Monday, March 02, 2015

Downtown Pittsburgh is Dead; Long Live Downtown Pittsburgh

Just a passing note that Downtown Pittsburgh has been ranked #1 for 'livability.' See Trib: Pittsburgh's Downtown tops ranking of small to midsized cities.  One of those stories I bet everyone covers, and I'll add links when more coverage comes online.

But a decade ago there was so much talk of how quickly Downtown Pittsburgh was dying that I was prompted to write:  Is Downtown Dead? Hardly.

What a difference a decade makes?  Of course there have been a lot of changes Downtown, but a decade ago the talk that all things Downtown were imploding was so pervasive, and so unsupported by data, that someone had to point out the incredibly persistent strength of the job concentration in the city's core.  For slightly more recent parsing of Downtown employment numbers: Nullspace August 12, 2012 .

Of course the new ranking is about the 'livability' of Downtown, and  the sheer number of people living Downtown is a story unto itself.   Downtown Pittsburgh, i.e. the Golden Triangle, was once a place almost devoid of a residential population outside of a small handful (or less) of large high rise residential buildings.  A Downtown 'neighborhood' would have been hard to describe the non-incarcerated population was so small. I actually think the true Downtown 'neighborhood' was that which was once called the "Lower Hill District" (for more see "The Downtowners" in the last issue
of Pulp Magazine from 2004) which was as many know was unceremoniously quite ceremoniously leveled in the 1950s.  But that is another story, though a story coming up more and more often of late.

Nonetheless, the current numbers living within the Golden Triangle, whether that be the Census 2010 count of 3,629, or higher numbers others have estimated, is an achievement.  Probably worth keeping in mind that the population jump Downtown was highly subsidized achievement with a lot of construction supported by various forms of public or public-private investment.  Expensive, but a determined strategy and in large part it worked.  Note it is a somewhat different causal story in Pittsburgh than some similar population growth in Center City Philadelphia which has (arguably) been driven by a comprehensive tax abatement program on residential construction there.  

But how did we get here from there, or there from here? It might be interesting to look at the Downtown Pittsburgh plan from the mid-Murphy years.  Yes, it does include the vision for the maligned and abandoned Fifth and Forbes retail development (I'll point out there is a big skyscraper going in where the hat shop everyone was trying to save used to be), but there is a bit more there and quite a range of participants in the process. Read closely and find the small illustration for the plan to reintroduce a street grid across the Strip District, which is still my preferred plan, if the least likely to be implemented comprehensively.

On one last note. Recall that in 2000, the hope for Downtown living was so hard to defend that folks jumped any anything, any sliver of data, even if completely misconstrued, to believe. Below was a page 1 headline and story about the big jump of downtown residential population that appeared to show up in the 2000 census.  What was completely overlooked was that the expansion of the county jail had generated new population that exactly matched the net population growth Downtown.  So a lot of new, mostly young, people were indeed living Downtown, but I am just not quite sure that is what anyone really meant.

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Saturday, February 28, 2015

Say again Pittsburgh

If you have not seen the early print edition of the Post-Gazette, which isn't online yet, this will just be a teaser.  I will follow a practice Jim R. uses and make a blog here a place for the more extensive footnotes that don't fit into other publications.  Newspapers really do need a place for footnotes.

For the oped in the Sunday paper here are some relevant notes with links, all far more interesting that whatever I had to say about them. But if you can't wait until Sunday to figure out what this is all about, do your bit to save the dead fish club and buy some parchment.


cascade of regional marketing and public relations efforts... For just one example, see this classic 1985 WTAE video.  Also the city of Pittsburgh went and invited David Savageau, who put together the Places Rated report, to visit in the wake of the national publicity that came from the report.  At one point, Mayor Caliguiri tried to give him a ceremonial 'Key to the City,' but he refused the honor thinking it might give the appearance he was less than objective.See Post-Gazette, Almanac Author refuses key to city.

A single month at 10.0%.....      Bureau of Labor Statistics.Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey, Seasonally Adjusted Unemployment Rate. Online at:

What next? A city known to outsiders…      Article by Wilhelm, Kathy, Associated Press. Variously syndicated including, “Pittsburgh - country’s ‘best-kept secret,’ Nashua Telegraph, February 28, 1985. p.4.

Say it Ain’t Pittsburgh…   See: Loftus, Geoffrey, R., “Say it ain’t Pittsburgh,” Psychology Today; June 1985, Vol. 19 Issue 6, p8.   Also an earlier post from Nullspace here a few years ago covered the topic: April 26, 2007: Say it ain't Pittsburgh again or this from June 9, 2009: Ever more livable?

long forgotten is the fish...  See the relevant Wikipedia entry.  Sorry, but I couldn't resist.

a passing affliction for cupcakes..  for this I must defer to Mike Madison on Pittsblog in 2006: Truthiness of the Cupcake Class, which more than anything else explains the apotheosis of the Pittsburgh psyche struggling for some reason to be boastful prior to the G-20 (IMHO).

227 thousand more people departed ……     For my own calculation of that number see: Briem, Christopher P., “How Many People Left Pittsburgh During the 1980s?“ Pittsburgh Economic Quarterly, University Center for Social and Urban Research, University of Pittsburgh, June 2014, pp 1,4-5.

An additional note.  One of the more interesting things about the whole Loftus criticism of Pittsburgh's high ranking in 1985 was that the author/publisher of the Places Rated Almanac, David Savageau, not only took the methodological criticism to heart, but brought Professor Loftus onto his team for some of the subsequent editions of the publication.  See this picture of the two.

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Sunday, February 22, 2015

Gringo 45789

Just a map I've never seen before. Does anyone still refer to any part of the area between Ambridge and Moon Township as "Gringo"?

