I Am Pittsburgh

imageA blogger friend of mine recently wrote an article reflecting on A Sense of Place. I commented that despite having moved away from Pittsburgh, PA after college and having lived on both coasts between then and now, I still feel like I am part of my childhood community. In a response to that comment my friend said she was curious as to what helps me feel part of that distant community. It would have been easy to simply say “The Steelers…” but instead I told her that “it will take a blog post to answer.” In fact, it may take more than one. In fact, in many ways, it is the ongoing subject of this blog.


I thought this was “Random thoughts, life lessons, hopes and dreams” I mean that’s what it says at the top…

It is all those things, but many of those thoughts, lessons, hopes and dreams were established in Pittsburgh and not just in the sense that “it’s where I was born and raised.” The growing up, learning about life, becoming mature (we’ll see if my editor leaves that one in) and developing goals that set the foundation for my life are rooted in western Pennsylvania.

I was born outside of the industrial version of Pittsburgh. I matured, as it were, in a area on the skids. I graduated from a school in a region so racked with unemployment that I had no interviews with companies located in Pittsburgh.

I learned how to work in Pittsburgh. Of course most of those lessons came from my dad, but I can’t separate him from the city. Carpentry, auto repair, yard work and the basic work ethic that requires a job well done and a “good day’s work for a good day’s pay” (always in that order) were all taught to me by my dad or by his friends and relatives that he would lend me to for a day. His parting instructions, always: “eyes and ears open, mouth shut.” In addition to valuable skills, I learned the value of work and the value of learning. That is where / when I formed the “we can build that” attitude that I passed onto my daughter.

Pittsburgh is a city that built itself. We grew up imagesurrounded by bridges made with our own steel. We tunneled through mountains, crossed rivers, built inclines to traverse the hillsides and, by the time I came along, we learned to drive on roads that many cities simply wouldn’t have bothered to build. Trust me, if you learned to drive in Pittsburgh, you can drive anywhere.

When I applied to graduate school at The University of Pittsburgh, they were working hard to shake the dirty steel town image. A poster they gave me bragged about the 15 Fortune 500 companies that called Pittsburgh home, a world class symphony orchestra, amazing museums and places carrying out world renowned research. I lived there. I knew all that but I also knew that hard work still ruled the day and nights were still ending with a shot and a beer. The poster was cool, but it didn’t matter. I needed to remake myself as much as the city did; I was a chemist searching for a career in computer technology. I needed to be resilient and that was a Pittsburgh trademark.

Pitt and Pittsburgh were a good fit for me. I needed to be reminded that the first rule of dealing with bad times is to prepare for the good times yet to come. We’ll get ‘em next year. That’s the spirit.

Remaking Pittsburgh meant turning to a service economy, imagefocusing on healthcare and building on the strengths of the city. Remaking me meant turning what had always been an underlying skill into a mainstream ambition. I had always loved problem solving, puzzles and building. I had never heard of the field of Operations Research, but it fit me well. Pitt gave me a chance to explore writing too. I had wanted to write since I was in 5th grade, but I never saw an opportunity. I was offered a chance to write a periodic Op-Ed page for the Pitt News. I had a byline. It felt good.

Most of what I learned before imageleaving Pittsburgh, I could have learned anywhere, but there was something special about learning it in the Cathedral of Learning. Since I was a commuting student, I split my free time between the carrels ringing the 2nd and 3rd floor of the large Gothic commons room, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and the Original Hot Dog Shop. I have a family connection to the Cathedral too; my mother’s grandfather was a construction foreman during the 1920’s when it was being built.

Throughout my career, I have used the concepts and techniques I learned at Pitt and I have benefited from the work ethic that was instilled in me during my childhood. I am happy to have been able to retain the resilient nature I absorbed growing up in that remarkable region. It didn’t hurt that on my way out the door, the Steelers had racked up a couple Super Bowl wins, the Pirates were playing championship ball and Pitt had just won its first ever national football championship.

As for that simple answer that I could have given my blog imagefriend, it’s not so simple. Pittsburgh sports teams have known great dominance as well as long periods of poor performance – both are taken in stride. The people from Pittsburgh are better at accepting the good, the bad and everything in between than the people of any other region in which I’ve lived.


