Steelers give slumping Pittsburgh a boost

City faces financial woes reminiscent of the 1970s, but resurgent football team offers relief.

It was the 1970s, and Pittsburgh's steel industry was on the decline. Mills would begin shutting down one by one along the city's three rivers.

But that's not the setting that John Vazquez remembers. Arriving from New York in 1975 to visit a friend, he stepped off a Greyhound bus to find a town pulsing with the Pittsburgh Steelers' first Super Bowl victory.

"Everyone was going nuts. I thought, 'If you can't sell [to the fans] in this town, you can't sell anywhere," says Mr. Vazquez, who relocated here and has been selling sports paraphernalia ever since.

Thirty years later, Pittsburgh is experiencing a déjà vu of sorts, with lessons for other cities in America's industrial heartland. Throughout the 70s, as the city's economic future remained uncertain, Steelers fans reveled in the glory days of legendary receiver Lynn Swann, running back Franco Harris, or quarterback Terry Bradshaw, not to mention the team's "Steel Curtain" defense, and four Super Bowl championships in six years.

Now, as Pittsburgh has lingered on the brink of bankruptcy for more than a year and residents here are set to face higher fees and fewer city services, the Steelers are once again providing salvation, coming onto the stage as the "comeback" story of 2004 football. No. 7 jerseys, in reverence for the adored rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, are as ubiquitous these days as Heinz Ketchup bottles.

Yet when the roar of a packed Heinz Stadium fades away, the drumbeat of financial distress goes on in this city, once the playground of the Carnegies and Fricks and other industrialists who turned ample coal deposits into a powerhouse industry. Its woes and loss of population are symbolic of the uncertainty within Rust Belt roads, where towns born of manufacturing have been forced to redefine themselves.

After running structural deficits for years, Pittsburgh's situation came to a head in 2003, when its bond rating was lowered to junk status. It was declared a "distressed city" by the end of last year under Act 47, and oversight boards were named to revise the tax system and add new revenue. The Pittsburgh City Council finally agreed to the recovery plan and sweeping budget cuts last month.

"It's not going to be nominal. It's going to be potholes that don't get filled," says Sabina Deitrick, associate professor of public and urban affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. Already the city has shut down recreation centers and swimming pools and laid off workers. "People are going to notice it. And it's only going to get worse over time."

That's not to say the legacy of steel barons and later philanthropists has disappeared: cultural and academic institutions thrive here. So do hospitals. And the "new" Pittsburgh is one with a more diversified economy, a redeveloped waterfront, and a campaign to draw young urbanites.

At the same time, Pittsburgh has lost half of its population - from 677,000 in 1950 to about 328,000 today. Democratic Mayor Tom Murphy, who announced recently that he won't seek reelection, has long maintained that the city's tax structure is outdated.

Many others blame overzealous spending habits that haven't changed, in part, because of union influence. "They want to keep the same levels of employment ... that were there 50 years ago when the city was twice the size," says Eric Montarti, a policy analyst at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, a conservative think tank.

Pittsburgh's plight is not unlike those of Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit, marked by aging populations, an exodus of young people, and deserted urban cores. A politically fragmented region has added to its troubles. With more than 400 municipalities, the Pittsburgh area faces a "serious sprawl and abandonment problem," says Mark Muro, a senior policy analyst at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program.

This year has brought additional woes. Massive flooding this fall destroyed businesses and homes throughout the region. Two downtown department stores closed. And troubles at US Airways, which employs many in the region, also loom.

As such, the Steelers have provided something of an escape - just as they did in the '70s. "The Steelers don't bring jobs, but they boost the morale," says Pete Flaherty, mayor of Pittsburgh from 1970 to 1977. "[The Super Bowl wins] gave the city a lift."

That's just what Patti DeSano needs right now. The fall flood inflicted thousands of dollars of damage at the flower shop in Etna, a local borough, where the floral designer works.

"It's a way for you to pretend everything is OK for one day," says Ms. DeSano, a lifelong Steelers fan.

Even as the national debate over the economic benefits of stadiums rages on, among the most visible changes to this city's landscape are a new baseball stadium and football field.

"This whole town has come together," says Vazquez, who recently opened Black & Gold Forever downtown. Its windows, a festive homage to the Steelers, stand in contrast to an empty Lazarus-Macy's department store across the street.

Still, Pittsburgh is far from the "Smoky City" of the 19th century, when writer James Parton described it as "hell with the lid off."

For many at least, the city still entices with its picturesque incline railways that slide down the city's valley walls. Visitor Norton Gustavson, who lives in Missouri but is selling Steelers paraphernalia along Route 65 in a makeshift shop of plastic tenting, says he expected something grittier of Pittsburgh. "I love the old houses."

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