Naming Rites | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Naming Rites

Pittsburgh celebrates its 250th birthday next year ... and civic leaders hope you'll show up for the party

Making History

If you subscribe to the "what's in a name?" school of history, Gen. John Forbes' letter to William Pitt on Nov. 27, 1758 might not seem like such a big deal.

True, Forbes was writing from the forks of the Ohio River, a place the British had tried, and failed, to conquer three years before. And true, the capture of Fort Duquesne marked a turning point in the French and Indian War. But by the time Forbes arrived, the French garrison had already deserted the fort and set it aflame.

Much of Forbes' letter to Pitt, Britain's powerful secretary of State and architect of its war effort, concerns matters that aren't of earth-shaking importance. Among other things, Forbes asked to be recalled from the front -- "[M]y Physicians and all our Hospital People unanimously agree that I must go directly for England for to save my life" -- and argued for a promotion: "[H]aving so many people put over my head, without my being sensible of any faux pas committed, has made ... the deepest impression on my mind."

But nearly 1,000 words into the 1,100-word-long letter, almost as an afterthought, he added: "I have used the freedom of giving your name to Fort DuQuesne." With Pitt's protection, he said, "these dreary deserts will soon be the richest and most fertile of any possest by the Brittish in No. America."

The letter was datelined "Pittsbourgh. 27 Novem. 1758" And once Forbes sent it, the city built on the ruins of Fort Duquesne was destined to be called "Pittsburgh."

How does such a letter's significance compare to the construction of the city's first blast furnace in 1792, the Railroad Riots of 1877, or David L. Lawrence's election as mayor in 1945? Arguably, the letter represents nothing more than an underling currying favor with a superior. It might even seem ominous that, even as he was naming the city, Forbes was trying to leave it.

Still, starting in 1858, and every 50 years afterward, Pittsburgh has celebrated Nov. 27, 1758 as its birthday. Next year will be no different, as civic leaders prepare to usher in "Pittsburgh 250." The event will be "more than a birthday party," the campaign's literature boasts. "[G]rounded in an important milestone in American history, the 1758 Forbes Campaign that led to the naming of Pittsburgh," Pittsburgh 250 will "celebrate our region's world-changing heritage."

And in a way, Forbes' letter deserves the honor. It was, after all, the city's first effort to convince the world that Pittsburgh was a region on the move, however "dreary" it might seem. Naming Pittsburgh was an early form of what marketers call a "branding initiative," the forerunner of regional PR campaigns today. Its patriotic sentiments were no doubt genuine, but they were entwined with a healthy amount of self-promotion.

Fittingly, then, Pittsburgh's 2008 jubilee will be carried out in much the same spirit.

When Andy Masich, director of the Sen. John Heinz History Center, realized nearly three years ago the city's 250th birthday was approaching, "I had this idea that we couldn't let this pass," he says. The celebration, he realized, could be part of "a recurring effort that Pittsburgh has made to market itself and brand itself. They were doing it in 1908 and 1958. Now it's our turn."

Masich is a man of large and contagious enthusiasms. Once the idea of a 250th birthday party was kindled, he set out to enlist the support of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, a group of the region's foremost business leaders. Masich created a short video making the case that Pittsburgh should be touted as a hotbed of innovation and change.

The video consists largely of Masich's rapid-fire narration over a series of archival images. In just over six minutes, Masich names 80 Pittsburgh-born innovations ranging from the serious -- the perfection of stainless steel and the earliest labor unions -- to the lighthearted: the first "sky ballet" and the use of numbers on football jerseys.

The conference was impressed. "They all said, 'This is it, this is perfect,'" Masich says. A separate effort to market the region, in fact, was also picking up on the legacy of innovation.

In late 2005, Michele Fabrizi, an advertising executive with MARC USA, chaired a local effort to come up with a new approach to "branding" the city. The campaign was "Pittsburgh: Imagine what you can do here"; the idea was that "Pittsburgh innovations change the game for the world," Fabrizi says. "We own this rich history, and other communities can't lay claim to that."