Historical telephone exchange map of the Pittsburgh region:


And for comic relief, this reminds me of the 2nd best episode from WKRP in Cincinatti which may be hard to understand in the era after the AT&T breakup.. but still:

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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Railroading data

Yes, that 12 step program is failing me.

So the news, and some rather amazing photos, from West Virginia tell the tale of the recent train derailment not far from Pittsburgh. I think the photo highlighting a sign of "Boomer Branch Road" and a dateline of "Mount Carbon, WV" deserves a Pulitzer for its framing.

I've pointed out before the lack of publicly available rail data.  I really want to know how many other urban centers have as much oil moving by rail through them as Pittsburgh does these days. If someone has a data source to answer that, please let me know.

Why care?  Some may recall the impact rail accidents have had on Pittsburgh, including the evacuation of almost all of Bloomfield and environs in 1987.  More recently in Philadelphia, the final destination of much of the rail shipments passing through Pittsburgh, public officials fought to get the industry to release data for emergency planning.So still not public data, but a start.

I have no idea whether similar data access is an issue on this side of the state, but it sure is curious there have been no comparable media stories on rail data here as best I can tell.  It actually seemed pretty hard for our media friends to get officials to even admit there was any oil traveling by rail through the city at all. See this from  May 29, 2014:  "However, a state official said Bakken crude does come through Pittsburgh on the way to Philadelphia".  Talk about pulling teeth and stating the obvious.  

It turns out this all may be a passing phenomenon.  Some have speculated that a second order effect of the collapse of world oil prices may be to decrease the incentive to bring North Dakota oil to east coast refineries.  I think the argument is that it may now be more competitive to again import oil directly from overseas and shipped in via tankers.  We will see how that works out.

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Sunday, February 15, 2015

Ben Chinitz Redux

Just to keep the digital squatters from laying claim to this corner of the Intertubes, here is a quick thought. (Yes, this is what I do when cocooning from the cold.)

It is hard to read any local news, or any national news about Pittsburgh these days, without someone touting just how big a transformation has been going on here.  There is the inevitable story about this new business, or that new business, and it is easy to believe that those stories can be aggregated and extrapolated, and that we are really a hotbed of new entrepreneurship.  The thing is.. this is a big region, and for sure there are stories of smart innovative folks doing neat things.  The question is whether the region as a whole is really doing well. Remember, the plural of anecdote is not data, so you have to move well beyond any one story.

Over 50 years ago, so literally more than half a century, the economist Ben Chinitz wrote on the hard to quantify, but generally accepted, observation that being an entrepreneur in Pittsburgh was hard, or at least rare. We basically were not generating new small businesses. See: Benjamin Chinitz: Contrasts in Agglomeration, American Economic Review, Papers and Proceedings, Vol. 51, 1961, pp. 279-289

His theory was that the nature of the steel industry here actually inhibited the level of entrepreneurship that might normally take place. One sentence from his paper oversimilifies his thesis but gets to the rub of it: ".. you do not breed as many entrepreneurs per capita in families allied with steel..." (p. 284)

But now.. today, what is the state of entrepreneurship in Pittsburgh?  It is actually not much easier today to measure 'entrepreneurship' than it was a half century ago. But there is some data that is pretty current. So I took some data that the economic census has data on establishment births. This counts as at least a generic measure of new business creation. The data is from the Statistics on U.S. businesses, and specifically the Metropolitan Statistical Area totals for 2010-2011:

I basically filtered the data for, the 30 largest metropolitan areas (ranked by employment) and then quickly computed the ratio of new establishment births between 2011 and 2012 to the number of establishments in 2011. That gives a somewhat depressing benchmarking that looks like this.

So Pittsburgh is decidedly last, even now 50 years after Chinitz was one of the first to talk about this foreboding Pittsburghism so openly. Can we still look to the impact of industry structure and the nature of big steel writ large? Seems a stretch even if that legacy extends long past the contraction of the local steel industry.  Should we be looking for new explanations?  And what does it say about all the recent Pittsburgh buzz?

To be clear, this is just an elaborate factoid, one that clearly is not the whole picture.  But it certainly is worth keeping in mind when yet another 'What lessons does Pittsburgh have for us' type of headline.

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Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Banking on the Future (of Downtown Pittsburgh)

History is written by the victors they say.  That is about the only explanation I can come up with for how much of Pittsburgh's economic development history is not just forgotten, but literally unwritten from the record for the most part. This all came to mind because of some developments scheduled for today down at the City's zoning board on some proposed redevelopment for a new Pittsburgh Playhouse Theater.  Just spurred my thinking on what was once Pittsburgh's central effort to invigorate Downtown.

The new playhouse site is across from what was once called the Bank Center, a series of building's once known as Pittsburgh's Wall Street. Redevelopment of the Bank Building into an indoor urban mall (a modern Jenkin's Arcade?) was in itself a $10 million development effort (in 1976 dollars!). The redeveloped building included a range of shopping and entertainment venues including a disco named the Library (actually a franchise of a chain of disco clubs), and even included a movie theater. Actually what liked best was the quote that the site had a coffee shop named 'Cappucino' described as "an idea borrowed from the streets of Europe."  Who knew the retail coffee biz was a going to be a big new thing?

