30 Years: Reg Henry -- A city refines its appearance and attitudes

Part of the 30 Years, 30 Changes series on the Pittsburgh region


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In a roundabout way, this special project is my fault. Thirty years ago, I was among those asked to write a column in a special section that the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette produced on how Pittsburgh was doing in that uncertain time.

At this distance, I am not sure why. In 1983, I did not write a regular column. But the editors asked me anyway, perhaps because they thought my eyes fresh.

Newcomers tend to have fresh eyes that can see things that the longtime locals can't see. They can see everything except the right road to get to where they are going -- especially in Pittsburgh where the road system is such a meandering muddle. To reverse it and put it in local terms, old eyes can't see the pierogies for the fresh gusts of steam, but they can find their way home.

Actually, by that stage, my eyes weren't so fresh. I was more a medium comer than a newcomer. While my last home had been in London and before that in Brisbane, Australia, I had already lived in Pittsburgh for five years and my two children had been born here.

But the editors wanted a column and, by golly, I was going to impress the readers. That didn't work out so well. Looking back now, I can understand why the column went over like a concrete balloon.

Its relentless good humor was surely grating to Pittsburghers who had seen the steel industry wither and were just coming out of a recession in which local unemployment had reached 20 percent in some neighborhoods.

Fast forward 30 years. I was going through old columns that I had stored away like a literary squirrel. I came across "How's Pittsburgh?" from May 30, 1983, and was struck by the coincidence that I was looking at this frighteningly close to the same date 30 years on.

I took the yellowing relic into executive editor David M. Shribman, thinking that he might be interested. He was so interested that he decided that we should do a recap.

So here's what I know about Pittsburgh: In 1983, the old Pittsburgh had many good qualities, not least its friendly people. But, compared to today, it was rough around the edges, in appearance and attitudes.

The city and the region clung to the past like a comfort blanket. Its residents still had their pride, but the economic misery had dented their dignity and they were a bit lost. The old times had gone with the shuttered mills and the new times hadn't arrived.

I loved it anyway. But in 1988, the company sent me to California to be the editor of The Herald in Monterey, a then sister paper of the PG. That lasted five years until the company sold The Herald as part of the deal to take over The Pittsburgh Press after a labor dispute. I came back in 1994. To my lasting regret, I had missed the years Sophie Masloff -- a quintessential Pittsburgh favorite -- spent as mayor.

Once again, I had those new eyes and I could see Pittsburgh had changed, despite itself. Most of it was imperceptible but some of it was obvious. The South Side and the Strip District had eclipsed Shadyside as the trendy place to be for the fewer young people who remained. Pittsburgh had become a hockey town thanks to the Penguins winning the Stanley Cup in 1991 and 1992 (the role of sports to sustain the region's spirits could be the subject of a Ph.D. thesis, so important has it been).

So here we are today, having arrived at what that 1983 special section called "destination unknown." As it turned out, the keys to Pittsburgh's rebirth were there all the time -- the meds and eds (medical and academic institutions).

Add to that the new sports stadiums (and how they were resisted in the spirit of old-fashioned negativity unfortunately endemic to this region), the new bike trails and the reclaiming of the waterfronts and you have the prescription for bringing back young people to the region, the source of industrial-strength fretting for years.

While all is not perfect, I saw Pittsburgh then and I see it today and I am glad and proud of the change. My eyes, old and tired now, have seen the glory.


Reg Henry: rhenry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1668.

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