Welcome to the New Pittsburgh: A City Transformed
A new economy is being built by a younger, highly educated generation that appreciates the city’s past while embracing its future.
Photos by David Kelly
At first glance, the interior of Revv Oakland projects impermanence, with a lilypad of cubicles in one corner, a stuffed chair-and-couch quartet in the other and glass-walled offices lined with young people gazing into MacBooks in a human-techno mind-meld. At the end of a hall in this community of a dozen tech startups, the CEO of Phrql — a health-data company that streams consumer diets to health-care providers — is working in a phone booth. There is a desk, an IKEA lamp and a chair; all that’s missing is a phone. Everything within Revv Oakland has been put together quickly. At the close of 2014, it unplugged, packed up, moved a block down Forbes Avenue and reappeared like Brigadoon. Another Revv tech company, this one already generating revenue, will fill the old space.
This is Pittsburgh’s new economy — one you can carry on a flash drive and reinvent wherever there’s a chair and a wall outlet. Generations ago, the city’s future was decided by men who planted themselves along the rivers or next to the coal seams, built companies in steel and stone, put on suits, built grand houses on the smoky fringes and dispatched instructions from oak-paneled rooms. Today, a New Pittsburgh is being built by hyper-educated young people in jeans and sneakers who rent only the space they need for work until an idea catches on and look for dwellings in neighborhoods once home to mill-working immigrants.
Don’t merely take the word of the ever-growing list of national and international publications that have published raised-eyebrow pieces about Pittsburgh’s resurgence nor the social-media generated labels — the next Portland or the newest hipster haven — that bubble up every few weeks. Despite the growing size and vibrancy of the city’s foodie scene, arts scene, cocktail and craft-beer scene, music scene, comedy scene, farm-to-table scene and dozens of other harbingers of civic well-being, don’t try to quantify The New Pittsburgh simply by those markers: That goes for the regional energy boom fueled by shale drilling as well.
What's Your New Pittsburgh?
We posed that question to city natives and residents with various perspectives.
Marisa Bartley, Executive Director, PNC YMCA
Driving much of this transformation: this swirl of deeply educated risk-takers who see life as a long runway on which to build momentum for a flight that might or might not happen. Almost every aspect of their lives turns conventional Pittsburgh domestic life on its ear. In a town where Jones & Laughlin and U.S. Steel once recruited employees who traded career mobility for life security, the next generation puts its roots just deep enough to draw sustenance without becoming locked into one career or a fixed address. They like what’s old about the town because it grounds them at a time in their lives when nothing else is permanent. The Old Pittsburgh still shudders at the disappearance of nearly half its population in the last century. The New talks about the city being “the right scale.”
“I think we’re coming out of a bubble. I think we looked at that as normal, the safety net that corporations brought to society,” says Mark Musolino, 43, a New York transplant who started a few of his own ventures after earning a Ph.D. in bioengineering from the University of Pittsburgh in 2006. He created Revv as a low-rent, no-lease parking space for startups. Musolino says the old Pittsburgh continues to transform as its model of lifetime job, fixed benefits and aversion to risk is displaced by younger entrepreneurs who fall in love with Pittsburgh’s scale, neighborhoods and established sense of community that embraces newcomers. Its history of immigration seems to invite assimilation, even as the newcomers bring a different business ethos.
“If you want to affect the world in a big way, being comfortable isn’t the way to do that,” Musolino says. Just the same, when you want to feel at home, pick a hometown with an established culture and identity.
Now, J&L is gone, and U.S. Steel is unveiling plans for a new Uptown headquarters within the shadow of the hulking, triangular skyscraper that bears its name. Its old digs stood like a corporate spike; the new digs will look more like something found in a suburban office park. The New Pittsburgh, with its startups run by techies who see failure as an option so long as they learn something, is taking shape in ways that show how technology can shift cultures. You find the New Pittsburgh in cubbyhole offices in Oakland and temporary headquarters in the Strip District — but mostly inside the heads of such people as Robb Myer.
