To gauge Pittsburgh’s transformational journey from “hell with the lid off” to its recent ascent as America’s “most livable city,” you need sunlight to see its ornate architecture, intricate bridges and diverse landscapes.  But during the month of March, Pittsburgh’s low gray clouds and high putty-colored rivers might not make the strongest first impression upon first-time visitors, even those from similarly climate-challenged places like Moscow.  For the fifteen students visiting from a distinguished Russian university, the sun finally shined upon them mid-week as they inched along Sampsonia Way, taking in the multi-colored facades of the City of Asylum’s residences for exiled writers.

Organizing a study trip for students visiting the United States for the first time would be a daunting endeavor even for a seasoned Pittsburgh native; even more so for someone who is not only a mere four months into her position but only four months into Pittsburgh.  That someone was Zsuzsánna Magdó.

“In the eyes of this native Pittsburgher, the week’s events went straight to the heart of the city.”

Planning the event began during Zsuzsa’s first week on the job in November of last year, when she joined the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Russian and East European Studies (REES) as Assistant Director for Programming and Partnerships. As to how she envisioned such a penetrating look into this complex city, she was quick to credit her colleagues, REES Director Nancy Condee and Associate Director Dawn Seckler.

Image of Russian students visiting Randyland in Pittsburgh's Northside

Zsuzsánna Magdó at Randyland

The students were from the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA), representing not only Russia, but also Nigeria, Jordan, Gambia and Serbia.  As both undergraduates and Master’s candidates, they traveled here to study comparative urban policy in the global rust-belt. Accompanying them from Moscow was Alexey Verbetsky, Deputy Director at RANEPA’s School of Public Policy, and Professor Robin Lewis, Director of the school’s Master Program in Global Public Policy, previously the Associate Dean of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

Regular conference-goers might anticipate that this is all headed in the direction of lecture halls, boxed lunches, and TED-styled talks, only to be surprised by the on-location learning that took place throughout many neighborhoods.  In the eyes of this native Pittsburgher, the week’s events went straight to the heart of the city.

Day One: Monday, March 6

From “Rust Belt” to “Eds & Meds:” Problems Solved and Unsolved

Based on what Zsuzsa called “best practices in curriculum design,” the week’s events built upon each other, leading towards a concluding session that tied it all together.  It began with a foundation of historical and spatial context established at the center of Pitt’s campus.

The Cathedral of Learning is a forty-two story neo-Gothic historic landmark, making it the tallest academic building in the western hemisphere.  From Pitt’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, Professor David Miller’s introduction to America’s “messy layers of governance” framed the week’s theme of urban transformation.

Pittsburgh’s rise to the center of world industry and finance, its subsequent descent into rust-belt decay, and its present-day resurrection as a leader in medicine, sustainable buildings and robotics, has been the product of both conflict and harmony.  Fittingly, lunch was provided by Conflict Kitchen, a restaurant the serves global fare from peoples with whom the US is in conflict.  Responding to the struggle over the North Dakota oil pipeline, the current cuisine from the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (commonly known the Iroquois) honors the original settlers of the Pittsburgh region — the original authors of Pittsburgh’s transformational story.

Image of Russian students looking out over downtown Pittsburgh from Mt. Washington

RANEPA students at the Duquesne Incline Overlook

Later that afternoon a cold mist lingered during a city bus tour, during which the students first formed their own impressions of Pittsburgh. Elena Stepanova has seen much of the world, having studied in Singapore before returning to her native Moscow to pursue her Masters. “I expected to see an industrial city,” she told me.  “I was amazed by the practices of retrofitting underperforming property, whether that was housing, industrial, or public.”

Day Two: Tuesday, March 7

Stopping the Brain Drain: Education and Economic Opportunity

Pittsburgh lost its footing when it was no longer a place defined by the things it made. Amidst a national discussion about reinvigorating our manufacturing legacy, the RANEPAns were exposed to several local initiatives that tie emerging industries to educational systems.  A stop at the Falk School WonderLab led the group to the Energy Innovation Center in Pittsburgh’s Hill District neighborhood.

“The story of Pittsburgh and its universities made me realize what universities in Serbia could become.” — Andjelka Petrovic


Adapted from a vocational school called the Connelley Center (built circa 1930), the Energy Innovation Center (EIC) is one of few that is both LEED Platinum certified and on the National Register of Historic Places.  Connelley’s former machine shop is now EIC’s conference room.  The original wood plank shop floors remain, surrounded by two walls of windows with 770 panes of glass that provide a stunning view spanning of downtown and the Allegheny River Valley.

