Fresh Eyes on Pittsburgh, Part 2

Here is the next installment on my brief “Fresh Eyes on Pittsburgh” series. Read the first installment for the background and the premise.

Today’s topic: Pittsburgh’s social and culture climate.

I’m pretty sure that if I were coming fresh to Pittsburgh today, I would react very much as I reacted when I arrived in 1998. This place is full of warm and friendly people. The core decency of Pittsburgh, its communal and communitarian spirit, its family-friendliness, its respect for history and tradition (which good things in my book, all things considered), its presumptively accepting nature – or at least its tolerant spirit – come through pretty quickly in social settings across a broad range of Pittsburgh neighborhoods and the towns of the region. Fred Rogers was still alive and active in the late 1990s, and I like to think that his “neighborly” spirit, so evident in his life as well as in his work, continues to pervade Pittsburgh. There aren’t a lot of decent-sized cities in the US, I think, where it’s expected that you will know your neighbors, and that they will know you.

That’s the great news.

As with any portrait like this, there is some less-than-great news. And it took me a little while to figure this out, but it comes through as clearly to a sharp-eyed newcomer as Pittsburgh’s friendliness does.
All of that neighborliness, all of that friendliness, all of that know-your-community spirit is descended from generations of Pittsburghers living in an essentially static place. Thousands and thousands of people emigrated to Pittsburgh over the course of the 19th century and built rich communities and neighborhoods. (Culturally rich, if not always financially rich.) In the 20th century, they stayed. And their children stayed. And their children’s children stayed. And so on. And then a lot of people left.

What’s missing in that lightning-quick account of Pittsburgh demographics is a story of thousands and thousands of people moving to Pittsburgh over the course of the 20th century, bringing the topsy-turviness of modern urbanity to Western PA as it came to bigger places like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Chicago, and New York. That didn’t happen, at least not on a broad scale. Over the course of the 20th century, Pittsburgh became (or remained) a massive collection of small towns, masquerading as neighborhoods. Today, you get that small town neighborliness, and you also get that small town insularity, nosiness, and exclusion – even in, or perhaps especially in, the upper echelons of Pittsburgh “society.” Business networks, status hierarchies, and community politics are built on participation in and knowledge of decades of living in the same town. At its worst, Pittsburgh’s friendliness comes at the price of submission and acceptance of neighborhood orthodoxy, where neighborhoods exist at different and overlapping scales, and exist both physically and conceptually. In the late Spring, you may see people walking the streets of Pittsburgh wearing Philadelphia Flyers sweaters. Pay them no mind; friendly Pittsburghers know better than to engage with such wrong-headedness. Instead, recite “Let’s Go Pens!” at every available opportunity, until the slogan becomes trivial – a statement of belonging, rather than belief. To live in Pittsburgh and question loyalty to the Penguins or the Steelers is to acknowledge that you are somehow not a “real” Pittsburgher.

Is that too grim (and unfair to hockey fans in particular)? Maybe. Some of the nastier edges of these things have been sanded off over the last decade, at least in some parts of Allegheny County, as population flows have stabilized – somewhat, as the “not born here” community has gotten more traction and confidence in local affairs, and as the influence of multiple generations on single native communities and neighborhoods has been diluted. I can still point to this neighborhood or to that one as the home of the Italian community in Pittsburgh, or the Polish community, or the Germans, and I know which towns up or downriver have strong Czech or Slovak traditions. A lot of people are justifiably proud of the continuity represented in all of those places. But the great strength of Pittsburgh society and culture – its sense of community-based history and tradition – is also, when “tradition” becomes faith, or “traditionalism,” its greatest weakness.

To someone with “Fresh Eyes,” does any of this make a difference?

Yes and no.

No, in the sense that people are people and communities are communities, and we live among each other and make the best places we can. Pittsburgh’s obsession with professional sports reflects its community spirit. Sports don’t create that spirit. Just look at places that have fantastic and successful sports teams – San Francisco, right now – and note the utter absence of the kind of community-based society and culture that is characteristic of Pittsburgh. Sports can’t create community where no community is present. When community is totally lacking – Los Angeles – sporting culture is almost entirely detached from the life of the place. Perhaps sports in LA authentically reflect its artificiality.

Yes, in the sense that Pittsburgh’s traditions and traditionalism at times spill over into bigger, interesting domains, like civic renewal (did Pittsburgh reinvent itself through great top-down planning over the last 20 years? So says the Economist magazine, and if the Economist says so, then it must be true! Bah.); the relative absence of a risk-taking entrepreneurial culture in the arts and business communities (at long last, this may be changing); and decades-old partisan political debates, and divides between city and suburb. Some time back, I characterized Pittsburgh culture with the following bit of snark: Don’t just do something, stand there! But I think that phrase isn’t as applicable to Pittsburgh, socially and culturally, as it once was. The changes in the region’s culture, like greatness in general, have been thrust upon it rather than sought out, but either way, Pittsburgh and Pittsburghers are mostly happy to have them.

Next up for my painting with a broad brush: arts and sports.


2 Responses to "Fresh Eyes on Pittsburgh, Part 2"

Mitchn said... 10/31/2011 1:34 PM

As someone who grew up in Northeast Ohio, I recognize many of the things you describe, Mike. Maybe it's the Internet or the rise of social networking, but I do think the insularity that's endemic to the region may be "thawing" some. As the Silent and boomer generations age and fade from the scene, younger generations seem more willing to embrace change and the new. I hope so. It's the only thing that will save the region from permanent decline.

P.S. You write a great blog, Mike. Keep up the excellent work.

BrianTH said... 11/01/2011 2:31 PM

Purely anecdotal, but I also feel that a lot of the older Pittsburgh natives I meet specifically on the Internet are relatively open-minded to change, which I would think supports Mitchn's "maybe".

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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.

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