Where is Pittsburgh? Capturing the essence of a place is not easy. Manufacturing a place may be impossible. But the location of a place is relatively straightforward, yes? I'm here to tell you that where Pittsburgh is might surprise you.
Where is Real Pittsburgh? Answering that question will bring out the connoisseurs of place as well as Pittsburgh aficionados. I suspect most of those experts would dig up an authentic Pittsburgh rooted in nostalgia and steeped in local lore, "You know you are in Pittsburgh when..."
I'm skeptical of place mythology. When I lived in Vermont, a friend visiting asked to see the "true" part of the state, not the countryside overrun with New York City refugees seeking utopia. I brought him to a trailer park in Bolton and told him that the state tree should be the satellite dish, not the sugar maple. My decidedly unromantic view of Vermont did not sit well with my visitor.
If you want to see where a place in the United States is today, then eat at a national chain restaurant at an interstate interchange in some suburb of the central city. Multinational corporations would love to homogenize your experience, but they will ultimately fail. A local McDonalds is as good an indicator as any as to where you are.
However, McDonalds is globally a place unto itself. There is an identifiable McDonalds experience and a strong sense of place, regardless of context. The places that exist in more than one location serve as my muse for the Burgh Diaspora blog. My posts are about Pittsburghs (and other "places"), wherever they may be.
The geography that gets me up in the morning is the landscape between places, how connected locations form a unique experience that has all the characteristics of place. I have argued that Authentic Pittsburgh is found in the parking lot tailgate of a Steelers away game or at a Steelers bar in a city far from Heinz Field. In these places, Pittsburgh is preserved.
Globalization, often mischaracterized as the destruction of geography, redefines a place in terms of connectivity. You can map these relationships and easily comprehend how each city has its own profile. A city's global network is how I would define a place and the essence of Pittsburgh is found in the locations of the region's expatriates.
Big thanks to today's guest blogger, Jim Russell, the blogger behind The Burgh Diaspora. Check out Jim's blog for a more in depth exploration of the process of "realizing a new geographic understanding of Pittsburgh."