'I Always Knew I Would Come Back' to Pittsburgh
Moira Egler, 25, wanted to live in New Orleans ever since she volunteered on post-Katrina reconstruction projects as a high-schooler back in 2006. Gutting houses and talking with survivors inspired her to pursue community development as a potential career. She ended up going to Tulane University and toiling at hands-on internships in New Orleans communities. To save up some extra money, she decided to get a summer waitressing job in her hometown, Pittsburgh, then head back to New Orleans as an AmeriCorps volunteer.
Or at least, that was the plan. Once she got back home, she couldn't help but notice both the exciting changes happening in Pittsburgh's East End, and the work that still needed to be done in the city's low-income neighborhoods. She realized Pittsburgh could use a native like her, and that she could apply the skills she learned in New Orleans right in her backyard. She got a job working with a city councilman, where she helped draft legislation on vacant and blighted properties.
"In New Orleans, I experienced that wariness from the community, like 'what are you doing here?'" Egler says. "I wanted to feel like I had ownership over something. Pittsburgh is my town, my city. I'm not treading on anyone’s turf."
Pittsburgh tends to get lumped in with other "Rust Belt" cities like Cleveland and Detroit, but the truth is that the city is nearly unrecognizable compared to the 1980s. It was one of the first cities to bounce back from the recession, and its population is getting younger every year. There are certainly young people moving in, yet the ones who seem to be propelling Pittsburgh's renaissance are Millennials who were born and raised here. College grads are coming back and getting jobs in health care, tech, and the university system, living in neighborhoods like Shadyside and Oakland. Artists and activists are populating Pittsburgh's industrial East End and demanding that the city invest in low-income, historically black neighborhoods. During my six weeks of traveling, Pittsburgh rivaled Cleveland for displaying the most intense city loyalty I'd ever seen.
Many young natives I spoke with came back for the jobs. Devin Suiter, 29, recently moved from Honolulu to Pittsburgh after his fiancée, 30-year-old Pittsburgher Jenna Chung, told him about the burgeoning tech industry in her hometown. Suiter had "stalled out" as an IT specialist at Verizon—"there was nowhere really to go"—and wanted to move on. Sure enough, he got a job at a database service company within a month of landing in Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, Chung is looking for a job in the university system and thinking of going back to graduate school. "Not sure which, but this place is perfect for either of those things," she says.
Devin Suiter, left, and Jenna Chung, settled in Pittsburgh because of the availability of jobs in their fields. (Photo: Aaron Cassara)
For a lot of Pittsburghers, building a life in Pittsburgh is a given. "I always knew I would come back," says Alex Pazuchanics, 23, who moved back to find a job in politics after graduating from George Washington University last January. His college friends "didn’t understand the rationale" of his return—D.C. is the place for politics, after all—but Pazuchanics had been coming back every summer, doing internships and making connections. He could tell that "the winds in Pittsburgh politics were changing" and he wanted to get in on the ground floor. (Pittsburgh is indeed starting a new political era: The city elected Democrat Bill Peduto as mayor in a landslide victory a couple of weeks ago.)
Of course, there was another reason why Pazuchanics came back to Pittsburgh: it's affordable, and he knew the reasonable prices would come in handy when he was starting out in his career. He currently pays $685 a month for a one-bedroom apartment in the Brookline neighborhood—"not the coolest and hippest," but near the community meetings he attends for his job as the legislative director for a state representative. Egler only makes $13 an hour at her job, so she’s grateful for the prices, too; she pays $350 for a room in the Friendship neighborhood, in a house recently purchased by a friend her age. Several people told me that buying property in Pittsburgh at a young age isn't uncommon, even for working-class Millennials, thanks to a stable housing market and a first-time homebuyer program offered by the city.
Friendship and its neighboring East Side communities have been attracting all kinds of young people like Egler, catering to both broke artists and more moneyed young professionals. When I went out one night in Lawrenceville, I paid Brooklyn prices for a fancy meal at Salt of the Earth and craft cocktails at Tender—then went across the street to dance at '90s Night at Belvederes Ultra-Dive, where the drink prices live up to the name. There are modest thrift stores and fancy boutiques, crumbling properties and rehabbed ones.
Thanks to its relatively low crime rate, affordability, healthy economy, and vibrant restaurant and arts scenes, publications like Forbes and The Economist have labeled Pittsburgh America's "most livable city." Yet it’s still extremely segregated, both geographically and racially, and in recent years has had one of the highest rates of black poverty in the nation. Black neighborhoods here routinely get excluded from ambitious development plans. But again, it's the young natives who are doggedly working to pull these communities up. Taylor Leeper, 22, describes herself as a "diehard Pittsburgher for life," and stays because she feels "like I'm needed here." She works at Save-A-Lot as a meatwrapper, attends Allegheny Community College, and plans to eventually be an art therapist in the Pittsburgh area. She lives with a friend in the East Liberty neighborhood and pays a few hundred dollars a month in rent. She has no plans to leave.
Taylor Leeper grew up in Pittsburgh and hopes to stay there forever. (Photo: Aaron Cassara).
"I have thought about doing something like the Peace Corps in Africa, but there’s just too much to be done here," she says. Every week, she helps out her church by acting as a youth counselor in the Homewood neighborhood, a mostly poor, blighted area that’s decidedly not part of "livable" Pittsburgh.
Artist and Pittsburgh native D.S. Kinsel, 29, is trying to bridge that divide. He lives in gentrifying Lawrenceville and works as a program coordinator at MGR, a youth empowerment organization. MGR teaches middle and high school age students to use art as a tool for activism. Pittsburgh isn't full of oblivious young yuppies, he assures me. Many twenty-something natives living in the East End neighborhoods of Lawrenceville, Garfield, Bloomfield, and Friendship are "reaching out and listening to what these [lower-income] communities need." He welcomes change and transplants—"as long as they’re respectful when they get here"—but he gives most of the credit to people like him who have been there all along.
"Young Pittsburghers want to lay down roots," he says. "We're interested in making sure the grit survives."