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Why I Left

Marguerite Matthews came to Pittsburgh for a PhD program but misses so much more from the city she left behind.

“No, you can’t leave!”

This was the common reaction when I announced to friends that I would be moving from Pittsburgh to Portland, OR. While I was geeked about the promising career opportunity that was luring me away, I was surprised at how sad I was over having to leave a place I called home.

I had moved to Pittsburgh seven years before, knowing very little about the city. Basically, I knew the Steelers were there. And that it was close to Philly. Which is what seemingly everyone who’s never been to Pittsburgh assumes before they get there. That the Burgh and Philly are sister cities when in reality they’re a hundred thousand miles apart. (Well, roughly.) Pittsburgh wasn’t even on my list of places to visit, let alone places to reside, but I was being recruited to a prestigious university’s doctoral program and wanted to see what was good.

My first visit was in the middle of winter. For a southern Californian then living in Georgia, the cold and gloom — and the shocking discovery that Pittsburgh was nowhere near Philly — could have easily been a turn off. But I remember riding in the back of the Town Car down I-376. It’s hard to describe the exhilarating feeling of the moment we emerged out of the Fort Pitt Tunnel, where the once mundane landscape turned into a breathtaking view of downtown Pittsburgh, lined with skyscrapers and surrounded by rivers and bridges. Even with the overcast sky and the air full of mist, the city was beautiful. It felt like a cherry hidden inside a three-day-old piece of cake.

During my short visit, I quickly became a fan of the Steel City. The big city/small town feel. The distinct neighborhoods. The awkward but endearing Pittsburghese. The endless hills and incline railways. The limestone columns of Mellon Institute are the largest monolithic columns in the world. The iconic US Steel Tower and Cathedral of Learning. Pittsburgh…home of Mr. Fred Rogers and his neighborhood; the inventor of the Klondike bar; Heinz ketchup (the only ketchup); and the Big Mac (though, I’m not sure if this is to be applauded or shamed).

I don’t think I ever really factored any cons into my decision to move to the Burgh. Sure, moving to a place that has more dreary days than sunny ones, with not one family member or friend within a 200-mile radius, was less than ideal. But all I needed was my Facebook account, an unlimited cell phone plan, rain boots, a North Face, and an EZ pass for weekend roadtrips. No big deal. It was just a few years, how bad could it get?

Though Pittsburgh was vastly different from Atlanta and San Diego, the adjustment was pretty easy to make. In no time, I had made friends, connected with the Black graduate student organization, found a hair stylist, and worshipped in a Black church (Mt. Ararat). By my second or third year in the Burgh, the city was familiar to me and I felt at home. I had steadily built a community that would have a profound, lasting impact on me. This community included a close cohort of grad students and recent transplants; the few of us pursuing degrees in STEM fields referred to ourselves as PhDeez. (Don’t ask why.)

Now, I won’t pretend like I never I cursed the city or regularly threatened to leave on the next thing smokin’. I grew tired of the weather and the impossible traffic on the narrow two-lane streets. And it sucked to constantly watch friends come and go after they completed their two-year bids for school or work. Pittsburgh just wasn’t a place for the cool kids. (Or a place for finding a decent mate. But that’s another alcohol-fueled conversation for another day.) If you were young, educated and Black, the wise move was to head to Philly, NYC, DC, Chicago, or Atlanta.

But when it was eventually time for me to pack up and leave Pittsburgh, it wasn’t to escape or find somewhere better. Or Blacker. I left for a great opportunity in a new place I knew little about, just like I had seven years earlier. But I hated to uproot myself from the birthplace of my adulthood, where I had bloomed and flourished, and home of my fondest (and craziest) memories.

I miss my lab. I miss my line sisters. I miss my Crew. I miss my Macedonia church family. I miss line dancing at Warren United Methodist. I miss living in the Hill District. I miss walking through downtown and across the Roberto Clemente Bridge to go to Bucs games. I miss waving my Terrible Towel in Heinz Field to cheer the Stillers to victory. I miss co-ed flag football. I miss nights partying at Savoy. I miss late night trips to IHOP. I miss game nights. I miss Tuesday wing nights at William Penn Tavern. I miss Pamela’s crepe-like pancakes. I miss Pittsburgh salads.

I miss Pittsburgh. And I often wish I was still there.  

About the Author

Marguerite Matthews has a PhD in neuroscience that does not keep her warm at night. When she’s not mapping developing brain networks, she’s directing outreach initiatives to connect youth of color to S.T.E.M. opportunities and addressing mental health disparities in underserved communities. In her spare time, she enjoys watching ratchet TV (for research purposes), curating her Goodreads book list, learning the hottest dance trends, and blogging about all of the above. You can trust her, she’s a doctor.


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  • CopleySteeler

    Well done. Great city

  • Wu Young, A.O.M

    Good post, Marge! I’m sure if I ever leave Chucktown I would be shackled with similar sentiments.

  • Cruz

    Nice! I left 10 yrs ago after doing a 7yr bid for school and work. But I do miss it at times. Haven’t been back since.

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