He’s 39 and on his latest big idea. Five years ago, he was standing in line at a restaurant in San Francisco, waiting for a table. And waiting. And waiting.
“In restaurant after restaurant, they said it was going to be an hour [or] it was going to be 45 minutes,” he says. Finally, a restaurant host asked for Myer’s cell-phone number, told him to enjoy the weather outside and pledged to call when his table was ready. “I thought that was brilliant,” Myer says. That’s why on a recent day, in a minimally walled office just off Forbes Avenue, 30 people are crowded around cubicles, tables, desks and couches, tapping into laptops and looking less like office employees and more like guests waiting to be summoned by the doctor’s receptionist.
Myer’s idea, born of that dinnertime wait in San Francisco, was at once elegant and simple. He discovered that 50,000 restaurants in the United States accept reservations; more than 250,000 don’t. In line with his own experience, people don’t like to wait. So he started NoWait — a Web-based application that links diners to restaurant wait-lists. Last year, 18 million people used the service.
Myer was raised in South Carolina, earned an engineering degree at the University of South Florida and began his career at a tech firm in Silicon Valley. By the time he was standing in line waiting for his restaurant epiphany, he was an MBA student at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business. That flexibility is typical of his company, and its presence in Pittsburgh is rooted in the city’s retro appeal to a company that can choose to be anywhere with Internet service. There is no set workday, no time clock real or figurative, nor even an effort to track who is in and out of the office.
“We don’t have to be in our office. We choose to be in our office,” says NoWait’s Mitch Young, as he explains the ethos that suffuses Pittsburgh’s new workplace. Young, 27, and his wife met while attending Grove City College in Mercer County, north of Pittsburgh. After graduation, they married and moved west to Denver. They were back in 10 months with no job, no income — just a sense they needed to be here.
“Pittsburgh singularly possesses an inherent culture of community,” he says. “It’s the mindset. It’s the people. It’s the culture. It isn’t a bunch of little silos of culture. We just knew that Pittsburgh was where we were supposed to be.”
Bill Fuller, Corporate Chef, big Burrito Restaurant Group
Today, he’s an account manager with shares in a company that could vanish with the flick of a signature selling it to some other larger, wealthier tech company in search of a new service to add to its menu of tech-based products.
“At this point, we definitely see it happening,” Young says. It’s a transience that doesn’t faze denizens of The New Pittsburgh but instead seems to animate them, tripping off ideas for the next big venture.
I see these young people saying, ‘I came to Pittsburgh, and then I found a job,’” says Don Carter, director of CMU’s Remaking Cities Institute, founded in 2006 to increase regional economic impact by forging links between its academic, government and business-development communities. A decade ago, such a move “would have been crazy,” says Carter. Today, it is redolent of the days settlers climbed into wagons and headed west with little more than faith and ambition, he adds.
Pittsburgh’s newest iteration is an overnight success story three decades in the making, the culmination of plans and civic joint ventures that at first were hard to measure and, in some instances, measured with the wrong tools. By the mid-1980s, when the region shed 133,000 manufacturing jobs in the space of eight years, two odd things happened. Rand McNally rated Pittsburgh the nation’s “Most Livable City,” occasioning snipes from Sun Belt cities but also second looks from people who until then thought of Pittsburgh as a rusty gate through which unemployed refugees fled south and west.
The second event was a coming-together by the city’s two research universities — Pitt and CMU — and civic leaders who in 1985 issued Strategy 21, a paper that, while paying lip service to rebuilding old industries, called for the region to shift to new ones. With CMU and Pitt feeding a supply of graduates into incubators and hospitals forming the crux of the new “eds-and-meds” industry, that shift began. So did a shift in thinking.