Foreign journalists used to point to it as an example of urban rebirth here saying things like "...Pittsburgh has the Bank Center." Local reporters called the project "an early entry into Pittsburgh's Renaissance II.." or as Pittsburgh's "Beauty mark" (I can't make this up) or even "Pittsburgh's Grand Bazaar."  Think the goal of a 24 hour destination is something new?  Prose that seems to have been excised from the modern media once described the omniplex when extant thusly:
"The Bank. 
The terseness of the title belies all that it connotes: A city-within-a-city complex where strolling shoppers scuff white marble... where society blends in an amalgam of disco dancer, yogurt-fancier and notion-hunter.. where the dishwasher's apron brushes indiscriminately against milady's mink.. where bookworm, moviegoer and girl-watcher function in unison and singular purpose during a morning, noon or night on the town."
The original project eventually went bankrupt and was pretty much shuttered by 1986. It would be a decade of effort before the site was redeveloped again, with great fanfare, by a partnership between Point Park University and the Carnegie Library which made the site into the Downtown/Business branch of the library system.  That lasted for another decade when the library moved across town to its current location across from the Gimbels Building (obligatory anachronistic geographic reference) and Point Park eventually acquired the building. Then there was the unrealized plan otherwise known as Fifth and Forbes which I suspect would have had a minor impact on the site, if it had happened.

With everyone now looking to Pittsburgh for answers, I wonder if we are picking and choosing the stories to tell? Might be more to learn from what we want to forget than from whatever the latest PR has to say.

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Monday, November 24, 2014

Cor-ten nevermore

I just don't have time to ponder how much Pittsburgh economic development history all weaves together in just one news item today: U.S. Steel to put headquarters on former Civic Arena Site. Banished forever is the Mellon Arena moniker of course. Moving on.....

Steel, the Penguins, the Hill District and the Civic Arena. So much Pittsburgh history all imploded together into a spatial singularity, it collectively is a bit sublime; and even more impactful on what it means for the neighborhood.  Keeping US Steel's headquarters in Pittsburgh has now, quite remarkably, become subsumed into all facets of the debate on Hill District re-redevelopment.

What I don't think has ever been written has been the omni-decade overview of how many redevelopment efforts there have been in the Hill District.  Many we know about, but many kind of get forgotten quickly.  Some efforts go way back (see photo below), but even much more recent efforts have been banished from memory..  I really don't think there has been one great effort to look comprehensively across the decades to explain how the Hill District has changed.

But back to today's announcement. This new project now pretty much swamps a dozen or so past efforts, or visions might be a better way to think about them, of the Hill District's future  I wonder how money and effort was spent in just working up this blueprint circa 1983:

But the location of US Steel's headquarters obviously still has an emotional tug for the 'Steel City.'   It is often overlooked that US Steel's headquarters through its first half decade of existence was actually in New York City befitting the corporation's genesis in the capital accumulation of JP Morgan. Only in the 1950s did Pittsburgh formally become the headquarters for the corporation.  Then, when US Steel morphed into USX in the 1980s, the headquarters of the holding company for a time was in Texas, only to return to Pittsburgh officially after Marathon Oil was divested. That history is forgotten probably because the  megalithic "Steel Building" seems to be a permanent presence defining Pittsburgh, or at least Downtown.  But in reality 600 Grant Street is a relatively modern building. The building itself only opened in the 1970s and before that the headquarters was located adjacent to Mellon Park.

Politics has long had a role in the location of the corporations HQ.  When air pollution battles were escalating in the 1970s, there was this full page ad blasted into the media. Begs a question of what would have happened if pollution control efforts had been derailed?

Old debates?


I forgot about this graphic from few years ago which is incredibly apropos to the topic This advertisement (circa 1961) presages just how intertwined the history of U.S. Steel and the Civic Arena have always been.  U.S. Steel asks us to "Look what the earthlings built!" but read the subtext as well.

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Monday, November 17, 2014

Old is new is old again: Pittsburgh immigration

Just connecting some dots across the decades....

Last week PG had this story: Restaurant industry largest employer of immigrants in U.S., but not in Steel city, a story that has struck such a chord it is being republished all over. I guess we don't eat? The testable hypothesis it suggests is that Pittsburgh has fewer restaurants per capita than you might expect compared to other cities/region. As much as I'm tempted, I'll let someone else try and model that. Then the PG passes on, via our PT friends, the factoid that indeed Pittsburgh remains one of the least diverse places in the US.

Any 'new' news here? Is the recent data any different from the past is the question? Consider that it has been more than a few years since @danfitzwsj wrote: In Pittsburgh, welcome mat is out to immigrants.  Do any of those themes sound familiar with any of the stories/initiatives of today? But you should have seen the e-mail I got from that story with people insisting a flood of new and mostly undocumented immigrants were already coming to Pittsburgh.  Remember that was almost a decade ago. I am sure that with a minimal bit of effort I could find older references that say much the same thing a decade before that.

I always wonder why there are there so may stories always about the new immigrants coming to Pittsburgh and only very rarely does anyone focus on the hard question of what might be keeping our immigration numbers  so low. Maybe the extra efforts we go through here?  Remember this telling NYT piece: Altoona,with no immigrant problem, tries to solve it. Or a bit closer to home if you insist, there was this narrative from the South Side: The other side of the fence. More recent, as in today, here is a piece of a Pittsburgh-catalyzed immigration story in the HuffPo: I'm a Not-Quite-Legal Alien in the U.S., and it sucks.So no, attracting more immigrants to Pittsburgh is a lot more complicated than putting up 'Come to Pittsburgh' billboards at JFK (not that I've heard of anyone doing that... yet?)

But going back to the first link on immigrants in the local restaurant industry.  More than a decade ago I once had a call from a New York based journalist on this topic of immigration in Pittsburgh.  When I explained how off the chart low our recent immigration numbers were, their immediate, and to them obvious, question was "but who drives the taxis?"  An interesting question again today is it not? Maybe more so than what is going on in the restaurant industry. In a lot of regions recent immigrants make up most taxi drivers. Certainly an overlooked angle on the emerging paradigm of crowdsourcing taxi service. At least it is not a debate here, as it is elsewhere.

