Okay, here's today's puzzle: Imagine that you wanted to live in a city with terrific museums, professional sports, cheap housing and short commutes. Where would it be?
Pittsburgh may well be the nation's least-appreciated big city. Long associated with steel mills and choking smoke, the old image of Pittsburgh is out-dated and wrong. Instead the city today has a gleaming downtown and a new emphasis on medicine, robotics, computer engineering and bio-tech.
Pittsburgh has much to tell us about urban renewal. In 1936 the St. Patrick's Day flood decimated the downtown area and left more than 100,000 people homeless. In the 1970s, the great steel mills, coke ovens and rail yards closed and many jobs were lost. Instead of ingots and steel bars, today the city is home to a vast new convention center (the world's largest "green" building), Carnegie-Mellon University (one of the best technology centers in the world), and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (which has some 36,000 employees, according to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette ). It is a city with great art, parks, museums and sports teams -- and it is still-another northern city which will plainly benefit from the inevitability of global warming.
Many of the historic issues faced by Pittsburgh are now seen in other urban areas. The outflow of jobs and people to states with more sun and fewer unions is a common concern. What remains is the aura of past industries and the potential for new growth.
One reason for the clear roads, easy parking and the low housing prices is that between 1950 and 2000 Pittsburgh's population fell more than 50 percent, from 677,000 to 335,000 people. During the same period, the population in the metro core which includes the city and its suburbs rose modestly from 1.533 million to 1.753 million (although in 1970 it reached 1.85 million people). The Pittsburgh metro area is now the 22nd largest in the U.S.
Compared with many large cities, home prices in Pittsburgh are a bargain. A few minutes from downtown you can find massive stone and brick homes in the Squirrel Hill area with seven, eight and nine bedrooms for under $600,000. One study says Pittsburgh is the country's third least-expensive city but as always you need to look at your particular situation: What kind of income can you generate and what costs would you face, especially in terms of property, income and sales taxes?
Recently I met a couple who were considering the sale of their home in Washington, D.C. and moving to Pittsburgh. It's not the usual choice of Florida or Arizona, but you can see how retirement to a big city with four seasons and expansive cultural opportunities would be easy to make. In fact, according to Sperling's BestPlaces , Pittsburgh is the actually rated as the fourth-best city in America for seniors, right after Portland (OR), Seattle and San Francisco.
Many cities in the North now face the same challenges as Pittsburgh. They need either to be re-invented or they will decline. It will be interesting to see how many do as well as Pittsburgh as they encounter changing economies and falling populations.
What To Do In Pittsburgh
If you want to have an interesting stay, book a room at the Inns on Negley , a B&B in Shadyside. You're in a quiet neighborhood next to shopping on Walnut Street and just a few minutes from downtown.
The new Andy Warhol Museum is well worth visiting and then you might try lunch (or dinner) at Chef Greg Alauzen's Eleven , a restaurant that could easily fit among the top places in New York or Los Angeles. Another good choice, Lidia's Pittsburgh , is well known from the PBS cooking programs .
After eating you want to walk, so go a few blocks to the heart of the Strip District , a huge collection of markets and stores. If you're tired of look-alike malls with the same stores and the same goods, the Strip shows shopping the way it can be. Go forth and haggle.
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