Dan Onorato, Executive Vice President, Highmark Health; Former Allegheny County Chief Executive
Political and civic groups — until then competitors for state and federal largesse — fashioned a joint wish-list: a supercomputing center, a Software Engineering Institute, a robotics laboratory, expressways connecting the city with the region’s southern-tier communities through the Mon Valley and a new terminal for an improved airport. Less than a decade later, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development commissioned a report by then-CMU President Robert Mehrabian. The Mehrabian report gave the region low marks on generating new jobs with its prior strategy. It also led to the creation of a Regional Asset District, which again combined efforts to sustain existing cultural institutions from libraries to theaters, while forcing a reexamination of everything in the region from housing to tourism.
In a region traditionally run by a combination of old-school politics and boardroom economics, the rethinking itself stood out. In some ways, the energy spun from the effort proved as vital as the details. “I liken it more to the difference between strategy and tactics,” says CMU’s Carter. Today, Strategy 21’s first stated goal, “Reinforce region’s traditional economic base as center for metals industry and an international corporate headquarters,” seems like a quaint remnant of a bygone era. Its calls for a better quality of life, developing underused lands (think riverfronts and old bakeries) and the expansion of opportunities for women and minorities still resonate.
“As things played out, they went in the direction of success,” Carter says of those civic, business and philanthropic leaders. “If one particular part of the strategy was languishing, they pulled back from that. If another worked, they focused on it.” After a while, critical mass was reached — among its signals were the arrival in East Liberty of Home Depot in 2000, followed in 2002 by Whole Foods and then notably in 2005 by Google, the online giant.
Court Gould, Executive Director, Sustainable Pittsburgh
Today, the region is home to more than 10,000 tech firms employing nearly 300,000 people, with a total payroll of around $20.7 billion — roughly one-third of the region’s total wages, according to the Pittsburgh Technology Council.
That’s risen over the past 10 years, from 7,690 tech companies employing 215,836 people, with a total payroll of around $10.4 billion. Tech also creates employment in other key regional sectors — advanced manufacturing, energy, financial and business services, and healthcare and life sciences; nearly 60 percent of 20,000-plus job listings posted on the Allegheny Conference’s ImaginePittsburgh.com website require tech expertise.
Quantifying the economic shift is challenging as state and federal bureaucrats try to measure the growth of industries that didn’t exist when industry codes were created. Should Phrql be listed under health care or retail? Is NoWait part of the technology or hospitality industry? Downstairs from the new Revv Oakland offices, ShoeFitr uses laser equipment and sophisticated programming to match mail-order customers with shoes that will fit on the first try. Is it a tech company or a retailer?
Likewise, measuring the influx of young workers and tying them to The New Pittsburgh’s economy can be a maddening effort, but correlations can be drawn. For instance, a breakdown of data from Pitt’s University Center for Social and Urban Research tracks the percentage of the region’s current-day population of 2.4 million that is foreign-born. By extension, that suggests a younger workforce; the old are less likely to immigrate.
The study found that 16 percent of workers in the life, physical and social sciences are new arrivals. More than 15 percent of the computer and math workforce came from outside, along with 9 percent of the architects and engineers, 8 percent of the education workforce and nearly 6 percent of healthcare practitioners.
The shift to a younger and more educated workforce is easy to miss against the backdrop of the region’s long legacy as a home to the 65-and-older crowd. The U.S. Census Bureau’s latest American Community Survey shows that around 30 percent of Pittsburgh’s residents have earned college degrees. Chris Briem, a regional economist with Pitt’s University Center for Social and Urban Research, broke the numbers down by age — narrowing the measure to the crucial population of 25-to-34-year-olds, who are most likely to be establishing careers.
. . . all the businesses and the people walking around at night time. But at the same time . . . there are a lot of people [and] businesses that have had to leave. The changes in that neighborhood have been great, but they’ve also had a very human cost to them. In any narrative of the city, [that story] should be acknowledged.