Every time this topic comes up, I get the comments that insist everything is different now. In some ways yes, but in a lot of fundamental ways no. If there is something different these days, at least in the decade-perspective; t reallys is true that the new immigrants to Pittsburgh are very different from the past. (or see WSJ: A fading vision of the old world)

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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

World War II Vets in Allegheny County

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Wednesday, November 05, 2014

The race that wasn't

One of the things about this election cycle in Pennsylvania was just how sparse the races were.  Other than for governor, there was no major senate race, for example.  Most ballots voters saw were about as short as you ever get. Not even many referenda bouncing around to pad ballot choices to be made.  Since the gubernatorial race was itself so uncontested by all accounts heading in, not much there either.

Except there were all of these races for state house (the General Assembly) and state senate.  Lots of talk some make, but few take action to change the size of the legislature in Pennsylvania which has 204 house seats and 50 senators. But if you want one reason why so many sitting legislators look askance at any effort to change the size of the legislature, look at the effort they need to make to say in office.  Of the 203 General Assembly seats, 108 of them were uncontested on Tuesday. Literally only one candidate.  Here is a quick map of all the General Assembly districts which had only one registered candidate. For folks in all those 108 districts, the effective ballot they faced was even shorter than it appeared. My guess is the large number of districts results in smaller and and more homogeneous districts that have little incentive for both parties to compete in, so they don't. Creative redistricting cartography only reinforces that result.

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Friday, October 17, 2014

Velho é novo outra vez

As things seemingly wind down here, the history möbius continues.  One of the very first posts here was:  Greyfields are getting bigger every year, or Who Remembers Zayre's

The topic was some contemporaneous news of the then-young Pittsburgh Mills mall that had been built with the help of a lot of public investment.   In the news again this week. See:  Pittsburgh Mills to lose Sears store, auto center.  

Just a minor business story generated by the constant churn in retail businesses?  Maybe, except there is the sheer amount of public effort that went into getting the mall off the ground.  

It turns out the hyperlinks in my old post have mostly atrophied, but one was worth updating.  Former Trib journo Mike Yeomans' coverage of the history of the development of the mall is most certainly worth re-reading in light of the news this week.  See his meticulous history included in: Pittsburgh Mills muscles its way into landscape (from 2005). The history is really worth re-reading.  The story this week is not really about Sears closing its one store at the mall...

Still a great site by the way:  No lack of local stories there either. But Jason may need to update the entry on Eastland Mall which has been mostly returned to fallow since that story was written. 

and just in case you think old stories ever die (NOT)...  the most in -epth story on Bernardo Katz comes from just last month in Bernardo Katz, cellist hunted by Interpol. Who knew he owned 250 apartments in Omaha? And what is Michael Diven up to these days? But seriously, never in all of Western history has so much of Pittsburgh politics been translated into Portuguese. Read all the way to the end where you see he has visions of a book or movie on his exploits here.  If that comes to pass I hope there is a voice-over included from Jeff  Habay. (Where is the Angry Drunk Bureaucrat when you need him?) 

The book thing is not as improbable as you might think. Local political history makes it to mass media more often than logic might imply.  If ever there was a political metaphor begging to be expressed in monograph form, read the recently published: The Demon of Brownsville Road. I may have to buy a copy to convince myself that really was published in the trade press.

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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Pittsburgh: No longer 'Hell with the lid off'?

Curious nobody has really noticed that we are right now exactly 5 years past the G-20 Summit that was hosted here in Pittsburgh, September 24-25, 2009.  One could argue it was the singular turning point in the perception of Pittsburgh throughout the world.  If you forget the scale of media coverage at the timeliterally around the world, it was a bit crazy. What I noted at the time was how everyone loved to re-use, or rather mis-use the Parton quote, but the point is taken. Seriously, if there was a point in time that so quickly reset the image of any region more comprehensively throughout the world, it is hard to find an example bigger than the G-20's impact on Pittsburgh...  Still, and maybe much more so now after 5 years, worth asking the question: What did Pittsburgh learn from the G-20?

For me looking back, it really is a bit amusing read all the explanations folks give for Pittsburgh's rebirth, if you want to call it that... explanations that followed what was almost universal bashing from the pundits before. Remember Pittsburgh is the place where you want to be at the end of the world, because Pittsburgh only takes up a new idea 25 years after it has been adopted everywhere else... or however that old joke went?   Now, everyone is trying to figure out what we were doing over the last 25 years. Go figure. But the neo-punditry would make you think Pittsburgh hit the big 'easy' button and became a new place overnight.  But even if it took a long time, what were the reasons? Some say robots, others seriously suggest 'karma,' while others stretch pretty far to say it was our 'healthy living,' an explanation that is really about as cogent as saying it was the Fish that Saved Pittsburgh. Everyone has their own answer, which does not help anyone looking to follow our lead.

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Sunday, September 07, 2014

52 minus 23 =

The PG has a story on national demographics and the latest factoid of note that the biggest single age cohort in the US is now made up of those 23 years old.  See: Being 23: The meteoric rise of Millennials a powerful force. Sure sounds like the same is true here?

It also says that "The U.S. Census does not break down the number of people by specific ages like its national figures," which is not quite true.  The census itself has no local intercensal estimates is correct, but it certainly had single year of age data from 2010 and that tells a pretty different story for Pittsburgh. The Census Bureau's national age breakdown for 2014 is itself just an estimate, and their are comparable local estimates out there.

In 2010, the single biggest age group in the Pittsburgh MSA was certainly not made up of those 23 years old and it wasn't even close. The biggest age cohort in the Pittsburgh MSA in 2010?  52 years old.  In fact the 5 largest age cohorts in Pittsburgh (the MSA) were ALL in their 50s. The number of 23 year olds is not even close to the number of any of the age cohorts in their 50s.  So a fun story nationally, but not really a local story no matter how you look at the data, almost the opposite.  And no, the last couple years has not seen a complete inversion of those numbers for Pittsburgh MSA. Here is what I see for the 5 largest single year age cohorts here....

