Where is Pittsburgh?
The implied question came up again at a party on a Saturday night. Another guest, upon hearing I was from Pittsburgh said, “Oh, I’m from your neck of the woods, Scranton.” He meant not that we were fellow Pennsylvanians; he thought Pittsburgh was geographically and culturally close to Scranton. (He had not lived there since childhood.)
The issue of where or what Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania are comes up often out here on the Golden Coast, far from geography and maps. For most Californians, anything east of Las Vegas is lumped together as “back East somewhere.” As in, “She’s from back East somewhere — Phoenix, Boston, London, I don’t know, back East somewhere.”
Many here seem to think Pennsylvania is on “the East Coast.” Granted, it is much closer to the East Coast than Chicago — it frustrates my Chicago friends to have the Windy City referred to as being on the East Coast. But Pennsylvania is not on the coast. We may wish New Jersey away, but it’s still there.
Some would claim Pennsylvania is in the Midwest, but the Midwest officially starts about 40 miles west at the Ohio border. Culturally, there are aspects of Pennsylvanianess and Pittsburghness that seem Midwestern, and Penn State’s grabbing onto the Big Ten (Big Twelve?) seemed to shift the entire commonwealth toward the Midwest where the other 11 of the 10 reside. I have always felt Pittsburgh was closer not only in miles, but also in spirit, to Cleveland and points west than to Philadelphia and points east.
I claim (as would others) that Pennsylvania is a mid-Atlantic state. But the only states that share that distinction — New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Delaware — can also claim to be on the East Coast, which leaves Pennsylvania in some mid-Atlantic netherworld of its own. As for Pittsburgh, it’s about as far from the coast as you can get and still be in Pennsylvania.
Pittsburgh is certainly not in the South or New England or the Mountain West.
No, Pittsburgh is a no-man’s land between the East and Midwest — west of the mountains that divide the East Coast from the central watersheds but not yet into the flatlands of Ohio, Indiana and beyond. Pittsburgh wasn’t even part of Pennsylvania at the beginning, originally belonging to the colony of Virginia.
A lot of Californians use the terms Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Pennsylvania interchangeably, as though they were synonyms. When someone finds out I am from Pittsburgh, many times the response is, “Oh, I have a friend in Philadelphia.” I tell them that this is like saying to a new acquaintance from San Diego, “Oh, I have a friend in San Francisco.”
(Come to think of it, this happens often when I’m in Pittsburgh — even though San Francisco is 200 miles farther from San Diego than Pittsburgh is from Philly.)
In the aftermath of 9/11, I recall hearing not only Southern California journalists but even national news reporters refer to Flight 93 as “the plane that crashed near Philadelphia.” In my already angry and frustrated state, I wanted to yell at the TV that the planes that hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were closer to Philadelphia than the one that crashed in Stonycreek, near Pittsburgh.
Each time I plan my next trip to the ’Burgh, I try to ignore it when people ask if I will go to Philly while I’m there.
A few maps that recently made the rounds on Facebook confirmed what I had theorized: One showed the connections Pittsburghers had on Facebook or to whom they made phone calls. Both showed that, west of the Alleghenies, the majority of connections were to Cleveland, Buffalo, Cincinnati and on to Chicago. East of the mountains, connections were more likely to be with people in Baltimore and New York than folks in Pittsburgh.
Some linguistic maps leave Western Pennsylvania isolated. When experts divide up the country, they lump New England together, although you can distinguish between someone from Maine and someone from Boston. It’s just a variation on a theme. A Texas accent is different from a North Carolina accent, but it’s still recognizably “Southern.” Philadelphia-speak is a watered down version of New York/New Jersey.
The Western Pennsylvania dialect is its own. I think I coined the term “Pittsburghese” when I wrote about it in the student newspaper at Penn State many years ago. The story got picked up by other news outlets and now, every time I see a T-shirt or coffee mug with the word “Pittsburghese” on it, I wish I had copyrighted or trademarked it way back when.
Yinz dahn in Pittsburgh have the smallest geographic region for any U.S. dialect. The accent, like the region, exists as its own unique classification, neither fish nor fowl.
OK, but none of this answers the question: Where is Pittsburgh?
I guess Pittsburgh defies any attempts to blur its edges or dilute its identity. Pittsburgh is its own place, set apart from all the rest. And, as a recent article in the Chicago Tribune asserted, Pittsburghers are just fine with that.
Walter G. Meyer, a native of Bethel Park, is the author of the novel “Rounding Third” and lives in San Diego.