Ace Hotel, the uber-hip hotel chain and third space to end all third spaces, is opening a branch in Pittsburgh. Why here? For one, the notion of Steel City as a dying industrial town is evolving, especially among locals — though the city continues to shrink, its under-35 population has started to grow big-time. In Forefront this week, Nancy Scola explores whether Ace, the apotheosis of the creative class theory, can seize the opportunity to help usher in a citywide branding change.
One of Ace’s cultural engineers assures me that the company sees Pittsburgh as “a sleeper city.”
Once, that is, they found out where it was. Local developer Matthew Ciccone recalls Ace founder Alex Calderwood, in one of their early meetings, asking him for photographs of the old YMCA building, but also where, exactly, Pittsburgh was and whether you could get a direct flight from New York City. (You can. It’s just barely over an hour.) Calderwood and a colleague from Ace later came up for a visit, and returned to bring a full team up to the city in the spring of that year. The group spent a week soaking up the culture and possibilities of the city. It was, says Ciccone, something to behold. “They just hung out,” he says.
That exploration’s result? “Pittsburgh is super, super interesting,” says Calderwood by phone from the west coast. “It’s the same kind of dynamic that I observed 10, 15, 20 years ago here in Portland and in Seattle.”
More important than Calderwood’s pronunciation of cool, though, is the shift in municipal ego that is inciting Pittsburgh to collaborate with Ace: The city is beginning to see itself as a viable option, a place worthy of a boutique hotel conceived in its likeness.
As Calderwood sees it, you see plenty of young folks who, not finding much luck getting jobs in your traditional employment hubs like New York or Boston, are deciding to come back home to Pittsburgh after a few years in Brooklyn or what have you, or deciding to stay in Pittsburgh after finishing college or grad school there.
“We come to find out,” says Calderwood, walking me through the company’s thought process on East Liberty, “that there’s actually a lot of interesting kids who are actually having a dialogue with Pittsburgh.”
Indeed, while Pittsburgh has been shrinking for the last 60 years, the number of Pittsburghers between the ages of 18 and 24 grew more than 17 percent between 2000 and 2010, reported Sabina Deitrick and Christopher Briem, a city planning professor and economist, respectively, with the University of Pittsburgh Center for Social and Urban Research, in a September 2011 article published in the Pittsburgh Economic Quarterly. Moreover, some 70 percent of the people who are actively moving to the Pittsburgh region are under 35 years old.
“If you were a young worker in the 1980s,” says Briem in an interview, “you really did leave. Even within the context of the Rust Belt, it was an extreme amount of job destruction, and we became a very old region. It was very age selective. But it hasn’t been like that for a few decades.”
And in something of an homage to that conversation, the Ace company blog has for months been pointing out the many cool things it has found about the young Pittsburgh scene: Specter Studios, a costume and prop shop that earned praise last Halloween for its handmade, obscure wares (like one bug getup inspired by The Fly); Deeplocal, a Carnegie Mellon spinoff and creative shop that happens to hack together, among other things, miniature train sets; and the Waffle Shop billboard, a rentable East Liberty display that, instead of being filled with, per Ace, “capitalist drivel,” gives prominence to less monetizeable phrases like, “I LOVE YOU IS SUCH AN ENORMOUS GIFT THAT I NEED TO HOUSE IT HERE FOR A WEEK SO THAT WE CAN USE THE APARTMENT,” contingent upon approval by committee of locals.
Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class and former professor at Carnegie Mellon, left the university in 2005 when this movement was gaining traction. The same creative energy that caught Calderwood’s eye, in fact, was inspiration for the research that eventually became Florida’s best-selling, paradigm-shifting book. Calling himself a fan of both East Liberty and Ace Hotels in an interview, Florida cited this slice of Pittsburgh as “an example of inclusive upgrading and renewal.” Ace, he said, is “a big win for the neighborhood.”