Some First Impressions of Pittsburgh, PA

Lots of hills and bridges in a well-kept, industrious city. Six observations.

View from Grandview Ave. Photo taken by author.

Recently, I’ve moved from the oil patch of western North Dakota back to my home state of Pennsylvania. Even though I was actually born in Colorado, I consider PA my home, particularly the Main Line Philly suburbs. I grew up and lived in the eastern part of the state for most of my life, leaving a few times for brief sojourns in Chicago and Memphis, until my 2012 self-abduction to North Dakota to work in the Bakken.

I’ve spent the last ten and a half years living in ND, which has been akin to completing a lengthy prison sentence. While the Great White North is a burgeoning “Jobtopia” — the oil boom is still entrenched and virile with high-paying opportunities , FYI— it lacks in many other categories. No one moves to ND for the culture, community, infrastructure, education, or social life. You move there to work. That’s it.

Oh, and freeze. As it’s winter there for about eight months of the year.

Other than a brief visit to Pittsburgh back in 2011 for a role as an extra in The Dark Knight Rises stadium explosion scene, and driving through the region to get somewhere else, I never spent much time, or gave much thought to Philly’s coal-covered steely sibling city.

It’s only been a few days since I’ve arrived, but here are a few first impressions:

1a.) The Cost of Living Seems Manageable

This was one of my reasons for moving to western PA in the first place. As much as I love the Philly area, it’s become far more costly to successfully live there on even a decent salary than when I finally left in 2012. Then I had a one-bedroom off Germantown Avenue in West Philly that went for $495 a month. It was in a lower-middle class working neighborhood, but it wasn’t a totally bad set-up. I doubt you’d be able to find something anywhere close to that price range now. I also lived in University City before, right near Baltimore Pike. I think my rent back then (mid-2000s) was also around $600 for a studio apartment with a shared bathroom. Nowadays that same dwelling is likely going for closer to $1,000.

In all of my apartment/housing searches of the Pittsburgh area, I kept finding a range between $800-$1400 a month for apartments within the city limits. This is actually pretty good relative to what you would find in Philly, or almost any other major city near the coasts. You can even find nice high-rise apartments right downtown for as low as $1300-$1400, though there are plenty past the $2000 mark. To put that in perspective, in Center City Philadelphia, you’d probably pay about double that. And forget about NYC, Boston, L.A. or most other places.

For even more perspective, my old apartment in ND was almost $900 for a nice two-bedroom. Decent apartments also go for about that in Fargo. So even in the far less populated Dakotas you’re still getting hit with higher rent costs, while not getting nearly the comprehensive quality of living (and therefore the value for your money) as you would get in a more developed region.

Lower rent is especially important these days, as living costs have skyrocketed in most places due to inflation and rising demand. Expensive states like California, New York, and Illinois have obviously seen an exodus in favor of less costly places like Texas, Florida, and Tennesse in recent years. But I’m sure the trend is there at the intra-state micro level, such as between Philadelphia and western PA.

I haven’t yet switched my car insurance yet to PA. But from what I’ve seen in the estimate, it’s not substantially higher than what I was paying in ND. Gas is higher in PA. Taxes will likely be higher here. And then there’s the famous Pennsylvania Turnpike charges.

Food costs are right in line with ND. Really, if you shop at Wal-Mart or Amazon Whole Foods you’re likely paying similarly no matter where you live. Where bigger cities can kill you is if you’re a big restaurant-eater. I am not, so for me, the cost of food is unlikely to change much.

It’s not all roses, but from a value perspective, the cost of living appears appropriately fair and not “rapey” in the Pittsburgh area.

To go along with the overall cost of living:

1b.) You Can Actually Buy a Decent House Here

This isn’t so much a Pittsburgh thing as it is a western PA/eastern Ohio/midwest thing.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that there are a wide variety of attractive homes available in the general region for under $250,000. And I don’t mean cheaply-made factory-assembly-line “shoeboxes,” as you’ll generally find in ND or other upper midwest places. I mean homes made of real wood, brick, and stone fit for human occupancy. In most of ND, the choices are polarized between overpriced hamster houses that are 100 years old, or shoddily-stuck-together new construction suburban cages (that are also overpriced).

Even if I’m not quite in the market for a house at the moment, like many others, I enjoy ogling at my share of “house porn.” Even screening for 3-bedroom/two-bathroom houses starting at $100k+, Zillow shows a lot of individual suburban homes for sale. Standalone houses, not twins. With yards. Off-street parking. And right in the sweet-spot range of $250,000-$300,000. By contrast, the Philly suburbs generally starts at about $300,000-$350,000 for a twin home, with $400,000-$450,000 and up generally your price range for an individual home. Even still, the Main Line Philadelphia region offers the best value for your money for high-end living compared to pricier suburbs in Boston , D.C. or L.A.

With interest rates rising, and housing becoming more and more in demand in most parts of the country, it’s nice to see an “oasis” of affordability and availability. I’ve also heard that house-flipping is still in vogue and profitable in the western PA/Ohio region. That’s not surprising. Outside the city limits, there are a lot of fixer-uppers going for well under $200k.

