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Pittsburgh, Site of G-20 Summit, Is Shaking Off Its Smoky Image
"When I came here, there were three coffee shops in the whole place," he said. "Now the rivers are cleaner and the restaurants are better. Many of my students, who used to leave for California or New York when they finished their PhDs, are choosing to stay."
Residents today are more likely to spot a Hollywood movie star than a functioning steel mill. Pittsburgh played a role in 12 feature films in 2008, partly the result of a change in the city's tax laws three years ago. A TV program called "Three Rivers," which will debut next month, is also set here.
"We're crazy busy," said Dawn Keezer, director of the Pittsburgh Film Office. "Russell Crowe is coming to shoot downtown in October. Tony Scott's directing a film starring Denzel Washington. Jake Gyllenhaal's in town."
In the past, Pittsburgh doubled for other cities, but no longer, Keezer said. "We've been New York, Paris, and Washington, D.C.," she said. "But now people are setting their films in Pittsburgh. And every time you see an image of the new Pittsburgh, it helps dispel the smoky, old version."
Like other burgeoning industries here, Pittsburgh's film industry is bolstered by an emphasis on education. In 2001, Carnegie Mellon introduced a popular program focusing on entertainment technology. Point Park University downtown began offering a film studies course, swiftly followed by Alleghany County's community college.
Along with two world-class universities -- Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh -- the city boasts three major-league sports teams, a top-rated symphony and a host of theaters. Six-bedroom houses can be bought for $500,000. The city currently has a budget surplus.
For all that, Pittsburgh still faces some major problems. The city's infrastructure has suffered from decades of underinvestment. Abandoned houses line the streets of some neighborhoods. Notwithstanding those high-priced apartments along the river, poverty abounds: Many children in city schools qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
The population of 310,000 remains less than half what it was before the steel industry faltered, and as Briem notes, it's an aged population: "We're the only major metropolitan area with more deaths than births each year,"
Those demographics have Pittsburgh struggling to fill positions in fast-expanding industries, said Bill Flanagan, head of the Allegheny Conference, an economic development group.
"We still don't have enough restaurants or bars to attract young people," he said. "We've got 30,500 open jobs and we can't fill them."
Flanagan hopes the "boomerang effect" -- where the children of families who left Pittsburgh decades ago come back -- will bolster the workforce.
Carl Kurlander, a screenwriter who grew up in Pittsburgh but moved to Los Angeles in 1982, returned with his wife in 2001 to teach screenwriting at the University of Pittsburgh. "We were going to take a year off -- a Hollywood sabbatical -- and then come back," he said. "But then a weird thing happened. We were happy."
Kurlander has just completed a film about Pittsburgh called "My Tale of Two Cities." "It suddenly felt like I had a life," he said. "Pittsburgh can be slow to change, but it's a great place."