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Why I Stayed

1839 editor Damon Young articulates why he hasn't left the Burgh. His reason might surprise you.

I didn’t become aware of exactly how Pittsburgh I am until I went to college in upstate New York; a place where I was made aware of exactly how Pittsburgh I am by the endless questions about the genesis of my accent. An accent I wasn’t even aware of until I went to school.

“Are you from the South or something?”

“No. Well, technically I’m from south of here, but I’m not from the South.”

“Where are you from, then?”

“Pittsburgh.”

“Oh. You mean like Philly?”

“No. Not at all.”

Increasingly annoyed by and intrigued with this line of questioning — which almost always came from the New Yorkers who happened to be in Buffalo — I doubled down on my Pittsburghese; incorporating a Hill District/Schenley High School-centric slang term (“Ike”) into my lexicon that I, a Penn Hills grad from East Liberty, had no business using. But they weren’t from Pittsburgh — shit, one even expressed to me that she had never even heard of Pittsburgh –– so what did they know?

It’s been over a decade since I was in college. But that awkward cocktail of self-consciousness, haughtiness, and overprotectiveness still persists, still permeates, when the subject of me and my relationship to my city is brought up by outsiders. I do not say ‘Ike” anymore. Because the questions are no longer about my accent. And even if they were, a man in his mid-30s still ending every sentence with Ike is giving you full permission to open hand smack him on the eyelids. Instead, I find myself answering a different question..

“Why are you still in Pittsburgh?”

…and giving great answers I’m not quite sure I believe.

On Monday, the answer might be “Well, we (my wife and I) were planning on moving to D.C. a couple years ago. But then my mom passed and I didn’t want to leave my dad alone here by himself.” By Monday afternoon it’s “Man, with the cost of living the way it is here, if I moved to New York City I’d have to make 56 million dollars a year to maintain my standard of living.” Monday evening it’s “I can’t leave if I’m attempting to convince people of color to stay here. That would make me a hypocrite. And the only thing worse than a hypocrite is Cleveland.” And, if you cornered me at a bar somewhere at 10:27 that night — and bought me several Honey Jack and gingers — you might hear “I’m the shit here. Why would I leave?”

None of these answers would be false. But they’re not true truths. They’re lawyer truths. Aint shit husband truths. Bush administration truths. Love and Hip-Hop cast member truths. The type of truths you volunteer when you’d rather be evasively truthful than honest.

Because the truth — the honest reason why I’ve decided to stay in Pittsburgh — just isn’t sexy enough. Or convincing enough. Shit, even as I prepare to type the words out and visualize how they’ll look on the page, I’m not convinced of it. Not because I’m deluding myself. But because it feels like it should be more. It should be more compelling. It should stick and sting.

I mean, I am a Black man in the single Whitest major metropolitan area in the country. A city so White Rick James once tried to snort it. I’ve seen multiple peers and friends — including each of my best friends — leave. Some of whom would rather leave the motherfucking continent than return back to live in Pittsburgh. I also have an occupation with no geographical constraints. I could do what I currently do anywhere from Austin to Aliquippa. I do not need to be here. And I have several very valid reasons not to be.

But I am here. Because I want to be. I live in Pittsburgh because I want to live in Pittsburgh. And, there’s no specific reason I can cite; no powerful words I can write to add weight and meaning to my point. Nothing about the neighborhoods or the topography or East Liberty or the gotdamn Primanti Brothers sandwiches. Asking me why I’ve stayed in Pittsburgh is like asking a father why he loves his daughter. Or how a tree feels about the sun. All attempts to articulate it would seem clumsy and maudlin because it is just not something that can be articulated effectively. 

But, because that answer is so, well, uninspiring, when people ask why I’ve stayed, I’ll continue to pull from my vault of half-truths. Maybe the next time I’ll tell them something about the Steelers or something.

About the Author

Damon Young is the co-editor of 1839. He's also a co-founder and editor in chief of VSB (VerySmartBrothas) and a contributing editor and columnist for EBONY Magazine. Damon is busy. He can be reached at damon@1839mag.com.

Comments

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  • Lingaire Njie

    Yes, yes and yes!!

