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Pittsburgh as a Foreign City

I moved to Pittsburgh from London a year ago, and, like many of the people I met while writing this article, I arrived with my partner, who had been offered a post-doc research position at UPMC. To make a stressful situation more stressful, we were in the midst of planning our wedding – to be held in the early summer back in London.

My initial impressions of Pittsburgh? It was January. Bleak. Deserted streets, gray skies, gruff bus drivers. My husband kept talking about opportunities, “a chance to raise my game.” As an artist, I had recently completed an MFA in Fine Art. But to move here I had to give up my beloved flat, my wonderful job working as Ewan McGregor’s (yes that Ewan McGregor) personal assistant, not to mention being part of a vibrant art scene. Moving to this new city in this new country, I needed to find meaning in all the uncertainty.

In the past year, I’ve gradually come to find a home in Pittsburgh, discovering Inklings of what makes it such a great place to live. So I set out to find out more by speak to others like me, people who have moved here from other countries, about what they’ve found here and why this city works for them.

Welcome. Really!

Nimo Tirimanne, originally from Sri Lanka, is now a huge fan of Pittsburgh and director of client services at the Welcome Center for Immigrants and Internationals in Squirrel Hill. A free social service to meet the needs of immigrants to Pittsburgh, the Welcome Center helps refugees, asylees and families of students and others new to town, including the 350 or so people who moved here after their homes were destroyed by Katrina. Since it started only 16 months ago, the organization has helped 1050 people from 91 countries settle in to the city. With a full time staff of two, plus a large army of volunteers representing a wide variety of cultures, the Welcome Center offers help with everything from translation to housing through their large resource database.

If only I had met Nimo a year ago. He engulfs me in a tirade of enthusiasm about Pittsburgh. He loves everything about this city, from the “inconvenience of the crazy haphazard streets that wriggle around” and “the perverse charm to it all,” to the opulence of the architecture and the bristling spires, the modern downtown skyscrapers and the churches, the topography of the hills and rivers. “It is the most beautiful city in America,” he gushes. He means it.

Nimo moved here 8 years ago from L.A and part of his admiration for Pittsburgh boils down to the accessibility, in terms of cost and location of everything available, including the theatre, cinema, and concerts. I agree. When my husband and I first moved here, pretty much penniless, we were able to go to the theatre and to concerts: on several occasions, the tickets were given to us free by international student society, an occurrence virtually unheard of in London.

Nimo introduces me to three of the volunteer caseworkers at the Welcome Center. Yin Lei, Emilene Martins and Maria Saldarriaga all moved here in circumstances similar to my own: all have partners or husbands working here as PhD or MA students. (It appears there is a huge ‘wives’ society here. Everyone notices the students but rarely are the vast number of wives of the students acknowledged.)

Yin, a Chinese Canadian from Beijing is in love with the friendliness of the people, the cleanliness and relative lack of pollution. Emilene, here from Brazil for a year, likes the relaxed pace of life, the fact that there’s so many young people here: “We can feel the spirit of youth walking everywhere among beautiful gardens,” she says poetically, mentioning the notable architecture, and “faces from all over the world.”

While Emilene echoes Nimo’s feelings about support for the arts and entertainment, Maria, from Columbia, tells me a story about a recent gift-giving weekend in South Oakland organised by a Columbian pediatrician who volunteers frequently, giving medical attention to kids from low-income families. At the event, toys and gift cards, including Giant Eagle gift cards, were given out. Nimo and Maria both feel this type of event, and the generosity of the donors and the pediatrician is typical of Pittsburgh.

Taking care of business

Michael Solano moved to Pittsburgh with his wife, a Pittsburgh native, a year ago from Cahuita in Costa Rica, to open “Equita: Essentials for ethical living” a fair trade store in Lawrenceville, with his wife’s sister. The goal? To build a business that services and helps small scale economies and co-ops in developing countries. Equita only recently opened so a lot of the founders ideas are still in the exciting developmental stage. I come away from speaking with Michael feeling really inspired and creative and agreeing with his statement that the pace of life here "enables one to think, be creative and engage in one's introspection."

Before arriving here, Michael heard lots of negative stuff about Pittsburgh. The reality, he says, is different. Like many post-industrial cities in America and abroad, Pittsburgh is historically a working class city where people are proud of the city’s heritage but also “generous, open and unpretentious”. Other strengths? Michael mentions the August Wilson Center that plays such an important role particularly in African American communities here. A wide variety of cultures are generally well-integrated, he says.

I suspect Brent Rondon, president of the Latin American Cultural Union, would agree. Brent came here from Peru to attend graduate school in public administration and international affairs. Pitt was not the only university he applied to but when he came to look around he found Pittsburghers “friendly, warm and homey.” On the day he visited the campus, Pitt was holding a Latin American Festival. It became clear that this was the city for him. Brent feels really positively that Pittsburgh gives you space to embrace and express your own culture, making it easy to live abroad.

From my experience meeting people from other countries who have moved here, common themes arise. Living and working in Pittsburgh gives people the opportunity to follow their inspirations and fullfill their potential. The science and research facilities are world class and a pull factor for attracting talent. The relaxed way of life is actually a benefit as people are not suffocated and stressed out, and consequently have space to develop their ideas--something that isn’t available to them in their native countries, and I believe was not available to me in London. By allowing such talented people to grow and thrive the cultural diversity and vibrancy in the city is increased, for the benefit of everyone.

On a personal level meeting these people has helped crystalize my new and positive feelings about Pittsburgh. I feel really genuinely optimistic about the myriad of possibilities and resources here. As an artist Pittsburgh is an extremely liveable city with good support and loads of opportunity to develop as a creative person.

Samantha Archetti is an artist and ex-Londoner living the creative life in Pittsburgh with her husband and dog.


Michael Solano

Nimo Tirimanne

Samantha Archetti (the author) and Giotto

Brent Rondon

All photographs copyright © Jonathan Greene

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