People have often joked with me that my family was large enough to have its own baseball team. With 8 siblings, we weren’t really a team, but come to think of it, it pretty much was its own community, especially when other siblings got married and had kids of their own.
I’ve even been accused of trying to rebuild or re-assemble that family everywhere I’ve lived. In Brunswick, Georgia, my late friend Bill and a few of us who worked in radio at the time, founded “The Possum Club,” which was made up of other media types in that city.
We’d get together after work, on days we weren’t covering a government meeting, and shoot the breeze, catch up and share laughs. It was a memorable close-knit group of characters.
So, everywhere I go, since I’m rather inquisitive, I ask people, “Where are you from?”
A couple of weeks ago, I flew to Pittsburgh to attend a writing conference at Point Park University in the heart of downtown. One thing I learned on my trip is that while Pittsburgh may be a large city, a true sense of community flourishes there. And I’m not talking about fandom for the Steelers, Penguins or Pirates.
Of the 12 people I interrogated about their city, for the most part, each not only told me they were natives, they answered with the words, “Born and bred here.” As a person who fully believes that each word choice matters, saying “born and bred” gives the listener – in this case me – a deep sense of commitment to their community. Many responded with a smile on their face.
One Uber driver and another restaurant owner told me similar stories of how deep that sense of community runs in the former bedrock of America’s steel industry.
Both men said they knew people who grew up in the city, attended one of the area’s colleges or universities and then left the city to pursue a career elsewhere.
“They always come back because they realize what we’ve got here is so unique and special,” said the restauranteur.
Naturally, my next question was what do you mean? What makes Pittsburgh so unique?
He said, “For one thing, the block parties.” This got me thinking of the proper follow-up question.
He said block parties usually involve residents on an entire street, a local band, various families cooking out and sharing among all of the neighbors.
He said someone takes the lead and gets a permit from the city police department to block off the streets and the fun is on!
“They may charge $2 or 3 to offset the cost of buying the food,” he said.
On my stay, I set out to do what Airbnb says they allow their clientele to do: “Live like a local.” I rode public transportation, the bus, the subway and the Allegheny Incline and I talked to folks who truly exuded a sense of warmth about the place I’d only seen previously in Steelers games on television.
The more I traveled in the city, I looked around and watched and noticed the unique nature of the landscape, the housing and the zoning.
I’d only seen neighborhood bars in movies, but in Pittsburgh, they are real. I’m walking along towards a borough called Mount Oliver – a municipality within the city limits – to find a snack one night and there it is. Since the bar didn’t offer food, I kept going, but it was as I envisioned – a local dive that I’m sure, if I’d stayed and chatted, would have resulted in similar stories about their city.
I even got lost one night because I thought I had mastered the bus line and stopped and asked someone for directions. Nice, kind people at various points offered directions.
Another aspect to which I paid close attention was the zoning or least where businesses and homes were located. There were no strip centers in the city, no large sprawling shopping centers, no gigantic parking lots.
I remember after college seeing a bumper sticker with the phrase, “We don’t care how you do it up North” on it and thought how insular that sounded at the time.
Perhaps there is at least one city to the north from which we all could learn a little something.