Raves: She first fell hard for a Pittsburgher, then for his city

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I fell in love twice in the past year. The first time I fell in love with my fiance. The second time I fell in love with the city he calls home -- Pittsburgh.

"You're moving where?" family and friends asked. Even strangers asked me why I would move from Florida, the Sunshine State, to the cold North.

Each time I answered that love brought me here -- twice. Pittsburgh remains a well-kept secret from most of the country, except for those who have visited in the past 20 years.

How did this second love affair begin? Perhaps it began in a geography class in Michigan, my first year in college in 1974. That's when I learned about the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers converging to form the mighty Ohio, giving Pittsburgh a starring role in the Industrial Revolution of this country.

The idea of water creating our urban centers left an impression. Then I never thought much about Pittsburgh until 2009, when love brought a renaissance to my world.

Probably the first surprise was the landscape of the Pittsburgh area. When I drove into the city from the airport, I marveled at the hills and the valley below created by the three rivers of Pittsburgh. Nine months later certain vistas -- from Beaver Grade Road, atop the West End Overlook, along Steubenville Pike -- allow me to believe that anything is possible.

Florida is filled with folks who left their cities and states to make a new home. Finding a native Floridian became close to the search for that old needle in the haystack.

When I first came here, I marveled to find people born and raised in the Pittsburgh area. And although they might think of moving somewhere else, they really have no intention of leaving. And I've learned those who do leave tend to return.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported recently that folks volunteered to paint planters Downtown to freshen up for spring. No wonder Pittsburgh could reinvent itself. The people -- not institutions -- made it possible because they love this place, which uniquely exists as the western East, the eastern West, the southern North and the northern South.

Places of green still exist here because the hills make some sections uninhabitable, both surprising and delighting me. I am an urban country girl, and I have always wanted it both ways. Here I've found that balance in both my surroundings and in my personal life.

I love the hills, but I love the architecture of the churches, commercial buildings and homes as well. Studying those structures is a lesson in American history all by itself.

My love affair intensified after a visit to the Heinz History Center. I found myself curiously emotional as I learned about the city and its inhabitants. Dr. Benjamin Spock taught me I would not spoil my child by picking her up when she cried, and Mr. Rogers visited our neighborhood every day to reinforce the concepts of friendship and citizenship in my young daughter.

Rachel Carson, whose environmental writing helped develop awareness of DDT and the pollutants in the air, inspires me in my work and life. Nellie Bly broke through glass ceilings allowing me privileges unknown to the women of her generation.

And Stephen Foster immortalized the place I lived in Florida for nearly three decades through song. He never visited "way down upon the Suwannee River," but he called Pittsburgh home.

Although I did not know it at the time, Pittsburgh and its inhabitants served as the backdrop to my life, from the ketchup I poured on my burgers to the polio shot I received as a child. No wonder I fell hard for this place of steel with its soft edges and open arms.

Pittsburgh also provides the backdrop for my new relationship. As I traverse the city and experience the Strip District, buy vegetables at the farmers market in East Liberty and cheer the home teams at Mellon Arena, Heinz Field and PNC Park, I am certain that my decisions to marry and to move here are victories for love both times.

Patricia Behnke of Moon is a freelance writer and editor who can be reached at pcbehnke@yahoo.com . The PG Portfolio welcomes "Raves" submissions about something you love locally, as well as other reader essays. Send your writing to page2@post-gazette.com ; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.


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