With all its promise, area can be prouder
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One difference between Boston and Pittsburgh is that in the hub of New England it takes a while for people to believe bad news is real.
In Pittsburgh, it takes a while for people to believe good news is real.
That's Mark Roosevelt's take anyway. I think he may be on to something. He mentioned it after I asked Mr. Roosevelt, the superintendent of city schools, why, more than two years on, more people aren't excited about the Pittsburgh Promise.
That's the program that gives college scholarships to the city's public high school and charter school graduates. Since the program began with the class of 2008, nearly 1,500 students have received scholarships. The program was expanded last year so the money's now good at any college in Pennsylvania, and the current $5,000-a-year scholarships are scheduled to double to $10,000 a year with the class of 2012, provided the extraordinary donations by foundations and corporations continue apace.
That's potentially 80 grand if a Pittsburgh family sends two children to college. Yet you don't hear people talking about it much. We just aren't used to news that good in Pittsburgh. Many just hear it and throw it in our massive too-good-to-be-true pile.
Pop psychology for an entire populace is very slippery work. But the day after I spoke with Mr. Roosevelt, Heather Heidelbaugh of Mt. Lebanon and I crossed paths, and she also mentioned something she thought was off about Pittsburgh groupthink.
Like Mr. Roosevelt and me, she's a transplant. She moved here from her native St. Louis in 1988, the same year I moved here from a newspaper in Roanoke, Va. Back then, of course, Pittsburgh was only beginning to recover from the implosion of the steel industry.
We've come a long way since. Yet we haven't changed this particular thought:
"I think that, for at least a generation, parents have consigned themselves to the supposed inevitability that their children must leave the city for college and life," said Ms. Heidelbaugh, a lawyer.
"My very simple theory is that we, parents, throw that notion out the window,'' this mother of teenagers says.
She understands there are reasons to leave, chief among them being jobs, "but people create jobs. No people, no jobs. If we stop assuming they have to go and start encouraging them to stay, that is a start."
My own belief is that it is the nature of educated, young Americans to move and see what's over the next hill. It's a big country with plenty of good places to live. It's no surprise that tens of thousands of twenty-somethings scurry across the map to see what they can see.
That doesn't just happen here. It happens everywhere. There is plenty of data that suggests we in Pittsburgh don't lose our young people to a degree greater than most places. We just don't attract the migrants, native and foreign, to replace our departing youth the way other metro areas do.
But it is the attitude and the expectation that Ms. Heidelbaugh says are different here. In her native St. Louis -- a city that has lost even more population than Pittsburgh, going from its 1950 peak of 857,000 to an estimated 371,000 today -- people don't resign themselves to the necessity of children leaving, she said.
The expectation is that they'll find a way to stay.
If that's so -- and the St. Louis metro area has indeed grown even as the core city has shrunk -- that might be because no single cataclysmic event caused an exodus.
Similarly, Pittsburgh's recovery this past quarter-century has been gradual. So the conventional wisdom hasn't caught up to the new reality.
As Ms. Heidelbaugh put it succinctly: St. Louis has lost population to its surrounding suburbs. Pittsburgh has lost population to every other region in America.
Nobody is saying our troubles are over. It's still hard to find a job in Pittsburgh, but it's at least as hard, if not harder, in other places. That old idea that one can always find work in the Sun Belt -- Phoenix, Los Angeles, Miami, Las Vegas -- fuhgeddabahtit.
"I pray every day that my children will stay in Pittsburgh with their old mom,'' Ms. Harbaugh, a lawyer, said. "The kids are 17 and 15. What with the prayers and the Catholic guilt I heap on their heads every so often, I'm hoping for the best.''
Part of the rationale for the Pittsburgh Promise is to get more of our youth to stick around Pennsylvania. Maybe we grown-ups need to re-educate ourselves and adjust our opinions to the new reality, too.
First Published January 17, 2010 12:00 am