beyond the airport are excellent.

Another long-time company here is ATI (Allegheny Technologies Incorporated), which employs 7,000 people in the US – 1,500 in the Greater Pittsburgh area – as well as 1,500 overseas, 250 of them in the UK, in Sheffield and Birmingham.

“We have been incorporated in Pittsburgh for more than 100 years,” says senior vice-president and chief commercial and marketing officer Kevin B Kramer. “We were originally a steel company and now supply the titanium for the B787 and the nickel super-alloys for the General Electric GEnx engines.”

He adds: “Part of the robustness of why we’ve grown is that we have remained in Pittsburgh. Not just because of the lineage – it’s the connection with other businesses, the elected officials, the education, and access to CMU and the University of Pittsburgh.”

Winter in Pittsburgh

Tech hub

Then there are the companies moving to the city, or starting up here. The
Strip District north-east of Downtown is a good place to explore to get a sense of this. Taking its name not from any nefarious activities that may have taken place here but from the fact it is a strip of land bordered by high bluffs, it was a place of heavy industry throughout the 1900s. In 1927 US journalist HL Mencken described it as “a scene so dreadfully hideous, so intolerably bleak and forlorn that it reduced the whole aspiration of man to a depressing joke”. Pittsburgh was “hell with the lid taken off”.

Eventually, the blast furnaces moved away, to be replaced by mills and warehouses. And now, after experiencing a period of decline, the technology companies are taking over the former warehouses.

Uber, for example, has based its Advanced Technologies Group here. Walk around and you might see one of the company’s autonomous vehicles being tested out, easily spotted by the LiDAR (light detection and ranging) technology on their roofs. I was tempted to run out in front of one of them to see if it stopped, but although they are driverless, there’s always someone inside, perhaps not with their hands on the steering wheel but monitoring the car’s performance.

Uber isn’t the only big name in the district. Last month it was announced in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that Fortune 100 company Honeywell was taking 2,300 sqm of space, joining Apple, Argo AI, Bombardier and Facebook. Not all of these organisations advertise their presence with logos on the front of their buildings, but I was told several times that “everyone knows they are here”.

Such reticence might partly be down to when Uber first moved into the city and controversially poached 40 university staff to start the autonomous vehicles initiative. Since then, Uber, and all other companies, have chosen to work with the various educational institutions rather than simply employing their staff on higher salaries. Still, graduates of Carnegie Mellon with expertise in robotics can command salaries of more than US$200,000 per year, a far cry from the workers who toiled away in these warehouses pre-conversion.

Designed for life

As younger people have moved to the city, they bring with them expectations of the sort of amenities they want to find nearby, whether that’s coffee shops, or bike lanes, or good restaurants. This has meant that Pittsburgh was recently voted the second most liveable city in the US in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Liveability Index (Honolulu was first).

Stefani Pashman is chief executive of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, which was set up by the city’s leaders during the Second World War to solve problems for business and the city such as air pollution. “We are a 75-year-old civic leadership organisation that focuses on ensuring the Pittsburgh region is a great place to do business and to live,” she explains. “So we spend a lot of time investing in civic problem solving. We focus on attracting businesses to the region and we are the front door for them, but we also have the Chamber of Commerce under our auspices.”

Pashman emphasises the continuity in what Pittsburgh offers. “We sell ourselves on the knowledge economy, but we also make things so we have a robust manufacturing and energy history.”

You can learn more about the history of Pittsburgh and its illustrious companies in the superb seven-storey Senator John Heinz History Centre in the Strip, recognisable by the neon Heinz Ketchup bottle sign on its exterior. Its exhibits tell the stories of the famous industrialists who helped to build the city and then donated much of the money they made for future civic projects – Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick and the Mellon family. It is one of several world-class museums in the city, including the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History, and the Carnegie Science Centre, as well as the outstanding Andy Warhol Museum.

Andy Warhol Museum

For most of the year there will also be sports to watch. The Pittsburgh Steelers are the best known of the city’s teams, but there’s also ice-hockey squad the Pittsburgh Penguins and baseball side the Pittsburgh Pirates. The last of these plays at PNC Park, which offers superb views of the Roberto Clemente bridge and the Downtown skyline.

The city’s food offering ranges from traditional dishes that kept manual employees going through their punishing workdays to cuisine that is the match of any major US city. Union Standard, for instance, has a daily selection of oysters, clams and scallops as well as wood-grilled steaks – perfect washed down with a local beer such as Penn Pilsner – and makes a big play on the provenance of its produce. It is located in the beautiful Union Trust Building, erected by Frick in 1915 as a shopping arcade and featuring a huge rotunda in its centre; it’s next to the Omni William Penn hotel.

Down on the Strip, you’ll find many third- and fourth-generation establishments serving everything from authentic Italian cured meats to Greek specialities, and the much-loved Stamoolis Brothers supermarket. Then there are the famous Sunseri sandwiches, more than a foot long, and the Primantis chain of restaurants (also known for its sandwiches), which includes a new branch that has opened airside at the airport.

For visitors, one of the joys of Pittsburgh is its rich cultural scene. “From our old industrial days, we have a great symphony, ballet, theatre museum, sports teams and all of the things that a big city has, but at a much lower price,” Fitzgerald says.

Pittsburgh may be marketing itself as a gateway city to Pennsylvania state, but to those visiting, the real challenge will be in leaving a city that has so many places to visit and so much to offer. visitpittsburgh.com

World tour

For a taste of Pittsburgh and the cuisines of generations of immigrants, take a tour of the Strip District with Burgh Bits and Bites (burghfoodtour.com). Recommended stops include Mancini’s Bakery (mancinibread.com) to try its cinnamon bread; Parma Sausage (parmasausage.com), which specialises in Italian pork products; Labad’s for Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine; the Enrico Biscotti Co (enricobiscotti.com); Colangelo’s for Italian pastries; S&D Polish Deli (sdpolishdeli.com) for pierogies (filled dumplings); and the Kingfly Spirits distillery (kingflyspirits.com) for craft spirits including rum and vodka.

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