Damon Young, Contributing Editor, Digital, Ebony Magazine
Of the 471,000 people within that age group, a remarkable 48 percent, or 226,000, of them hold college degrees — behind only Austin, Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Boston among major U.S. cities. When Briem narrowed the focus further to 25-to-34-year-olds with graduate or professional degrees, he found more than one in five had earned advanced degrees.
Researchers at Cleveland State University find that approach provides the best insight into how city economies are being remade — not across the age spectrum but by their concentrations of younger, more highly educated workers.
“Slicing the labor force data this way is important in that a region’s highest-skilled workers are drivers of economic growth,” the Cleveland team wrote in a study issued in August. “Specifically, a metro’s top talent — think engineers, scientists and doctors — are key agents of knowledge production and transference, which — when translated into the marketplace — mean new firms and the evolution of existing firms. Those metros that have a high concentration of highly-skilled young adult workers have a head start in the race toward the ‘next’ new economy.”
Dr. Linda Lane, Superintendent, Pittsburgh Public Schools
The city itself, with a current-day population of around 310,000 people, has seen a strange undulation along the age line. Between 2000 and 2010, the percentage of its population age 65 and older dropped by nearly a quarter. Among 18-to-24-year-olds, the cohort surged by 17 percent. Much of that 18-24 cohort is taking up quarters in city neighborhoods such as Lawrenceville, Bloomfield, Friendship and the South Side, along with more traditional upscale haunts such as Shadyside and Squirrel Hill. Of the neighborhoods transformed, Lawrenceville tells the craziest story. Once a blue-collar neighborhood more down-and-out than up-and-coming, the place has blossomed into a series of cafes, funky shops and youngish imports. Pitt’s Center for Social and Urban Research was so intrigued by the transformation that in 2012 it released a study called, “Who Moves to Lawrenceville and Why?”
The who, put simply, are young, educated people — a quarter of them from outside the Pittsburgh region. Of newcomers between ages 18-34, 71 percent had earned at least a bachelor’s degree (as opposed to 64 percent of former residents). It also held housing stock that was about to climb in value. A Lower Lawrenceville house that sold for $30,847 in 1995 now goes for $80,112 — a 160-percent jump, in contrast to the citywide increase of 24 percent.
Mike Schiller, CEO, Green Building Alliance
With career-focused population returning, investment capital followed. Connecticut native Kevin Dowling moved to the tech corridor outside Boston after graduating from CMU more than a decade ago. Then a friend who worked for a venture capital firm phoned him last year with a scouting report on Pittsburgh. “[The friend] said, ‘It’s unbelievable what’s happening there,’” Dowling recalls. Big action in tech investment was happening in Silicon Valley, but smaller and medium-size investors there were fighting for scraps while Pittsburgh was filling a platter with edgy, new startups. Dowling was back by mid-summer of last year.
When he graduated from CMU, Dowling fell in love with Pittsburgh and wanted to stay. As did so many others who came then to the university — which then as now drew many of the best minds from around the country — he went home to New England. At that time, he saw no place to grow in Pittsburgh, outside of, as he puts it, “creating robotic sculptures” in a CMU lab. “The ecosystem around startups was lacking,” he says.
The business “ecosystem” is a common trope within The New Pittsburgh. It is partly an acknowledgment that economic development is best grown organically while nourished by a society that doesn’t stigmatize failure, invites a certain level of contrarian outlook and places social and community connections near the top of the wish list for newcomers and even boomerangs. The emergence of everything from young professionals’ groups to the lively arts scene to the growing foodie culture — with buzz-generating restaurants, bars and breweries popping up in Lawrenceville, the East End, downtown and elsewhere — makes the city more intriguing to newcomers. The retention of Pittsburgh’s iconic status as an old city filled with original buildings and a large backstory is the part of The Old Pittsburgh that The New Pittsburgh has adopted for its own.