After Masich's presentation, the conference and the History Center joined with VisitPittsburgh, the city's tourism office and assembled a "Pittsburgh 250 Commission" to spearhead the campaign. Headed by Allegheny Conference Vice President Bill Flanagan, the commission included celebrities like Franco Harris and historian David McCollough along with dozens of local business leaders. And the scope of its plans was made clear at an Allegheny Conference summit held June 12.

"It's a beautiful day in Pittsburgh, and there is a lot to celebrate!" Flanagan proclaimed before an audience of 100 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. Pittsburgh 250, he told the crowd, would include three "Signature Projects," boosted by three "Grand Opening Events" and three "Grass-Roots Initiatives."

A partial list of those efforts includes:

• A June 2008 "Tour of Pennsylvania" bike race, covering 450 miles and connecting sites like Valley Forge and the Laurel Highlands before ending in Pittsburgh

• The reopening of Point State Park, which is undergoing $35 million in renovations

• Completing the Pittsburgh-to-McKeesport portion of the "Grand Allegheny Passage" bike trail between Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.

• "Community Connections," a grant-making effort which will award $1 million to community-based programs throughout southwestern Pennsylvania

• The Feb. 10 "World's Largest Wedding Vow Renewal Ceremony," which organizers hope will attract 1,000 married couples and set a Guinness World Record

• The publication of Born and Bred in Pittsburgh, an anthology of local Pittsburgh overachievers, and the "Forbes Road Driving Guide," which retraces the route Forbes took to Pittsburgh -- much of which is paved over by the Pennsylvania Turnpike

In all, organizers say that the 2008 celebration will include $65 million of activity -- and "we've basically stopped counting because we can't keep track of everything that's going on," Flanagan told conference members.

Most of that $65 million, actually, consists of $35 million being spent on Point State Park, whose state-funded renovations were being planned before Masich remembered the city's birthday. Still, there will be a lot on offer next year: 2008 marks the opening of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture; other area arts groups have birthday presents of their own. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, for instance, is giving the city its very own "Happy Birthday" song -- a specially commissioned work the orchestra will perform next year.

The History Center is reworking one of its chief exhibits to accentuate the positive. Its permanent Points in Time exhibit, which provides an overview of the region's history, will be revamped to document 500 local innovations Masich says "have changed the world" -- ranging from the commercial development of aluminum to pull-tabs on beer cans. (Pull-tabs changed the world? "It certainly affected every person on the planet," Masich replies. "You didn't have to walk around with a church key anymore.")

"The basic skeleton [of Points of Time] will remain," Masich says -- even the darker parts. After all, "You have to tell about the decline of the steel industry in order to describe the rise of the medical industry." The current exhibit shows little upside to the steel industry's collapse; instead, an elegiac display features a handful of lockers taken from US Steel's shuttered Duquesne Works. Whether the new exhibit "will have six lockers or three, I don't know," says Masich. But adding a more upbeat note to the exhibit, he says, "isn't too much good news for Pittsburgh to handle."

It will, however, be augmented by Fabrizi's "Imagine" campaign. As Fabrizi told the June 12 crowd, Imagine Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh 250 are an "interwoven multi-level marketing initiative. ... We need to herald this great opportunity ... to launch this region into the 21st century."

The real trick, of course, is to hook 'em while they're young. "We felt it was very important to start communicating to the youth," Fabrizi told the conference. Accordingly, regional marketers launched "Imagine That!" a "high-energy quiz-show format" for assemblies of middle-school kids. (Question No. 1: "Where was the world's first motion-picture theater? A) On Nick at Night; B) On Smithfield Street in Downtown Pittsburgh.")

But Fabrizi also urged conference members to incorporate the Imagine Pittsburgh theme in their own ad campaigns, simultaneously promoting Pittsburgh and "celebrating your own role in the region." But don't stop there, she suggested: "[C]onsider using the 'imagine' message in your speeches and your employee communications."

Maybe the only imagining you want to do at work involves bludgeoning the boss with a stapler. But in a phone interview, Fabrizi says the pervasive marketing is for our own good. "There are a lot of misperceptions about Pittsburgh, both within the region and outside it. We need a strong brand to change that, and [the 250th anniversary] represented a great time to shed a spotlight on the region."

