Let Us In: The Distance Between Startups and Communities

“Oh, so you’re not originally from Pittsburgh? Let me guess, you live in Lawrenceville and work in tech?”

“...what gave it away?”

(Image: SKIBBA Illustration, LLC, courtesy of Milhaus Ventures)

(Image: SKIBBA Illustration, LLC, courtesy of Milhaus Ventures)

This hackneyed exchange is a piece of Pittsburgh’s story in its transition to a thriving hub for startups, tech ventures, entrepreneurs and idealists. As a transplant working in tech, I can feel the haze of resentment, skepticism, and disconnect to this movement; and quite frankly, I get it.


In lieu of the recent Amazon pullout of Long Island City, Queens, we are reminded of the questions, apprehension, and opposition that communities have to this image of companies stepping into an up and coming community and promising cushy jobs to young professionals. The questions begin to surface when wondering who actually will be receiving these jobs, who will actually benefit, and who is going to get priced out of their current living quarters – a thought at the forefront of a community’s collective mind. Let us not forget that when Pittsburgh was in the running for the Amazon HQ2, this idea was not exactly received with open arms.


It seems that there is much to celebrate regarding the growing tech scene, but is tech something that can be celebrated by everyone?

 
(Community response to Amazon HQ2 in the Strip District - Imgur: majordang)

(Community response to Amazon HQ2 in the Strip District - Imgur: majordang)

 

During the extravaganza that was the HQ2 race, Amazon was promising a minimum of 25,000 jobs over the next decade (with up to 40,000 jobs when all is said and done). In addition, the plan was expected to generate $27.5 billion in city and state revenue over 25 years. But did they do anything to address the downfalls? Does any incoming tech company combat the downfalls in the way its surrounding communities do? The lack of inclusion, the testing atmosphere, the sheer increase of transplants that might hit the soul of a neighborhood?


It comes as no surprise that tempers flare during these situations, but perhaps the anger goes deeper. Is there something more to this divide?


Pittsburgh is, after all, a city founded on industry, a city who once again wants to be recognized on the national scale, and a city of pride. Sit at any dive bar in Pittsburgh, and as soon as it’s been discovered that you are not from the area, you’ll be flooded with reasons as to what makes Pittsburgh great. But why can’t the startup ecosystem be a part of that?


I believe that it derives from a divide in knowledge.


Give people a reason to be proud of their city’s accomplishments. Whether it be the rapper who went to the same high school as their cousin, the nearby restaurant that was featured on a Netflix series, or the mass quantity of sports championships that this city has earned; we all love bragging rights.


Maybe its time that we arm our communities with the positive knowledge that they deserve to know - like the fact that in the past decade over 450 unique Pittsburgh companies attracted $350 billion in investments, and that annual investment grew by 198%. And in that time period 82 companies’ exits amounted to $8.7 billion. Do we all know that Carnegie Mellon’s efforts are contributing to year after year records for number of startups launched in Pittsburgh?  


These are pretty massive numbers for a small city, and while it may be difficult to celebrate another organization’s accomplishments, especially when there are concerns on how it may impact your family’s future, this truly says a lot about the innovation and competitive nature taking place in this city.


If you’re starting a business of your own, whether it be in Pittsburgh or another rising city, getting community support is critical in establishing a sustainable and healthy environment. Let people in, and let people get to know what it is that you do. In quite a few cases, the resentment that we see comes from the mystery of not knowing what exactly it is that is changing our communities.


If possible, give back to the community! However, if it isn’t possible, take the time to integrate your employees in the surrounding community on a personal level, and introduce yourselves to your neighbors.


Jane Jacobs once said, “Designing a dream city is easy; rebuilding a living one takes imagination.” Tech giants, like Amazon, can afford the hit they incurred from making this mistake, but developing cities and startups may not have that luxury.


DAVID NEIMANIS - Contributing Writer

David is a cultural producer and writer from Buffalo, NY. After spending years on the road as a traveling musician, David migrated to Pittsburgh, PA where he now writes for StartNow PGH, The Urbanist, and Beaux Arts. In addition to writing, David is a curator at PG&H, and works for tech company JazzHR.

Originally published on Thursday, February 28th, 2019

David NeimanisAmazon, Community