When I tell people I live in Pittsburgh there is generally a startled silence. Over the last twenty years, as Pittsburgh has shucked off its image of smoke and steel, the pause has grown shorter, but it is still a recognizable pause.
I wonder what people are thinking during that moment of silence. I used to fill in for them. “I was born in Australia” I’d say. “This isn’t a Pittsburgh accent.” And then, not wanting to scold, “Steel was the city’s soul thirty years ago” I offer. “The smoke is long gone.”
People in Pittsburgh are startled too. They cannot imagine that anyone would want to live here. “Pittsburgh is a beautiful city,” I say. “You don’t really mean that,” they counter. It’s as if those who were born and raised in Pittsburgh cannot dare to think that there is something precious here. After all, they lived through the disheartening era of the steel mills closing and the loss of 350,000 people.
When I arrived here, twenty-five years ago, this small gritty grotty sort of city had a lot wrong with it, a lot right with it, and a lot of room for change. While Pittsburgh changed from steel-town to top-town, I changed too. As a newcomer, my profession was straightforward. Architect. Over time, as Pittsburgh worked its way into my blood, my work became more intricate, like the city itself.
Each professional step I took separated me a little more from the straightforward path I had planned and bound me closer to the city I had adopted. Now, twenty-five years later I have been architect, urban designer, civil servant, community development corporation founder, developer of blighted buildings, publisher, event organizer, university professor and president of a non-profit. Pittsburgh afforded me all of that. Through it all I suffered the same reaction. “Pittsburgh? Really?”
Over the last week I have introduced myself to other Bellagio fellows as a Pittsburgh resident. I have become used to the quiet pause. This morning over breakfast the introductions began as usual. “Oh, Pittsburgh,” she said. My heart sank as I steadied myself for another round of “hell with the lid off.” But before I could interject, she continued.
“I’ve heard so many good things about Pittsburgh. It’s the place to go.” “Wonderful real estate. Affordable. That’s what writing instructors recommend… go to a place you can afford to live with not a lot of money. It’s the place where artists should be.”
Her remarks are born out by a surprising new reality. Pittsburgh is quickly rising to the top of places that young adults and college graduates move to. I wonder how many will need to move here before that startled silence fades a little? Pittsburgh has been my secret for all of these years, but now, it seems, it is secret no more.