2.) It’s Mostly Clean and Well-Kept

Like any major city, you’re going to see your fair share of flicked cigarette butts, discarded McDonald’s wrappers, and tossed water bottles. But there’s a big difference between “tolerable littering” and a city that seems more like a dumping ground than a habitable zone. Pittsburgh citizens seem to really care for and respect their city.

Even for a town that’s been around since the 1700s, there’s a glossy Windex-sheen to the surface that you don’t see in other places of equal population or history. Even the graffiti under bridges and in discreet spots is minimal. I took a hiking detour through the woods near one of the rivers, and what trash and gang markings I found seemed more like afterthoughts than nefarious types staking their claim.

3.) It’s Hilly as Hell

At least in some areas. I thought San Francisco was supposed to be the famous “hill zone,” but Pittsburgh measures up also. The photo at the top of this article is from a vantage point on Grandview Avenue, a fantastic place for sight-seeing that more than earns its namesake

North Dakota is almost entirely flat. So going from that to Pittsburgh is somewhat of a shock to the system. Especially when you drive a stick shift vehicle like myself. No joke, some of the inclines I’ve seen give me anxiety just thinking about trying to drive up them with my car.

I am not a fan of hills for driving on or walking, so for me —

No, let me rephrase that —

I f*cking hate hills.

And they constitute a ding on the city overall.

Hills are good for getting a good view of your surroundings, yes. But they’re a pain to traverse, and visually unsightly. I prefer a less dramatic topography with more symmetry and evenness than land that looks like it’s sitting on top of a stormy ocean. But that’s just me.

4.) It’s Walkable

Pittsburgh might be nicknamed the Steel City. But it could also be called the City of Ripped Thighs and Calves.

Moving past my hill-hostility, it’s nice to finally live in a major city that’s easy and inviting to walk through. In North Dakota, as in most parts of the remote upper midwest, everything is miles apart. But downtown Pittsburgh is easy to get to even if you live on the other side of the rivers. I walked from almost one side to the other yesterday in about three hours, stopping in the direct center at Point State Park Fountain.

And yes, my calves, glutes, abductor magnus, sartorius, and pretty much every muscle group in my lower body are all singing like a mega church choir this morning.

5.) Bridges Everywhere

Not exactly surprising when you have three major rivers intersecting right next to your city’s downtown. The Allegheny and Monongahela rivers merge to make the Ohio at the confluence at Point State Park. So naturally this necessitates having a ton of bridges stretching across the rivers in order to connect the three pieces of the city. It’s an unusual set-up, but visually striking.

I’ve never been in a place that requires so many bridges. And other than ones meant solely for trains, they’re all walkable as well. So you can stop in the middle and get a good look at all the river traffic below. Or maybe have the chance to try to talk someone out of jumping off. I saw a good bit of inspirational “don’t jump” — themed messages in permanent black marker on the railings and girders on several bridges. Now, I’m no expert on how high a bridge needs to be in order to be lethal to jump from, but Pittsburgh doesn’t exactly have the Golden Gate Bridge. And I say if you’re going to make that final swan leap to oblivion, why not do it from a place with some brand name recognition? I think a jump from Liberty Bridge would just result in you getting soaked and embarassing yourself.

6.) Traffic Isn’t Completely Soul-Destroying

If you want a demoralizing, frustrating experience that will makae you hate your fellow man, hop on either route 95 or 76 during rush hour in the Philadelphia-area.

Or better yet, just drive anywhere in New Jersey. I still have PTSD and flashbacks from some of the vicious soccer moms whipping around me at 90 MPH in their Chevy Suburbans and Dodge Minivans, just to be ahead by five seconds at the next red light.

East coast driving is not for the faint of heart. Thankfully, Pittsburgh seems just far enough away from the teeth of the Traffic Monster.

Yeah, it’s still bad sometimes. There’s still rush hour. It’s a major city, afterall. And coming from the Martian landscape of ND back to PA you’re bound to feel throttled by all the extra cars and drivers.

But some perspective here, please. Pittsburgh traffic is not nearly as bad as Philly traffic. It’s still bordering the midwest, so drivers, while impatient and rambunctious, don’t have the same murderous devil-may-care nature you only find in cities like Philly, L.A., and elsewhere.

I’ve driven around here during multiple times. Morning, afternoon, night, etc. And rarely did I see a lot of red on my Google map direction app.

Were there on occassion some nasty acidents? Yes. It’s a city, so they’re bound to happen. But unlike the sadomasochism you’ll find in Philly or New York, traffic doesn’t feel like a big part of Pittsburgh’s DNA.

In Conclusion

I’m only a new resident here. Maybe some of these first impressions aren’t entirely “big picture.” But they’re are all honest.

Pittsburgh overall seems like a decent, practical city.

In fact, “practical” is probably the word I’d best use to decribe it. As picturesque as much of the city is, that’s more due to the landscape than the architecture. The buildings and bridges possess more of a functional aesthic. They get the job done. None of the skyscapers are particuarly stand-out. Most have a plain grid pattern. The parks near the river fronts are magnificent. And I like how both the football and baseball stadiums are placed right by the river. It’s fall right now. But it’ll be interesting see this city during the snowy winter.

Will Pittsburgh ever be “home.” No. I don’t see myself staying here for life, if even for a year. But it makes for a decent stop.