Pittsburghers have been through some tough times, and we can’t be blamed if we are a bit depressed. Coupled with the rain and less-than-stellar job growth, those rolling western Pennsylvania hills don’t always seem so nostalgic to those of us who live on them. But for many of us, there’s too much of the hillbilly, too much of the Whiskey Rebellion hell-raiser, in our blood to allow us to leave. If the rest of the world can’t understand that, we figure the hell with them.
Even as our friends and relatives have left, we’ve stayed. I am one of twelve children, most of who were born here and all of whom were reared here. Just one brother and me now live in the Pittsburgh area.
Those of us who’ve stayed here read almost daily about the exodus of people who’ve left the city and we can’t help but sometimes think of our relatives, who are a part of that migration. We get an invitation to a wedding on the West Coast and we sullenly wonder why the relative’s birthplace was not good enough for them to stay. If we act pig-headed, even our siblings call us Yinzers. They now are the ones who are remaking an old city that is new to them. They’ve become a Pittsburgh statistic, and now those of us who stayed are a statistic.
Some of my siblings justify their detachment from Pittsburgh by saying that our parents weren’t from here, which is why we are not the typical large Pittsburgh family that has so many roots in the city. But I don’t know if that family exists anymore—economics and the relentless push of the human spirit toward sunnier skies and better job prospects has decimated our ranks. I can’t think of one large family I knew growing up who hasn’t lost at least a person or two to a different town. I suppose this is all natural. But the struggle of Pittsburghers to stay in their city is not exactly natural.
Sure, some have stayed due to lack of ambition, but many more have stayed here because they can’t bear to leave. Whether native or not, this place gets in your blood. Maybe it’s the rivers constantly running by, or the mills—rusting relics of our fiery industrial history—or the way many here have worked to remake a place that often is the butt of jokes across the nation. Perhaps it is all of these things and more. It could be that the very nature I describe is part of the fiber of Pittsburghers, whose family line or predilections led them here or kept them in this city.
My dad was a Detroit native. And now, years after he died, it occurs to me that he was more Pittsburgher than he knew. He didn’t spoil for a fight, but he never shrunk from a confrontation. It wasn’t in his nature, just like it’s not in the nature of most Pittsburghers. In the town where labor rebelled so many times, it shouldn’t be news that Pittsburghers like to meet the fight head-on. And it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Pittsburghers are taking prominence in Reality Television shows. People from Pittsburgh have long been the ultimate survivors.
We’ve earned the right to be a bit salty or even rather brusque. It’s part of the way we are and sometimes newcomers don’t understand that. “They don’t realize that Pittsburgh’s a small town, but it’s a big city, and that’s the way people sometimes act,” said a friend of mine who was born here and then moved back for college 26 years ago and never left. That cantankerousness which is part of the style of Pittsburghers is one reason why people who come here love this place. We’ve got style and an alluring grittiness—"Like a Polish kid with a homemade haircut," comedian Lenny Bruce wrote.
Our relatives and friends can have Seattle, San Diego, Washington, D.C. or London. Those places can’t compare to our home, with its quirky neighborhoods and green hills, because the old Steel City will always be our home. Despite the rain, to Pittsburgh’s original survivors, our corner of the world is a garden spot.