Hey, Pittsburgh, look who's growing

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Twenty years ago, there was hardly a place in America where people died more frequently than in Allegheny County.

The pace was incredible. In 1992, the county's death rate was 132 percent of the national rate, and birth rate 82 percent of the national rate. The only big metro area that had a higher percentage of its folks leaving forever and ever, amen, was Tampa Bay in Florida, where great flocks of snowbirds had moved for their final roosting.

The reason for our population drain was no mystery. We'd gotten old. In the 1970s and '80s, the region lost 158,000 manufacturing jobs, and so 289,000 people left with them.

The lion's share of those departing were in their 20s and 30s. About one in five 20-something residents left the metro area in the 1980s alone. Carnegie Mellon University once had some people figure out that if the region had had a neutral net migration rate in the last three decades of the 20th century, the 2000 population of the seven-county region would have been nearly 3 million rather than 2.35 million.

This is roughly as comforting as saying that if a frog had wings, he wouldn't bump his butt a-hoppin'. Those folks who bolted now include people with grandchildren who unwrap little Jack Lambert and Franco Harris jerseys on their birthdays.

That's part of Pittsburgh history, but some have yet to figure out that it's pretty much that: history.

I saw a comment this week from a guy worried the Pirates might move to Charlotte, N.C., which may be the first recorded case of 1990s Flashback Syndrome. He should know the Pirates just enjoyed the second-highest attendance in club history while losing for the 20th consecutive season. If that's not a foolproof business model, what is?

Pittsburgh is among a minority of metro areas where home prices have never been higher, USA Today reported this week. That's because people aren't leaving the way they once did. Now, more arrive.

Census figures show our region and hub county have been growing slowly since 2009. It may be the first time since the 1920s that more people have been moving into Pittsburgh than moving out, and it's been enough to drop the city's median age from 35.5 to 33.2 in the first decade of the 21st century. That's even as the median age is rising in cities such as Cincinnati, Cleveland and Minneapolis.

We've even seen an uptick in immigrants, which brings me, at long last, to the real subject of today's column.

Pittsburgh hasn't attracted many immigrants in the past 100 years. Back in 1910, more than 25 percent of the region's total population was foreign-born, but that percentage sank over time like a frozen pierogi until it was just 2.4 percent in 1990.

"Even before the spike in job destruction of the early 1980s,'' wrote Chris Briem of the University of Pittsburgh's University Center for Social & Urban Research, "the region was not a major generator of new jobs, and thus did not attract workers from elsewhere in the nation or from overseas.''

In the two decades after 1990, though, the foreign-born population was able to inch up to 3.1 percent. That's a thin slice of the national figure of 12.3 percent, but Pittsburgh is finally back on international radar -- and some are complaining about it.

One need only have seen the negative online commentary that followed a Sept. 27 PG story headlined "Pittsburgh Promise Aims to Lure Hispanics With Aid.'' I called Victor Diaz, special projects director of our metro area's Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, to see what he thought of the critics who evidently can't see "Hispanic'' without thinking "illegal.''

"You're always going to have haters,'' Mr. Diaz, 55, said.

He was born in Cuba and raised in New Jersey, and 12 years ago he moved to Pittsburgh. Here he owns a contracting company with offices in three states, and he brags about Pittsburgh when he travels. He was telling friends in Miami, where the economy isn't nearly as hot as the temperature, about the quality of life he's found. The Floridians could hardly believe Pittsburgh's home prices, low crime and the rest.

"As a region,'' Mr. Diaz said, "we don't know how good we have it here.''

We must be starting to believe it, though. Because here in the place where locals have been bemoaning the dwindling population since shortly after Bill Mazeroski hit that big home run, some think we should worry that a fraction of the newcomers might be as foreign-looking as your great-grandparents were when they arrived.

Get over that fast, Pittsburghers. We earned this boomlet, and it's overdue.

brianoneill

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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