Three Rivers the World Avoids

[Originally published in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review] I recently engaged a group of folks in an email discussion on why Pittsburgh lacks significant numbers of foreign immigrants. I was accused of not knowing anything about Pittsburgh (even though I lived most of my adult life there), was told Pittsburgh is diverse because of the variety of European settlers that had landed there a century and a half ago, and was further told that I was wrong–there were lots of newcomers from Asia and other locals in Pittsburgh. I was also accused of reverse discrimination, because I would dare to suggest that diversity, or encouraging immigrants to come to Pittsburgh, was a good thing.

In the words of one group member “Why contaminate Pittsburgh with reverse racism? We have who we have living here–if other cultures do not wish to live there–so be it!!”

Perhaps I do play the instigating part in these discussions, and I don’t know who exactly the people on the group list are, and it doesn’t much matter, except that I hope they are not representative of the average Pittsburgher (maybe not even representative of the rest of the list since those who participate are only a handful). In fact, the issue is quite hot in local papers, and I find it hard to believe these few people are so misinformed.

Let’s start with the reality of who lives in Pittsburgh.

According to the U.S. census narrative (on Allegheny County) for 2001, four percent of the people living there were foreign born. Ninety-six percent were native, including 85 percent who were born in Pennsylvania. Among people at least five years old living in Allegheny County in 2001, six percent spoke a language other than English at home. Of those speaking a language other than English at home, 22 percent spoke Spanish and 78 percent spoke some other language; 26 percent reported that they did not speak English “very well.” (Strange, considering 96 percent were born there). Also in 2001, less than half a percent had moved to Pittsburgh from abroad.

Pittsburgh ranks 57th out of the 66 cities ranked by the U.S. Census in terms of the number of people speaking a language other than English at home. On the email list, I was told that Asian and Latino immigrants didn’t come to Pittsburgh because it is too far from the West Coast (or already filled with them in the opinion of another group member). Yet some of the cities that beat it in this category include Wichita, Columbus, Omaha, and Buffalo.

The percentage of the population in Pittsburgh that is foreign-born is also dismal compared to most other sizeable cities in the U.S. There are more foreign-born people in Nashville, St. Louis, and Tulsa, Oklahoma, than in Pittsburgh. Few cities fare worse in this category.

The other category the Census provides is how many people speak Spanish at home in a given city. Pittsburgh is not a destination for the largest ethnic minority group in the United States, Hispanics. Pittsburgh ranks 65 out of the 66 cities listed in this category. What city is less a destination for Hispanics than Pittsburgh? Toledo takes that spot.

Again, it was explained to me by those who say they are older and wiser and have a Hispanic friend in Pittsburgh that this is the case because the Mexico border is so far away and there are no steel jobs for Hispanics. There are no Asians of course because Asians arrived in the West where they built the Union Pacific to connect the two great oceans. Somehow they came in greater numbers to Western New York and Toronto, but not Pittsburgh. (The last two sentences were sarcasm). Well, someone I do know from South America who now lives in Pittsburgh conveyed to me (and single examples should not be used to infer systematic or over-all conditions) when he arrived he tried to join a local union but was told “we only hire ‘local’ people.” More, Hispanics appear to flock to other industrial cities at greater rates than Pittsburgh. Among these are Cincinnati, Baltimore, Buffalo, Detroit–basically anywhere but Toledo.

I brought this up and tried to make my point because from my experience, Pittsburgh is a great place and I don’t really understand why immigrants don’t go to Pittsburgh. It has a relatively low cost of living, an availability of housing, more jobs than many other cities in the current economy, and lots of opportunities to start businesses (since as my Japanese friend says, Japanese food there is pretty bad. All you need to do is have good food and you won’t have competition).

Every time I dared to suggest that Pittsburgh is NOT diverse or that there are NOT many immigrants there I am told that I am wrong, the census is wrong, these silly surveys the Census takes can be made to show anything the authors want them to say. And now I have been censored from the group. (The distaste from being censored is what led to this column.)

Back when I started the Discover Pittsburgh email group (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/discoverpittsburgh) for immigrants and minorities to find people (or anyone new) in Pittsburgh to welcome them, I also faced a discouraging front. Immigrants who did not live there asked me why I thought they would be crazy enough to move to Pittsburgh? Apparently most are not “crazy enough.” From the people who joined the list who were in Pittsburgh, I more commonly got a response telling others to “stay in California.”

As I discussed with my good newspaper friend a while back, immigrants on the shores are slowly spreading though the country. Even if Pittsburgh is the last city to fill with immigrants, it eventually will fill. I look forward to that day. I look forward to the day when the city is able to elect a mayor who is not white or part of the machine, not because he is not white, but because it will mean the power structure has been broken. (And we know if he’s not white or a he or Irish, for that matter, she or he will not likely be part of the machine.) What other industrial northeastern city has never been represented by an African-American mayor at some point in recent history? This will be a symbol to the world that Pittsburgh is open to the diversity that too many people there contend, with their heads in the black-and-gold sand, that the city already has or does not need.

One final word on the “reverse racism” I was accused of. I do not wish Pittsburgh would be a destination for newcomers because of the color of their skin or their racial and ethnic background. It is also not to diminish the rich European heritage that the immigrants of a century or so ago brought with them. (Today the demographics of these European countries look a lot like Pittsburgh, aging, so don’t expect too many more boatloads).

I want immigrants and new people to come to Pittsburgh because the population is aging, and Hispanic and Asians represent the youngest and most mobile populations in the U.S. and world. I want newcomers to find Pittsburgh because it is currently shaped in the mold of a black-white (and whoever has more people wins) city than any other major city in the U.S. (And a word to African-Americans: do not be afraid of losing power or influence in other minorities arrive; it will be the coalitions formed with your own political group that change the city and elect future leaders). I want to attract immigrants because they are good for the city and economy and there is so little new blood that the energy is often referred to as “bad.” Energy is a hard thing to quantify when talking about a city, but I have heard it over and over when people tell me they don’t want to live in Pittsburgh. I still can here my friend Jack talk about this telling me that he would rather have a life in New York than an affordable house in Pittsburgh.

If you are an immigrant looking for a new place to live, if you’re looking for a real challenge in a great place, I encourage you to look beyond Sacramento and Tulsa and Nashville (and New York and San Francisco) to discover the city that is Pittsburgh. There are lots of opportunities, lots of cultural amenities, better weather than Chicago or Toronto, great architecture, lots of places nearby to visit, beautiful recreational opportunities (in and outside the city) and more and more good places within the city to live (a credit to the current administration). If you are not in for a challenge, Tulsa, Buffalo and Philadelphia may be better picks, because almost for sure (at least from what we can tell from this list) your new life in Pittsburgh will be a great challenge.

About Eric Miller

Rick and I started this web magazine as The New Colonist back in 1999. I was in San Francisco, and he was in Los Angeles. We had a common interest in sustainability and city life. We're still at it. Today I am happy to have lived in both New York, San Francisco and Pittsburgh and to now reside in Dallas. Find more at ericmiller.me