Skip to main content

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

With apologies to Ella Fitzgerald, I love Pittsburgh in the springtime. And with apologies to a 1932 Broadway musical, a mere five weeks ago I was humming "April in Pittsburgh, chestnuts in blossom." And being a resident here I constantly speak with wonder, and with apologies to Édith Piaf, of the beauty of living "Sous le ciel de Pittsburgh."

Pittsburgh. Paris. The two cities, separated by a mere 6,254 kilometres, are almost indistinguishable to those of us who live here and who – let's be frank about his – routinely confuse the Roberto Clemente Bridge, which spans the Allegheny and leads to the ballpark where the Pirates baseball team plays, with Pont Neuf, which spans the Seine and sits on the downstream point of the Île de la Cité. Also it is my devout conviction that Montmartre bears a striking resemblance to Pittsburgh's Mount Washington, which – and this is the point – used to be called Coal Hill, an homage to the 13 million tons of coal that were produced there in the late 19th century.

All of these reveries about Pittsburgh and Paris – truly the two are constantly paired, like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and Hamilton and Burlington – were prompted by Donald Trump's invocation of our city in the course of withdrawing the United States on Thursday afternoon from the global climate pact. When he said he was "elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris," the 45th President only reinforced the tie, even as he sparked a local contretemps.

The city's mayor, Bill Peduto, fired back in the President's favourite medium, the tweet: "Fact: Hillary Clinton received 80 per cent of the vote in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh stands with the world & will follow Paris Agreement." Others reacted with equal passion, a word that, happily reflecting the local preoccupation of the moment, is spelled the same in English and French.

No longer a city dark in the daytime because of the pollution from the steel mills, and no longer burdened by what the American social critic H.L. Mencken called "the unbroken and agonizing ugliness, the sheer revolting monstrousness, of every house in sight," Pittsburgh was an island of Democratic blue in a sea of Republican red in this swing state in the November election. But nearby Fayette County, a coal and coke centre with a heavy heritage of unionization, gave Mr. Trump 64 per cent of the vote. Mr. Trump, like a North Korean missile, was pretty close.

In truth, Southwestern Pennsylvania may be the best laboratory in the United States for studying contemporary American politics. Trump voters and Trump opponents are clustered side by side, though their failure to have any middle ground, or common ground, is the story of our times. Westmoreland County, so close to Pittsburgh that many workers commute into town, also gave Mr. Trump 64 per cent of the vote – the fifth time in a row the area went for a Republican. But the Trump margin was the greatest victory any candidate has recorded since the Democrat Lyndon Johnson took the area in 1964.

The President, or more precisely his speech writers, may have been beguiled by the alliteration between Paris, the site of the climate negotiations, and Pittsburgh, which once was a steel town and which still regards itself as the Steel City and is home to our beloved Pittsburgh Steelers. But employment in manufacturing, at more than 300,000 a half century ago, hovers around 100,000 today, when higher education, medicine and high tech are the economic drivers. According to the University of Pittsburgh's Center For Social and Urban Research, there was a net out-migration of 227,000 workers in the 1980s, almost all reflecting the demographic profile that Mr. Trump had in mind.

So all around town people this week have been receiving e-mails from friends around the world who were just discovering the tie between the cities for the first time. One of mine came from Jonathan Wolman, the editor of The Detroit News, who wrote: "Pittsburgh not Paris. This will have to do until game 7." I called him up and told him that the local hockey team, Les Pingouins, would not require seven games to dispatch with the newcomers from Nashville.

Listen to Donald Trump's speech about the U.S. withdrawing and potentially renegotiating its place in the Paris climate change accord condensed into 90 seconds.