Here, EIC’s Executive Director, Rich DiClaudio asserted, “A community is only as good as its poorest residents.”  A major focus of the EIC, he said, is to connect local communities with corporations and institutions of higher learning, which means outreach to immigrants, minorities and formerly incarcerated populations, communities that together form “blended learning groups.”  The teaching of many traditional trades remains an EIC priority, along with those that will guide twenty-first century manufacturing: energy, life sciences and 3-D printing.

Image of visiting students from Russia touring Pittsburgh's Energy Innovation Center

Tour of Energy Innovation Center

Day Three: Wednesday, March 8

Whose city is this? Mobility, Access and Homelessness

In 2005, Google’s expansion into Pittsburgh gave them a direct line to the university brains that the city had been watching drain west to Silicon Valley for some time. Others quickly followed suit.  The arrival of Uber pinned the future of self-driving vehicles to Pittsburgh, and Ford followed, bringing a reported $1 billion with them.  Facebook, Amazon and Apple came too.

“The city’s transformation story was phenomenal, especially for someone like me coming from an emerging economy with great potential and resources,” Victor Akangbe, a Nigerian-born RANEPA student said, adding that he was “surprised by the huge amount of investment the city attracts.”

Advanced technologies are an integral force in Pittsburgh’s present day battle over to whom the city belongs — to the well-paid, newly arrived talent, or the less affluent, lifelong residents.  Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) is a leader in internet technologies and robotics, and Simon-Newell Hall is where CMU’s self-driving vehicles reside.  A classroom with large pictures of robots hanging on the walls looks out over Junction Hollow, a valley from which a 200-foot tall, century-old masonry smokestack rises from the Bellefield Boiler Plant. Here the students met Courtney Ehrlichman, the Deputy Executive Director of Traffic21, CMU’s “smart transportation” program.

Image of Courtney Erlichman giving a tour of Carnegie Mellon's automous vehicle lab to visiting Russian students

Courtney Ehrlichman and CMU’s autonomous Cadillac

Ms. Ehrlichman’s talk toggled between autonomous vehicles (AV) and the roads and infrastructure they share with regular vehicles, bicyclists and pedestrians. Like the AVs themselves, certain street intersections are equipped with cameras and radar that collect many streams of information, all of which is communicated between devices. AVs (which Ms. Ehrlichman said will require twenty to forty years before becoming fully operational) need to recognize not only speed limits and traffic signals, but someone pushing a stroller through a crosswalk or a jaywalker.

Of her native Serbia, Andjelka Petrovic told me that the prominent universities have been established where the largest populations of young people are, not where innovation and research is the strongest. “The story of Pittsburgh and its universities inspired me,” she said. “They made me realize what universities in Serbia could become.”

“Nobody to whom we talked glossed over any of the complexities and difficulties that are an integral part of Pittsburgh’s transformation.”  — Robin Lewis

The Oakland neighborhood is a major employment center that can be thought of as Pittsburgh’s second downtown. The premier cultural and educational institutions found in these two places are connected by the neighborhood of Uptown, where decades of disinvestment resulted in many blighted and demolished buildings, paved over as parking lots. Home to many low-income households, Uptown’s recent development of higher-end apartments signifies change.

The Uptown Lofts on Fifth may look high-rent, but are reserved for people earning about half the area median income.  They were developed by ACTION-Housing, a high-capacity non-profit organization that provides services for low-income people, veterans and seniors. The transition from CMU to one of ACTION’s residential buildings not only furthered Pittsburgh’s “tale of two cities” narrative for RANEPAns, but bridged the future — defined by electronics and robotics, with the present — defined by the immediate housing needs of vulnerable populations.

In an art studio on the first floor of the Lofts, a panel of local leaders engaged the students in a discussion about community development and civil liberties.  The panelists —  Linda Metropulos (ACTION), Susheela Nemani-Stanger (Urban Redevelopment Authority), and Sonya Tilghman (Hazelwood Initiative)  — work for organizations governed by volunteer boards of directors, and Carlos Torres (Commission on Human Relations) is guided by fifteen appointed volunteer Commissioners.  Provocative throughout and at times fiery, the conversation represented many of the cultural differences that the weeklong events aimed to bridge.

