American Culture Studies Ph.D. Dissertations


Houses, Hot Dogs, and 'Hoods: Place Branding and the Reconstruction of Identity in Rick Sebak's Pittsburgh Documentaries

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Culture Studies/Communication

First Advisor

Ellen Berry (Committee Chair)

Second Advisor

Cynthia Baron (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Scott Magelssen (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Ellen Gorsevski (Committee Member)


This project investigates the implementation of place branding theory via documentary filmmaking focused closely on the local characteristics of a place/region. Employing a close reading of WQED filmmaker Rick Sebak's Pittsburgh History Series focused upon recurrent themes about aspects of Pittsburgh's unique identity framed in relation to rhetorical approach and documentary techniques, while also noting aspects left out of Sebak's films, this dissertation demonstrates the progressive potential of publicly funded documentary filmmaking to enable the residents of a given place to rebrand their identity and foster revitalization, independent of the expectations of city planners or corporate sponsors, and without sacrificing the diversity of experiences that give that place its unique character. As a whole, Sebak's body of work constructs a particular narrative of Western Pennsylvania's identity that revamps some of the preexisting notions about that identity. As a project of self-definition and self-understanding, the Pittsburgh History Series provides the local populace with some agency in recreating its image, rather than being branded from the outside. The success of this place branding approach to documentary filmmaking for Sebak and Western Pennsylvania suggests that other cities and regions could use it as a model to take greater control of their identities and cultivate renewal.

On the whole, this dissertation views Sebak's films as a series of reconstructions. While place branding aims to reconstruct a place's identity, the process of documentary filmmaking involves a specific reconstruction of reality in order to communicate certain ideas about that reality. In other words, through his films Sebak constructs or reconstructs aspects of Pittsburgh identity and feeds them back to the residents of that area. Particular aspects of this unique identity frequently emerge in his films. These recurring characteristics that he stresses include neighborhoods that retain a sense of closeness and community as well as ties to their history, a uniquely dedicated workforce that can innovate without abandoning the working-class values of the past, and a rich cultural life that is competitive with that of larger cities in terms of quality yet also more modest and accessible than that found elsewhere. This redefinition of Western Pennsylvania's identity seeks a way forward without attempting to completely discard all aspects of the region's existing identity. This celebration of the region's positive attributes—and consequent downplaying of its more divisive and unpleasant elements and episodes—encourages pride among the local population while also enhancing its appeal to outsiders who might consider relocating themselves and/or their businesses to the area.