“When I lived in California, there was a lot of stuff going on, but to me it seemed to be very transient as far as the people. People don’t lay down roots so much,” says NoWait’s Myer. “People here seem to want to invest in themselves and the communities here and in more long-term things. People are here because they want to be.”
Ling Hong startled her friends in May 2012 with the news that, after spending her teens in Las Vegas and Miami, she was moving to Pittsburgh to study architecture.
“I talked to some people who lived here before — but a long time ago, like 20, 30 years ago,” says Hong, 27. “All they told me [were] negative things: ‘Why do you want to go there?’ ‘Pittsburgh’s so gray all the time.’ ‘There’s not much going on.’ ‘The weather’s so cold — make sure you wear layers.’”
Tom Murphy, Senior Resident Fellow, Urban Land Institute; former Pittsburgh mayor
Hong’s friends were thinking of unemployment, depression, rust and despair. She was thinking of Rome, where she lived for six months while earning her Master’s degree in architecture. Pittsburgh and Rome had in common things Vegas and Miami didn’t have: a sense of scale, discrete boundaries made up of neighborhoods that formed along the topography and sidewalks. She wanted a pedestrian city, not a city that was pedestrian. Now, as she studies for her architecture license, Hong speaks of never leaving. On a chilly night, with layers applied against the soaking rain outside, she is joined in a South Side coffee shop by friends Andy Petrovsky and Bruce Chan, both young city planners who came here from southern California.
“It’s not an easy city . . . and I like that. You have to actually involve yourself in becoming a citizen of the city,” Chan says, exulting over his discovery of the Pittsburgh Banjo Club’s Wednesday-night gatherings at the North Side Elks Lodge. “You can’t find that in other cities of this scale, so I think I’ll stay for a bit.”
Hong and Petrovsky work at Urban Design Associates, the breakthrough design and architectural firm founded here and renowned for its work to grow and revitalize cities. Where some architects tell builders where to place crossbeams and what to nail down, Hong says she and her coworkers look at how buildings will interact with each other — and how their location and design guide the interactions of their residents.
With amusement, Hong and Chan recount how they learned that 25 years ago investors proposed building a Chinatown in Pittsburgh — a proposition designed to attract a Chinese population much in the way people put up feeders with nectar and hope for hummingbirds. Pittsburgh’s urban neighborhoods — from the row houses of the South Side and Lawrenceville to the freestanding four-squares of Friendship and Bloomfield — have an inherent quality and varying levels of intimacy and community. They weren’t imposed so much as they happened. That’s been the case for generations, but The New Pittsburgh recognizes, adjusts and celebrates that quality.
“New York? If I go there, I don’t think I could do anything even if I stay my whole life. I don’t think I could make a difference,” Hong says. “Here, I could design projects that could change the city.”
Keith Fuller, Chef/Owner, Root 174
Photo by Rob De La Cretaz
Bill Peduto has rearranged some things since his swearing-in as Pittsburgh’s 60th mayor in January 2014. His office — the grandest stretch of wall and carpet in the City-County Building — now has enough clear floor for a round of Bocce. The huge, wooden desk is being refinished, but the late Mayor Joe Barr’s wooden console radio still stands in a corner looking as if Bing Crosby’s ghost might croon from it at night. Old paintings hang on the walls, but alongside them are newer, Pittsburgh-themed works on loan from area artists. Peduto lives his life blending the old and the new — he uses the expression “The Next Pittsburgh” to define the transformation. Still, sometimes Peduto’s “Next Pittsburgh” only draws a weary “what’s next?” from The Old Pittsburgh.
“This is the kind of stuff I get about that,” he says, handing his smartphone to a visitor. On Twitter, someone has opined: “It’s a shame Bill Peduto wants to turn a blue-collar city into a city of useless [expletives] with funny mustaches and rusty bikes.”
