I was born and raised in Pittsburgh.
I eventually attended the University of Pittsburgh after a trial year in Cleveland at another school, and after falling in love with the Oakland campus during a semester of “I’ll just take a few core classes while I figure out where I REALLY want to go.”
The Pittsburgh of my twenties was full of new theatre companies, alternative music and art venues, dive bars and coffee shops with more characters than menu items, free tickets to the symphony and opera, late-night urban explorations, frequent visits to the major museums and an overall sense of awe and wonder that this was the same city I’d always called home, but had clearly never fully appreciated.
I fell in love with South Oakland, then North Oakland, and eventually Squirrel Hill, Oakmont, Lawrenceville, Point Breeze, The Strip District, Bloomfield… Every neighborhood I “discovered” became my new favorite and I was constantly baffled that I had lived here for so long and known so little of the city. And yet, I remained somehow acutely aware that it was my hometown all along.
In 2011, I moved to Sarasota, Florida—a city that rivals Pittsburgh in culture-per-capita.
Sarasota has a core of people who’ve long-lived and raised families there, but is also home to a tremendous number of transplants, boasting one of the highest number of retirees in the nation. It often felt like a city divided to me, with the snow birds and vacationers favoring certain haunts and hot spots, and the people who lived and worked there year-round favoring others. These preferences were based on a number of things, including income level, geography, and brand loyalty.
Pittsburgh is home to individuals and families who have been living here for generations, but also becomes home to thousands of new people every year through the many schools and universities, as well as the growing job market (and maybe a little because websites like movoto.com and Buzzfeed are harboring major crushes on Pittsburgh these days and encouraging people to flock here).
Now that I find myself back in my beloved city after my longest stretch away to date, what strikes me as exceptional about Pittsburgh is that there are many cases where these two populations—the long-timers and the newbies—thrive on coexistence.
Of course, there is always room for improvement in this area and there is a lot to discuss when it comes to a balance of old and new, but it seems to me that the people who move to Pittsburgh and fall in love with it, are falling in love with what exists here already, as well as with the opportunities they see for growth. This perceived potential comes from an established community that values the arts, education and change. Those who have lived here for generations embrace and celebrate the city’s history, but recognize the inevitability of change.
Admittedly, over the last two years there have been more than a few occasions when I have been saddened when I’ve gone to get a cup of coffee from my favorite college café to find it no longer exists, or driven by a favorite scenic area to see an apartment complex has been erected, or walked through a neighborhood where my favorite historical building once stood.
My biggest consolation where losses like these are concerned is that many of the new businesses I see moving in and taking their places are independently owned. To me, this is indicative of both a reclaiming or redefining of the local economy, and an expression of a desire by these entrepreneurs—both native and transplants—to settle in Pittsburgh for the long haul and make it their home.
I am encouraged by the many businesses and restaurants I see exploring new territory and succeeding throughout the city because this means that people here are taking risks, as well as welcoming change.
I am impressed by the many art installations, historic landmarks, and eco-friendly initiatives I see throughout the city because they demonstrate widespread civic pride and a shared valuing of preservation.
And I am eager to see what the Pittsburgh of my thirties will reveal to me, trusting that the city will continue to inspire, challenge and delight me, while always remaining home.
Lily Junker is working with Second Steel as the Community Outreach Associate.