That’s not how I felt about the town when I first moved there for college in August ’87. In fact, that’s not the way I’ve seen the city for most of the twenty-two years since I disembarked from my Amtrak train and waited over an hour for a taxi in downtown Pittsburgh. It was and remains a post-industrial, po-dunk Rustbelt town that sometimes strives to be a cosmopolitan city. It is Western Pennsylvania at its best and worst, conservative, isolated, and xenophobic, yet hardy, honest and hopeful at the same time. Overall, Pittsburgh was a preeminent industrial center with a population of over 800,000 some sixty years ago. Only to spend the next three generations in decline economically and demographically.
Not only has the population moved out to the point where Pittsburgh’s population dropped below 300,000 as of three years ago. Anywhere I’ve ever been, I’ve bumped into people I’ve taught, gone to school with, or otherwise met in Pittsburgh. I’m convinced the reason why I can turn on any Steelers road game during football season and see a sea of Steelers fans wherever the team has traveled. Seattle, Green Bay, Wisconsin, Atlanta, Dallas, ex-Burghers are there. This has been great for the Steelers and for the NFL. Not so good for an area that has more people over the age of sixty-five per capita than anywhere else in the United States outside of suburban Miami.
I’ve gotten myself into numerous arguments with other folks from Pittsburgh about how the town really is. I’ve met too many people — most of whom are White and have had a limited set of experiences in the area — who love to tell me how wonderful Pittsburgh is. I’ve had native Pittsburghers tell me that my experiences living there don’t matter, that because I didn’t grow up there, I had no right to say anything negative about the town. My mother-in-law — not exactly a well-spring of optimism when it comes to the ‘Burgh — picked an argument with me about Pittsburgh last year, yelling that I “never say anything good about Pittsburgh!” The only other group of folks I’ve met more sensitive about their town than Pittsburghers are folks from Mount Vernon, New York.
Maybe I am a bit hard on my second hometown. Maybe I expected it to be more like Philly or even Baltimore or Cleveland. Whatever. The fact is, I stayed after my first semesters at the University of Pittsburgh for a reason. The quality of education for the low cost as an out-of-state student. The relative diversity of the campus versus the lack of it in the rest of the city and area. The relative peace and quiet that Pittsburgh as a town in decline possessed in the late-80s was exactly what I needed after years of chaos and hardship at 616 and six years of Humanities.
That’s why I stayed. Over the years, between dating and sports and civic events, graduate school and post-PhD teaching, employment, unemployment and underemployment, I did find myself liking a few things about Pittsburgh. Like the strange places in which I would find great food. Mineo’s Pizza in Squirrel Hill — the best NY-style pizza I’ve had outside of New York. The now defunct Rosebud’s Deli on Penn Avenue dahntahn — deli sandwiches of the kind I only find in Westchester County now. Pasta Piatta, Max & Erma’s, Eat & Park, all great for me on my less-than-$15,000-a-year budget from ’87 to ’99.
Appreciating the beauty and diversity (not ethnic, mind you) of Pittsburgh’s working-class neighborhoods. Enjoying the few but sizable parks in the town. The fact that its people really enjoyed their sports, especially the Steelers, but even the Pirates and the Penguins. The real, almost self-effacing honesty of those whom I met there, became friends with, dated, and in one special case, married. The fact that all of my degrees are from schools in Pittsburgh. These are all reasons I have for liking my twelve years there.
Still, it’s a quirky town, serving Primanti Bros sandwiches with fries and cole slaw stuffed in the sandwich. Where you can still buy chipped ham (pressed fat that looks like the remnants of ham) at Giant Eagle. Or have trouble understanding someone speaking in Pittsburghese talking at more than 100 miles an hour. And it’s the only town in which I’ve been called the N-word or threatened with physical harm simply because I’m Black.
When I think of Pittsburgh, I think of all of those things. But I must admit, I think of my educational experiences and times with my future wife the most. I wouldn’t have the life and opportunities I have now if I hadn’t lived there. It’s nice to see Pittsburgh shine as a post-industrial city with an global economic conference, an irony considering its history. It’s wonderful to see progressives protest there as well. Welcome, Pittsburgh, to your tomorrow.