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From steel slabs to solar cells

If the White House had announced it was holding the Group of 20 summit in Pittsburgh in 1950, few would have been surprised. At that point, Pittsburgh had three-quarter of a million people and was home to nearly half the steel production of the United States, reports Pramit Pal Chaudhuri.

world Updated: Sep 25, 2009 23:34 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

If the White House had announced it was holding the Group of 20 summit in Pittsburgh in 1950, few would have been surprised. At that point, Pittsburgh had three-quarter of a million people and was home to nearly half the steel production of the United States.

When the White House made the announcement in May, beat reporters began laughing. Pittsburgh in 2009 has barely 300,000 people and is known best for the Steelers, its American football team. Worse, over the past few decades it became an icon of rustbelt recession, a synonym for dying industry and joblessness. Pittsburgh-born US diplomat William Avery recently wrote, “I would wager the air quality in Pittsburgh in 1909 was far worse than anything in India today.”

Which is exactly why President Barack Obama chose to host the summit there. Because Pittsburgh has reinvented itself – but even most Americans don’t know it. “Its steel plants have been converted into luxury housing complexes or shopping malls,” says Jennifer Spotsinger, a one-time resident.

The Obama administration and Pittsburgh talk up how it is now home to 35 academic institutions, including the world-famous Carnegie Mellon University, and 1,600 technology firms. “Pittsburgh is truly a renaissance city,” declared Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell just a few days before the start of the summit.

Downtown Pittsburgh is architecturally magnificent, thanks to the large ornate buildings left by the likes of steel baron Andrew Carnegie and railway tycoon Mellon. Today the action is in the city outskirts where low-slung buildings churn out solar cells and polymer sheets.

Tech employs a tenth of its workforce, not yet enough to be the main driver of the city economy. But heavy industry has certainly fled. The river trijunction in which Pittsburgh is nestled used to be used to float steel products all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

Today, they provide a blue-green margin to a place of tall buildings, clean streets and cleaner air.

A smaller Pittsburgh will feel the pinch of hosting the G-20. Though only 4,000 people are expected to attend, the city has already put aside $ 16 million to cover additional costs. Cheap, given London spent $ 130 million on the last summit, but a hefty advertising bill for a city still in transition from the 19th to the 21st century.