“My car had a flat on the Parkway, and three people stopped to help me.”
“When I moved into my new home, the next door neighbors welcomed me with a cake.”
Experiences like these are not rare when you are in Pittsburgh. In 2009, The Economist named Pittsburgh the most livable city in the country and Forbes named it the seventh-safest city in terms of violent crime. While the city may not be paradise, Pittsburgh maintains an urban culture that is neighborly in the good old-fashioned, down to earth sense. When people come to Pittsburgh, they often feel like they’ve died and gone to heaven, especially if they’ve come from other places where the inhabitants aren’t so kind.
At one time, Pittsburgh’s slogan was The City with a Smile on Its Face. That may have sounded a bit folksy or corny; nonetheless it was very appropriate. Pittsburgh is very welcoming to strangers and natives alike. Pittsburghers will go out of their way help someone in need, and they love to take people under their wing.
Pittsburgh’s Ethnic Communities
Why are Pittsburghers so friendly? There is no definitive answer, but there are several theories. The first is rooted in the city’s history. Pittsburgh is a true melting pot. Since the city’s founding more than 250 years ago, waves of immigrants have arrived here and made the steep hills and sprawling valleys home. Germans, Irish, Polish, Italians, Slovaks, Ukrainians, Lithuanians are just some of the different nationalities that have settled here. When these settlers arrived in the area, they were “strangers in a strange land.” Many didn’t speak English and the culture here was vastly different from the ones they left behind. To survive and thrive, these various groups tended to settle together in ethnic communities. The terrain of the area also isolated these groups from one another. These small ethnically homogenous social units fostered a friendliness and “looking out for your neighbor” type of attitude.
The various ethnic groups formed social clubs, built churches, observed their cultural holidays and ate their native cuisine. There was strength in solidarity in these enclaves. Hence, you find neighborhoods throughout the area where certain groups lived. Troy Hill and Deutschtown were inhabited by Germans, Squirrel Hill by Jews, Lawrenceville the Irish, Bloomfield the Italians and as its eponymous name indicates the Polish on Polish Hill.
For decades these neighborhoods remained small towns unto themselves, and stories were told of Irish children who lived next door to the German parochial school but who had to walk many blocks away to attend the Irish school and vice versa. The members of these ethnic communities grew up together, married each other, worked together, and contributed to each others’ and the overall success of their respective communities.
With the advance of technology, especially the automobile, venturing from one ethnic neighborhood to the next became much easier. And while the people who settled Pittsburgh began to mingle and work with other differing ethnic groups, they did not lose their neighborly attitude. The neighborhood just became a bit larger, encompassing the whole area. Being kind and helpful is just the Pittsburgh way of doing things.
The Six Degrees of Pittsburgh
Perhaps another reason why Pittsburghers are so friendly is because we are so inter-connected. Pittsburghers put down deep roots. In fact, Pittsburgh ranks second among areas in the nation of residents who have been born in the area and have remained there. And it is not uncommon for inhabitants to remain in the same home for decades. Because Pittsburghers tend to “bloom where they are planted,” it is very likely that if you meet someone from Pittsburgh and you are from the area, there’s a great chance that you and your new acquaintance have a friend in common.
You could call it Six Degrees of Pittsburgh, the kind of real-life social networking that even Facebook and Twitter can’t match. When you first meet a Pittsburgher, you will notice that they often ask many questions about you. They’re not being “nebby;” as we say; they’re just trying to see if they can make a connection to a mutual acquaintance.
One person remarked that because she’s lived in Pittsburgh her entire life, she has felt very safe. She estimated that along her five-mile commute to work, she could count a friend, an acquaintance, or the relative of a friend on each block, someone on whose door she felt comfortable enough to knock in case of an emergency.
Pittsburgh’s Traditional Values
Pittsburghers tend to be traditional; therefore, our values have remained strong. Most of us have been raised to be kind and attentive to others. And besides if you are rude, chances are someone you know will see you behaving badly and tell your mother!
While residents after World War II began to socialize and marry outside their own ethnic group, it was often on a small scale. Some believe that one major factor in galvanizing Pittsburgh’s united urban identity was the Steelers Super Bowl Dynasty of the 1970s. Football was the catalyst around which the residents rallied around and united together as one.
Rallying Around the Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburghers stood shoulder-to-shoulder in Three Rivers Stadium cheering their beloved Steelers to four championships in six seasons in the ’70s. The area’s ethnic heritage, of which Pittsburghers are so proud, was evident in the fan clubs that enthusiasts formed and extended to their favorite players. We had Franco’s Italian Army, made up of fans who were devoted to Franco Harris, who was half Italian. We had Dobre Shunka, Polish for “good ham” and focused on Steelers great Jack Ham. The Steelers allowed Pittsburghers to integrate their ethnicity with their love for football and civic pride.
Pittsburgh Tries Harder
Another reason that Pittsburghers are so friendly is because of our “underdog” status. Like those old Avis rental commercials, we try harder. Pittsburgh is not New York, Washington, Chicago, or Los Angeles, and because we are not one of the big guys, we make up for a lack of flash with uncommon friendliness. Pittsburghers have the best of both worlds: outstanding city living with hometown friendliness.
Whether you are a native or not, the friendliness of Pittsburghers will make you feel right at home.