Age                    #    
52 39,916
50 38,949
51 38,904
53 38,803
54 37,986

For comparison:
23 29,457

Source: 2010 Decennial Census SF1,  Table QT-P2,  Single Years of Age and Sex: 2010  

Data is sacred they say, but actual digits are pesky. Turns out that among age cohorts before mortality impacts the numbers, say the ages18-60, the number of 23 year olds in Pittsburgh (MSA) is actually one of the smaller cohorts we have here.  Think about that and go re-read the article.

and for those wondering.. not even true in the city of Pittsburgh where the largest age cohort is made up of 19 year olds, most certainly because of the young matriculants at local colleges and universities. 


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Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Private Sector Unionization in Pittsburgh

I find it a little curious that given all the coverage of Labor Day in Pittsburgh, nobody has even taken a peek at what the data says specifically about the state of unions locally (I do see J.O. touches upon some state data, but that can be pretty diluted from what is happening here in Pittsburgh.)  The latest data for 2013 shows a pretty remarkable drop in private sector unionization here. See below.

While the data used to calculate that has a fair bit of volatility and sample error, note it is the same data used to calculate the unemployment rate we all over-parse each month. Probably comparable error in the two metrics, so either use them both or discount them both equally. With that caveat, the latest data is showing what has to be a new all-time low in the rate of unionization here, or at least the lowest since the Sons of Vulcan stood up shop here.  Again, given some measurement caveats, it looks like the biggest annual drop in data back to 1986 at least.

I will not be surprised if there is not some reversion in that dip when data for 2014 is calculated. Still, a decade ago I thought stabilization in this time series might lead to an uptick going forward. That looks not to have happened.

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Monday, August 18, 2014

Political Courage and Sophie Masloff

If you want to see a moment of sheer political courage, watch the late Mayor Sophie Masloff face an irate room full of supervoters arguing for some adjustments to local tax rates. Watch from time 1:00 forward of the video below saved by Dan Sullivan. Do the themes of keeping young families living in the city sound familiar?

Update: Video taken down because I could no figure out how to turn off the auto-start.. but you can see the referenced video here.

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Monday, July 21, 2014

Cactus Yunz?

Hagiography watch, but a view from down under: Why Adelaide should be more like Pittsburgh — a phoenix city that has reinvented itself.  Subtitled: Pittsburgh has gone from rustbucket city to thriving metropolis.

I do admit I wish they better cited some material there which I lay good odds comes form here, not that you would know.  But still I have to applaud that they alone among almost every other media reference to the timing of it all get it:  "And to add insult to injury, the Steelers missed the playoffs in 1981, presaging a decade of poor performances for the home team."  So only the Australians realize that the Superbowls of the 1970s were not played during the economic miasma of the 1980s.

But also I note an odd Australian only take on what could be construed into a more creative-cities amenity type argument.  They note "As a measure of vibrancy, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in May that the city had the most bars per person — 12 per 10,000 — of any city in the US."  Of course I don't know how one would impute causality given that I suspect we had a pretty high bars-per-capita metric decades ago as well.  I mean, some city neighborhoods were hip before there was hip if that is the metric that matters.

and to think I once blogged here worrying that the Australians were going to hate us.  2007: Thought she was cactus??

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Sunday, July 20, 2014

Pittsburgh immigration stats update

I don't think anyone has looked at this specifically as yet, but the most recent data on immigration statistics from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) are out and this is what the data says for Pittsburgh through 2013:

I know there are strong opinions out there to the contrary, but at least in this rather hard data there is only an elusive trend at most in there for Pittsburgh. But what has been a robust trend for Pittsburgh, the immigrants settling here from Asia again form a supermajority in the region.  Of the 2,645 new permanent residents in Pittsburgh in 2013, just a smidge under 2/3rds (65.7%) were born in Asia or Oceania.   Just 399 were born in Europe. Still, 2,645 is a relatively small number no matter how you want to benchmark it. Boston for one possibly unfair comparison came in at 23,837 over the same year. But how about Columbus, OH which had 4,868 new permanent residents in 2013.

Of course 'lawful permanent residents' refers to just one part of the immigration flow impacting most regions.  Many here on temporary visas are not captured by these numbers (but they would be captured when they convert there status to any permanent visa) and then there is the more complex debate that is too much to get into right here on the number of undocumented immigrants here in the region. 

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Monday, July 14, 2014

Transit Transitions

Trib mentions that former Port Authority of Allegheny County CEO Steve Bland is up for a new job in Nashville. My still extant Google news filter for Steve Bland is fired for not catching any of this. A fuller story is from The Tennessean: Ousted Pittsburgh transit exec leads pack for MTA job. Note the version they have of his ouster here.

Who cares eh?  What I find curious is there is at most only cursory discussion of public transit in the whole debate over ridesharing and deregulation of the taxi industry.  Think they are not connected... they were just recently per this news article from 2012. Note the argument over privatizing bus routes covered in a recent article with this quote: '"They control the cab business," he said of the PUC. "What good has that done?"'

Anyways I digress. I was curious how big a deal this job in Nashville was. According to the National Transit Database, the most recent number of "unlinked passenger trips" I add up for the two transit agencies looks like this:

So basically Mr. Bland is taking over an agency with ridership numbers more akin to that of the EBA.

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Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Jitney in all of us

The whole fight over ridesharing in Pittsburgh is so much more bizarre than you may think if you just stick to the headlines. Where to start?