The more Pittsburgh celebrates change, the more some things stay the same. When the city celebrated its 150th anniversary in 1908, Mayor George W. Guthrie announced "[a] special effort ... to induce all former Pittsburghers, now living elsewhere, to visit their old home." That celebration too had a specially commissioned birthday song. "Here's to Old Pittsburgh" was described, with excess optimism, as "a Pittsburgh song by Pittsburghers, and for Pittsburghers, [which] promises to live long after the celebration of the civic birthday has passed into memory." (Chorus: "Here's to Old Pittsburgh! Glad we are to be / Where forges ring and toilers sing / In tuneful harmony.")

Some Pittsburgh 250 events may seem hokey -- the Wedding Vow ceremony arguably has a Rev. Moon-ish feel -- but it's nothing compared to 1908. A river pageant of local history, for example, included Native American participants in feathered headdress: Photos show two braves in war costume incongruously floating past a smoke-belching factory.

For the most part, the 1908 celebrations were corporate-driven as well. According to The Story of the Sesquicentennial Celebration of Pittsburgh, 1908's "Signature Event" was a Sept. 27 parade that featured numerous horse-drawn corporate "floats." The Jones & Laughlin float, for example, featured a simulated Bessemer furnace; the Consolidated Ice Company showed a polar bear being gunned down by an explorer -- striking a contrast "with the purity of artificial ice as manufactured to-day." The Pittsburgh Plate Glass float, meanwhile, was presided over by a "Glass King ... seated on a throne of glass."

Corporate sponsorship in 2008 will be less overt, but just as omnipresent.

The "Tour of Pennsylvania" bike tour, for example, is more properly known as the "American Eagle Outfitters Tour of Pennsylvania Presented by Highmark Healthy High 5." Even the wedding-vow renewal ceremony will be corporate-branded, as a sponsorship packet makes clear: For $25,000 or more, companies will receive "prominent placement of [their] logo on all signage and promotional materials for the World's Largest Wedding Vow Renewal Ceremony."

Some critics contend Pittsburgh 250 is yet another example of a top-down approach by Pittsburgh's business community. The Allegheny Conference was once famed for helping to forge consensus around the city's first postwar Renaissance, clearing a path for urban redevelopment and environmental improvements like smoke-control. But as the city has lagged in recent years, the conference has been faulted as ineffective at best, and as a pack of corporate Machiavellis at worst.

One Pittsburgh 250 skeptic is Indiana University of Pittsburgh professor Charles McCollester, who wrote a September 2006 op-ed piece published by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "Put the People in Pittsburgh 250." McCollester, a labor historian with a background in union activism, argued that "Conspicuously absent in the early planning [of Pittsburgh 250] were labor unions, activists, and community organizations."

"Pittsburgh needs ... a sustained conversation about the city's historical significance and future direction -- an exercise in democracy, not a marketing campaign," the article contended. Celebrations should include "all people, women as well as men, Native Americans and African Americans."

Union officials perceive a snub too. "I realize that talking extensively about Homestead in 1892 -- when workers pretty much took over the town -- might not be a high point if you're trying to attract investment," says Howard Scott, who manages strategic campaigns for the United Steelworkers of America. "But you hope working people aren't left out in the cold."

The Pittsburgh 250 commission does have a union representative, making a total of 1 out of 110 members listed on the Imagine Pittsburgh Web site ( But judging from Imagine Pittsburgh literature, a unionized workforce is one thing leaders would prefer to keep unimaginable.

For example, the effort includes a 67-page directory of Pittsburgh-based experts for reporters to consult when they need a quote for a story. Of the 57 sources listed, not one represents labor or unions. (Minorities are only slightly less excluded: Two experts are black, and other than three folks of Indian descent, no other minority groups appear at all.)

