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Summit Talk

An open message to the G-20 attendees

Greetings, global overlords. I think I speak for many of my neighbors when I say ...

Welcome to Pittsburgh!

How soon will you be leaving?

Don't get me wrong. I appreciate your dropping by. Feel free to patronize our fine advertisers. But honestly, many Pittsburghers won't exactly be sorry when you're gone. 

Part of the problem is the protesters you're bringing with you. Another part, though, is that in some ways, it's hard to tell who the real dangerous anarchists are.

Some of the people coming here, after all, have wreaked economic havoc with decisions made from atop corporate high-rises. Others can't reach above the windows at street level. Some have undermined the economy's very foundations; others may just hope to vandalize a few façades. Either way, though, it's the rest of us who will be stuck with the mess.

So as the concrete barriers go up, and the newspaper boxes go down, we end up feeling like the backdrop for a conflict that has nothing to do with us. Capitalists and nihilists alike pursue visions of creative destruction -- visions that take little heed of international borders or local communities. 

Look, we know why you're here: You want our story to be an inspiring tale for the world you're trying to remake. To you, Pittsburgh's story is that of a place that fell on hard times, but recovered. The local chamber-of-commerce types will be happy to agree, citing your presence here as proof that Pittsburgh has "arrived."

But here's the truth. Pittsburgh didn't just arrive: It's been here all along. And it didn't get here because it embraced your visions of a global economy. It got here because so often, those visions overlooked us.

As our population steadily ebbed, we were spared the housing-market Ponzi schemes that afflicted the rest of the U.S. As our population steadily aged, we had a higher percentage of people relying on such Old Economy solutions as Social Security. So far, that's proven a sounder investment than everyone else's 401(k).

So we're not easily impressed by big visions. Because we've seen what can happen when the jagoffs -- that's you -- screw things up.

Take China, for example. We have a pretty good idea they're devastating the environment, engaging in unfair trade practices and treating their workers like crap. What makes us so sure? Because that's what the guys who built Pittsburgh did. We know the price of industrial dominance.

And we know the cost of losing it. Our much-touted "green buildings" are nice, sure. But Pittsburgh's environmental health isn't just due to the decisions our leaders got right. It's also the result of what they got wrong -- like the future of domestic manufacturing. The old jobs we gave up, not the "green jobs" we've added, have done the most to improve the air.

So don't believe all the hype. Sure, the universities and hospitals are great. But Pittsburgh turned out this well at least partly by accident. And that should be a cautionary tale to the global leaders who are coming here. A lot of cities scoffed at us during the heady 1990s: We were out of step with the allegedly wonderful economic expansion taking place. So it's no accident that when you want to find an economic success story, you have to come here -- to the place your market innovations forgot. 

Pittsburgh is far from perfect. We're plagued by racial disparities, and we could use some new blood. (The G-20 delegation from Mexico alone will practically double the local Latino population.) But the flip side of that insularity is a community whose members survived disaster by clinging to the only thing they had -- each other. 

So if you really want to learn something during your stay, maybe it should be this: Be humble. Act globally, since you have to, but think locally. Economic systems ought to serve communities, not the other way around. Because Pittsburgh has tried it that way already.

Most of all, remember that Pittsburgh is a nice place, and we're happy to have you. But you guys are a bit like the starting line-up of our baseball team: We want to cheer your success ... but you wouldn't be here if you hadn't screwed up somewhere along the way.

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