Edges of Pittsburgh

This community is a geography, a culture, a state of mind. Where does our area end, and what does that tell us?



Scenes from a community’s distant edges:

Franklin, Pa., Polly’s Ice Cream Shop on U.S. 322, an 85-mile drive north from the Point: “Are we the Pittsburgh area? Good question. People around here root for Pittsburgh teams,” says one clerk. Says her colleague: “No way. Pittsburgh’s two hours south.” As they speak, a kid in a Troy Polamalu T-shirt orders a cone.

New Castle, Pa., a 54-mile drive northwest from the Point and not far from a turnpike billboard that features Mr. Rogers smiling next to the words “Hello, Neighbor — welcome to Pittsburgh”: “Not really the Pittsburgh area. We’re nearer to Youngstown,” says Diane, a Sunday afternoon clerk at the Rite-Aid on Jefferson Street. Fifteen miles away, the Grove City County Market is selling chipped ham for $1.88 a pound.

Somerset, Pa., a 70-mile drive east from the Point and home to Seven Springs, one of Pittsburghers’ favorite weekend-getaway resorts: “Sort of Pittsburgh. I guess. Not Harrisburg,” says Michelle, a clerk at the Turkey Hill convenience store. Just up the street, Eat’n Park is serving Smiley cookies.

Brookville, Pa., where Route 28 meets Interstate 80 in Jefferson County, an 81-mile drive northeast from the Point: “Definitely the Pittsburgh area,” says Beverly, a waitress at the Golden Eagle restaurant who watches WTAE-TV and WPXI-TV at home. “Definitely not the Pittsburgh area,” says her counterpart up the road at Plyler’s Restaurant and Buffet. Across the street at Sheetz, a clerk wearing a Penguins hat and jersey offers a compromise. “It’s the distant Pittsburgh area,” he says.

Morgantown, W.Va., where thousands of college-age Pittsburghers sit in classes at West Virginia University: “You can go anywhere in Morgantown and people will know about Primanti’s, the Strip District, pierogies,” says Chris Martin, the school’s vice president for university relations. “Pittsburgh,” she says, “bleeds into the places around it.”

It’s often said that the city of Pittsburgh is made of neighborhoods, defined by the ridges and hollows of its river-valley topography. But when you get out into the suburbs and the hills and mountains and farmers’ fields and highway corridors beyond, things get murkier.

When someone says, “I’m from Pittsburgh,” what, precisely, do they mean? Is someone who lives in Cranberry Township a Pittsburgher? Probably. But what about Zelienople? Greensburg? Clearfield County? Steubenville, Ohio? Dan Marino, born in Pittsburgh, is obviously claimed as a native son. But few of us are averse to including Joe Namath (Beaver Falls), Bobby Vinton and Perry Como (Canonsburg) and even Chuck Tanner (New Castle).

The actual thing that is Pittsburgh may end where the map says it does, but there are many other definitions of Pittsburgh the geographic entity and Pittsburgh the state of mind — and many, many people who define themselves as Pittsburghers, even if they live relatively far up the road.

So where does the notion of “being a Pittsburgher” really end? And what do the edges of our extended community tell us about who we are?

You want definitions? That part’s easy.

There’s the U.S. Census, which groups seven counties in the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Area. There’s the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, which has an “actively participating” 10-county region for Pittsburgh. There was the city’s 250th anniversary celebration a few years back, which included 14 counties. There’s the Power of 32 Initiative, which, as its name suggests, unites 32 counties in four states — Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and even all the way to Garrett County, Md.

Perhaps it’s less conventional. Maybe it’s about the team you root for, the diocese you’re part of or the way you say downtown/dahntahn. Maybe it’s the local TV stations you pull in; one broadcasting company defines the “Pittsburgh cluster” as an integrated market of Steubenville/Wheeling, Pittsburgh and Johnstown/Altoona. Maybe it’s where the most outlying Giant Eagle sits or the farthest Eat’n Park.

“A lot of the cultural traits are very similar. If you draw whatever that shape is, that’s really the Pittsburgh cultural region,” says Bill Flanagan, the Allegheny Conference’s executive vice president and host of  “Our Region’s Business” on WPXI-TV.

