Economic Development Musings
The Mayor’s “Propel Pittsburgh Commission” had our second meeting this week, this time smack in the middle of Lawrenceville’s Design Zone. Most of the meeting time was taken up with election of officers (not including your humble correspondent, I’m sorry to report, but we did get a good slate of people). The memorable thing, though, was when some representatives from the Lawrenceville Corporation took us on a brief tour of some of the Design Zone businesses. We saw three boutiques that have opened next to each other: one sells expensive clothes, one sells shoes to go with those clothes, and one sells furniture to sit on while wearing your expensive shoes and clothes. As we heard about these boutiques and the LC’s role in helping them, a young punk-looking person bicycled by and shouted at us to “Stop the gentrification of Lawrenceville!” (with a smattering of applause from a few other youths gathered nearby).
Whoever our bicyclist was, he had a point. The clientele of these shops, according to our tour guide, comes primarily from Sewickley and Fox Chapel, with the runner-up being the East End. Those are NOT people who are going to up and decide to buy a house in Lawrenceville. In the meantime, the folks who *do* live in Lawrenceville, both young and old, get to see neighborhood businesses fancy shops selling merchandise they have little use for and can’t afford. It’s not the bland sprawl of strip malls and Wal-Marts, but it’s still a process that has the potential to harm a neighborhood. Just as importantly, from the perspective of what the Mayor’s Commission is supposed to do, this kind of upscale business development may not help keep young people in Pittsburgh. First off, young people are usually not wealthy — it doesn’t help to create services that we can’t afford. Second, the prime issue (both per informal conversations with friends and the city’s own data) is jobs. High-end boutiques and artist lofts don’t create substantial numbers of jobs, and the jobs they *do* create are low-paying retail with minimal opportunities for career advancement.
Pittsburgh needs to grow our economy to survive. Maybe there’s more to this development that was shown in our brief visit, but the businesses we saw on that tour are unlikely to give us the kind of growth we need.