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Pittsburgh’s charm lies in its unpretentious character

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Greetings from the nation’s capital.

Just in case you were dying to know, I am spending a semester at American University in Washington, D.C. For the spring of 2006 I can hone my skills at saving the world (read: non-profit management) with the cream of the public policy crop in this “buzzing, bustling, international city,” as American’s website calls my current home. “A city where there are only two lifestyle speeds, impossibly fast and impossibly faster,” it gushes. “Visit our exciting neighborhoods for a real taste of America’s home town,” urges the D.C. Chamber of Commerce. Even my handy Not for Tourists™ Guide, whose writers often employ irreverent humor at the expense of the destinations they’re describing, describes this city “the most powerful — and one of the most dynamic — in the world.”

I miss Pittsburgh like crazy.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m having a great time here. It is bustling, it is dynamic, and there are plenty of fascinating things to look at. I assure you that there is more to Washington than giant phallic monuments and the Smithsonian. Furthermore, the program I am involved in encourages me to explore and work with neighborhoods in D.C. that, while not as key as Capitol Hill or as glamorous as Georgetown, are certainly just as interesting.

But consider this (very) brief history lesson. D.C. was once known, for better or for worse, as the “Chocolate City,” thanks to its majority African-American population. It was thus home to a thriving and interesting black cultural scene. It also housed diehard Redskins fans and rising numbers of immigrants, as well as the President. True, at some point in the recent past it might also have also been the murder capital of the nation (a reputation that has long outlasted fact), but it had a character all its own.

Today, most D.C. residents are transplants from somewhere else. They move to the rapidly spreading suburbs or push long-time residents out of their neighborhoods so they can snap up million-dollar townhouses. Following in the wake of this lightning-fast gentrification are staggeringly high real-estate prices, tree-lined avenues, snazzy nightclubs, tapas bars, and Whole Foods supermarkets. But at what price? From what I’ve seen and heard so far, D.C. is marginalizing a lot of its own citizens, and losing some of its soul in the process. Imagine, if you will, an entire city transforming into Shadyside, but with less parking and more congressional staffers.

Here is where Pittsburgh enters the picture. I am not even going to pretend that Pittsburgh has a better theater, nightclub, or restaurant scene going for it than D.C., nor am I going to claim that it is as “bustling” or “dynamic.” You will not rub shoulders with your Senator in a swanky steakhouse in Pittsburgh, nor will you find protestors riding the sparkling-clean subway system to go demonstrate in front of the White House. Glamour and power go hand in hand, and Pittsburgh is in somewhat short supply of both.

But that’s exactly what makes it so appealing. Pittsburghers are proud of who they are, or at the very least, what they represent: no-nonsense, unpretentious citizens, generally from a blue-collar background, who have managed to preserve ethnic traditions and local loyalties to a degree not found in many other cities. Pittsburgh holds on firmly and naturally to its history. Look at the robber-baron mansions in Shadyside and Squirrel Hill. Venture into neighborhoods like Bloomfield, where little Italian nuns still sweep the sidewalks in front of churches. Go poke around streets with row houses and back alleys straight out of a turn-of-the-century photograph, where time has stood so still that people still drive cars they’ve owned for 30 years. There’s a reason production companies like to film period movies in the ’Burgh — parts of it look like a giant, living film noir set.

Maybe I’m waxing a little too nostalgic. After all, Pittsburgh has some less appealing history to deal with, including tense racial and labor relations. And yes, chances are it will lose a lot of its old-fashioned flavor as the older generation is replaced by a new one. But change can be celebrated too, whether it’s in the form of a new arts community in Lawrenceville or in tech-savvy establishments at the river’s edge. Somehow, transformation in Pittsburgh feels unconscious, gradual, and organic. There might be a Whole Foods now, but that hasn’t changed the fact that Pittsburgh is one of the few places you can eat an artery-clogging pastrami sandwich and feel like you’ve done something culturally significant. And seriously, where else would an entire municipality change its name to that of its favorite football team?

So, Pittsburgh, consider this an early Valentine. You may have your faults and foibles, you may be a little grimy compared to the gleaming white District of Columbia, but you’re not afraid to be yourself. And when I return next fall, I can rest easy knowing you’ll still be the same.