This Thanksgiving, I'd like to give thanks to Pittsburgh -- a city I came back to a decade ago to teach at the University of Pittsburgh for what I thought would be a one-year sabbatical from Hollywood. The journey has been far longer and richer than I ever imagined. Here are a few reasons why I think Pittsburgh is so special:
• The Pittsburgh comeback. Sometimes we can't fully see or appreciate what we have here, but having spent the past year touring more than 25 cities with the movie, "My Tale of Two Cities," which is about Pittsburgh's comeback story, I am keenly aware of just how much progress this city has made -- even since producer Stephanie Dangel Reiter and I started filming six years ago. Today, instead of seeing smoke, the first image in many folks' minds when they think of Pittsburgh is that of a city that has reinvented itself for a new age, a model for post-industrial cities everywhere.
• No longer Hollywood's best kept secret. In 2003, the Steeltown Entertainment Project made a short film called "Pittsburgh: Hollywood's Best Kept Secret" with "Chicago" director Rob Marshall, "E.R." producer John Wells, Oscar winner Shirley Jones and others talking about Pittsburgh's legacy and future potential in the entertainment industry. It seemed like a crazy dream when Steeltown co-founder Ellen Weiss Kander suggested that "entertainment could become Pittsburgh's new steel." But anyone who saw the fake snow on Gotham City Hall (a.k.a. Mellon Institute) or had a Tom and Katie sighting on Walnut Street can see that the secret is out.
• The town that conquered polio -- and who knows what's next? After World War II, Jonas Salk, his Pitt research team and the families of Pittsburgh worked together on a risky medical experiment that resulted in the first successful polio vaccine -- one that Salk chose not to patent, because, he said, it would be like "patenting the sun." During these challenging economic times, it is good to remember what Pittsburghers can do when we roll up our sleeves and work together.
• The real-life "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." Before my wife and I moved back here, our Beverly Hills pediatrician recommended one book to read to our toddler daughter: The "Mister Rogers' Moving Book." When we went to enroll my daughter here in pre-school, the teacher seemed strangely familiar: She was Mimsie Leyton, the woman who appeared in the book with her child. And today, I have an office at WQED across the hall from the Fred Rogers Co., which is producing a new animated version of "The Neighborhood" that will debut next fall.
• New neighbors. If you want to see the new Pittsburgh, look no further than my daughter's bus stop, where you will find a software engineer from New Jersey who was a charter member of Google Pittsburgh; a brilliant theoretical physicist who came here from California to teach at Carnegie Mellon University; a multi-degree physician who moved here from Boston to work for Rand studying efficiency in health care systems; and a surgeon and her same-sex spouse who moved here from Seattle. The one thing we all have in common? We love living in Pittsburgh.
• Old neighbors. Then there are the folks who have been in Pittsburgh their whole lives. I play in what may be one of the longest-running and cheapest poker games in town (after 40 years, it's still just nickel, dime, quarter!) with my stepbrother, who is doing pioneering work in tele-medicine as UPMC's head of neurology; the chief economist of PNC; a former astronaut who is working on a new electrical grid for the country; and the world's nicest divorce attorney, who dresses up his wiener dogs for Halloween to take them trick or treating.
• The traffic. Yes, it is frustrating that the same roads on which I grew up are still being worked on by PennDot. (Can't someone from CMU or Pitt invent something to stop potholes?) But as my daughter Campbell explains in "My Tale of Two Cities," after spending hours in the car trying to go to a park in L.A., she prefers Pittsburgh -- "It's shorter." This is still America's most livable city, a place where you can get most anywhere by car in 10 minutes. You can also use those things called "feet" and "bikes."
• Giving town. Name another city where you know its business leaders as much by what they gave to the community as by the money they made. Carnegie, Mellon, Heinz, Hillman, Grable -- all are examples of Pittsburghers who did well here, then did good here. And it's still going on -- just ask folks who knew Henry Posner Jr. or Bill Dietrich. This is one of the most philanthropic cities per capita in the world.
• We are all Pittsburghers. In these divisive times, when even the supercommittee turned out to be not so super, I take comfort that Pittsburgh remains a place where people, for the most part, work together to get things done. To paraphrase Howard Fineman of the Huffington Post, in Pittsburgh, on the bus after a Steelers game, win or lose, whether you are a Mellon or you sell melons, we are all Pittsburghers.
Sometimes I have no idea why my family and I ended up leaving Hollywood and staying in Pittsburgh so long. My wife loves sunny California, and it certainly was the center of my work in the film and TV business. But when I try to explain to friends in L.A. and New York what makes Pittsburgh so special, I simply say, it's the people. It's friends and family and even total strangers, who, in Pittsburgh, soon become friends.
And so, Pittsburghers ... thank you.
Carl Kurlander is a screenwriter ("St. Elmo's Fire"), TV writer/producer ("Saved by the Bell") and co-founder of the nonprofit Steeltown Entertainment Project ( firstname.lastname@example.org ).