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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