The fight is all being portrayed as the vast new network of entrepreneurial drivers against the vast pseudo-monopoly of Yellow Cab (there are some other taxi services in play, to include at least in a niche way the local Veterans Taxi service, might be interesting to get their opinion on the record about all of this?). So who is Yellow Cab? It is itself a subsidiary of the international conglomerate Veolia. So what?  Veolia is the same company that some of the same folks fought hard to get the contract to professionalize the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, which is key to a set of enormously important infrastructure that have to be addressed in the region. So to be clear möbius here, the city is fighting the corporate entity known as Veolia which runs in a very similar way yet another regulated entity operating coterminously within the City of Pittsburgh. I don't know what I'd think about the city if I were running the company. Friend or foe?

But the whole ridesharing debate has much larger political angles. Take for example that no less than Grover Norquist is a big big fan of what Uber could mean for the future. Via Reuters: How Uber can help the GOP gain control of the cities. That is not a new idea in a sense and there is a theme going back. If you dig into it deregulation of local taxi service has been an idea pushed at least as far back as the Reagan Administration. See this from the 80s: An Economic Analysis of Taxicab Regulation

It all may even be a bigger political deal than that. Looking back, I'd argue ridesharing was the determinative tool used by protesters to maintain the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955/6. What am I talking about?  To get boycotting riders to work, alternative transportation including ad hoc taxi service was set up. It had much the same challenges as alternative taxi service today, to include proper insurance which was eventually supplied by Lloyds of London. The effective alternative transportation is arguably what forced the bus companies to back down since it sustained the boycott and kept business away from the bus companies. (Uber and Lyft PR types: you're welcome for the future talking point).

But is that analogy valid here? Maybe, but I tell you something as an observer of local political machinations, did anyone fighting for Uber today ever expend any similar efforts defending the rights of Jitneys to operate their very similar ridesharing service, one that they do routinely get ticketed for by the PUC? Just asking.

Anyways, there are a lot of conflicting ideas out there about the actual facts on the ground. Lots of folks seem to think Uber and Lyft are operating in Philadelphia. That mostly isn't true, at least they are not operating as they are trying to in Pittsburgh. Don't believe me, read the statement from the company as reported by the Inky recently:  "(UberX) has no plans to seek the Philadelphia Parking Authority's permission to offer ride sharing ". In fact the closer analogy to what Uber is doing in most places is the competitor Sidecar which was shut down by Philadelphia regulators.

There is an interesting sidebar to that story in that Philadelphia long ago repatriated the right to regulate the taxi industry in the city there. But it is not the City of Philadelphia that exercises that power, it is the Philadelphia Parking Authority that exercises that regulates taxis there. Some want to do the same thing here, but do we want to give the Pittsburgh Parking Authority vast new powers to regulate an entire industry?  The unintended consequences of implementing similar here could potentially swamp whatever the nominal intent is. Whether it is even legally possible is lost in state law, and lawyers better start reading the state's public authority law to determine what is even possible.

Another myth I hear is that Pittsburgh's taxi operate as a medallion service which some are used to elsewhere in places like New York or Philadelphia. To be clear, there is no taxi medallion system here fwiw. In fact, it appears the taxi medallion system was introduced in Philadelphia as a reform to improve the taxi system there. I can't begin to say whether that worked.

and for your intertube long-tail zen research... check out:

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Wednesday, July 09, 2014

if you have a milkshake, and I have a milkshake

Just your random economic factoid of the day.  If you do the math with recent data on crude oil production by state, I think it shows that right now Ohio has the highest year over year percentage growth in crude oil production.


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A million here, a million there

Sorry, but .......

Some years ago I had this post, which for entirely unrelated reasons has had a life of it's own on the internet I'll explain in a second.  But a deep dive in some of the most esoteric of public finance issues (bond insurance) and the fad of variable rate bonds being used locally. See: About those SEA bonds (2008)

Now look at the news today covered by the Trib: Taxpayers on the hook for $1M more for Consol Energy Center lease

So then and now.. variable interest rates bonds = bad and as is unsurprising the state is backing up the cost.  But the bad is all so complex that it all sounds like it isn't a problem. The state's backing of the Consol arena's bonds is another whole story that has been blogged about here as well. I still believe that if you look at the state's covenants on the deal, the state really is on the hook for the arena bonds should they be at risk of not being paid.  If so, why the need to pay for bond insurance? But the actual risk and legalities are lost in translation it seems.

Funny thing is that old blog post from 2008 may be one of the most read blog posts here ever, but not because the long tail cares much about the SEA bonds. In my rambling I reference an old study by investor Bill Ackman who made a fortune pointing out the problems with bond insurer MBIA.  In the long tail of the Internet that report seems not to exist anywhere else and has been referenced by many as Ackman has taken on other companies since then.  So the search engines of the world land here. 

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Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Soccer Spirit

How things change.  For a moment today I thought Pittsburgh was a soccer town.  Maybe not as new as you may think.  Some may recall the brief history of the Pittsburgh Spirit.

What I find amazing is the factoid on the website that says the Spirit season of 1983-1984 had a higher average attendance than did the Pittsburgh Penguins, which shared with the Spirit not only a venue in the Civic Arena, but were both owned at the time by mall developer Edward Debartolo. That says as much about the trajectory of hockey spirit here as it does about the Spirit itself.

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Low or high?

Just one overwrought indicator, but the monthly unemployment rate for Pittsburgh in May has been released. The headline I guess will be that it is down 1/10th over the month to 5.5%. I'll add that the Pittsburgh MSA is now 91 months below the national unemployment rate FWIW.

But not to repeat my relative unemployment chart, which looks much the same, how about this.  Another headline bullet point may be that the regional unemployment rate is now down to its lowest rate since October 2008, or over 5 and a half hears ago. Also FWIW.

