Not From Here

What does it mean to be from Pittsburgh?

I know that the folks at the Post-Gazette mean well, but when a piece of this blog shows up in the paper I cringe almost as often as I smile. Today was a "cringe" day.

A snippet of this post about Mt. Lebanon
made it into Greg Victor's "Cutting Edge" file this (Sunday) morning. The snippet is weirdly out of context, since the point of the original post was not really to make Mt. Lebanon look like any ordinary suburb, but to argue that no one does Lebo (or any community) any favors by turning a blind eye to its problems.

I didn't cringe at that part, though; I'll tell anyone who asks that I know a lot more than your average newspaper reader about the stresses and challenges of those few who still practice daily journalism. The occasional mis-quote and out-of-context anecdote are par for the course. No one should lose sleep over those, on either end of the writing/reading relationship.

I cringed at the characterization of Mt. Lebanon as my "hometown." Not that Mt. Lebanon is a bad place to be from; lots of souls are happy to call it their place of birth. But as most people who have been reading Pittsblog for a while know all too well, I wasn't born in Mt. Lebanon. Not raised there. Not born or raised in Pittsburgh, even. Never set foot here until 1998. I'm "from" California, Menlo Park to be precise. (Demographically, that town is a little bit like Mt. Lebanon, though it has a substantially larger non-white population these days.) Menlo Park is now part of the Silicon Valley. It wasn't part of the Silicon Valley when I was growing up there, because the Silicon Valley wasn't the Silicon Valley then; it was still the Santa Clara Valley, and a lot of large landowners back then grew prunes rather than D-RAM.

I spend a lot of time writing about Pittsburgh (and about Mt. Lebanon, though less about the latter these days) because the place fascinates me -- as a native Californian. California has little history and cares not a whit for the history that it has.  Californians have an almost bizarre, unhealthy belief not only that things can be changed for the better but that things will change for the better -- somehow. (This explains the rampant joking about the state's simultaneous constitutional and budget crises.) When Californians move to Pittsburgh, as I did 12 years ago, it often takes a while to realize that Pittsburgh is just really old, that it has a lot of history, and that Pittsburgh takes its history really seriously. Change comes slowly, and at a price. All of those things are important. Before moving here I had lived in Boston, and Connecticut, and Washington, DC, and each of those places often scores well on two out of those three standards, but none of them necessarily goes three for three. Pittsburgh is not unique, but it's unusual.

In Pittsburgh, lots of things can be made better here, but a Californian "let's just fix it!" attitude is almost always the wrong first step toward progress.

Of course, history is all relative. On a high school trip to England many years ago, my buddies and I received a stern warning from a castle guard who objected to our scrambling over part of a ruin: You Americans! You have no history! We laughed. We were from the land of the Golden Gate Bridge.

So my interest in Pittsburgh arose initially from the fact that this place seemed so completely foreign to me. Maybe I now seem to know some things that only natives are expected to know.  If so, it's because I've done a lot of reading over the years. I still think that I haven't figured it out. On the blog and elsewhere I still sometimes trip over ancient understandings that I haven't uncovered.

The reference to Mt. Lebanon as my "hometown" is no doubt a quick and forgivable assumption in a context where there isn't time to check a fact or the staff resources to do so. The Post-Gazette isn't The New Yorker, which is famous for its fact-checking (though even TNY gets tripped up once in a while). But the error is something subtly telling nonetheless, not about the paper but about the region's expectations: Pittsburgh is the antithesis of California when it comes to population mobility. California is filled with so many who migrated from elsewhere that some people on the West Coast are surprised to learn that people were really born in California. In one of my old offices in Palo Alto, I was part of a very small, informal club of strange people who had been raised locally. (I'm even a second generation Californian, and my kids are third generation!) If I'm reading an old factoid correctly, Pittsburgh is the largest city in the country with such a high proportion of "born here" residents. In Pittsburgh, in other words, the default expectation is that this is your hometown; in California, the default expectation is that it is not your home state.

Of course, as I understand the data, these days more people are leaving California than are moving in, and Pittsburgh is guardedly optimistic that in the recession, people are leaving economically blighted regions for places that appear to be more stable - like Pittsburgh. What does any of that mean for Pittsburghers' view of history? Perhaps nothing. But stay tuned.


4 Responses to "Not From Here"

RoboticGhost said... 1/25/2010 12:02 PM

Another transplant from California said to me once that other places get more "migranty" when people move there, and in Pittsburgh the migrants get more "Pittsburghy." And sure enough, if watch closely you'll see a demographic that moves here, glances a round quizzically figuring they'll never get to know the place and then a couple years later they've got a Steelers shower curtain and an aversion to crossing rivers. I suppose its a good and bad phenomenon. I did a lot of travelling a few years back as an itinerant consultant. Very few locations have as much sense of place as Pittsburgh does, in my opinion.

Mike Madison said... 1/25/2010 12:54 PM

I don't have the shower curtain, and I cross rivers more than the stereotype recommends, but I do have a Joe Greene throwback jersey. ;-)

Heather said... 2/05/2010 3:43 PM

Ah, now I see why I like checking in on your blog! My husband (a born and raised in the South Hills guy) married me and tricked me into moving here in our 7th year of marriage... my boys were born in Santa Rosa. And he would never believe me that if I ever met someone that I immediately liked here, they weren't from here- or they had been gone for a very long time and came back (what is in the water?) You say really well what I have been trying to say to my husband. Thanks! My biggest peeve with this town is its self-importance. That and the fact that the only members of our family that will ever be considered from Pittsburgh are my Husband and my baby girl. I was boggled by my neighbors when we bought our house in USC who, despite living on our street for 32 years, declared that they were not from here. Wha? But it explains a lot. And now I understand my much as an outsider can.

James Fraasch said... 2/07/2010 8:14 PM

Good stuff Mike. As a newer California transplant myself (2004) there is a lot of history to learn about and to respect.

Your paragraph on the difference between Californian's and Pittsburgher's is right on the mark.


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Updated September 2020:

Pittsblog 2.0 was written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, from January 2004 through December 2011.

Since then, Pittsburgh-themed essays have appeared from time to time at, on law and technology, and in some of Pittsburgh's classier professional media venues.

Chris Briem of Null Space drops by Pittsblog from time to time.

All opinions expressed at Pittsblog 2.0 are those of their respective authors and of no one (and no thing) else, least of all the University of Pittsburgh.

Pittsblog 2.0 has a motto: "It's steel good in Pittsburgh." Say it aloud, with a Pittsburgh accent.


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