Stacy Innerst, Post-Gazette
In the Age of Clinton, before Google and blogs, this sort of story might have escaped our notice, and the Post-Gazette's Portfolio page -- not to mention our refined readership -- would have been poorer for it. Thank goodness an enterprising blogger (Burgh Diaspora's Jim Russell, who so far as we know isn't related to Andy Russell) noticed the story about a retirement village in Florida with so many former Pittsburghers that they've been forced to form not one, but two, separate Pittsburgh Clubs.
The Villages, north of Orlando, is no ordinary retirement village -- it's one of those super-sized snowbird havens for which Florida is well known, steadily oozing into parts of two counties, like a swarm of aging weevils, threatening to consume all the bran in its path. At 65,000 residents, it's bigger, though not terribly older, than every municipality in Allegheny County except for Pittsburgh, but this isn't a treatise on the uselessness of Haysville (pop. 80), is it now? They have a photography club, a Nittany Lions club, a needlework club, a German club, state clubs (New Jersey, Carolinas, Indiana, Connecticut and so on), a bowling club and, most recently, an informal club of hyper-anxious tornado watchers, on account of the February twister that wrecked about 1,200 homes in The Villages.
But the Pittsburgh club is one of the biggest and most active, so say its officers, owing to the vast Pittsburgh diaspora (there's that word again). Once the original Pittsburgh Club capped out at 719 dues-paying, Steelers-loving, jumbo-eating members, Villages resident Emily Emigh was stuck on the outside looking in, like a child with her nose squished up against the window of a pet store, which in this allegory represents the Pittsburgh Club, coveting the adorable puppy (which represents club membership), but the puppy is kept locked in a cage (the caste system maybe?), while the shop owner, Mr. Pilkington (Western society), sneers at the girl (Ms. Emigh, you follow?), not to mention all the customers (Bolshevik revolutionaries).
So she started her own Pittsburgh club, says the Daily Sun, The Villages' local newspaper:
"It's going to be a social club," Ms. Emigh said. The second club will be capped at 400 members, which would give us a grand total of at least 1,100 former Pittsburghers living in The Villages. (There are probably more than that, actually, but for whatever reason the remainder thinks they're too good to be hanging out with other yinzers, meaning they are from Sewickley Heights.) "It's a place where Pittsburghers come together and reminisce about Pittsburgh, to develop friendships with other people who are from the same area, and have fun," she said to the Daily Sun.
OK, but will a bitter rivalry develop between Club I and Club II? Do you expect separate golf teams? Turf wars? Fist fights?
Please, Lord, let there be fist fights.
I called Ed Metz, who sits on the original club's golf committee, for comment. He was in disbelief, a common reaction when first contacted by a respected member of the Fourth Estate.
"Who? Is this a joke?"
No joke. The Post-Gazette. Calling for comment. About the new Pittsburgh club.
"'Cause you never know. All those scams out there."
No scam, we assure you. Will there be any fist fights?
"We're trying to not make it that way," said Mr. Metz, 65, formerly of Pittsburgh's North Side. Everybody gets along with everybody else in The Villages. You cause any problems, and your golf cart privileges are revoked.
You may be reading this from afar -- the Post-Gazette's Web site gets 3.3 million visitors each month, from across the country -- and wondering, How can I start my own Pittsburgh club?
First you need some bylaws.
For example: "Dues are $5 per person, payable at time of sign up. This initial membership fee includes a basic badge."
Because without the ID badge, any riffraff from Cleveland could crash the club's pizza night, claiming to be from Pittsburgh. And then you'd have anarchy.
More: "Membership shall be available to any Village resident who lived in Pennsylvania within a 30-mile radius of downtown Pittsburgh or is married to, coupled with, or residing with a Village resident who meets the aforementioned requirement."
Sorry, New Castle.
"We had people who wanted to join from Weirton; Boardman, Ohio; Buffalo," explained Larry Lasky, club president, formerly of Penn Hills by way of Bloomfield.
"We said, whoa whoa whoa, what are we doing here?" A club's gotta have standards, after all.
Yinz got merchandizing?
Oh, you betcha. Merchandizing out the wazoo. There's a yellow golf shirt with a "Pittsburgh Club" logo embroidered on the left breast, complete with an image of the Point and the Duquesne Incline (that's the red one, for those who get the two inclines confused). Only $25! Cotton jersey knit, three-button placket, double stitching, available in sizes up to XL. For $3 more, get your name embroidered, too.
What about windbreakers? You got those?
Of course. Available in black or gold.
Decorative license plates and golf cart flags?
Yeah, but what do you do for fun?
We mentioned the pizza night already. There's a luau in July, dance night in August, trivia night in September, carnival night in November, field trips to the Beau Rivage casino, an upcoming Alaskan cruise, dinner shows, poker and bridge and pinochle, golf outings aplenty, and, of course, tailgate parties.
The man who has taken such an interest in the Burgh Diaspora isn't even part of it. Jim Russell, an instructional designer by day, lives in Colorado now, and spent his sapling years in Erie, where he was torn between the Bills, Browns and Steelers. He chose correctly, and finds himself a part of the Pittsburgh diaspora's famous cousin, Steeler Nation.
"I've yet to see such a rabid longing for home as you see among ex-Pittsburghers," he said, and having been squeezed between Buffalo and Cleveland, he knows a thing or two about Rust Belt towns that have dispatched their home-grown across the nation. But with Pittsburgh, it's more than just the common affection for one's hometown -- it's more akin to an emigrant's yearning for the Old Country.
The unique attachment to Pittsburgh is one thing. But "I wonder if Pittsburgh could benefit from that?" he asked himself. If only there was a way to create a network between Pittsburghers past and present. If only the ones still here could bridge their resentment for those who left for greener pastures.
"The people who are left behind tend to look at the people who have left as having giving up," Mr. Russell said. "There's a little animosity there." How to get past that? Aggressively seek out former Pittsburghers who have made something of themselves, and convince them to invest in the Old Country. "They have that connection to home. They understand the landscape ... But you need to reach out them first, and let them know what's possible."
The next part of Mr. Russell's loose plan turns Richard Florida on his head -- if we can't keep every student among the Creative Class, which is impossible, there's no shame in being an exporter of talented, educated, industrious people. "Pittsburgh itself should help Pittsburghers relocate," Mr. Russell hypothesizes. "It's in our best interest to help them." For example, he said, there's a cafe in Durango, Colo., owned by a former Pittsburgher. She'd love it if her burgers were being flipped by 'Burghers. There ought to be a way to connect these souls -- Pittsburgh's human capital with its satellite job-providers.
And the result of that would be ... ?
"Wherever you go, and whatever you want to do, there are Pittsburghers who can help you."
And more Pittsburgh clubs than you can shake a pierogi at.
Have a story about the Pittsburgh diaspora? Bill Toland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2625.