A Pittsburgher in Browns Country

Or ... my double take on The Mistake by the Lake

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Sitting in a man cave between a cardboard cutout of Browns legend Bernie Kosar and a band of Cleveland fans, I have to admit I'm in heaven. The familiar conversation vacillates between wasted first-round draft picks, "Why'd we get cheated out of Peyton Manning," and "Why did Art Modell move the Browns to Baltimore in the first place?"

I revel in the futility of it all and smile ... it's good to be a Pittsburgher.

Except now I live in Cleveland.

When we moved to "The Mistake" for my husband's job, our first conversations always involved football. We came in with a swagger. No matter that the Browns fans were a loyal bunch, we had six Super Bowls and Big Ben. We went to sports bars on Sundays dressed in black and gold, sent our kids to school in their game jerseys, even invited new neighbors and friends to watch the Steelers beat the Browns in our own living room.

But something about Cleveland started to affect me as football season ended, the last boxes were unpacked and I met more people. I started to get the feeling that Clevelanders weren't just longing for what Pittsburgh football had, they were longing for what Pittsburgh had. And it all felt very ironic.

I spent my career in Pittsburgh pushing Pittsburgh. Thinking about all the ways we didn't measure up and strategizing, writing and planning for improvements.

Riverfront development. A revitalized arts district. Economic development. A food scene.

For many years, I worked with thinkers I admired to put into words all the reasons Pittsburgh should believe in itself. And I tried hard to convince people outside of the region that we mattered. But in the PR business, it's often hard to measure success.

It took the perspectives of a bunch of people who are supposed to hate Pittsburgh to prove to me that the city is loved.

At the closing for our new house, the mortgage broker asked very seriously why on earth we would ever leave Pittsburgh. New friends described weekend getaways to the region, where they stayed in charming hotels, visited world-class museums and ate like kings.

I learned that even places Pittsburghers don't regard as "first-day attractions" are big draws for Clevelanders; IKEA is on everyone's to-do list.

Over and over, I heard about the breathtaking view as you enter the city, leaving me to proudly quote an old New York Times article at every turn, about Pittsburgh being the "only city with an entrance."

Surprisingly, I wasn't homesick. As we fell in love with our new town, we joked that "Pittsburgh is a great place to visit, but we wouldn't want to live there."

Some of Pittsburgh's enduring qualities are less endearing in hindsight.

I used to love writing about the city's grit; but I didn't love living with it. I regularly got in fights at the Giant Eagle deli counter. Just like my favorite YouTube character, Pittsburgh Dad, I argued with neighbors about their overgrown grass and loud, pan-pounding New Year's Eve celebrations. I used to run perilously across the school parking lot in rain, snow and high heels to fetch my three sons at dismissal time from a school without buses.

I told myself all of these things built character, that grit was good. But it's like everyone in my new town has taken a deep breath.

I owe this sense of calm(er) partly to topography. Flat yards and streets on a grid are simple remedies, but there's something to be said for the ease of it all. Pittsburgh's hills and valleys are beautiful, but they make you tough. In the Cleveland area, there is room to move.

There are no steep stairs to climb to reach your front door. Driving in the snow isn't so precarious. These physical differences seem small, but years of battling Pittsburgh's elements become ingrained in personalities, I'm certain.

Differences aside, I knew from the beginning that there was something about this turnpike rival that made me feel at home. The Cleveland area shares with Pittsburgh the best quality of all, a sense of passion and longing. What is life, or a city, without those? In the case of football, all the years of cheering for a losing team showed me something I like -- that Cleveland doesn't quit.

When Jimmy Haslam, a former minority owner of the Steelers, bought the Browns earlier this year, he said he wanted to bring the "Steeler Way" to Cleveland. Building a winning team, like a winning city, takes time and toughness.

It won't happen overnight. I was so lucky to spend half a lifetime in a city where the smoke cleared, the can-do spirit prevailed and a beautiful revitalization was realized.

My husband always says that Pittsburghers and Clevelanders are raised to hate each other. But my hope (especially now that we hate the Ravens a lot more than the Browns) is that Cleveland's developers are talking to their Pittsburgh neighbors about what has worked to revitalize the Western Pennsylvania region. There surely are more synergies than either side has ever admitted, because for so long we were fierce competitors on the field and blind to the other sides of our personalities and plans.

But if football -- like so many sports fans say -- really is a microcosm for life, maybe the gridiron rivalry can take a break while both cities get their bigger agendas on track. In this scenario, I see my beloved Pittsburgh as a mentor, not a pit bull, and a tenacious Cleveland that's not a mistake, but that matters.


Meg Colafella is a proud Pittsburgh native and a former communications director for the Senator John Heinz History Center. She now lives with her family of Steelers fans in Hudson, Ohio (megcolafella@windstream.net).


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