Months after taking office, Peduto installed a bike lane along part of Penn Avenue in the Cultural District, forcing a change in traffic patterns and, perhaps more controversially, in ways of thinking. A quarter-century ago, Bicycle Magazine rated Pittsburgh the nation’s third-worst city for bicycling, noting its daunting hills, rutted roads and drivers who would rather yield to a getaway car than to a bicyclist. Some took it as a sign that Pittsburgh was moving into a new era of fit-and-green commuters. Others (among them Peduto’s angry Twitter correspondent) worried that the city was becoming Portland without an NBA team.
Raised in the suburbs in the 1960s, Peduto watched the tenuous connection between the industrial city and its green hinterlands strain as Pittsburgh was wrenched from its one-industry base and cast into a series of economic changes just now bearing cultural fruit. Not everybody has a taste for bike lanes, new food or Banjo Night.
The mayor acknowledges that the concerns and challenges of the championing of this New Pittsburgh run deeper than young-vs.-old grumbling. While some city neighborhoods are reborn, others remain stagnant — and populations can be forgotten or displaced by development. He is frank in acknowledging that many of the benefits of The New Pittsburgh to date have fallen disproportionately on young, predominantly white populations. The line between renewal and gentrification is always thin.
Ilana Diamond, Managing Director, AlphaLab Gear
To Peduto, though, careful stewardship of this latest iteration — a city that began as a fort, became a factory, was reinvented in back-to-back renaissances and now stands as an urban destination city — can make The New Pittsburgh a boon to every city resident in every neighborhood, not simply the young and tech-minded.
“It’s not that you try to hide what Pittsburgh was or what Pittsburgh still is,” Peduto says. “You embrace it. You enhance it. You don’t tear down 40 percent of the Strip District terminal building and bring big-box restaurants in and say, ‘Come to the Strip. Look how different it is.’ You preserve the uniqueness and quirkiness of that building and find an adaptive reuse for it.
“You look at ways that promote and enhance the amenities we already have that are all those little pieces of a beautiful mosaic that are Pittsburgh when you step away from it, but when you look very closely are all unique and authentic pieces of that puzzle.”
Then, he offers a tip: The Banjo Club’s gathering at the North Side Elks often runs during the same time as the Bluegrass Jam at the Park House nearby. Go to Bluegrass night first. When the Park House gets busy, switch venues. Avoid the crowd.
It has taken a lot of years for the mayor of Pittsburgh to enjoy telling people how to avoid a crowd. That’s a chore he can embrace.
--Dennis B. Roddy is a freelance journalist and former special assistant in the Pennsylvania Office of the Governor. A longtime staff writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he also has been published in a number of regional and national publications.
Photo via Flickr
Iconic leader Sala Udin has lived through the city’s last two great transformations. What lies ahead for him and his neighbors in The New Pittsburgh?
From the street where Sala Udin lives in Schenley Heights, a visitor could trip and tumble straight into the cauldron of The New Pittsburgh. Oakland — with its advanced degrees, the institutions that produce them and the startup businesses crackling with promise — gleams directly below, just beyond the reach of what some might call The Forgotten Pittsburgh.
“I have witnessed each Renaissance,” Udin, 71, intones in a voice worthy of a refugee.
The first Renaissance cleared away the Lower Hill District, where Udin grew up.
From his bedroom window on Fullerton Street, he watched legends of jazz and sports stroll from club to club in the “Wylie Avenue Days,” when members of a black middle class lived in close proximity.
Now, even the street is gone, bulldozed with the neighborhood in the early 1960s to make room for the Civic Arena, itself torn down decades later to make room for an arena more suitable for hockey — a largely white sport for a largely white audience. If Udin’s boyhood friend August Wilson had lived long enough, he might’ve found the makings of a play in those recent events.
Udin, who served on Pittsburgh’s City Council and has become an iconic figure in its African-American community, agrees: There’s a New Pittsburgh in the making. What’s in it for people who feel passed over by the first two great transitions?
