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City Places for City People
A Word from Eric Miller for November, 2003

Pittsburgh Pilgrimage

Pittsburgh, November 2003--By the time you read this I will have relocated back to Pittsburgh from San Francisco.

As a recent Wall Street Journal article highlights, if you look at the country as an election map, you see people leaving the blue Democratic states for the red Republican ones, as I did. The Blue states, because of liberal Democratic spending programs or not, are prohibitively expensive. These include cities such as Chicago, New York and San Francisco.

I am not leaving a blue state for a red one, however. There aren't many good cities in the red states. The red states are uninspiring and boring.

I am leaving for what the Wall Street Journal said was about the only place in the country where you can still live affordably as a Democrat. I am talking about Pittsburgh.

Politicians and economic indicators are, however, fleeting reasons to choose a location. I thought it may be an ideal time to provide an account of the more permanent reasons why you should consider relocating not from a blue state to a red one, but to one of the more affordable blue cities.

Reasons to go:

  1. Housing affordability is probably the top reason. A house in San Francisco can easily set you back half a million. Twice that if you want what might be considered average in Pittsburgh. There are plenty of urban houses still available and affordable in the latter town if you want to put in some sweat equity.
  2. The chance to make money from your small investment. If you don't have half a million to invest, some pocket change and sweat can get you in on the ground floor in Pittsburgh. Before you stop me and say ho!, of course housing prices have gone up more in the last ten years in San Francisco than in Pittsburgh. If you invested $300,000 in 1998 or so, there's a good chance your investment has at least doubled by now, four years later.

    Most people need to borrow the $300,000 they invest, however, and there's a cost to that both in the interest and in the number of hours you need to work to pay the loan. Census figures show in nearly every urban area in the country, the center city populations have increased in recent years. In places where there is an abundance of housing stock in the center city, an investment there comes with a considerable opportunity for sizable profit on a relatively small investment.

  3. You're not losing a lot in city amenities. Sure, San Francisco is beautiful, and there's the Bay. It's a walkable city with good mass transit and lots of shopping in town. Pittsburgh is a walkable city too, but you do have to be careful where you choose to live, because the transit isn't as good. Cultural institutions are comparable in both cities--if not better in Pittsburgh. Downtown Pittsburgh has lots of shopping, though the city lacks discount retailers within its borders. The skyline in Pittsburgh is better than San Francisco's, and the pedestrian walkways along Pittsburgh's rivers are on par with the Embarcadero in San Francisco. There are plenty of urban parks in Pittsburgh (though none can compete with Golden Gate Park.) There are adequate outdoor recreation areas near both cities.
  4. You have more time to do the things you want in Pittsburgh. This stuff is hard to quantify, but despite the West Coast's reputation as being laid back, that seems to end with the dress code. It's not quite the Midwest, but people in Pittsburgh tend to be more polite, and maybe friendlier. While people in San Francisco seem to have rigorous free time social calendars, it's pretty common for friends in Pittsburgh to do something unplanned and unscheduled. The lower cost of housing is especially good for artists, musicians, and other creative types who do not have steady paychecks. Less time can be spent doing what you need to do to make money.
  5. There are warm summer nights in Pittsburgh. You can sit outside, look at the stars, and drink a beer.
  6. If you don't like sports you will have the streets to yourself on game days.
Reasons not to go:
  1. Too many people in Pittsburgh were born there, causing at least the perception that Pittsburghers view outsiders with suspicion. If you don't find a circle of friends in Pittsburgh, it's easy to feel isolated and alone. There aren't the friendly, always busy coffee shops and the like where people go to talk and meet in San Francisco. The streets are busier in San Francisco, and the activity gives you a sense of belonging even if you are alone. For minorities, this may be more important because while Pittsburgh does have minority populations, they are just starting to grow and be recognized.
  2. The cold is cause enough for many people to stay on the West Coast. If you don't like the cold or shoveling snow, Pittsburgh may not be the place for you. If you are living in overpriced Chicago or New York, you are already used to it and should look at Pittsburgh.
  3. Pittsburgh is not a big tourist destination. You will have many more visitors in San Francisco than Pittsburgh. Depending on your personality, however, this could just as easily be a reason to go.
  4. You can't always do or wear anything you want in Pittsburgh without getting some unwelcome comments and stares. You can feel comfort in knowing that many of the styles, including big hair from decades ago, would get the same stares and comments elsewhere.
  5. Pittsburgh is a smaller market. If a job is more important than a place to you, if you move for a job, it will be harder to find a comparable one if you lose it.
  6. If you don't like sports you will have the streets to yourself on game days.

Eric Miller is editor of The New Colonist.

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