In fairness, the speakers aren't exactly corporate drones. Heather Arnet of the Women and Girl's Foundation, for example, is cited as an expert in such boardroom-unfriendly subjects as "how to stage a successful boycott." And the list is inclusive in other ways: A handful of experts are openly gay; roughly one-quarter are women

But the more pervasive problem with Pittsburgh 250, say critics, is that the "signature events" focus so heavily on the French and Indian War period. Everyone is for bike races and bike trails, but with the emphasis on Point State Park and the Forbes Trail, some worry, 1758 is being treated as the last word on local history, rather than the first.

"It's this total denial of the industrial past," says Ron Baraff, an archivist at Rivers of Steel, a nonprofit seeking to preserve the region's industrial legacy. "I'm hoping they'll come around, because to just stop at 1758 and not push in the next 250 years seems strange. It's not who we are; it's what we want the marketers to make us."

"I can't figure it out," says Baraff's boss, SIHC executive director Augie Carlino. "It's a choice they're making that I don't agree with." The campaign, he says, has "completely swept industry under the carpet," even though steel and basic manufacturing "is still a phenomenal part of the economy. Even if it was zero, it was probably the most significant thing in Pittsburgh's history. And if you run from it, you probably call it even more into question.

"I don't mean to sound like sour grapes," adds Carlino, who is a member of the Pittsburgh 250 Commission. "I don't mean to be lambasting them. They have their agenda, and we have ours."

Indeed, Rivers of Steel is working on its own 2008 event whose focus is entirely at the community level. McCollester, meanwhile, has joined with other activists, including former Ravenstahl administration official Bernie Lynch, to create a "People's Pittsburgh" campaign [see "Making History," Page 27].

Lynch envisions the effort as a chance to tell the region's story from the bottom up, rather than the top down. It will focus less on the "Great Men" like Forbes and George Washington, and more on "the history of labor, women, African Americans, the immigrant story."

Fabrizi expresses surprise at suspicions that Pittsburgh 250 might slight labor and industry. US Steel has contributed $250,000 to the Imagine Pittsburgh effort, she says, and Jack Shea, who heads the Allegheny County Labor Council has been "an active participant throughout the process. We're also hoping to engage the construction trades on finishing up the Great Allegheny Passage. ... We're hoping to partner with Rivers of Steel."

"We see our effort as a companion to theirs; it's not a contentious thing," Lynch allows. "There's not any one truth."

Indeed, there's another side to the Pittsburgh 250 effort, say its backers.

"When I saw [McCollester's] 'People's Pittsburgh' piece, I wanted to shout, 'We're here! We are those people!'" says Cathy Lewis Long, executive director of the Sprout Fund.

Lewis Long co-chairs Pittsburgh 250's "Community Connections" effort, which will award $1 million in grants to community-sponsored projects that reflect the theme of "Pride and Progress." Since this spring, a Sprout program coordinator, Dustin Stiver, has been traveling the 14-county region, talking to community groups and drumming up interest for the effort. Grants can range from $50,000 "regional projects" to $5,000 "grassroots projects," but the goal is to encourage projects that result in "increased civic engagement" and have a "long-lasting impact on the region."

"We're going to have parades, we're going to have time capsules," Lewis Long says. "But we also want to push the envelope."

Community Connections is pushing envelopes already. Sprout has been active in Pittsburgh, funding mural projects and other activities, but it has rarely worked outside the city. Lewis Long credits the Allegheny Conference for embracing change as well.

"Having communities make decisions for themselves is a different approach to grant-making," she says. "It turns that top-down process on its head." Business leaders, she says, are "bringing their prowess and visibility to the effort, without gobbling it up."

Pittsburgh 250 is seeking to be inclusive in other ways too.

At first blush, the wedding-vow renewal might seem to exclude gay and lesbian couples, who under state law can't get married. But Kitty Julian, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History spokesperson who came up with the ceremony says, "We'd be honored to have participation by members of the LGBT community" even though they wouldn't likely count toward the Guinness total. "We work in the arts, so the question isn't whether we're going to let gay people participate."

And despite the Conference's reputation for stodginess, young people say it is willing to hear them out.