“We’re within reach,” he says. “Whether or not they decide to reach us remains to be seen.”
Schenley Heights abuts and so closely resembles the Hill District that a 2008 development study rolled its data into the statistics for the larger Hill. While Pittsburgh lost half of its population in the postwar years, the Hill and Schenley Heights lost 75 percent. Where a quarter of Pittsburgh’s residents hold college degrees, the figure is 11 percent in the Hill — widening the gulf between its residents and The New Pittsburgh, where a master’s degree or a Ph.D. often is the calling card to a career.
For Udin’s neighbors, bridging that divide will take more than falling down a hillside or hoping the newest Renaissance will climb in their direction.
“Throughout it all, it has been a pretty geographically stable, poverty-impacted African-American community that is to a large extent untouched by these Renaissance periods,” Udin says. “So, occasionally you hear their voice when another magazine comes out with a study [asserting] that Pittsburgh is the most livable city in the United States. You’ll hear an echo asking, ‘Livable for who?’
“It’s not liveable for everyone.”
That, he says, is an old refrain waiting for a fresh answer.
“Not everybody benefits and not everybody loses,” he says. “Unfortunately, we sometimes look at periods of change like that, and we want to look at the global experience and not drill down deeper to ask of those who are not experiencing the benefits of the renaissance, who’s losing — and why? Will New Pittsburgh’s political and corporate leaders be as innovative with minority inclusion as they are with technology? Or will The New Pittsburgh be another dream deferred?”
Maxwell King, President and CEO, The Pittsburgh Foundation
Marketing professional and writer Ben Schmitt and his family invested in urban living in Detroit before returning to the city of his childhood. Now, where can they afford to put down roots?
In 2001, my wife and I invested in urban living. We bought a home for $143,000 in a Detroit neighborhood believed to be on the come-up. Man, did we get burned.
Nine years later, the real-estate bubble burst and left us with a beautiful bungalow in an aging city where crime and vacancies had driven out many of our neighbors. I made the tough decision to leave newspaper life — at the Detroit Free Press — and move back home to Pittsburgh. A huge obstacle stood in the way: We couldn’t sell our house.
In the end, we made our exit through a short sale for $35,000 and a major credit hit. It’s still painful to type that.
Which brings me to Pittsburgh. And to karma.
With our two daughters, we’ve lived in a rental home in Edgewood, bordering the East End, for four years, biding our time and cleaning up our credit. I’m about as East-End-Pittsburgh as one can get: grew up in Shadyside and Highland Park, attending Liberty Elementary, Reizenstein Middle and Peabody High schools.
Riding through town daily, I’d marvel over new development: Bakery Square, East Liberty, green office buildings along Second Avenue at the site of the former Jones & Laughlin steel mill.
“This is my town!” I’d say, celebrating the upward mobility.
Then Donna, my wife, and I started house-hunting in July.
“Where do you want to live?” she asked.
Working with a Realtor, we soon realized we couldn’t find a halfway decent house in my old neighborhood for under $300,000. We’re a fairly middle-class, dual-income family.
“Let’s try Morningside,” I said. We subsequently trudged through a $210,000 home with a swampy basement, broken windows upstairs and a mud pit for a backyard.
Squirrel Hill and Point Breeze were out — expensive before the word “gentrification” even crept into our vocabularies. Greenfield? Cue Morningside. Edgewood? It’s not technically in the city, but it’s got the same feel. And the same sticker shock.
I’m a city guy. Give me urban grit over cookie-cutter any time. Give me diversity and open-mindedness. Give me history.
I love Pittsburgh. I love the character embedded into the large brick houses. I love the walkability, the busways, the park system. The bike trails, the hiking trails, the parks are gems. I took them for granted in my youth.
But . . . who is Pittsburgh in 2015? Sadly, it’s not going to be me. Which brings me back to karma.
I have to chuckle: We supported Detroit through home ownership but couldn’t sell our house to get out when things got sketchy. Now, we want to support Pittsburgh but can’t afford to buy our way in.
