It wasn’t so long ago that Maxwell King was living on his Vermont farm, 40 acres north of Stowe, writing the first-ever full-length biography of Fred Rogers. Blissfully retired from the rough-and-tumble world of institutional politics—including gilt-edged stops at The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Heinz Endowments and the National Council on Foundations—he’d sit down to work every morning. Only to spend the first hour reading Pittsburgh news websites. “I badly underestimated how much cities mean to me,” he recalls. “And I miscalculated how much I missed Pittsburgh.”
Serendipitously, Dr. Edith Shapira, chair of The Pittsburgh Foundation’s board, approached him when he was in town about the open position of President of the foundation.
The deal struck, he returned to captain a billion-dollar ship. Founded in 1945, The Pittsburgh Foundation has realized a remarkable asset growth of 33 percent since 2007. Raising roughly $60 million annually, the Foundation has more than 1,900 individual donor funds—endowment funds established by individuals, businesses and organizations.
Six months in to a five-year term, the man whom Dr. Shapira described as “a smart, thoughtful and charismatic leader who knows and loves Pittsburgh” sat down with NEXTpittsburgh for a state-of-the-city chat. Open, friendly, easily approachable, King gazed out of his modest Five PPG Place office at a blissfully sunny day and began with the narrative, as it was presented to him.
NEXT: Legend has it that when you first came to Pittsburgh in 1999, you had to convince people what was good about the place. Now they’re telling you.
King: I talked about the community, how the place was full of incredible, exciting possibility. But so many people I’d talk to were really doubtful. They’d say, ‘do you really think so? Do you think Pittsburgh is OK?’ They weren’t defensive, but they were doubtful, they were tentative. I was coming from Philadelphia—and New York before that. Pittsburgh seemed really cool to me—wonderfully exciting.
Coming back this time, 2014, one of my assignments was to get out in the community and have a lot of meetings. This time there was no doubt. Everybody talked about Pittsburgh as if it were a given, that this is the most exciting, hottest town in the world. None of the people I talked to expressed the kind of tentativeness or doubt that had been here 15 years earlier.
In just the six years I was gone the momentum has ratcheted up. There is a new narrative about this exciting 21st-century city that’s a model for what cities can do—all of which is true and believable. But the community perspective has changed so quickly from wounded by the loss of heavy industry to ebulliently confident.
NEXT: How do you account for the change?
King: The change is real. Pittsburgh’s narrative is that it’s the Renaissance city, it keeps reinventing itself. If you look at Pittsburgh’s history, from the French and Indian Wars through different eras, it’s a totally different history. It’s done a really good job of it.
What is it about Pittsburgh that enables it to reinvent itself so successfully? After World War II it went through a reinvention. It cleaned up its air and water; it built Point State Park.
One of the big factors is the foundations. The big old money that was made here went into foundations and stayed here, committed to Pittsburgh.
There’s also something in the character of the place that also enables reinvention. David McCullough explains it by saying that Pittsburgh gets it from Scots-Irish-Presbyterian culture. Hard working. Straightforward. Honest. Direct. Unpretentious. Caring. Focused on community.
NEXT: What’s Pittsburgh doing well these days?
King: We’re using the capacity of the nonprofits—the universities and hospitals—very effectively for cultural and economic development. To attract people and businesses.
We also use the natural beauty of Pittsburgh really well. What we’ve done with the riverfronts and the trails. You come down here on a weekend, and the river is full of boats, kayaks, rowing shells; and the trails are full of bikers and hikers.
We’ve learned good lessons about architecture, too. Pittsburgh has one of the greatest collections of turn-of-the-20th-century architecture in America. For a while we were tearing a lot of those buildings down. We’ve learned that lesson now: we cherish our architectural heritage. We’re saving those buildings and reusing them.
NEXT: Where could Pittsburgh stand improvement?
King: I don’t see many places that are highly successful in the 21st Century that aren’t exemplars of diversity and inclusion. Pittsburgh has a way to go before it can fit into that category: we’re not as diverse as we could be, and we don’t do as well by our diverse populations.