Pittsburgh should be a rusted ghost town. It emerged during the industrial age as a leading producer of glass, iron, steel, and aluminum, but today the Steel City no longer has mills within its limits.
Unlike other cities where fleeing industry spawned a meltdown, Pittsburgh continues to thrive. It excels in 21st century fields such as robotics, cybersecurity, biotech, higher education, and health care. Although its economy still faces headwinds, Pittsburgh is one of only three US metropolitan areas judged by the Brookings Institution to have fully recovered from the recession.
How did Pittsburgh pave the way for sustained prosperity even as its initial industries faded? Largely through philanthropy.
Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie was perhaps foremost among the visionary philanthropists of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Pittsburgh. Built in 1901, his Carnegie Institute and Library Complex equipped the city with a world-class reference center, music hall, modern art museum, and natural history museum. Carnegie built seven other library branches around the city and in Pittsburgh's steel mills. He followed these gifts with a premier technical school, which later became Carnegie Mellon University when it merged with the Mellon Institute of Industrial Research, created by Pittsburgh-born banking scions Andrew and Richard Mellon.
To be sure, working conditions were pitiable in Carnegie's Pittsburgh plants when he was bestowing large gifts on the city. But as a local politician said in 1892, "No matter how Mr. Carnegie got this money, he has it. If it belongs to the working people this is a good way of getting it back, and why not take it?"