PITTSBURGH – For now you have probably heard about the resurgence of Steel City: its long, slow but brilliant transformation from an industrial metropolis to a city of "eds and meds" (universities and hospitals), research, robotics and cars without a driver.
But if you are looking for someone to symbolize the human saga of revival, take an Uber (with or without a driver) from downtown Pittsburgh a few miles upriver from the Monongahela River to the old industrial city of Braddock.
There you will find Kevin Sousa.
A 42-year-old cook with tattoo sleeves and "HARD WORK" engraved on his knuckles, Sousa converted a former car dealer into a discreet but elegant restaurant that earns national accolades for the freshness and simplicity and understated elegance of its food.
In a sense, it has taken him a lifetime to build his dream place, Superior Motors, which is literarily and appropriately across the street from one of the only remaining steel mills in Allegheny County. Customers can sit in the bar and watch the gas flare from the mill illuminate the night sky.
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While growing up in another miller village in Monongahela, Sousa saw the economy of the region collapse and his father had trouble coping with his small Italian restaurant. After generations of stable employment (with the exception of strikes and recessions), children from the local high school of the 1980s saw little prospect of a middle class job.
Sousa studied art and then tattoos. Then he fell into addiction: mainly alcohol, but also drugs.
"It was pretty bad," he told me one night recently, taking a break from the kitchen at Superior Motors. "It was pretty deep."
Then, as many Pittsburghers did – those who not only left forever – he crouched down and reinvented himself back to his roots. "I grew up in my father's kitchen," he said.
Sousa stopped drinking, took the kitchen seriously and looked for restless shop windows, but abandoned in Pittsburgh. It opened a series of restaurants with simple but innovative cuisine, fresh local ingredients and an atmosphere of homage to the city's sandy past. It began in the neighborhoods of the city that helped to gentrify outside its price range.
And now it's in Braddock. "And I've been sober for eight years," he added proudly.
Equally important, he is now a leader in an urban movement that regards food as part of a much broader social and economic renaissance. Its owner has given the community access to another Braddock building to use as an experimental theater. Sousa himself runs a program for young people to learn culinary trades and hospitality while working in the restaurant. And he partnered with other locals who have created a large urban farm nearby.
"Braddock actually has a great soil and growing conditions," he said. "If you clean the old sites and the cultivated area properly, and we do, you can grow almost anything here." All the vegetables in his restaurant come from the urban farm.
"I'm an optimist," said Sousa. "This is all about the people here, I know it sounds corny, but they have real strength, and we're just getting started."
In addition to the true strength and the 40 years of constant effort to return, the Pittsburgh region, the city and the surrounding counties that together make up the 26th largest metropolitan area in the nation, have benefited from a number of special circumstances . They include the geography that maintained the focus on a center that did not collapse and in neighborhoods that did not lose their communal identity; two top-tier educational institutions, the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon; a tradition of family philanthropy that includes names such as Mellon, Heinz, Frick, and Carnegie; a world-class bank, PNC, strongly committed to the city; the world-class University of Pittsburgh Medical Center; abundant sources of energy, including frack-able natural gas; an infrastructure of parks, libraries and other cultural institutions left over from the city's rich apogee; and, of course, the professional sports teams such as the Steelers, the Penguins and the Pirates, who call themselves the emblems of the city.
"Pittsburgh may not be exactly a working-class city now," said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, a Virginia native who settled his family in a neighborhood of the city. "But the worker mentality survives," he told me during training camp at the end of this summer.
The challenge now is to translate that mindset into what Mayor Bill Peduto called "a fourth industrial revolution," focusing primarily on human capital – through education, housing and employment that pulls people out of poverty – and the environment ambient. "The fourth revolution is about people fulfilling their potential and giving those who have left behind a full opportunity to be part of the future," said Peduto.
That means focusing on the low-income neighborhoods that are all too often ignored (in Pittsburgh they are often in the hard-to-reach hills) and in other neighborhoods that are gentrifying long-term residents away from their homes. .
Another focus: the dozens of small and often stripped-down towns that dot the rivers and valleys far from the bright center of the city. "We need better public transportation and roads to reach them and allow them access to our better quality of life," said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.
"There is no higher priority in any of these places than job training," said Sy Holzer, a senior PNC Bank official who has been concentrating for a long time on the rebirth of the city. "The works are here, but we have to train our people to fill them."
Demographic changes in the Pittsburgh area offer perhaps the greatest challenge. The region had remained a bastion of the white working class much longer than other places in Rust Belt, but the pressures of population growth and persistent poverty are now reshaping the area. The city's black community, which has a long and distinguished history, from Homestead Grays of baseball to The Pittsburgh Courier and the playwright August Wilson, is pushing for it to be fully heard in the politics of the region. Small Asian and Latin communities are expanding rapidly.
These changes exploded at the national level on the issue of what the Steelers did or did not do in response to the protest calls during the national anthem playing in the NFL games last weekend. The Steelers decided to wait in the locker room, although one player, the veteran of the US Army. UU., Alejandro Villanueva, could be seen standing by the anthem at the end of the tunnel. A white volunteer fire chief, angered by the election of the Steelers, used a racial epithet to describe Tomlin, who is black. Soon after, the boss was pressured to resign.
Not surprisingly, in a sports-crazy city that calls itself "The City of Champions," NFL protests have dominated local radio, sports radio and any other form of conversation. Inadvertently joining in the controversy, the Pittsburgh Penguins announced that they would accept an invitation from President Donald Trump to toast for the victory of the Stanley Cup in the White House. The two main leaders of the metropolitan area, Peduto and Fitzgerald, said they would not go.
Peduto said he plans to organize forums for residents who want to discuss the controversy and the problems he has raised.
Meanwhile, the Steelers have a great game this weekend in Baltimore, and Kevin Sousa is preparing for the crowd on Sunday .