Ryan Walsh, for example, attended the group's 2005 annual conference, where early plans for the 2008 celebration were discussed. Based on what he heard, the 27-year-old Walsh worried that despite years of talk about Pittsburgh losing its young people, "There was really nothing targeting students or young people." Bike trails and bike races might hold some interest, but "I didn't see your average student being specifically marketed to."

Walsh thought a music festival might help, and he credits the conference with hearing him out. "When I came to them, they were really with it," Walsh says. He did have to scrap the original name for the event, "Pittsburgh 250 Music Festival," because Pittsburgh 250 organizers had already grabbed the trademark. But "they supported our research efforts," Walsh says -- in part by covering travel expenses so Walsh could visit music festivals in other cities.

Still, the money has yet to catch up with the conference's good intentions.

"The problem is that they aren't really giving money to events," Walsh says. "Everyone is responsible for their own money." And given all the other groups seeking funding for their own birthday celebrations next year, Walsh says he may well have to wait until 2009.

Even applying for a Community Connections grant wouldn't help: Walsh estimates his music festival will cost at least $1 million -- which is all the initiative has to spend across 14 counties.

In fact, except for the handful of signature events, there isn't much Pittsburgh 250 money available to anyone. The August Wilson African American Center's scheduled 2008 opening, for example, will be rolled up into the Pittsburgh 250 effort. But ask Executive Director Neil Barclay what the center gets out of that, and he says, "I'm not sure they've been clear about that. Most of the activities we're planning are being paid for with our own resources. The advantage [Pittsburgh 250 offers] is the overall marketing they'll do."

"Pittsburgh 250 was really intended to be a framework for the celebration," confirms Fabrizi, "not to be responsible for all the elements."

The truth is, she says, "There really are not sufficient dollars out there for the campaign we need and deserve." Imagine Pittsburgh is budgeted to cost $2.8 million through early 2009. By comparison, Las Vegas spends $30 million a year on outreach.

It's not for lack of trying. Pittsburgh has seen numerous PR efforts come and go over the years -- from billing itself as the "city with a smile on its face" to the development of a "Pittsburgh Font" for use in brochures. Each time, the effort was launched with a promise to repair our "low self-esteem" ... and each time, its failure to improve the region's outlook set the stage for a PR effort to come.

What's different this time, Fabrizi says, is that the city's 250th birthday is a chance for the region's players to, finally, get on the same page. "We've never had all these entities like the History Center saying, 'Yes, we are behind this one voice, and we are going to use it.'"

So if having your boss use the word "imagine" in meetings strikes you as a bit Orwellian, or you worry cultural organizations are skewing their missions toward boosterism, take comfort. Such things happen not because our leaders are all-powerful; they happen at least in part because they have so few resources at hand. They are, like Gen. Forbes, desperately trying to make gestures to attract the attention of others.

But boosterism rarely ages well, as a look at the 1908 parade suggests. What inspires proud boasts for one generation often causes ironic snickers for the next.

The earlier generation's sins become more obvious in hindsight as well. Look over the souvenir program of the 1908 celebration: There are portraits of some 200 people who either planned the celebration or were honored during it, and not a single one of them is black. Whatever else you can say, Pittsburgh 250 represents progress over that.

But the 1908 celebration did prove itself open to alternate messages. Before its great parade began, an interdenominational service reminded the city not just of its greatness, but also of its failings.

"It is a most humiliating contrast that society presents today," thundered the Rev. Daniel Dorchester, a Methodist minister. "[T]he so-called upper classes are ... given every advantage to win the prizes of life while below them in the social scale are [those] without any organization or training, left to grope their dim and perilous way under ... alien and merciless forces."

"We hear nothing but Tonnage! Tonnage!! Tonnage!!! as if men lived by tonnage alone," agreed Rabbi J. Leonard Levy, who also addressed the gathering. "Sad indeed must be the lot of a city that can find little but its tonnage to boast of. It is essential that we much hear more of justice and righteousness in Pittsburgh."

Such sentiments were, no doubt, little noticed in the tide of self-acclaim that day. But to this day they remind us that Pittsburgh has stories its leaders aren't so anxious to tell, and that there's more to a city than what it can sell of itself.

Next year, we'll find out how well that lesson has sunk in.

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