But what is low? Economists have been debating how low unemployment rates can go and be sustained since forever without the greatest of conclusions. Much of that debate looks at sustainable national unemployment rates. Much less debate looks at how low regional rates in any one area can stay.  Certainly through the 1990s, areas like Charlotte maintained sub 3% unemployment rates for extended periods. For the record, I believe the lowest unemployment rate ever recorded for the Pittsburgh metropolitan area as then defined was 2.3% in November 1966.

For Pittsburgh below is the distribution of monthly unemployment rates in Pittsburgh since 1970 highlighting the current data.  For reference the median monthly unemployment rate over that time has been 6.2% and the average monthly unemployment rate (really pushed up by the long tail miasma of the 1980s) is over 6.6%. Note that at 5.5% we are at the bottom end of the range for the group highlighted.

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Sunday, June 29, 2014

It's raining men

ICYMI, there is an article on the latest set of population estimates released by the Census gnomes. Not new population estimates, but some age and gender breakdowns of previously released estimates. Trib: Oilfields may be fountain of youth for Western Pa. In short, the data is showing a bigger growth in younger men than younger women. 

It is a curious gender imbalance in the data. If it's a robust trend, it begs the question of why.  Hopefully it is not a burst of new inmates at the Western Penitentiary, but I have not heard of any big expansion there.  So that leaves us with the potential shale explanation. 

Incidental to the story is what may be the most honest admission I've yet seen captured in the record of the continuing state of the shale workforce in Pennsylvania.  From a local business owner primarily in the shale biz: 
Drilling probably isn't making the region younger because most workers in drill crews don't change residences, said Daniel Donahue, president of Indiana County-based Falcon Drilling.
He expanded the company from 100 employees when he bought it in 2011 to 325 employees, but the drillers come from all over and typically live in hotels for the two weeks they're on a job site, said Donahue, 35, of Fox Chapel. 
“The guys we're hiring, they don't come to Indiana,” he said.

Seems a pretty authoritative source? We all know that of course, but the industry just does not like to talk about it in such stark terms. If you read the immediate next quote... I really think the honesty there really caught the Range spokesperson off guard. It isn't quite how the memo reads on how these stories are supposed to play out. 

But back to the gender imbalance.  The hypothesis that this could be an artifact of shale development is at least plausible given the employment patterns in the industry. Looking at the somewhat broader Mining, Quarrying, and Oil and Gas Extraction industries, it remains mostly a men only story.

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Saturday, June 28, 2014

Pittsburgh Point Passing

My inner economic historian, along with my memories of a brief tenure on Wall Street, are just in shock that the stock of US Steel has been taken off of the S&P 500.  JP Morgan and Elbert Gary are turning over in their graves.  Something that is bigger news in Indiana than here it seems. Even the neomodern USAToday appreciates the history of it all.

Should not really be as much of a surprise I guess given the news today that more layoffs are coming at the corporation's headquarters Downtown, which all came in addition to the layoffs that were recently announced for US Steel operations in McKeesport. Note for those keeping count, the impact of neither of those two layoffs are yet reflected in any of the jobs data reported as yet. So when they actually go into effect, expect more freefall. 

That all motivated me to update this graph, which tells me I missed a related seminal point in Pittsburgh's economic history.  With the latest jobs data (for May 2014) made available last week, the proportion of regional jobs in manufacturing industries has now dropped to its lowest point ever.  This happened despite a very small uptick in manufacturing jobs, but it was a smaller jump than in the total job count. So by my count, manufacturing jobs are now at 7.4% of all local jobs, a proportion that has dropped down below a previous nadir that came in 2011.

and points for those who grok the title.

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Friday, June 27, 2014

Free our (parking) data

One of the less appreciated news items this month was the approval of variable rate parking at city of Pittsburgh meters. That came to mind while reading this from DC: When parking prices reflect demand, everybody wins.

If you read that carefully, you see it talks about the über (that would be the generic, and lower case über) data-driven parking modalities of San Francisco.  For more on that check out:  and you will see what they have going on.

Here in Pittsburgh, lots of data is being generated by our new and ubiquitous electronic parking meters that were installed by the Pittsburgh Parking Authority. Did anyone even consider making available the data those meters are generating for uses such as what is happening in San Francisco? Think this is all to hard to implement? It is child's play compared to what is happening in Chicago where the light poles are going all Skynet.

And the thing about it is, I bet it wouldn't cost much money.  If there was just an open data stream I bet Pittsburgh's civic-minded tech community would make great use of the data, all for the better-ment of all.

But no.. I get it.  The contract that put in the parking meters probably never even considered such uses so I speculate there is an easy excuse to never see any data like this in the public realm, no matter what is happening elsewhere.  Although I do want to know what the status is of the phone-paying parking app the parking authority said was in the works.  In itself it is a data-point showing the data-potential the system is capable of. And until we do, it hurts that we are falling ever further behind the tech-metropolis of Latrobe, PA.

and if that works and we get open parking data in Pittsburgh, we can really push the limits and merge the local memes of robotics with parking. No, I am not talking driverless cars, but the very real robotic valets that could improve the efficiency of all parking facilities everywhere.

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Thursday, June 26, 2014

There's old and then there's the Insulbrick

So if you have not read it, Jim R. has something of a viral hit in a recent column:Not So Much ‘New York Poor’ as ‘Pittsburgh Rich’

Regional variability in the cost of living is pretty much about housing and the issue of housing affordability is a pretty large topic.  Still, if there is a "Pittsburgh Rich" story it is about some lower cost housing still to be had across the region.

But you have to think about what housing we have and in a lot of ways our housing is not the housing available elsewhere.  Put another way, you get what you pay for.  This all came to mind because the WashPo's Wonkblog has a whole little data story on the age of housing across the US. See: Map: The age of housing in every zip code in the U.S.