  1. Pictures – To get to the view from the West End Overlook, my daughter had to drive up a hill so steep that, for the first time in her life, she turned the wheels into the curb as she parked. The closest bridge in the 2nd picture is the Smithfield St Bridge and it is the 2nd oldest bridge in Pittsburgh. The Cathedral of Leaning was home to the Graduate School of Business in 1977 and I was privileged to attend classes there. PNC Park, well, it’s simply the prettiest baseball park on the planet.


  2. I love this post Dan. I love the pride that comes through without any conceit. More love than pride now that i think about it. And gratitude. To a town. To its people. And to your family for making you the man you are. Fantastic post.


    • I couldn’t remember what happened to the poster Paul, I just assumed it was lost in the various moves. If it’s not something you would mind giving up, I’d love to have it. If you want to hang onto it, I’d be very happy just to have a picture of it. Thanks for reading and for keeping that.


  3. Great post, Dan.
    One of the things that strikes me about Pittsburgh is that the hard work/roll up your sleeves mentality extends to everyone. My Dad was an accountant, my Mom also, and then a stay-at-home Mom. But if you ever started to complain about having to do some chore or homework, she would cut you off with a very quick “Hey, we are working people in this house.” No arguing with that.

    But maybe the thing I like about this post the most is that you have validated my feeling that I am still a Pittsburgher, even though I haven’t lived there for over forty years. It really is an identity that you carry with you forever. Not all towns are that way, but I feel blessed to have been raised in one that is. I was in Pittsburgh recently and told a clerk behind a counter that I have been living in Boston for thirty-five years. She started asking me about “being a Bostonian.” I had to cut her off and say “I am a Pittsburgher.” She smiled.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The first time I took my daughter to Pittsburgh, I took her on the Gateway Clipper. Before the boat sailed, we were talking to a bartender. He asked where we were from. When I said Connecticut, he pulled our beers back and asked “are you Patriots fans?” We quickly set his mind at ease (and got our beers). The city does stick with you Paul. Thanks for sharing that story.


      • I agree. It was a different time and different values. Ive worked to teach this to my kids, grand kids, and great grand kids. It’s worked on my kids but not so easy on grand kids. We will see as they really start to mature.


  4. You make me want to go back and spend more time in Pittsburgh. My family came through when I was 8, on a driving trip to historic places between Philadelphia and DC. I have been there once for work. And drove through in 2009 on my way to Gettysburg and Philadelphia. I loved the mountains – though not driving with the big trucks in the misty rain, or under the mountains. (Shudder, I was in San Francisco for the collapsed freeways in the 1989 earthquake and don’t like to drive under anything anymore.)

    Clearly you do love this place and that love shines through in your post!


    • Thanks for the comment and thanks for the inspiration Beth. If I hadn’t read your post, and your reply to my comment, I probably wouldn’t have written this – at least not today. I’ve sat in the Liberty Tubes (the longer tunnel) in rush hour traffic tons of times. I got to the point where I didn’t think about what was over me. in 2012, my daughter and I did the inverse of your trip. We went to Gettysburg and then over to Pittsburgh. Thanks again!


  5. “Eyes and ears open, mouth shut.” I like that. I will tell it to a young person. Sometimes there are students searching for industrial attachment in the company. I will tell them that. Good advice.


    • My father’s wisdom lives on :) It was good advice, and the people he would have me work with were very good about explaining what they were doing and why. I learned a lot. Thanks.


  6. This is great. I have a few friends from Pittsburgh and they are so very proud of where they come from. Almost to the point of nausea..hah This helps shed a little light on their feelings. :) On another note.. I completely enjoy the descriptive style to your writing!! Thanks for sharing!


    • Thank you for your kind words and for reading. Most of the people I know from Pittsburgh feel the same way about the city and the people. It’s a special place.


  7. Amazing article I must admit. It actually made me think that I should write something about Mumbai and the way Mumbai residents are different from any other cities in India. I have written a lot of Pittsburgh for my clients in terms of steel companies. I hope I am right, because I also used to write about Portland, Oregon so I am not sure which of the two cities has more steel companies. The descriptive style of the article is the hero of the article.