“I laud the City of Asylum for creating a thriving community for writers, readers and their neighbors.” — Victor Akangbe

Later Professor Robin Lewis noted,  ”It was a privilege to be able to have such a direct and tactile feel for this process and how it has unfolded in Pittsburgh. It was made all the more instructive by the fact that nobody to whom we talked glossed over any of the complexities and difficulties that are an integral part of the transformation.”

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Day Four: Thursday, March 9

pARTicipation: Public Art and Civil Society

Salman Rushdie’s support for endangered literary writers led to the creation of the Cities of Asylum (CoA) network in Europe. Rushdie gave a talk in Pittsburgh in 1997, and in the audience were Henry Reese and Diane Samuels, who later established a CoA chapter here.


Image of Hannah Waltz from City of Asylum leading tour of Russian students visiting Pittsburgh to study a transformational rust-belt city

Hannah Waltz from City of Asylum discusses House Poem

The RANEPAns disembarked from their van on Sampsonia Way, where they met Hannah Waltz and Rachel Webber from Pittsburgh’s CoA, who introduced the students to House Poem, the name for first of four residences that were renovated as safe houses for exiled writers.  It’s clad in dark wood and covered with white Chinese calligraphy, expertly painted by Huang Xiang, who lived there for three years.  Mr. Huang’s poetry that celebrated human rights and civil liberties was (and still is) banned throughout China.  Deemed a dissident, he was imprisoned six times before fleeing with his wife to obtain asylum in the United States.

“I did not expect Pittsburgh to have such a rich history in arts and culture. The public art that revitalized the downtown area by creating spaces of interaction and reflection, and the City of Asylum in particular, left memorable impressions in my mind.” – Elena Stepanova

Three doors down is the red brick Winged House, where a passage from Wole Soyinka’s memoir, The Man Died, is sandblasted into the glass front door.  Mr. Soyinka, a Nigerian Nobel Prize in Literature winner and co-founder of Cities of Asylum, wrote his memoir while in solitary confinement.  Hanging from the facade are three wooden “Spiritual Wings” carved by Pittsburgh sculptor, Thaddeus Mosely.

“It was interesting to see them feature some Nigerian poets and literary icons!” Victor Akangbe said, adding, “I laud the City of Asylum for creating a thriving community for writers, readers and their neighbors — especially endangered literary writers who operate in societies where freedom of the press is kicked against.”

As both real estate development and public art projects, these residences known as “house publications” make Pittsburgh’s chapter of CoA unique.  Urban transformation stories often lean towards self-reflection, but the art and civil society discussion provided the most expansive look at the city’s relationships with the rest of the world.

Image of Hannah Waltz of City of Asylum showing Russian students a house for exiled writers in Pittsburgh

Hannah Waltz introducing the Winged House.

At the CoA bookstore on North Avenue, the RANEPA students gathered in a basement meeting room with a low ceiling and rough stone walls.  Tuhin Das, the CoA’s current exiled writer-in-residence, is a poet who left his native Bangladesh for asylum in the US.  His talk provided a history of Hindu-Muslim conflict, genocide and the incursion of fundamentalist militants who murder secular writers like him.

In the back of the room was Tony Buba, a filmmaker who has been making films about the declining steelmaking town of Braddock for forty years.  Following Mr. Das, Mr. Buba gave a brief talk about his native Braddock, accompanied by a short documentary that set the stage for the concluding sessions the following day.

While his film played, Mr. Buba’s wife, Jan, joined demonstrators at the corner of Penn and Centre Avenues in East Liberty to protest unfair housing practices. Though not part of the RANEPA experience, the timing was uncanny.  All of the week’s themes — transformation, conflict, and to whom the city belongs — were made manifest in this act of civil disobedience.

Evicted Penn Plaza residents join protestors in demonstration in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh

East Liberty residents, Mabel Duffy and Myrtle Stern

Day Five: Friday, March 10

Beyond Art: Community Restoration and its Challenges

Each of the previous four days included references to Pittsburgh’s heavily industrialized past — an intense place that was grimy, noisy, and at times, violent — all of which is hard to imagine now.  Remnants of that industrial past are abundant, but no trace of a steel mill can be found within a ten-mile radius, so to find one, you have to go to Braddock, Pa.

Along the Monongahela River is Braddock’s Edgar Thompson Works, which as the last working mill in the region can only be viewed from afar.  To walk within the actual confines of a mill, the defunct Carrie Furnace site has been preserved by a non-profit organization called Rivers of Steel. Inactive for decades, the heat, noise and thousands of workers from years past requires imagining, but the heavy steel, concrete and brick is there to touch.

