Photo credit: Adam Rozalowski
It was hard to gauge just how close we were to Pittsburgh. The number on the freeway signs kept getting smaller and smaller, “Pittsburgh 25 – 15 – 10,” but there were no skyscrapers in sight. Was this one of those sprawling American metropolises where you still had to drive for miles to get to the city centre, or were the Appalachian Mountains shielding the city from our view? Pittsburgh, 6 miles, we had to be close. Anticipation spurred a feeling of excitement as we neared the city, and relief set in that after a 5 hour journey we were almost at our destination. While driving through a dimly lit tunnel, we had no idea that we were about to get one of the best views you can get of any city.
The Fort Pitt tunnel is like having your friend cover her eyes before you reveal a gift that you were hiding from her. This was definitely the intention of my Pittsburgh connection, Matt Perna, whom I’ve shared an apartment with on another continent. “This is the only way to get into the city from the south side” he said. It is not, but now I realize his intention.
Pittsburgh is a city that sprawls upward from its core, climbing the surrounding mountains, intersected into 3 parts by the confluence of the Ohio River, the Monongahela River, and the Allegheny River. As we crossed the bridge close to where the 3 rivers meet, known in Pittsburgh as the golden triangle, the skyscrapers informed us of the city’s storied past. The cranes in the distance, however, informed us of a different narrative.
We keep driving, my head on a swivel. “Hey, keep your eyes on the road!” My co-pilot reminds me while snapping pictures. The massive smokestacks of the Heinz Ketchup factory billow smoke to the left of the bridge while the skyscrapers impose themselves over the Pittsburgh skyline on the right; the bridge and the road that follows, cuts the city in half.
Pittsburgh seems much bigger than the 305,000 inhabitants that Wikipedia informs me live there; a testament to its former glory as the steel capital of the United States, when the city was home to just under 700,000 at its height in the 1950s. While newer cities like San Francisco tower over Pittsburgh in height (and influence), it was Pittsburgh steel that made these cities possible.
Pittsburgh, like much of the American rustbelt, has historically been a centre for innovation. Cities such as Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit and Pittsburgh were the centres where many of the innovative manufacturing processes were invented (just think Henry Ford and the assembly line!). Traditionally these were places teeming with immigrants, coming here in search of opportunity. I can attest to this by drawing on my own family history; Uniontown, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Pittsburgh, was where my great uncle, Tadeusz Różałowski, came in search of opportunity, leaving behind a war torn Europe in 1917.
It did not take us long to find traces of these earlier migrations. On our very first night, with our couchsurfing host Corey, we ventured to Bloomfield Bridge Tavern. Corey is young professional in his early 30s, with a friendly demeanour and soft smile. He was lured to Pittsburgh by an opportunity to work for the Google sales department, which he gladly took. He shares his beautiful early 20th-century three bedroom flat with two large chocolate dobermans that almost knocked me over when I first entered his home, and on this particular night, with four eager guests. When we finally arrived at the bar, I found that half of the menu consisted of Polish food and beer. “I’ll have a żywiec” I said. I spotted what I thought to be the owner leaning on the bar, looking up at the TV news headlines. I was right, his name was Steve. The TV broadcaster beamed: “last flight for US Airways leaves Pittsburgh after 78 years.” “That company is a Pittsburgh-owned company” Steve replied. He was a large man with a greying goatee and combed back greying hair. He told me that he came to Pittsburgh as a child in the 1950s. The only thing he remembered how to say in Polish was a prayer he was forced to recite by his father before dinner every day for years, “I’ll never forget that prayer!” His mom’s home cooking is what gave him the idea for this restaurant, which turns into a watering hole in the late evenings. His aunt comes in and makes the pierogi fresh every day, “just like mom used to make them” he exclaimed with a gregarious expression.
