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G20 leaders heading to Pittsburgh look to cross troubled waters of the global economy

PITTSBURGH — This city is not London, Berlin, Beijing or Sao Paolo. But Pittsburgh is a quintessential American city that has come back stunningly from the ashes of steel mills and heavy industry.

So, it is an apt place for President Obama to have picked for the meeting of the G20, an assemblage of some of the world’s most sophisticated leaders who bunked in the above-mentioned cities for previous G20 gatherings, taking in the international style and flavor of those places.

“Pittsburgh stands as a bold example of how to create new jobs and industries while transitioning to a 21st-century economy,” said President Barack Obama in a statement issued Sept. 8, thanking the “city of bridges” for opening itself to the upcoming influx of diplomats, press and protesters.

“As a city that has transformed itself from the city of steel to a center for high-tech innovation— including green technology, education and training, and research and development — Pittsburgh will provide both a beautiful backdrop and a powerful example of our work.”

It also will offer what is known hereabouts as an  “authentic,” local experience, where an emphasis on sports, prodigious amounts of food, and streets that are as gritty as the city itself will greet visitors. This is a place that could have been left for dead like Detroit or Youngstown. It had been described as “hell with the lid off” because of the smoke, soot, and brimstone coming from the steel mills that lined its riverbanks. But over the past 30 years, there has been an economic rebirth of Pittsburgh built around health care, technology, and education.

It has built shiny new houses and parks atop slag heaps. It has put a glittery shopping pavilion in a place where there were once smokestacks. It houses a medical behemoth that has hospitals and research centers strung throughout western Pennsylvania and the world. It has enough arts and culture to keep the average resident busy every night of the week. It has preserved breathtaking commercial architecture that rivals some European cities. It cares as much about bike trails as it does about its cityscape ballpark. It is also true, however, that Pittsburgh is above all a place where the priorities are threefold: the Pittsburgh Steelers (six-time Super Bowl champions); the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey club (three-time winners of the Stanley Cup in the last two decades); and University of Pittsburgh men’s basketball (a perennial top-20 team).These teams form the heart of civic conversation and, in some respects, drive development for good or bad.

This is why when delegates hit the streets downtown after those mind-bendingly serious sessions on world finance, they will see a city dressed cheerfully in uniform. This is not the uniform of commerce — suit, tie, wingtips — but the wardrobe of whatever team is playing that day, week or, for that matter, season.

It might be the blue and gold of the Pitt basketball team, the distinctive yellow and gold of the Steelers football team, or the crisp power blue and white of the Penguins’ special uniform. This is to show solidarity with these winning teams and, not so incidentally, to avoid wearing proper work clothes.

So be forewarned, President Sarkozy and Prime Minister Berlusconi: When you  emerge from the David L. Lawrence Convention Center you will see hordes of locals wearing replica uniforms of Hines Ward and Ben Roethlisberger. That’s because the G20 wraps up only 48 hours before the Steelers are to play the Minnesota Vikings.

And don’t be surprised, Prime Minister Harper, if the concierge in your hotel is wearing a Sidney Crosby jersey. It’s not to salute you, as the leader of the country that includes Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, the home of the Pengiuns’ star, or because she wants to acknowledge that Crosby was a member of Team Canada in two World Junior Championships. It’s because the Penguins opened training camp two weeks before the G20.

This habit — and, yes, the word is intended in the religious sense — is taken on by everyone from the new head of a private girls’ school in the city to aides who do the heavy lifting in nursing homes. You will see people on the streets of downtown dressed this way, some of them coming out of pricey private clubs and others finishing a shift cleaning the building.

The G20 delegates are coming (and leaving some 36 hours later) to a place where hardly anyone comes anymore. And since the great migration after the steel collapse, hardly anyone leaves. There is something about the rivers, cliffs, bridges and narrow, snarled streets that keeps them here. There are Pittsburghers who rarely leave the place, and not only because the demise of a US Airways hub made it nearly impossible to get a non-stop flight to most places. They stay because they like it so much.

So seeing so many international names and faces might give long-time residents pause, since they have spent lifetimes in many of the city’s close-knit ethic neighborhoods, never venturing from them.

Not that there isn’t a foreign language spoken here. It is Pittsburghese, where the word “downtown” is pronounced to rhyme with the last name of Goldie Hahn, and where verbs are habitually dropped, prompting people in even the swankiest restaurants to hear servers saying: “Does your plate need cleared?”

Though official tour guides and ambassadors will be told to take delegates and big shots to Teresa Heinz’ farm for an organic meal or to the city’s breathtaking Phipps Conservatory for a look at more green architecture, break away from the official pack and spend an evening in Bloomfield. Here you can get great Italian cuisine and wait an hour for a flame-broiled burger and beer at Tessaro’s.

Or sneak off to the Hill District where you can take a look at the boyhood home of world-famous playwright August Wilson, whose cycle of award-winning plays describe what is was like to grow up black in Pittsburgh. Stroll among the fish, coffee and pasta stores in the Strip, or set a few minutes aside to look at the South Side slopes where tiny houses cling desperately to the hills overlooking the river. But let’s not depart so swiftly from the topic of food. This is a city where there are prodigious food options, many of them promising to put a few pounds on you. One of these is Primanti’s, where the house specialty — the only specialty — is a sandwich piled high with meat and topped with French fries. Washed down with a local beer, maybe an Iron City, it’s an unusual delicacy.

One last bit of advice to world leaders, spouses, diplomats and journalists: Pack pants with elastic at the waist and get out of the David Lawrence Convention center to see a city that hopes the G20 will bring it good fortune.

“Businesses around the world will take notice, and Pittsburgh will be on their list of places to invest and grow,” Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato  recently said.

That may hardly be on the minds of the delegates, but Obama clearly saw something in the old steel town when he picked it. Maybe others will, too.

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