I grew up in Pennsylvania and I’m a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, so I’ll admit my bias: I think that Pittsburgh’s recent history—from industrial decline to partial revitalization as an “eds and meds” center, offers great lessons learned for many U.S. regions. Thus, I was already pre-disposed to like the new regional history Beyond Rust: Metropolitan Pittsburgh and the Fate of Industrial America. This in-depth, but very readable, history takes a deep dive into Pittsburgh’s economic history from the 1700s up to today. Most of the book examines the massive transformations of the 20th century using a regional lens that doesn’t just look at the City of Pittsburgh, but the wider regional economy as well. This broader lens brings in other regional centers like Steubenville and Barnesville (OH), and Weirton and Wheeling (WV). The book is dense with historical details, but a couple of interesting themes stand out:
- The Good Old Days Weren’t Really that Good: When I lived in Pittsburgh in the dark days of the 1980s, I always wondered what it was like when steel was king. It ends up that it wasn’t really that great in many ways. Beyond the pollution, the local steel industry struggled through much of the 20th century and its decline can really be traced back to the 1920s.
- Mixed Record for PPPs: While they didn’t use the term public-private partnerships, much of Pittsburgh’s post-WWII economic development was led by PPPs. This produced some good results, like cutbacks in local air pollution and the development of higher ed resources. But, it also produced some disastrous outcomes, like the razing of parts of Pittsburgh’s Hill District and the displacement of thousands of African American residents.
- Regional Context Matters: The book’s focus on other regional centers, like Wheeling, was very interesting. The regional steel economy was regional in nature, and, sadly the recovery has not been affected all parts of the region. While parts of the City of Pittsburgh are thriving, many of the former steel centers, like McKeesport, Weirton, Aliquippa, and Steubenville, still face seemingly insurmountable economic development challenges.
While Beyond Rust may be too Pittsburgh-centric for some readers, it’s an excellent study of the regional economy and, in a broader sense, the various waves of economic development strategies that have been used in Pittsburgh and across the U.S.