The next day we decided to go to Market Street and visited a variety of foreign owned markets. Many of them were owned by participants of a later wave of migration, from Asia and South America. There were Chinese shops, Vietnamese Pho, Mexican tacos and my favourite – Korean street food. Having spent some time in Korea, I was immediately drawn to the Korean shop, selling delicious Korean pancakes called pae-jeon. This particular street was lined with shops for a couple of miles. Small food stalls out front in the sidewalk tempted passers-by like ourselves to step in. The smell of peppers and frying potatoes rose up with the heat from the flat-grill. A convincing “annyong haseo” from the woman behind the grill and a direct smile now forced us to stop and try some (as if I needed any more convincing). The owner and his wife ran the store and gave us tips on Korean restaurants to check out nearby where we could get really authentic Korean food.
Immigrants have been coming to America since its inception. According to Rebecca Mayhew, the relationship manager of the Columbus (Ohio) based Economic Community Development Institute, a non-profit offering small business loans to immigrants and other would-be entrepreneurs, rebuilding cities “can’t afford to bypass the economic injection these folks [immigrants] can bring” (Guth 2015). A WE (Welcoming Economies Global Network) report claims that from 2000-2010, the native population in Midwest metros grew by only 3.3%, while immigrants account for 27% of all Midwest metro area population growth. With 18 of the 25 fastest shrinking cities in the Rust Belt, cities like Pittsburgh are counting on immigration for growth (WE Global Network). It is people like Steve, the Korean couple on Market Street, and many others that have been responsible for a lot of the growth in Pittsburgh in the past, and this is exactly what mayors are trying to recreate in the near future.
Mayors of cities like Cleveland and Pittsburgh are beginning to realize the benefits immigrants can bring. Public officials in these cities have been vocal about foreign-born entrepreneurs serving as a catalyst for business creation and rebuilding downtrodden neighbourhoods. Pittsburgh mayor, Bill Peduto, believes immigrants can be a major part of a repopulation strategy that calls for 20,000 new city residents by 2025, a plan that has job creation as one of its cornerstones (Guth 2015). Cleveland, for example, is planning to house refugees in rehabilitated homes to reinvigorate run-down communities. Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan, has already laid the groundwork. In January 2014 he called for an infusion of 50,000 immigrants as part of a program to revitalize Detroit, and signed an executive order creating the Michigan Office for New Americans, whose mission is to help grow Michigan’s economy by attracting global talent and promote the skills, energy, and entrepreneurial spirit of its immigrant communities (Laitin and Jahr 2015).
On a different note, Detroit has also founded the Global Detroit initiative, raising millions to fund retention efforts aimed at international students. At Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, there are a lot of them. Indeed, the University itself was founded by another immigrant, the Scotsman Andrew Carnegie who came to the United States in 1847.
While still on Market Street, a postcard with a view from the very bridge we came into town over caught my eye; the golden triangle, the skyline, hills with homes stretching in all directions, and then west of the downtown area, a cluster of modern buildings. My friend Matt, a Pittsburgh metro area native informed me that this is the Carnegie-Mellon campus. Seeing the campus had been on my to-do list from the beginning; it was there that we went next..
The campus was brimming with youth. Lu Lu’s Noodle Bar was full of students from what seemed like all over the world. Students like Maxim Likhachev, from Latvia, who moved to Pittsburgh, where he later became a research professor at Carnegie-Mellon. Likhachev launched a company called TravelWits, a platform that merges transportation alternatives to determine the most affordable route to a destination (Guth 2015). The outlook of his company is optimistic – mirroring the optimism of the region. The Pittsburgh area, a former hub of production, has been able to make the shift to innovation and now boasts a tech savvy vibe because of the creatives who graduated from universities like Carnegie-Mellon, or work for Disney or Google and have relocated here. While the older migrants, like my great-uncle Tadeusz, came for work in the burgeoning coal and manufacturing industries, today, people like our couchsurfing host Corey move to Pittsburgh to work for Google.
