Saturday, April 19, 2008

What Makes Pittsburgh Pittsburgh Is What Makes Pittsburgh Great

Photo: Runners in Pittsburgh’s annual ‘Great Race’

I sell real estate for a living. I’m out there every day of the week, interacting with people from all walks of life, all ages, all races, all demographics. My stomping grounds are not confined to the city center. I’m all over the county on a regular basis and I even dip into neighboring counties from time to time.

When I deal with newcomers to Pittsburgh, I’m forced to look at our city anew through their eyes. Forced to realize that in this day and age all books are judged by their covers and ours sometimes doesn’t make the best first impression. Our infrastructure is crumbling. Our highway system is nearly non-existent so commuting anywhere is a nightmare. There’s far too much litter on our streets and hillsides. But worst of all, we have an eerie fashion/trendiness time warp at play in our fair city. We’re a minimum of 10 years behind the times on any fad that’s gripped the rest of the nation and we’re wholly unapologetic for the lag.

So when newcomers inevitably ask me why I like it here so much ….. Why I continue to stay instead of moving to LA where I could “make a killing” on real estate … I’m sometimes hard pressed to adequately express, in three words or less, the real inner-beauty that makes Pittsburgh Pittsburgh. If they only have time for the three-word answer, my reply is “It’s the people.” If they can spare a little longer than that, I tell them the story of Mr. Science.

When I first met Mr. Science, he introduced himself as a scientist and artist. He was a 50-something white guy and the “artist” part was obvious …. His wonderful metal sculptures graced the inside and outside of his very modest, unassuming-isn’t-the-half-of-it, 2-bedroom Ross Township bungalow which was now up for sale. But as I started to peel back the layers of Mr. Science, the story just got better and better.

Yes, he was a PhD, held a patent for the determination of protein function, was published in the field of tissue engineering and had just started up a small bio-tech company in Harmar.

“Oh, so that’s why you’re selling,” I chimed in. “Are you planning to live closer to your new company? Fox Chapel maybe?” Fox Chapel is the borough right next to Harmar. Fox Chapel also has the highest median home price in the area, is a prestigious address filled with prestigious homes owned by prestigious people like Theresa Heinz Kerry.

“Oh … yea, living closer to work would be better,” Mr. Science replied. “And, yea, my new place is closer … But I’m not in Fox Chapel. I just bought a small foreclosure over on Chicago St. in Pittsburgh that I’m going to fix up.”

The foreclosure on Chicago St, right off of Mt. Pleasant Rd.???!!! (Hit me with a ton of bricks) I was coincidentally very familiar with this home as I had just been asked my opinion on its worth. It was in very bad condition and its location was far from prime. You see, access to Chicago St is difficult. To get there, one must travel through the Northview Heights public housing project which has gated entrances manned by armed security guards. Not what we in the real estate world would refer to as a “good selling point”.

Mr. Science knew how surprising this choice was. He’d probably already explained himself to a dozen or so family members and friends and so he automatically went about the tiresome task of explaining himself one more time to me.

“You see,” he continued, “I’ve been working with the kids over there at Northview for years now. Every time I show up they all run up to me. They call me ‘Mr. Science’ and they ask me lots of questions or they want me to help them fix their bikes. Stuff like that. They’re really a great bunch of kids and I’ve actually come to love them. I spend all of my off-time over there anyway …. So I figured why not just live there? The Chicago house is perfect because I’ll be right next door to all those kids and I can be with them all the time as a neighbor.”

I didn’t know what to say or even where to begin. I paused and finally said, “Thank you. On many, many levels …Thank you.”

I put out my hand in an attempt to shake his but he stepped back saying, “Oh, no. Please. Don’t thank me. I get more from those kids than I give. And besides, at my age you come to realize that you’ve got to give back or there is no point to living. If I can’t give something back, each and every day, then I just don’t want to be here anymore.”

So there it is, people. There is Pittsburgh. The embodiment of Pittsburgh as found in one Mr. Science. An unassuming 50-something artist/scientist who works hard every day, has not been seduced or sidetracked by wealth or power or the quest for it, does not wear or own the latest name-brand in anything but rather creates his own objets d’art, lives and breathes and thinks outside of the box and considers death to be the day he can no longer give back.

That’s my town. That’s my Pittsburgh. That’s why I stay.


Greg said...

great post!

Rick Byerly said...

awesome post, thanks. good to see it over at

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