Nice little bit of data work, but it does not really give you the benchmarking to make it useful. By many measures, Pittsburgh has some of the oldest housing stock in the nation.  Sort of like with us, its not about temporal age, but 'real' age.  The only major city that really comes close to Pittsburgh for old housing is Boston, and I will bet that our housing is a tad bit more disinvested than the older housing of Boston.  So if you are interested in the topic locally, this this map I like to call the Insulbrick index

Still, the best quote that encapsulates it all is:
"It is cheap to live here. It's the only city I know of where you can have a part-time job at a coffee shop, still afford a mortgage payment and be able to go out once a week. ... How would that not be appealing to any young person who isn't ready to settle down?"
From the PG a few years ago: Watch out Portland, Pittsburgh's lookin' hip, Is it really possible we are actually, authentically cool?

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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Ferlo Dividend

I was thinking that the 166 page Act 47 plan has some similarities to an Umberto Eco novel.* So yes, I thought I would read the whole plan, I figure someone ought to. Some of the most unnoticed things are most interesting to me. Remember the recurring topic of how much the city of Pittsburgh loses out because of loopholes in Pennsylvania law. (old post: Forbes: Tax Shelter from Hell - U.S. Steel Tower in Pittsburgh)

Last year the law was changed and at least one big loophole called the 89-11 rule was closed, much due to the effort of retiring State Senator Ferlo. Did it help?

First, go back to the news earlier in the year from the Pittsburgh school district. A vastly improved fiscal situation this coming year, where a big deficit turned into a fairly historic surplus, came in part due to a big jump in Now the city of Pittsburgh has the exact same tax base (with the minor exception of the Borough known as Mount Oliver) as the school district. See PG: Pittsburgh school district ends '13 with $20.8 million surplus). Transfer taxes came in "$3.9 million over the budgeted amount. The transfer taxes, which totaled $10.9 million, were higher than they have ever been"

So how did the city of Pittsburgh fare with real estate transfer taxes?  Pretty good it turns out and in a budget sense better than the school district.. The city budgeted (expected) an amount of $15.9 million to come in from transfer taxes in 2013.  Turns out the amount was  $21.3 million, or over $5.4 million above what was budgeted for 2013.

So the unexpected windfall from transfer taxes offset much of  the lower regular real estate taxes said to be from a miscalculation from the reassessment.(2013 budgeted $130.5 million, actual $123.4 million). A $7.1 million shortfall, but if real estate and transfer taxes were added together, the shortfall from budgeted comes to $1.7 million, which is well within the range of volatility common over recent decades.

How much of the transfer tax windfall is due to the closing of the loophole? Not all of it for sure, and it would take a lot more data and work to calculate. Potentially Senatory Ferlo could be responsible for Pittsburgh city and school district having over $9 million more in their respective budgets last year. So the question then becomes what about the future. A $9+ million per year gain annually in to the future equates has a NPV of ?? a few hundred $million maybe depending on your assumptions. So if there is a balanced city budget now, or into the future, offer the good senator, and former city councilor, some kudos.

But maybe it was all a fluke or a variation that will not be repeated?   That certainly seems to be the belief of the Act 47 team that does not expect the 2013 take in transfer taxes will be repeated even the next year. Claiming the transfer tax being too volatile they expect transfer tax revenues to actually decline in 2014.  Nowhere in the new Act 47 plan is there any mention of the impact of closing the 89-11 loophole and even 5 years out the assumed transfer tax revenues remain below what was actually collected in 2013. Since these are THE tax experts, they are saying something in not saying anything about the change in tax law.  They must believe it is all de minimus?

Consider that if the loophole had been closed the year earlier, the Steel Tower sale by itself would have brought the city and school district together an addition $10 million (4% of $250 million reported price).  I bet even absent the change in the law, general trends in city real estate trends might be generating higher rates of real estate transactions, and thus more transfer taxes. Also, it looks like the loophole was further closed only in the middle of 2013, so the impact was only partially felt in the 2013 tax revenues. Yet still the trend is presumed to be down.  

* That is just a puzzle for @VannevarB to grok. Others probably just want to move on.

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Monday, June 23, 2014

Jobs up and jobs down

For every Yin there is a Yang.  Regional construction employment may be up, but there is this lingering mystery of why employment revisions were so bad for the Pittsburgh region in 2013.  I am late catching this data recently released (and thanks to the NS peanut gallery for pointing it out), but it appears that employment decline in Westmoreland County (-1.3% between December 2012 and December 2013) was among the worst drops the nation in 2013

Just one data point, but it may explain some things. Why are the numbers so bad for last year when it just does not seem so looking around Downtown and environs.  Looks like the suburban counties came in pretty low this year for this county-level (jobs by place of work) data. This is the same data that has had Washington county among the fastest job gainers in frequently over the last decade.  But this year, absolutely flat (0.0%) employment growth in Washington County, while Allegheny County had growth.  So best not to forget that regional metrics are indeed derived from what is happening across the region, not just in its core.

The table linked previously only has data for the largest counties in the US, so only some of counties in the Pittsburgh MSA. For the larger counties in the region the December 12 to December 13 employment change (%):  Allegheny +0.4%, Butler  -0.4%, Washington 0.0%. Westmoreland -1.3%

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Sunday, June 22, 2014

Building, building, building....

One of the weaker points in the regional economy in recent years has been sheer construction activity.  That's the bad news.  The good news is that the latest data just out shows a pretty healthy jump in construction employment over the pervious year.

Still not back to the peaks reached in the boom before the recession set in, but a lot of artificial pumping going in in real estate world back then globally, but also the construction of both the Rivers Casino and the Consol Arena were ongoing. Take those two projects out and I'd argue we are at one of the highest employment levels in the construction industry in a decade. We will see what the peak
construction season of the summer brings.

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