A city like Pittsburgh, full of old bones left behind by long-gone industries, is not a singular case. Cities like it can be found in nearly every European country. What is different however, is in the way in which Pittsburgh, and other Rust Belt cities view the immigrants that come knocking on their proverbial doors. While in Europe many immigrants are viewed as guest workers that will eventually go back to their countries of origin, many cities in the US want them not only to come but also to stay, to help repopulate their cities and infuse them with the vibrancy they once had. Pittsburgh and other post-industrial cities in the region have made welcoming immigrants a central part of their “comeback strategy.” With an influx of immigrants coming to Europe, and in light of Europe’s similar demographic woes, governments should consider seeking policies that are aimed at viewing immigrants as people that can contribute not only their labour, but also become part of the fabric of their cities.
When given the chance and respect they deserve, immigrant communities are more than capable of positively influencing neighbourhoods; especially with the right government policies in place. A good example of this is The CityStar Neighborhood Management Program in Berlin. This program has proven that socially inclusive policies help to revive downtrodden neighbourhoods. Recognized by the EU as a Regio Star award winner, it takes into account the needs and abilities of neighbourhood city councils, many of these councils being immigrant groups, which work together to complete revitalization projects (REGIO STARS 2013 Winner). This is surely a good start.
The economic benefits are even more apparent. Studies of the economic benefits of welcoming immigrants are plentiful in the US as well as in Europe. In a 2014 article published in The Guardian, Robert Chote, the chairman of the Office for Budget Responsibility said letting more immigrants into the UK “does tend to produce a more beneficial picture for the public purse.” Chote told the Treasury select committee: “because they’re more likely to be working age, they’re more likely to be paying taxes and less likely to have relatively large sums of money spent on them for education, for long-term care, for healthcare, for pension expenditure” (Mason 2014). Although these types of statements are numerous, immigrant groups are often used as scapegoats by politicians.
Too often, immigrants are accused of taking jobs, not creating them. Many nationalist governments are claiming this; research, however, has proven otherwise.
In many ways, comparing the United States to Europe may not be as easy as comparing apples to apples. However, these developed regions do experience many of the same phenomena. Immigration has long been an integral part of the experience of America; Europe is catching up. Maybe it is time to draw on each other’s experiences, embrace the people that long to live in our communities, and help each other scrub off the rust of our once great cities.
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of The Euroculturer.
Guth, Douglas J, October 13, and 2015. 2015. “Reshaping the Rust Belt through Immigrant Talent.” Soapbox. Accessed November 18. http://www.soapboxmedia.com/features/101315-rust-belt-reshaped-by-immigrants.aspx.
Laitin, David D., and Marc Jahr. 2015. “Let Syrians Settle Detroit.” The New York Times, May 14. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/15/opinion/let-syrians-settle-detroit.html.
Mason, Rowena, and political correspondent. 2014. “Immigration Benefits UK Economy, Say Treasury Independent Advisers.” The Guardian, January 14, sec. UK news. http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/jan/14/immigration-beneficial-uk-economy-treasury-independent-advisers.
Milligan, Susan. 2015. “An Urban Revival in the Rust Belt.” US News & World Report. Accessed November 18. http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2014/09/02/an-urban-revival-in-the-rust-belt.
Radwanski, Adam. 2015. “Rust Belt Revival: Lessons for Southwest Ontario from America’s Industrial Heartland.” The Globe and Mail. Accessed November 18. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/rust-belt-revival-lessons-for-southwestern-ontario-from-americas-industrial-heartland/article22489159/.
“REGIO STARS 2013 Winner – CityStar: NEIGHBOURHOOD MANAGEMENT BERLIN.” Accessed November 18, 2015. http://ec.europa.eu/regional_policy/en/information/videos/regio-stars-2013-winner-citystar-neighbourhood-management-berlin.
“WE Global Network | Why Immigrants Matter.” 2015. Accessed November 18. http://www.weglobalnetwork.org/why-immigrants-matter/.