Pittsburgh is Still a Contested Symbol

By Ed Simon

In his book, ‘An Alternative History of Pittsburgh’ released by Belt Press this summer, Ed Simon considers the history of Pittsburgh from the geologic formation of the region, dating back to about 300 million years ago, to present day. He has been thinking about Pittsburgh and all of the stories that go into making it for as long as he can remember; his book is an attempt to assemble flash histories which help to understand Pittsburgh and what it means to those living inside of it, adjacent to it and outside of it. 

He writes: “Every bit as iconic an American signifier as ‘Manhattan’ or ‘Hollywood’… if the name has meant anything, it’s that Pittsburgh is a place where things were once made.” With the recent election of Ed Gainey to the mayor’s office, Simon says Pittsburgh is, again, at the beginning of a new story and another attempt at reinvention. 


No other American city is as symbolic of industry as is Pittsburgh – not Cleveland, not Chicago, not even Detroit. Pittsburgh is a myth as much as it is a place, but what exactly it means changes from decade to decade, or depending on whom you’re asking to explain it. For most of its history, Pittsburgh was the forge of America, a city that was to industry what Washington was to government or Hollywood to entertainment. More recently, it has reinvented itself as a tech capital, a hip and progressive locale, but that new narrative has left behind thousands of its residents. 

Now, with the surprise election of State Representative Ed Gainey to the mayor’s office where he will become the city’s first Black mayor, Pittsburghers have an opportunity to rewrite their story once again. 

Partially because Western Pennsylvania manufacturing was diversified in iron, aluminum, copper, natural gas, petroleum, glass, paint, and food canning, and partially because Big Steel is so connected to the grit, filth, and labor of production, the name of the city has long endured as a metaphor: “Pittsburgh” remains a catchall representing all of American industry, despite its economic collapse nearly a half-century ago.

A new mythic Pittsburgh has been deployed — the Rust Belt metropolis reborn through neoliberalism, a place that thrives on the “eds and meds” of universities and hospitals, a city reborn Phoenix-like from the ruins of a Bessemer convertor, the once smoky town now housing Google and Uber.

Just as that previous vision of Pittsburgh was limiting, there are major problems with this new narrative: in a city where luxury condos are built on slag heaps and mills are repurposed into shopping malls, where in East Liberty a high-end grocery store chain owned by the richest man in America gentrifies the area and displaces citizens from their neighborhood as the gulf between rich and poor increases.

This is a myth rejected by many Pittsburghers themselves, as the incumbent Mayor Bill Peduto, an avatar of the city’s Democratic machine, lost his primary bid to Gainey, a progressive challenger who, after winning the general election earlier this month, will be sworn in as mayor in 2022. Gainey’s unexpected victory was due, in large part, to Peduto’s long-time coddling of business interests, from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center to out-of-town developers. In Pittsburgh itself new symbols are being created by the people who actually live there, acknowledging more than clichés of either being a shot-and-a-beer town or Portland-on-the-Mon, which is no small matter. 

Pittsburghers can’t help but have a conflicted pride in their past. 

This is, after all, the Steel City where there is no more steel, where the celebrated football franchise evokes a dead industry, and where locals drink Iron City beer. But as journalists and natives Blake Hounshell, Alex Thompson, and Theodoric Meyer noted in a Politico editorial from March, the “Pittsburgh you’re seeing is not the real Pittsburgh – it’s a political cliché that happens to be useful.” 

In his 2017 speech announcing that the U.S. was leaving international climate accords, former President Donald Trump claimed, “I was elected to represent Pittsburgh, not Paris.” For Trump, “Pittsburgh” signified a segregated, deregulated, patriarchal return to what he portrayed as national greatness, with historian Gabriel Winant writing that he “need only invoke the city’s name to inveigh against environmental regulation,” despite the fact that “only a few steelworkers remain.” 

The former president frequently appeared in deep blue Pittsburgh and campaigned in its deep red countryside, using the city as a metaphor for a promised American resurgence. 

Four years later, while promoting green energy initiatives in his first Congressional address, President Joe Biden declared, “There is simply no reason the blades for wind turbines can’t be built in Pittsburgh instead of Beijing.” President Biden (who often mentions his roots in Scranton) has used “Pittsburgh” in association with his “Build Back Better” campaign, choosing to unveil the details of his multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure plan in the city while proclaiming “I’m a union guy. I support unions.” 

Trump’s use of Pittsburgh was representative of management and deregulation; Biden’s evocation was on behalf of labor and government, yet both configured the region as symbolic of industrial might. 

Historian Allen Dieterich-Ward describes Pittsburgh as the “quintessential manufacturing region,” an iconic landscape whose meaning is central to comprehending “national debates on topics ranging from energy and the environment to highways and heritage development.” An irony to the continued symbolic importance of “Pittsburgh,” decades after free market policies gutted the region. 

There is the actual city of Pittsburgh, and then there is the charged Pittsburgh of myth, a signifier of variable meaning depending on who is using it and why. There have always been many Pittsburghs – Pittsburgh is in Buffalo and Birmingham; in Cleveland and Detroit; in the Bronx and in Newark, and in a thousand other American places synonymous with industry. How we imagine this metaphor, this Pittsburgh, is how we imagine the future of America.  


Ed Simon is a staff writer for The Millions whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Republic, and The New York Times, among dozens of others. His book “An Alternative History of Pittsburgh” was released by Belt Publishing in April of this year. He will speak at a Made Local Event through Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures on February 17, 2021.