Can Startups Save A City?
Anyone interested in entrepreneurship who has been to Pittsburgh has likely seen the renaissance in the city's East Liberty neighborhood. Known as Bakery Square, the area was once home to a large Nabisco factory and now offices some of the best and the brightest who work for the high-tech behemoth known as Google.
Since establishing its offices there in 2010, Google has made significant contributions to supporting East Liberty's revitalization, and the growth there has been significant. Not far from the Google campus is a multi-million dollar retail and office center, including a hotel and high-end retailers like Trader Joe's, Anthropologie, Williams-Sonoma, Coach and Sephora. Across the street, mixed-use development is underway and scheduled to open in 2015.
Despite all the activity of Bakery Square, situated just a half mile east lies a very poor area of the city, which includes Homewood. Located in the Hill District, Homewood is a desperately poor African-American community featured a few years ago on MSNBC as “America’s most dangerous neighborhood.” The abandoned houses and boarded-up storefronts in Homewood are a sharp contrast to the entrepreneurial buzz and energy of Bakery Square and the college campuses farther west.
Sometimes, rising tides don’t lift all boats.
Enter William Generett, Jr., president and CEO of Urban Innovation21, an entity comprised of public, academic and industry partners aimed at using entrepreneurship to boost the poorer neighborhoods of Pittsburgh. While he is a supporter of the progress made in Bakery Square, Generett’s interests lie in how to bring this same burst of entrepreneurial creativity to other areas of the city.
“It’s a myth that a rising tide lifts all boats,” Generett remarks. He claims that while residents of poorer areas are aware of the entrepreneurial resurgence elsewhere in the city, they do not see how it benefits them. As residents of Pittsburgh, they are happy with what’s happening, but ask, “What does it mean for me?”
Seeing the abandoned buildings and vacant lots in these communities, Generett’s efforts are aimed at overcoming the reality that the city’s entrepreneurial boom up to this point has mainly benefited highly educated whites and Asians. The wealth and new jobs created by the resurgence have done little to help the community’s vast underclass living in Homewood and other neighborhoods in the Hill District.
Help for low-tech startups
Generett’s belief is that one of the main reasons that Pittsburgh has been successful in the Bakery Square area is that substantial resources have been poured into the startups there to ensure the success of a vibrant tech community.
“That’s not so much the case as it relates to spurring private entrepreneurship in communities like Homewood,” Generett says. “I’m a believer that that needs to be done.”
Generett claims that promising tech startups enjoy a network of support in Pittsburgh that includes a university, financial resources, mentoring and networking after graduation. While a successful tech company may result from all that nurturing, it is not likely that the jobs it creates will be filled by those from poorer communities in the Hill District.
So what happens if that same attention and investment is provided to low-tech startups in poor neighborhoods? At the least, Generett speculates, there would very likely be more jobs for the people who need them most.