    • Thank you! I’m not sure how much in the way of actual steel industry is left in Pittsburgh. However, I’ve been back to visit a few times and the place seems like it was when I left, it’s just a little easier to breath. Our country is large and generally uniform on many levels, but each region has its own characteristics. What’s interesting about Pittsburgh is the number of times you will see it stand out on a chart as its own region. You can’t lump it in with the mid west, the mid Atlantic, or even most of Pennsylvania. Thanks again for reading and for the kind words.


  8. Love this sentence: “I still feel like I am part of my childhood community.”
    And your title, too.
    We can move on with our lives but we are also the product of our hometown.
    A quick personal anecdote about Pittsburgh. Over one of our first cross country trip, my family spent one afternoon and one night in your hometown. We walked through town and liked the feel of small town. But what I do remember best is the conversation we had with the waiter who took care of us while we had dinner. The best of the entire summer. He told us about the town and its people. His words echo yours. I felt the same affection for Pittsburgh, too often dismissed. And this waiter was from Russia.


    • Thank you. Since you brought it up, I struggled with the title. I changed it five times, but I kept coming back to this one. I’m glad you liked it. It doesn’t surprise me that you had a good meal in Pittsburgh, and that the waiter would talk about the city. Pittsburgh was made up of so many ethnic enclaves when I lived there it was amazing, and they all made such good food. I figured that you could relate to the topic. I enjoy reading your posts where you offer the slightly different view of our culture. I read the (translated) post about graduation and I never guessed that it wasn’t this way the world over. Thanks again.


  9. Wonderful post Dan. It’s fascinating how a place creeps in to the very depths of your soul and shapes you. You can’t let go of place even when you leave it. It persists in the very fibre of your being. There’s something deeply earthy about that, like your post. :)


  10. This post caught my eye not only because hub was in Philly for a day or so (part of the reason why he is delayed) and I had NO IDEA there was water there AND it ended up in the ocean, I really had no clue until I looked on a map, BUT because my DIL did her postdoc at Carnegie-Mellon and she and my son lived there for a little while and my son loved it a lot but alas, she did not, so she moved to CM west coast campus. They were there for such a short period of time that I didn’t have a chance to visit, but I wish I had. I can’t say I have a connection with my city, where I’m from, Detroit, OR San Diego but maybe Carlsbad, but not that much. I have a connection with my house, that’s about it. Although, I’m so very SoCal and eternally 13 years old.


  11. Wow – this took me back home. Born and raised in a town a little East of Monroeville. I moved to Eastern PA after I graduated high school (somewhere in the past few years there was time spent in Nashville & Clarksville, TN). Not all who wander are lost ;-)

    Liked by 1 person

    • On our way home, we drove east out of Pittsburgh (I still call it the Parkway East) through the Squirrel Hill Tunnel and Monroeville. Out the William Penn Highway until we picked up I-99. We stopped for a late breakfast over there (my daughter loves Eat’n Park). Thanks for the comment. I’ve wandered to NY City, Seattle and finally landed in CT but like you, not lost.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. I’ve never visited Pittsburgh, but I have an irrational affinity for it sight unseen. I already mentioned heart throb Franco Harris and continuing love for Steelers (anytime the Broncos can’t win the Super Bowl, my next choice is the Steelers). My other love for Pittsburgh comes from – you’ll laugh – the movie Flash Dance. Of course at the time I loved it for the dancing, but beyond that, the way the movie portrayed the blue collar steel workers and the American value of working hard before you play hard has stuck with me ever since. (God, I hope I have the city right and the movie wasn’t filmed in Philadelphia!!). I hear Pittsburgh is very hilly and filled with beautiful trees and architecture. Some day !

    Do you ever plan to move back?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think you are correct about the movie, at least most of it. I’ve been back more often recently for visits, but I’m not sure I’d move back. If I had to, I wouldn’t mind, but I might keep it as a place to visit. The blue collar work is mostly gone, but the spirit remains. The city and surrounding area is very hilly. Most of the family members I knew have moved away or died – I was the youngest child of the youngest child. I do like living in New England, even if it doesn’t fit very well.

      Liked by 1 person

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