Places like Pittsburgh and Oakland are drawing on their hard-knocks pasts to draw people.

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A dramatic past can be a good thing, some cities are saying.

Places like Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Oakland and Detroit are drawing on their histories of race-related activism or factory shutdowns and using those details to attract business, tourists and new residents. They say the ups and downs of the past helped make them what they are today.

"Being a steel city and a blue-collar city aren't negatives," says Connie George, vice president for communications at the newly launched Visit Pittsburgh website and campaign, whose theme is "mighty beautiful."

The city came up with the phrase after asking visitors and potential visitors what they thought of Pittsburgh and what they'd like to see. The theme is meant to combine the lure of the city's hilly countryside with its history of immigrants scraping out new lives.

"We're approachable," George says. "If I'm walking down the street, somebody will invite me on their porch."

Once upon a time, themes of steel, activism or hard work were not what the public could expect to find when visiting tourism bureaus. Agencies thought the public wanted to hear about gardens and historic sites, mansions of land barons and amusement parks.

But the recession threw communities for a loop, and some decided they needed to regroup if they were going to attract visitors and new residents. Out of that came new marketing campaigns by cities, many of them in what was known as the Rust Belt, a part of the country that once hummed and thrived with manufacturing but now have seen jobs move overseas and residents leave.

Pittsburgh is known not only for countryside and hills but also the decline of the steel industry and a shrinking population.

The city decided a few years ago that it needed to shake up its image. It took surveys and did focus groups with people from Cleveland, Columbus and Buffalo – places where many of their visitors live. They asked them how they view Pittsburgh and what they would like to see.

"On the surface, Pittsburgh's an all-American slice-of-life sports town, and people who are less familiar see us as outdated," George says. "But being a steel city and a blue-collar city aren't negatives."

The Visit Pittsburgh website is a mix of true history and fluffy accolades. It has references to the Homestead Steel Strike, the bitter 1892 labor conflict at Andrew Carnegie's steel mill, as well as listings of races to run and art installations.

"We were the first Rust Belt city to recover from the recession," George says. "We pulled ourselves from the brink of economic collapse."

The common theme among the cities is that they have seen hard times or fought negative images and pressed on. They see their hints of grittiness as part of their draw. It distinguishes them from other places, says Jennifer Bradley, coauthor of The Metropolitan Revolution, a book that predicts modern developments in metropolitan areas, and a fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank.

"Prior to the Great Recession, when places were so focused on the consumption economy, building strip malls, you wouldn't know whether you were in Dallas or Dayton. That kind of economy doesn't really focus on what places do differently," Bradley says.

Oakland is known, among other things, as the place where Black Panthers founders Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton met in college. Today, it is promoting its racial and ethnic diversity and its bohemian atmosphere. Its new Visit Oakland campaign is marketing the city of 400,000 as warmer, more diverse and less expensive than the more populated San Francisco 12 miles to the southwest, and also as a haven for foodies and artists.

The city's history as home for the Black Panthers is reflective of its standing up for beliefs, says Michael LeBlanc, a transplant from New Orleans who owns a restaurant.

"It's them looking at what's just and fair, but being strong enough to stand up for a principle that we believe in," says LeBlanc.

"In Oakland, we celebrate that history," he says. "So when you talk about the Panthers, the parallelism, they were in the vanguard for standing up for racial independence and being strong."

Like Pittsburgh, Oakland held focus groups and staged surveys for visitors. Visit Oakland hired an ad agency run by Carol Williams, the brains behind the Secret deodorant ad slogan, "Strong enough for a man but made for a woman." The Visit Oakland site encourages the public to "Find the perfect space in the coolest place" and "Feed your soul," among other things.

Says Kim Bardakian, director of public relations and partnerships at Visit Oakland, "It's creative and edgy here, and people like that."

Detroit, despite bankruptcy, is barreling ahead with its new slogan, "America's Great Comeback City," says Larry Alexander, CEO of Visit Detroit. The tourism bureau wants to get out the word about $300 million being spent on a new convention center, $500 million on the city's riverfront and a new $640 million sports arena and development around it, Alexander says.

"While bankruptcy is very unfortunate because people will be impacted, the other side of the story is the money being invested in making this city a comeback city, and that's what our responsibility is – to get the word out," he says.

Like the other cities, Visit Detroit based its campaign on the views of the public after reading in magazines that people were referring to the Motor City as "The Comeback Kid" and the like.

Last year, the city hosted meetings of five major organizations. By springtime this year, that number was 16. Bookings through 2016 are ahead of that pace, Alexander says. Job growth is happening too. According to an analysis by CareerBuilder and Economic Modeling Specialists International, metropolitan Detroit added 125,330 jobs from 2010 to 2013.

People have been responding to the stories about Detroit's comeback "because it's true," Alexander says.

"You can't lie your way out of reality," he says. "People who haven't been here are curious and saying 'Maybe we do need to see what's going on in Detroit.'"

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