“It’s the point where people stop saying n’at and stop redding up the house. You cross that line — you’re outside the Pittsburgh linguistic region, which probably is like the cultural region, which may not overlap exactly with the economic region,” says Flanagan, who spent two decades as a Pittsburgh television reporter.

It’s possible, though, that precise definitions aren’t the point. Yes, Pittsburgh is where most of the people, jobs and traffic are, but it could also be where those people go, where they spend their money and their weekends. It’s more the notion of Pittsburgh as an organizing principle. Maybe it’s even about “What’s in it for me?” That’s the theory from Michael Glass, a University of Pittsburgh geographer who has studied how communities define themselves.

“You could argue that someone living in an edge space of the region is very much part of the urban area if they commute in to shop, work and attend Penguins games. They’ll wear the Crosby jersey and associate with the team’s success by defining themselves proudly as a Pittsburgh Penguins fan,” Glass says. “However, if you start talking about getting those commuters to pay a larger fee for the City of Pittsburgh infrastructure that they consume while in the region, then they will quickly argue that it’s not their problem.”

The history of Pittsburgh’s relationship with its outlying communities is somewhat different from that of many other American cities and their hinterlands. In many cities, things just taper off into sprawl and, more recently, exurbia, and no one pays much attention. Because of its industrial heritage, though, Pittsburgh has long had something of a “hub-and-spoke” relationship with the satellite cities that encircle it like New Castle, Butler, McKeesport, Greensburg, Washington, Wheeling and even Youngstown.

Everything hasn’t always been harmonious. In the 1920s, the Civic Club of Allegheny County advocated a merger of the city and the county, trying to forestall an urban population falloff that was expected with the 1930 Census. The measure failed in 1929. But, Glass notes, there was “a strong distance-decay effect. The farther away from the city you were, the less people liked the plan, which suggests that rural communities at the margins of Allegheny County thought of themselves less as ‘Pittsburghers’ and more as residents of McKeesport, Gibsonia and so on.”

Author Franklin Toker has written eloquently about Pittsburgh and its way of life as what he calls the “de facto capital of western Pennsylvania.” In his 2009 book Pittsburgh: A New Portrait, Toker puts the outlying areas of the metropolitan area, and their relationship to the whole, into the continuum of centuries-old tradition.

“In the Middle Ages,” Toker writes, “it was common wisdom that a town like Dante’s Florence could not achieve greatness without distinguished supporting towns in the ... hinterland. The towns that ring Pittsburgh were once flourishing, too, but most were badly hit by the collapse of heavy industry. When the towns were prospering, Pittsburgh treated its surrounding countryside not in the modern American way, as something inferior that buckles under urban sprawl, but in the medieval European way, as a partner in a development of mutual benefit. Pittsburgh’s satellite towns are necessary to it. Pittsburgh would not be Pittsburgh without them.”

The passing of decades has brought expansion to the Pittsburgh area, and not just because of growth. Some of it is simply highway connections. Roads like U.S. 19, U.S. 22 and Pennsylvania Routes 65, 51 and 8 stitched together communities that had largely existed separately. Pittsburgh, as the behemoth in the center, exercised gravitational pull.

An example from PA 65, also known as Ohio River Boulevard: In the 1890s, the suburb of Sewickley refused electric trolleys; they didn’t want to be associated with Pittsburgh and its problems. But a century later, in 1998, the same community was upset when it was excluded from the Pittsburgh phone book.  

The same kinds of new connections with Pittsburgh happened, on a larger scale, with Interstate 79, the Parkways East and West and I-279 North: They created pipelines to and from Pittsburgh that were designed to accommodate cars but ended up importing and exporting states of mind as well. Now, counties as far north as Mercer and as far east as Somerset are deeply involved in Pittsburgh affairs.

The biggest of these edge regions, like Cranberry in Butler County to the north and Southpointe in Washington County to the south, are growing into “micropolitan areas” — communities within a metro area that become centers of gravity and investment in their own right. A recent survey of such areas showed New Castle and Indiana in the top 25.

