An Open Letter to Amazon
With cities across the nation primping and preening to be the fairest of them all and win the prize of becoming Amazon’s second headquarters, I’d like to let the Amazon decision makers know about a quality which I doubt has been part of any sales pitch thus far.
But first, a preamble. Pittsburgh is now known in the national consciousness as the city that has remade itself. And that is true. When the 1983 recession delivered the coup de grace for heavy industry here and local unemployment exceeded 18 percent, Pittsburgh faced an economic cataclysm and human exodus like no other American city.
And now, after 35 years of collective effort and will, the city that was the innovation cauldron of the world is back, routinely leading “Most Livable City” lists with a diversified economy, outstanding education and quality of life assets that vie with those of America’s biggest cities—but without the intractable, seemingly insoluble problems those mega-cities face.
And the momentum is growing. Three billion-dollar plus projects are in the works: Shell’s $6 billion cracker plant; UPMC’s transformational $2 billion investment in three new specialty hospitals; and Allegheny County’s construction of a new $1.1 billion airport to connect us with the world. Other strengths include an entrepreneurial and venture capital sector that’s reaching critical mass and a $6 billion philanthropic sector that spurs innovation, boosts culture and mends the social safety net in ways no region can equal.
But there’s something else. Something that goes largely unnoticed but is as familiar to people here as the climate. As the foundation of all of Pittsburgh’s strengths, it’s the region’s biggest asset of all.
For the last 23 of my 33 years as a journalist here, I’ve run a project comparing Pittsburgh to regions across the country (see the Pittsburgh Today & Tomorrow report on page 91). We started it in 1995, when Pittsburgh remained mired in general malaise and economic weakness. At that time there were similar regional indicator projects only in Boston and the Silicon Valley.
One of my first interviews for that project was with Carnegie Mellon Professor Al Blumstein, a national expert on crime. I asked him why Pittsburgh’s crime rate was so much lower than any of the 14 competitor regions. Was it our colder weather or the older age of the population?
The answer surprised me. Pittsburghers, he said, committed fewer crimes because, in effect, they were more connected than people in other places—i.e., they cared what Uncle Joe and Aunt Sarah would think of them if they did. There are indeed unusually strong family and community ties here, and over the last 23 years, I’ve come to realize how profound such an asset is. In short, unlike any other city its size, Pittsburgh has a social fabric that is intact and strong.
You see it an all sorts of ways. Our K-12 schools function better (we always have the highest percentage of people with at least a high school degree among the benchmark regions). You see it in our love of our sports teams. That’s not because there aren’t other things to do here. It’s because we identify as Pittsburghers, and we support our teams and players, as fellow Pittsburghers.
And whether it’s St. Patrick’s Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, you name it— Pittsburghers love parades, and they turn out. A cynic might call that corny, but a political scientist would call it civic spirit—the key ingredient of a healthy society.
Whatever you call it, it’s genuine, and it’s in short supply in most American cities.
Finally, you see it in the general friendliness that always stuns newcomers. People here stop to help when someone has a flat tire or needs help. People say hello. People look others in the eye and smile.
These aren’t just the qualities of a great place to live. They’re the qualities of a place where people care for one another and pull together to solve problems. In short, they are the qualities of a region that will have a bright future because its people believe it will and will make it so.
We’re on a quest here to build the greatest place to live in the world. And if that resonates with those of you at Amazon who are deciding where to invest, then we hope will you join us.