It's one of the ironies of Pittsburgh's postwar history: As we produced less and less stuff for the world, we made a bigger and bigger production out of ourselves. As the steel industry waned, local PR efforts increased and the fewer people lived here, the more we boasted about how "livable" Pittsburgh was.
It's hard to say when this trend got started, exactly, but May 7-21, 1949, might be a good guess. That's when the region first established "Welcome Weeks," a birthday party for the city's 75-year-old Chamber of Commerce.
I never know what to buy a Chamber of Commerce a Mont Blanc pen that uses BS for ink? But organizers had no shortage of ideas, all intended to serve as an "open house in America's busiest city." Brochures boasted of railroad tours, river trips, visits to industrial plants, riverboat races, concerts, art exhibits, "civics projects exhibits," flower shows even a marbles tournament.
The event's finale, the Post-Gazette exclaimed, had been "apparently touched by the super-collosal hand of Hollywood." The climactic events included "Pittsburgh in Music," described in PR brochures as "one of the most extensive shows of its kind ever given anywhere." The other big event was "a forum and show at the Syria Mosque in which five leading industrialists will discuss economic prospects." (And to think: All I ever saw at the Syria Mosque was Bob Dylan.)
"The plans are big and comprehensive," boasted Chamber of Commerce President Joseph W. Oliver. "Enthusiasm is running high wherever you turn." No doubt. I mean a marbles tournament!
Nor were the spinmeisters of tomorrow neglected: The chamber sponsored "a city-wide high school essay contest on 'Why I'm Proud of Pittsburgh.'" Adults, too, were spurred on with that most insidious of propaganda techniques: a film-strip on "Selling the City," which the Chamber of Commerce claimed to have "shown to numerous audiences." (No word on whether these audiences were made up of volunteers or not.) Salespeople were urged to bring their clients to town, to see the wonders of Pittsburgh. As the Pittsburgh Press opined, "Let's not boot the chance to boost ourselves!"
Pittsburgh did, in fact, have much to celebrate in those heady days of the first Renaissance, and Welcome Week festivities were held at least through 1952. (Though by 1950, the "Week" had been shortened to three days.) During the first Welcome Week, for example, the region played up its ambitious dam-building plans, which were crucial improvements. The opening of the Greater Pittsburgh Airport, a similarly important step forward, coincided with the 1952 event.
And some events drew tens of thousands of spectators: The highlights of the 1949-1951 events were no doubt the steamboat races, in which rival steamboat crews made a mad dash for the finish line at Smithfield Street Bridge. But the sad fact is that PR efforts never age well, and it seems Welcome Week was particularly ill-starred.
On the very first day of the very first Welcome Week, a fire broke out at a Second Avenue lumberyard, filling the skies around Downtown with "dense clouds of acrid, yellowish smoke." In 1951, festivities were curtailed because of the Korean War, while in 1952, workers went out on strike after the Supreme Court overturned President Harry Truman's seizure of the mills (to keep wartime production rolling). Tours of area industrial plants were cancelled, and suddenly "America's Busiest City" didn't seem so busy.
Eventually, the city wore out its welcome weeks. In 1951, there were rumors that Welcome Week was moving down to Cincinnati. (Reported the Pittsburgh Press: "Cincinnati officials were reported feeling like a woman who has 100,000 persons drop in unexpectedly for dinner: Hospitable but panicky.") The reports proved groundless, but as far as I can tell, 1952 marked the last official Welcome Week celebration.
Some activities were incorporated into the Three Rivers Arts Festival and other events. The highest-profile part of the festivities the boat races were later absorbed into the Pittsburgh Regatta. (Though these were for speedboats only: The last steamboat race in Pittsburgh happened in 1951.)
As for the civic boosterism that was at the heart of the event, well, let's just say that in Pittsburgh today, every week is Welcome Week.