Pittsburgh Gets a Tech Makeover

Source: New York Times on July 22, 2017 | Steven Kurutz

PITTSBURGH — In 2015, Monocle magazine, a favorite read of the global hipsterati, published anenthusiastic report on Lawrenceville, the former blue-collar neighborhood here filled with cafes, hyped restaurants and brick rowhouses being renovated by flippers.

Last year, in a much-publicized development, Uber began testing self-driving cars on the streets, putting this city at the forefront of the autonomous-vehicle revolution.

Also last year, in a less publicized development, Jean Yang, 30, returned to this city after more than a decade of living in Boston, finding a Pittsburgh she hardly recognized from her 1990s childhood.

And four months ago, Caesar Wirth, a 28-year-old software engineer, moved from Tokyo to work for a local tech start-up, Duolingo.

These seemingly unrelated events have one thing in common: Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science.

Much has been made of the “food boom” in Pittsburgh, and the city has long had a thriving arts scene. But perhaps the secret, underlying driver for both the economy and the cool factor — the reason Pittsburgh now gets mentioned alongside Brooklyn and Portland, Ore., as an urban hot spot for millennials — isn’t chefs or artists but geeks.

Because of the top students and research professors at Carnegie Mellon, tech companies like Apple, Facebook, Google and Uber have opened offices here.

The big tech firms, along with their highly skilled, highly paid workers, have made Pittsburgh younger and more international and helped to transform once-derelict neighborhoods like Lawrenceville and East Liberty.

Indeed, East Liberty has become something of a tech hub, said Luis von Ahn, the co-founder and chief executive of Duolingo, a language-learning platform company with its headquarters in that neighborhood. Google Pittsburgh, with its more than 500 employees, also has part of its offices in East Liberty, as does AlphaLab, a start-up accelerator.

Within easy walking distance from them is the Ace, a branch of the hip hotel chain that opened in 2015 in a former Y.M.C.A. building. The hotel’s in-house Whitfield restaurant and lobby bar have become hangouts for local techies and out-of-towners alike.

With so many of his 90 employees residing in Walnut on Highland, one of the newer housing and retail complexes in East Liberty, Mr. von Ahn joked, “We call them the Duolingo dorms.”

Mr. von Ahn, 38, is a superstar in the tech world. He has sold two companies to Google, received a MacArthur grant and helped develop the type-the-squiggly-word thing we use online to prove we’re not bots (it’s called reCaptcha). He earned a Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon in 2005 and could have made a beeline for New York, Boston or Silicon Valley, but he decided to stay.

“I loved C.M.U., and that’s the main reason why I stayed,” said Mr. von Ahn, who, in addition to his role at Duolingo, is a consulting professor in the School of Computer Science.

In a 2014 article in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Mayor Bill Peduto compared Carnegie Mellon, along with the University of Pittsburgh, to the iron ore factories that made this city an industrial power in the 19th century. The schools are the local resource “churning out that talent” from which the city is fueled.

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