Pittsburgh: Livable or Leavable?

The shortcomings in city-ranking indexes


Last week Places Rated Almanac shocked the country and ticked off the tourist-and-convention bureaus in dozens of losing cities by declaring metropolitan Pittsburgh the most livable city in the United States.

Local boosters and most of the equally joyous local media in this economically stagnant, over-taxed and poorly-governed region greeted the "news" like it was a scientific certainty—or like Pittsburgh had been awarded a new Toyota plant. It's not the first time the PR-savvy folks at "Places Rated Almanac" have crowned the former "Steel City" most livable city. It also happened in 1985, just as the region's manufacturing economy was being crushed by the collapsing steel industry like a rusty old car.

Choosing Pittsburgh in 1985 was so shocking, the New York Times couldn't believe it. It parachuted a reporter into Pittsburgh who wrote that "With its breathtaking skyline, its scenic waterfront, its cozily vibrant downtown, its rich mixture of cultural amenities, its warm neighborhoods and its scrubbed-clean skies, it no longer is the smoky, smelly, gritty mill town of yesteryear."

It was a nice plug for the "Smoky City," though in '85 it hadn't actually been smoky for more than 30 yesteryears. Meanwhile, as the Pittsburghers basked in the glory of living in America's most livable city, the region's manufacturing economy was falling off a cliff. In 1985 alone, 38,000 mostly young job-seekers moved away. By 2000, more than 140,000 had left.

Since 1985, despite bleeding people and slowly converting to a sluggish service economy based on health care and organ transplants, the region has always been ranked among the almanac's Top 20 most livable cities. That's mainly because the ranking system favors the area's many priceless assets, which include an abnormally low crime rate, a populace of regular-guy, smart-ass Michael Keaton-types (Keaton's a native), great old city neighborhoods and big suburban homes so cheap they'd make a Washingtonian weep. Pittsburgh also has top universities like Carnegie-Mellon and Pitt, major league sports teams, and a beautiful green landscape of hills, hollows and wide rivers.  Sure, pay scales are low and the populace can be a little bigoted, too Democrat, and too working class. The two unofficial regional religions—unionism and Steelerism—can be annoying. And pop culturally, it's at least 5 years behind L.A. But Pittsburgh is a good city to raise a family in, grow old in and die in.

"Places Rated Almanac" bases a city's over-all rank on nine categories, on each of which the Pittsburgh region consistently hits doubles and triples but no home runs: recreation, education, transportation, ambiance, health care, crime, economy, housing, and climate.

"Ambiance" includes historic districts and cultural and artistic assets, and Pittsburgh is amply blessed with them. Its best (i.e. lowest) score was in recreation (21st in the country). Its moderate four-season climate score was worst, but not bad—135th best out of 379 cities.

Being picked most-livable over great cities like San Francisco, Boston, and even overrated Portland, Oregon, is always nice. But the more you know about what's really wrong with this once great and still very fine city, the less you trust "Places Rated Almanac" knows what it's doing.

Maybe its data crunchers secretly grade on the curve for Rust Belt cities ruined by the arrogance, greed, and stupidity of political and corporate power brokers. Or maybe they slipped the city some extra points for having the country's youngest mayor, for winning five Super Bowls, or for pioneering the deindustrialization of North America 60 years ago.

The almanac didn't subtract livability points for the City of Pittsburgh's high tax rates, decades of moronic management, and the millions in subsidies handed to the Steelers, Pirates, and Penguins for their new playpens, as well as to national retailers whose outlets that then went belly up.

Pittsburgh is in a death spiral. It's bankrupt. Its school district spends $16,000 a year per kid. Its parking tax is the highest on Earth: 50 percent. City police and firefighters irresponsibly pad their numbers, salaries, and pensions—and openly trade their mayoral votes for sweetheart contracts. Meanwhile, local school and property taxes are among the highest in the country. So are public bus and taxi fares. And, oh yeah, highways are congested, in bad shape, and under-built.

Yes, Pittsburgh is highly livable. But it's also dying. The region has the doomed demographics of Western Europe. It has fewer foreign-born immigrants and a higher percentage of white people than any major American city. In 1960, when the country had 175 million people, there were 2.4 million people in the metro Pittsburgh region, 1.6 million in Allegheny County and 604,000 in the city of Pittsburgh. Today, with 300 million Americans, the comparable numbers are 2.3 million metro, 1.2 million county and – incredibly – just 315,000 souls left in a city built to handle 1 million.

No matter how flawed or unscientific the almanac's title of most-livable is, beating out 378 cities was great for the morale and civic pride of Pittsburgh, whose thriving civic booster sector will live off the good PR for a decade. Unfortunately, however, a recent U.S. Census Bureau study reported some disappointing news. Since 2000 Pittsburgh has lost more people—almost 60,000—than any other metropolis in the country except for poor New Orleans. But New Orleans' depopulation disaster doesn't count. It was caused by a once-in-a-lifetime act of God and the ineptitude of the Army Corps of Engineers. So unless 50,000 immigrants invade Pittsburgh real soon, it looks like "America's Most Livable City" will soon become "America's Most Leave-able City."

Bill Steigerwald is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

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