Had the prior day’s blue, sunny skies lasted through Friday, the site would have looked and felt entirely different. Nestled into a river valley, the imposing structure is set within a natural landscape full of life during spring, summer and fall — hillsides densely populated with trees, grass and shrubs growing through railroad tracks, birds and other wildlife making themselves known.  But winter returned overnight, bringing a wet, icy snow that glazed every branch, dusted the rusty blast furnaces and blanketed the ground below.  Wide open and barren, the wind blows harder and the temperature falls faster here.

Image of of visiting Russian students studying rust-belt transformation exploring Carrie Furnace site in Braddock, Pennsylvania

Students approach Carrie Blast Furnace

Pittsburghers and Muscovites alike are no strangers to this kind of weather, yet both suffered equally Friday morning.  Ron Baraff and Chris McGinnis from Rivers of Steel were the lone exceptions, joyously guiding the group to the coke ovens and blast furnaces that cooked coal into molten iron.

“There’s a deer head looking at me — it’s blowing my mind away.” – Felice Brothers

Behind a large brick building the students discovered a forty-foot tall deer head. Constructed from steel rebar and other scrap metals, this sculpture is an example of guerrilla art.  Beginning in 1997, artists snuck undetected onto the desolate mill site with only the tools they could carry in backpacks, and began cutting, bending and fastening metal rods with copper ties.  After returning every Sunday for an entire year, the completed Carrie Deer Head represented the best hidden public art project around.

Image of visiting Russian students at Carrie Furnace site looking at a 40-foot tall sculpture of a deer head in Braddock, Pennsylvania

That afternoon Zsuzsa called upon John Fetterman, Braddock’s mayor, and Jeb Feldman, deputy mayor, to tie together the story of rust-belt transformation.  As residents and longtime collaborators, the two presented a youth-centered, arts-driven vision for the revitalization of this once-mighty steel town.  Braddock Redux, a non-profit organization founded by Fetterman, promotes education, job training, the arts and the creative re-use of vacant property.

With Mr. Feldman, the group toured three current projects that exemplify this vision.  UnSmoke Art Space, fashioned from a Catholic school building, provides gallery and studio space that creates opportunities for artists to partner with prominent institutions like the Carnegie Museum of Art.  Next door is the former Superior Motors car dealership that is evolving into both a permanent home for the barebones’ productions theater company and a destination restaurant headed by Pittsburgh’s illustrious chef, Kevin Sousa.

Mr. Feldman stressed the need for these projects to serve locals and outsiders alike.  While UnSmoke supports Braddock’s “fertile ground for creativity,” the restaurant and barebones’ are developing training programs for residents to develop skills in farming, baking and theater production.

Image of the Edgar Thompson Works mill in Braddock, Pennsylvania

Superior Motors across the street from the Edgar Thomson Steel Works

In the days that followed I was consumed by a single thought: What impression did we make on our guests?  I was delighted to receive incoming correspondence, full of insight and fondness for our city, including this from Mr. Akangbe, “The trip was a great learning experience for me personally. I sincerely got more than I could have asked for.”

Or from Ms. Stepanova, describing a meal that reaffirmed for her that, “We should never underestimate the power of food to turn the place around and attract people.”

Or from Professor Lewis: “What we hoped to accomplish, and was indeed brilliantly illustrated by the remarkable variety of stakeholders in the Pittsburgh story, was to understand the texture of urban change in a US city that has managed to revive itself in the face of great social and economic upheavals.  The openness and frankness of American society, despite all of its injustices and inequalities, is still its greatest asset.”

During the following week, Zsuzsa reiterated to me that the objective of Pitt’s REES program was two-fold: to present Pittsburgh as a case study in rust-belt revival to those who will affect policy-making in post-socialist monotowns, and to “foster partnerships with a country that the United States has had a troubled relationship with.”  That we were sitting near Conflict Kitchen was fitting; that the restaurant announced the day before that it would be closing after seven years was not.

Pittsburgh’s reputation for developing university talent that its job market can’t retain is fading away, and may soon join “Pittsburgh the steel town” in history’s dustbin.  New challenges have arisen, such as housing and job markets that don’t work for people across the educational spectrum.  And old challenges remain, such as long-segregated neighborhoods and an inability to grow its immigrant population. Expanding the roles of higher education here seem limitless.  Exchange programs with institutions like RANEPA reveal not only the importance of cultural diplomacy, but also universities’ potential to create new knowledge networks and prepare young professionals who can address global, real-world issues while remaining sensitive to a region’s sense of place.

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