Consider Butler County. Its southern edge, around Cranberry, has seen a growth explosion. The area has grown so drastically that one of Pittsburgh’s flagship parochial high schools, North Catholic, is shutting down its 73-year-old building on the North Side and moving to Cranberry beginning with the 2014-15 school year.

The growth of Cranberry brings with it a tether; in effect, it extends the Pittsburgh area north. Now, places like Zelienople and Evans City, long considered “way out there” to Pittsburghers, have in effect become suburbs to a suburb — and, thanks to I-279, bedroom communities to downtown, something that would have been unheard of a generation ago. And even though much of Butler County remains rural, the growth on its bottom edge looks toward Pittsburgh, not deeper into Butler. That’s not a bad thing, given Pittsburgh’s powerful presence in health care, education and culture.

“We like having our identity as Butler County, but also our ties to Pittsburgh,” says Stan Koscziuszko, president and CEO of the Butler County Chamber of Commerce. “It’s good to connect yourself with something that has a good reputation.”

For Butler County-based college students, many of whom come from Pittsburgh, that’s a mixed bag. Courtney Baker-Schroat, who grew up in Etna along the Allegheny River, is going into her super-senior year at Slippery Rock University in northern Butler County. This past year, one of her roommates was from the South Hills neighborhood of Brookline, and another was from Peters Township. “When they were telling me, ‘I’m from Pittsburgh,” I’d say, ‘Where?’ They’d tell me, and I said, ‘I have no clue where that is.’”

Baker-Schroat’s conclusion: “Any place can be Pittsburgh. I don’t know where my roommates are from, but they identify with the city. It depends on your mentality.”

Why even ask what Pittsburgh is and where it ends? Because human beings like to give things definition, contours, boundaries. It’s comforting. It says that the world makes sense. We define ourselves by our borders, our edges and, in a way, they define the center.

Take Gene Kushon, a handyman in the North Hills. He is absolutely definitive when he says that “Pittsburgh ends at the towns on its edge — like Millvale and Etna.” But then ask him about his daughter, who’s from Hampton, marrying a guy from Mt. Lebanon who she met at WVU. Just as quickly, he’ll say, “Yep — that’s a wedding of Pittsburghers.” Then he laughs at the contradiction.

“You travel all over these counties,” says Flanagan, “and I personally believe there is a common culture, and sort of world view and attitude that starts somewhere below Morgantown and Fairmont, over to St. Clairsville, Ohio, up to Meadville, as far east as Johnstown/Altoona and maybe even up to State College. It’s a shared way of looking at things.”

In the end, maybe the contradictions aren’t contradictory at all. After all, who’s to say that a community must have specific contours? Sure, we need official lines drawn for taxes and government services and postal delivery. But it seems clear that there are many different Pittsburghs that coexist, sometimes on top of each other. Can’t they all be Pittsburgh?

That’s what these stops along the region’s farthest reaches tell us. They are united by some notions — common economic interests, athletic glory, deli meats — but in other ways the common thread, the sense of Pittsburghness, tapers off at very different places. Turns out Pittsburgh, like beauty, may be in the eye of the beholder.

So look at all the maps — the steel and coal maps, the linguistic maps, the pierogie-halushki-halupki maps, the business development maps, the maps that tell you where the dividing line might lie between Browns fans and Steelers fans. Take them all in — then throw them all out and decide: Are you a Pittsburgher or aren’t you?

Author C.S. Lewis famously said, “We are what we believe we are.” And we are from where we believe we are from. For Pittsburgh, that seems just about right. Whatever side of I-80 or the state line you plant your feet, if you consider yourself a Pittsburgher, odds are your fellow Pittsburghers might, too.

“Some people will say, ‘Oh, you have a border on a map, and that’s the end of the story.’ But it’s a bit cosmic and a bit mushy. You’re defining something that defies logic,” says John Allison, the Sunday editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “If you identify with your city that way, you’re in. Doesn’t matter what county you’re from. Everyone’s welcome. Come on in — the pop’s fine.”

*

Ted Anthony, a longtime journalist and resident of Hampton Township, has reported from 47 U.S. states and more than 20 countries. He grew up in Pittsburgh — or, if you’re being specific, Allison Park.

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