I debated recently with a Lawrenceville resident (he bought his house for a steal 15 years ago before the area became uber-hip) about whether I was committed.
He told me if I settled for somewhere like Forest Hills, where many friends have put down roots, I may as well try the West End or North Side or Troy Hill. These are neighborhoods I don’t know because of where I grew up.
He’s right. But I want to go home.
I still love you, Pittsburgh. I just can’t afford you.
Ben Schmitt graduated from Peabody High School in 1988 and Michigan State University in 1992 with a bachelor's degree in journalism. He worked as a reporter at the Concord Monitor, Savannah Morning News, American Lawyer Media and the Detroit Free Press, where he spent the bulk of his newspaper career and won a national Emmy award in 2008 for two video stories about pit bulls. He is now vice president of written communications and social marketing for Z Brand Group, an advertising, marketing and public relations agency in Pittsburgh.
Andrew W. Moore, Dean, School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University
Squirrel Hill native Ali Trachta has known all along: Pittsburgh is a star. Now based in Los Angeles as the Web Editor for LA Weekly, she wonders: What took the rest of the world so long to figure it out?
At any airport, I never have trouble finding my gate. Even if I lose track of the number, I look for the glints of black and gold, and there’s my plane home. In 15 years of flights back to my hometown, that’s been consistent: Pittsburghers travel proud. Polamalu jerseys, Super Bowl shirts, Pirates hats. I once saw an elderly woman perched like a peacock in her seat wearing a shiny Steelers jacket and equally fancy Steelers earrings. It was June.
Pittsburgh pride is nothing new. We’ve always known there’s something special about our little corner of the country. It’s not preached by our parents — it’s just in our bones. You feel it, even if no one else in the world gets it.
What is new, however, is that suddenly everyone gets it. The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post, a friend from my now-home of Los Angeles who was legitimately excited to make a business trip to the ’Burgh.
I’m a writer who mostly covers entertainment, and my husband (New Jersey-born, but son of a mom from Morningside) is a TV producer, so LA is where we need to live. Like most exports, though, I’m still ride-or-die for Pittsburgh. Call it a reflex — a manifestation of my bond to the city that even a 75-degree winter can’t break. I’ve long sung Pittsburgh’s praises to small audiences who return my beaming pride with quizzical looks. But now, everything’s changed.
Just as every town has its hipster neighborhoods, suddenly, Pittsburgh has become the hipster neighborhood of America. It’s a formerly scoffed-at locale that’s been infiltrated by young, trend-setting urbanites, and now we’re the belle of the ball. It’s where all the cool kids are and the hip stuff is happening. National media act as though they’ve discovered the best new rock band, telling the world the thing we’ve always known: Pittsburgh rules. And we hometahners are left wanting to shout from the hilltops: We knew Pittsburgh was cool before you did!
From my vantage point in LA, it’s felt much as if my best friend suddenly got famous. Those quizzical looks? Gone. Now Pittsburgh’s on the red carpet, and the press can’t get enough. “Pittsburgh? I hear Pittsburgh is amazing!” has become the more common response. The city’s a hit, after all, and everyone’s read the reviews.
Lucky for all of us, though, Pittsburgh is nothing like the “it girl” who lets fame go to her head. Sure, the city has evolved, and with that, the world’s perception of it, and really, that’s nothing but good. Still, while the rest of the country marvels at this dazzling new thing, we Pittsburghers wonder how everyone missed it for so long. We’ve always known our city was a star, and even when its 15 minutes fade, we’ll still see the shine.
Squirrel Hill native and Allderdice High School alumna Ali Trachta is a writer and the web editor of LA Weekly. She lives in Los Angeles and drives a car that sports an N@ bumper sticker. Follow her on Twitter @MySo_CalLife.
Tracy Brigden, Artistic Director, City Theatre