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Pittsburgh Author Reflects on Life in ‘My Town’

April 18, 2008 at 6:50 PM EST
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Author and columnist John Wideman reflects on his hometown of Pittsburgh, now in the national media spotlight due to Pennsylvania's impending Democratic primary election.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: As we all prepare to head off to Pittsburgh for our special coverage of next week’s primary, we asked a prominent native son to share with us his view of his hometown. He is award-winning author John Wideman.

JOHN WIDEMAN, Author: If you have to grow up poor, Pittsburgh in the 1940s and 1950s, not a bad place to do it. The blight of poverty didn’t feel inborn, permanent; more like you’d arrived late and didn’t quite fit in yet.

Pittsburgh immigrant territory, a promised land for colored refugees from the American South, immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, at the dawning of the 20th century, when one of my grandfathers came up from Virginia, the other from South Carolina, and married Pittsburgh girls.

Distant from both coasts, Pittsburgh, since its colonial beginnings as British fort and trading post at the edge of unexplored wilderness, has been a sign pointing beyond itself, a settlement for people who decline more alluring, perhaps, but riskier options.

An unadventurous image the town never quite forgets or sheds, Pittsburghers have developed a grumpy pessimism laced with stoic affection for the region’s intemperate weather, rough work, lack of glamour, its destiny to be a polyglot patchwork town, never a smooth, swaggering big city. Lots of churches, lots of bars, plenty of Iron City beer at home in the fridge.

In Pittsburgh streets, I heard foreign accents, saw signs bearing strange alphabets. Riding a trolley in any direction 10 or 15 blocks from home, I would pass through a kaleidoscope of various nationalities, colors, religions, neighborhoods, rich and poor.

But Pittsburgh, also balkanized by three rivers and abrupt, steep hills, an abundance of tunnels and bridges divided as much as connected the city’s diverse inhabitants. Detente, rather than interpenetration, except in the still of the night, characterized relationships among its cultures.

We tiptoed around each other in Pittsburgh, more aware of our differences and similarities than we were willing to admit; proud, maybe, not to make a public fuss about such stuff. But notions of difference, not consciously examined, not viewed as instruments of power, mutated into stereotypes and myths, the shorthand of prejudice.

Even if not maliciously intended, the instant, unthinking judgments passed on other groups stunt those who habitually deploy them. We squandered possibilities for cultural elaboration and enrichment.

We didn’t learn from the city’s near-fatal mistake, how Pittsburgh almost destroyed itself in the 1950s by narrowing its ambitions and adopting a monolithic identity: Steel Town, USA.

Though I haven’t resided in Pittsburgh for over 40 years, my knowledge of it comes from regular visits, from writing fiction and essays that bear witness to what I absorb vicariously, viscerally, as son, brother, uncle, cousin of those who never left.┬á

Pittsburgh matters deeply to me, like the intimate circle of my earliest friends, like the songs I grew up dancing to, making love to. My Pittsburgh fixed in a slice of time, but also transcends that time, because other cities, other friends, and other music I acquire are measured against the original.

Pittsburgh’s inside me, like your city or village or rural turf is inside you, a terrain you can’t help reconstituting wherever you move on.

I’m John Wideman.