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Boomerangers: Goodbye, Hello Again!

The blight of adult bookstores has faded from Liberty Avenue. The rusty facades and cracked windows of the Homestead Works have morphed into boutique night spots. Many of the traditional Carson Street shot-and-beer joints now charge a cover. Bloomfield and East Liberty each had a nip and a tuck, and then an extreme makeover.

“It feels very different. It’s like a new city,” says East Side resident Sonja Finn, head chef and proprietor of Dinette in East Liberty.

“It’s almost like a whole new place,” adds Mt. Lebanon’s Rob Lynch, a senior brand manager with Heinz.

The Pittsburgh of today is not the Pittsburgh that Finn, Lynch and many like them remember. The second city renaissance that brought upscale culture and arts to complement the new white-collar industries also helped to bring back who knows how many former Pittsburghers who had all but given up on their hometown.

“I had ruled out the idea of ever moving back to Pittsburgh,” says Adam Tobias, an engineer who works near his home in Monroeville.

Indeed, their departures were obvious to anyone who has seen census figures over the last two decades. Pittsburgh, for years one of the largest cities and metropolitan areas in the United States, saw a mass exodus that left it trailing suburbs and exurbs in total population.

Pittsburgh’s population in 2007 was estimated to be 311,218, a nearly seven percent drop from the 2000 census figures. That puts the metropolis, which was once one of the ten most populous in the nation, at number 59 among United States cities.
Young adults who can’t remember when Pittsburgh was not referred to as a “small market” vanished in droves, choosing to find their ways to other opportunities and world experiences.

Their stories
Finn left in 1997 to attend Columbia University in New York, then headed to San Francisco via culinary school before coming back this past April. Lynch left in 1995 for college and an eventual career with Procter & Gamble in Cincinatti, before making his homecoming more permanent last year. Tobias left in 1991 to attend Purdue, then bounced between the Midwest and North Carolina before finding his way back late last year.

The reasons that brought them back are varied – career opportunities, family, the ability to watch Steelers games without a satellite TV package – but the conclusion is the same. You can indeed go back home, and the city that seemingly lacked so much a decade ago has found a new identity. And some things that seemed so bland and vanilla then take on new importance when seen from outside the gates to the city.

“It sounds small, but I missed the topography, the hills,” says Jeff Baron, a musician and artist with the Saturday Light Brigade who had been gone for 17 years before returning last year. “I mean, the other day I saw a herd of deer and some wild turkeys in a city park. In what other major city are you going to see that in the city’s green spaces? This has to be the only one.”

If there is one thing that the city’s “boomerangers” appreciate more than anything, it’s the accelerated development that’s taken shape in the last decade, the opportunities created, and a quality of life that you can’t find in places like New York.

“It’s much more manageable here,” says Baron, who spent the previous 12 years in Brooklyn. “I can afford to live in a freestanding house here. And it’s less intimidating. I would never apply for a job like I have here in New York. I would think there were a thousand people more qualified there.”

Half Under 35
Indeed, it’s that less competitive job market and intimate setting that’s drawing in many of the young professionals. Amid the statistics of population decline, there is some good news, in that half of the city’s residents now are under the age of 35.

“It’s a small-town feel in a large city,” says Maya Haptas, the new Business Distict Director for Lawrenceville Corporation and another recent boomeranger. “Young professionals can move ahead in their field, make a name for themselves here. The city has been real good about supporting them.”

That support kept Lilith Bailey Kroll here. The yoga instructor who grew up in the Bay Area finished up her postgraduate work at Carnegie Mellon, then stayed to start her business, Practique Yoga.

“I came (for college) and thought I would never stay. I kept getting lost,” she says now. “But once I got into the community, I found two things. One, people are so supportive. They want younger people to succeed and they provide so much support to do that. In the big cities, people who didn’t know me very well wouldn’t be that supportive of helping my business grow. Two, there are a ton of really impressive young artists here. I didn’t expect the kind of wealth (Pittsburgh) has artistically. When you look at the art and culture scene here now, you think Pittsburgh could really rebrand itself.”

And it’s not just the young single professionals rolling back into town. Families like Lynch’s are also finding new improvements.

“I’ve always been a big fan of ‘Leave home and go see the world,’ but now with kids, I’ve changed my mind. You invest so much in them that you don’t want them to go. And then I see how Pitt is now one of the best public universities in the country. Pittsburgh has so many more opportunities for them now than I had when I was growing up here.”

Not every bit of growth in the county, though, has its fans. Baron has seen the development in Bloomfield where he lives, but he sees more on the perimeters of Allegheny County that may be pulling even more valuable people out of the city. In fact, from 1990 to 2000, when the city saw its population plummet more than five percent, the county saw a more modest drop of 1.5 percent.

“With all they’re building outside the city and the public transportation what it is,” he starts, “Are they catering to the younger people coming back, or are they catering to the suburbs?”

Time will tell the answer to that question, but for now, Pittsburgh is seeing an influx of youth, ambition and intelligence. That enlarged demographic usually leads to progressive development policies, much like the nodal neighborhoods and in-building that has earned cities like Portland, Oregon, so many rave reviews.

Can Pittsburgh, as Kroll suggested, rebrand itself, not as a salvaged steel town, but as a cultural sleeping giant and a nexus of innovation? Those who know Pittsburgh think it already has.

“Pittsburgh seemed to be a much bigger town every time I came to visit,” says Haptas. “And I’m seeing a renewed pride in living in this hidden gem of a city.”

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In the pictures (top to bottom):  Sonja Finn; Rob Lynch; Jeff Baron; Maya Haptas; Lilith Bailey Kroll; Adam Tobias.

Photographs copyright Brian Cohen
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