Once described as ”Hell with the lid off”, Pittsburgh has come a long way since its soot covered days of the early 1900s. Reigning as the steel capitol of America for over 100 years, Pittsburgh boasts a rich industrial heritage that ushered in culture, renowned universities and unimaginable wealth. The city has been named America’s most liveable city by The Economist, Forbes and Places Rated Almanac, and was recently named America’s Smartest City based, in part, on the high number of universities, libraries and museums per capita.
Although Pittsburgh has always had a strong cultural history, it has not always been the most liveable city. Struggling through pollution in the early part of the 1900s, the city cleaned itself up only to face a devastating economic collapse in the 1980s that saw over half of the population leave. But Pittsburgh has recently reinvented itself as a hub for high tech industries and stands as a shining example of post-industrial transformation.
Located at the convergence of three rivers in the the mineral-rich Allegheny Mountain Range, Pittsburgh was ideally situated to become a hub of industry. The city began producing glass in 1797 and added iron, brass and tin when the British cut off supplies during the war of 1812. By the late 1800s, the city had emerged as the steel capitol of America, fuelled largely by coal mined right in the region.
However, Pittsburgh’s economic strength did not make it a pleasant place to live. In his autobiography, philanthropist and Pittsburgh steel magnate, Andrew Carnegie, decried of living in Pittsburgh, “…life was more or less miserable.”
“Any accurate description of Pittsburgh at that time would be set down as a piece of grossest exaggeration. The smoke permeated and penetrated everything…If you placed your hand on a balustrade of the stair it came away black; if you washed face and hands they were as dirty as ever in an hour.”
Known as the “Smoky City”, Pittsburgh was so polluted that smog blocked out the midday sun, making the city dim throughout the day. Archived photographs from the mid-1900s show streetlamps lighting the murky city throughout the morning and afternoon.
The city’s rivers were also polluted, due in large part to their use as a transportation route and a dumping ground for the city’s sewage, leading to the city’s unfortunate distinction as having the highest typhoid mortality rate in the US for over 30 years, from 1872 to 1908.
Driven by grass roots efforts lead by then Mayor David Lawrence, the city began a beautification and clean-up effort in the 1940s. Among other measures, they passed some of the earliest environmental regulations in the country, built a new sewage treatment plant and started building factories that used cleaner energy. By 1954 the city had reduced smoke pollution by over 90%[i].
In the 1980s, after nearly 200 years as an industrial giant, Pittsburgh was hit hard by a decline in industry that reduced it to less than half of its peak population and devastated the local economy. True to its legacy of hard work and innovation, the city shifted its focus away from industry and rebuilt itself as a centre of high technology, focusing on robotics, nuclear engineering, biomedical technology and education.
After nearly 30 years of rebuilding, Pittsburgh is once again a strong economic hub, connecting the Northeast and Midwestern United States, and now stands as a model to other industrial cities of how to successfully transition in the post-industrial age. Today Pittsburgh boasts 68 colleges and universities, eight fortune 500 companies and offices for Apple, Google and Intel. The city is also at the forefront of environmental design, with 60 of the world’s greenest buildings, 10 being considered among the first ever built.
Even though Pittsburgh has transitioned into high tech, the Steel City still lives up to its nickname. Pittsburgh is home to materials industrial giants, such as Alcoa and US Steel, who both maintain their headquarters and research facilities there, as well as Allegheny Technologies Inc., Wesco and ANSYS.
With over 300 bridges, Pittsburgh’s three rivers make it a beautiful city with spectacular scenery. The city is home to hundreds of acres of parks and bike and walking trails, and offers a rich outdoor life in the warmer summer months. The city also maintained its cultural wealth, inherited from the rich industrialists of the early 1900s who endowed museums, theatres and churches.
Pittsburgh has a lot to offer sports fans as well. Known as the ‘City of Champions’ due to its long and storied sports history, the city is home to several successful sports franchises. Their American football team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, boast the most Super Bowl wins in NFL history, at 6 championships, and Pittsburgh’s baseball park, PNC Park, home to the Pittsburgh Pirates, has received the prestigious distinction as the best ballpark in the country by numerous sources, including ESPN. Pittsburgh is also home to the Penguins, a professional hockey team that has won the Stanley cup three times, including as recently as 2009.
With its unique history, rich culture and stunning scenery, Pittsburgh has something to offer any visitor. We hope you’ll visit us at MS&T14, booth #314, and that you enjoy our beautiful city while you’re here.
[i] Pittsburgh’s Pollution History (Pittsburgh’s polluted history, Steel City, Smoky City) https://positivelypittsburgh.com/darkhistory/