Rabih Helou of the Beauty Shoppe outside Zekes Coffee

I came here kicking and screaming...

But now I don't want to leave: Why I love Pittsburgh

I did not want to move here.  Yes, I know how much this confession strikes a bitter chord with my fellow Pittsburghers. But that was the state of affairs when we packed our belongings and said farewell to our home in Washington, DC.

The context of my life sours this statement even more.  I have a history of cosmopolitan promiscuity and rootlessness. The perennial wanderer, I’m always open to new places and experiences.  I’m energized by the possibilities of the unknown and cities, towns and villages are my playground of choice.  But that did not, at first, describe my relationship with Pittsburgh.  Like a pouty child, I spent the first 12 months hermetically sealed in the wilderness north of Penn Ave. Then I ran away to the Middle East for eight months—to be anywhere, just not here.  But my recent conversion to unabashed cheerleader forced me to ask some questions. What I’ve learned says something about myself but even more about our cherished city.  

Here’s what it comes down to: I was a taker. A passive bystander and a lifelong tourist, I took what I could from a place and was on my way.  I evaluated my travels and cities based on the density of benefits flowing from the outside in, a discovery that redefined me not as cosmopolitan but cosmoparasite.  Pittsburgh’s refusal to play that game with me flipped the equation around.

Pittsburgh hasn’t overwhelmed me with its bounties. Instead, it embeds me within a community, assigns me a role, presents the challenges and opportunities, and calls me to action.   The city, fledgling in its renaissance, is open to contributions and input from its residents. It’s as if, painfully self-aware, Pittsburgh is eager to overcome its struggles, be on a new path, and set an example for other cities.  For a person who was always satisfied being passively nourished from his surroundings, my time in Pittsburgh has been a wake up call.  

One does not merely live in Pittsburgh, but with Pittsburgh.  The constant communication and feedback between the city and its residents explains the pride and promise of Pittsburgh. The city is small and interconnected, and for now at least, without the stark boundaries between groups that plague other cities.  Contact between strangers is warm and casual, and can easily move beyond small talk to the more personal. It’s always easy to find a common acquaintance or situation that ties two people together; degrees of separation between people in Pittsburgh may measure somewhere in the 2 to 2.5 range, rather than the global 6. The city’s unique history and demographics means that younger people have the chance to play the roles and make an impact normally limited to the older richer crowd.

Unlike any other city I’ve experienced, Pittsburgh is a collaborative project between the city and its people. In contrast to the New Yorks, DCs, and San Frans of the world, every individual can make a mark on our city.  That shared opportunity and closeness to Pittsburgh makes me feel closer to the people around me.  I am proud when Pittsburgh tops another list of national bests, because I’m proud of the people. I’m proud of the culture of resilience and renewal on display in the people I have the good fortune of meeting everyday.   I’m proud that these values are striking a chord in the national post-recession zeitgeist.  This is a great time to be in Pittsburgh and a great time to plug into the community.
I realize my perspective is biased. Perhaps my journey is a function of being a new father.  My sense of obligation and connectedness to others seems at an all time high. Or maybe I’m just getting a little bit older.  But the desire to play a role within a community is strong, and the drive to work towards a common good and collective progress is overwhelming.  Without an awareness of our shared ecosystem, without that give-and-take between my surroundings and myself, things can get pretty static.  And the place I’ve found most conducive, most rewarding to someone looking to contribute, and most accepting of you as unique individual, is the city we’re all quite proud of these days: Pittsburgh.  

Go us.

Photo by Alexandra Oliver. Illustration by Rabih Helou.