“Daddy, What Did You Do in the Suburbs?” Patrick Vitale on High-Tech Pittsburgh

In the 1979 cult classic The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh, a down-on-their-luck basketball team called the Pittsburgh Pythons is desperate for a change of fortune. They lose constantly, despite being led by the legendary Julius “Dr. J” Erving, and in a strange twist they turn to an astrologer (Stockard Channing) for help.  Through a bit of hocus-pocus, she rebrands the team as the Pittsburgh Pisces and they are reborn, going on an extraordinary winning streak.  

It is tempting to see the story of Fish as an allegory for the trials and redemptions of America’s Steel City.  By the early 1980s, Pittsburgh had become the emblem of industrial decline – a sadsack of shuttered mills and squat suburban houses, about as far from cool as anywhere in America could be.  Yet in the early twenty-first century, the Pennsylvania city has been frequently lauded as a postindustrial success story, rising from the ashes of steel’s destruction.  

In his new book Nuclear Suburbs, geographer Patrick Vitale puts a new spin on this mythology of decline and rise. Combining the methods of STS, history, and geography, Vitale shows how the roots of a white-collar, high-tech Pittsburgh were already embedded in the early years of the Cold War, long before the city’s vaunted postindustrial rebirth.  Nuclear Suburbs becomes not just a study of science and technology in the Cold War, but a story about how a “creative class” developed its identity in the antiseptic suburbs of western Pennsylvania.  

Vitale shifts the story backward, showing that Pittsburgh’s city fathers valorized and wooed highly educated workers all the way back in the 1950s.  Anxious to update a city known for steel and soot, local boosters framed Pittsburgh as an ideal location for affluent, white families to live the good life.  As Sputnik hovered menacingly over America, the demand for the labor of scientists and engineers was overwhelming.  Community leaders across the United States, from Los Angeles to Boston to the Research Triangle, realized that the jobs of privileged white men brought tax revenue and prestige.  

Nuclear Suburbs, then, joins a literature about the class formation of upper-income “knowledge workers” in the twentieth-century United States, one that spans from Lisa McGirr’s path-breaking work on L.A. in Suburban Warriors(2001)to Jamie Cohen-Cole’s The Open Mind, about the way intellectuals saw themselves during the Cold War, and Lily Geismer’s Don’t Blame Us, on suburban politics in Massachusetts. (Both were published in 2014.)  Vitale considers the way high-tech workers saw themselves, whether as dispassionate deployers of science or patriotic contributors to national defense or even just committed solvers of puzzles. In a telling example, Vitale writes:  

[Schwartz] told me of his former boss, who would sit eagerly by the phone waiting for a problem to develop at the shipyards so he could assemble a team to fix it. This boss ‘loved the excitement of getting things done – repairing the ships’… Scientists and engineers were more inspired by their interest in technical challenges than any explicitly political or military motive. (p. 202)  

Throughout, though, Nuclear Suburbs emphasizes that these tech workers – mostly white and almost entirely men – lived their suburban idyll in a world of disconnection.  Amid the chaste tensions of the Cold War, they could work on nuclear submarines and bombs without directly feeling the reality of the death and destruction they were making possible.  In the 1970s and 1980s, they could also see the lives of devastated working-class people just a few miles away as utterly separate and foreign to them, even though suburban fortunes and urban despair were part of a terrible helix that the new class of knowledge workers mostly refused to see.  In this sense, Nuclear Suburbs calls to my mind Paul N. Edwards’s 1996 classic The Closed World; that book was definitely not about urbanism or social geography in the way Vitale’s study is, but it still captured the mentality of a class of white-collar Americans, bathed and incubated in ignorant sterility.  

Nuclear Suburbs provides a rich account of urban boosterism as well as an ethnography of white-collar class identity.  It helpfully moves our historical understanding of the high-tech economy away from a perennial fixation on Boston and Silicon Valley.  To this reader, though, Vitale’s use of the STS concept of “technoscientific networks” is not particularly illuminating or instructive in understanding Pittsburgh’s redevelopment.  The author also makes the surprising assertion that “the military-industrial complex had a limited physical presence in Pittsburgh during the Cold War” toward the end of the book (p. 206).  What, then, has the book been about?  

This question points toward a further one: if defense industries were not that important in Pittsburgh, why does the book pay so little attention to healthcare, given that “eds and meds” have been such a large part of the Pittsburgh renaissance narrative?  (Andrew Simpson and Gabriel Winant have done important work on the role of hospitals and universities in Rust Belt cities, including Pittsburgh.)  It is easy to ask “Why did you write about X instead of Y?” but this omission leaves the story partly untold.  

Nonetheless, Nuclear Suburbs is the most valuable account we have yet of the United States’ most prototypical model of urban renewal.  Pittsburgh was the U.S. industrial economy, and it was the symbol of the same’s undoing.  More recently, former president Barack Obama saw fit to trumpet, over and over, Pittsburgh as “a model for turning the page to the 21st century economy” (p. 214).  And as Vitale notes, the BBC called the city “a text-book example of how a globalized economy works” in 2009, and they were not wrong (p. 215).  Pittsburgh’s postindustrial revolution shows how a development model that prioritizes only the affluent and educated can create economic growth, but also sidelines and disadvantages almost everyone who was ravaged by the effects of deindustrialization in the first place.  

To return to sports: Nuclear Suburbs also reminds me of a famous quotation by baseball manager Casey Stengel.  He too was speaking to a losing team, and asked: “Can’t anyone here play this game?”  Like the Pittsburgh Pisces, Pittsburgh eventually learned to play the game of postindustrial economic development.  For better or worse.  

This review was first published in The Metropole in 2021.