    1. I had pretty much identical conversations when I went to college in St. Louis. I was told that I sounded more country than a classmate from Arkansas..Lol

    2. Shout out to Schenley High! #ClassOf96

    3. I moved back here because I wanted to. It’s home and I love it. This is spot on!

  • jolly

    Respect. Not a native but I’ve been waiting for this moment. This moment where proud and black Pittsburghers rep their set vs. The ones I encountered mostly who questioned why on earth as a New Yorker I would ever move to Pittsburgh unconsciously reenforcing my growing disdain and often lonely moments in the sea of white. So yes to all of this! Now when I return after having lived there for 5 years, I’m nostalgic can’t help it. Even amidst gentrification I’m actually seeing something other than 2520s in their glory, ( from Latinos to my fellow Africans- eatAfricanPittsburgh.com, and now this- I’m loving it!) Shout out to Professor Glasco who started my romance and curiosity with the History of Black Pittsburgh in his class. Never forget my first trip to the Hill and how much it felt like my beloved and romanticized Harlem. You can hear the whispers of strong and defiant black souls. Getting my hair done by the daughter of a famous black jazz musician after feeling defeated with my fro. Warms my heart to feel this renaissance afoot. Keep up the great work!

    • http://sarahhunyyoung.com/ sarah huny young

      as a new yorker who relocated to pittsburgh last year I feel you on this. I’m still yearning for diverse spaces here, though. I doubt I’ll ever get used to the level of intention one has to employ in order to find Black folk beyond a smattering in the crowd here and there. I really love how you’ve found ways to immerse yourself from the urban league to mentoring to dance class. I would love for you to expand on it more if you’re interested in contributing (and/or just schooling me lol). huny@1839mag.com.

      • jolly

        Emailing you! More than happy to help!

  • Sigma_Since 93

    Props for the article. I wish I lived here to experience Black Pittsburgh in its heyday so I could see and feel the impact Pittsburgh had on the world. Props to you and many others making a transplant feel welcome.

  • http://batman-news.com LaRue Graves

    I’m from Pittsburgh when it was Pittsburgh: I loved it. When I lived there, it had broad steely shoulders that – albeit reticent – supported broad vistas. I lived there at a time when “blue collar” work forced people of all ethnic backgrounds, to at least consider living together in relative harmony. A time when we were third in the number of corporations that called the city of Pittsburgh their home. A era when my father could spend a year of overtime at Westinghouse Electric and circumvent redlining by Mellon Bank and buy our home out of a ‘paper bag’ full of cash. A time when we could see John Coltrane, Jimmy Smith and Earl Garner at The Hurricane or The Crawford Grill. A time when, if you didn’t have a job, you didn’t want one. When a 1969 protest – similar to the one now transpiring at University of Missouri – led to a more inclusive University of Pittsburgh. During that time, we had a couple Black Campus Queens and won a National Championship. It was exciting and hopeful times.
    Corporations, urban planners and social scientists put an end to all of that, though. The US Steels and Westinghouses began to downsize. Albeit many whites kept their jobs, Blacks were out on the streets: Black unemployment skyrocketed and crime rates matched its meteoric climb. The Pittsburgh version of egalitarianism and wealth sharing became all to much for the hostile host culture. When informed that Pittsburgh was hemorrhaging Black talent for the lack of opportunities, then Mayor Caligiuri’s retort was “…Let them leave!”
    Nowadays, my ‘fair’ city has been re-absorbed into the ‘Great White North’: A study, conducted earlier this year, established Pittsburgh and its contiguous environs as one of the “…most segregated areas in the country…
    A multicultural city that once birthed talent like: Roger Humphries; Dakota Staton; Billy Strayhorn; Earl Garner; George Benson; Henry Mancini; Billy Eckstein; Stanley Turrentine – and was once known as the ‘Gateway’ – is now barren.
    I just returned from attending a funeral in my old home town. I was slated to stay 3 days: I left after two. Had I completed my planned sojourn, I might have cut my throat…

  • Dee cruse

    Wow this article takes the words out of my mouth…I say I stay because of my mom but really just because I want to…I lived here all my life I would feel like I’m leaving my baby..and who in their right mind can
    do that

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