I was hoping to like the article in this month’s Pittsburgh Magazine entitled “A Love Letter to Pittsburgh,” by New York author Ellen T. White. After all, that’s what this whole blog is, right? A love letter? Nothing more affirming than reading something you’re guaranteed to agree with – makes you feel smart.
Not so much this time.
No better way to clue in Pittsburghers that you don’t understand them than to talk about how your first exposure to their city was a wedding at a “posh country club” where the bride was “Pittsburgh aristocracy,” the groom had “staggering good looks,” and the bridesmaids appeared “pulled from the pages of Vogue.” That’s how Ms. White’s “romance with Pittsburgh” began.
She goes on to describe meeting, marrying, then divorcing a designer from Pittsburgh, all the while quaintly infatuated with Pittsburgh and what she thought it represented – simplicity, authenticity, kindness. Which it does, but not to someone whose heart isn’t really in it:
Like every longtime New Yorker, I feared losing my “edge” but was determined to keep a firm grip on it. Working from Pittsburgh, I continued to take jobs in New York, where I had established a niche writing about luxury hotels and turning out funding proposals for not-for-profits with the efficiency of an assembly line.
She also transparently loved Pittsburgh not for what she found in it, but what it gave to her:
As luck would have it, the marketing chief for New York’s Museum of Modern Art was a transplant from the Carnegie Museum of Art. She hired me to write ad copy for the Museum of Modern Art and proposed me for managing editor of The New York Public Library – a recommendation that gave me the winning edge over a field of 350 aspirants. Curiously, national magazines were no longer tossing out my writing samples. Several gave me assignments for the first time.
In legend, of course, if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. Yet I seemed to be experiencing a professional phenomenon of another kind. Having started in New York, it was my Pittsburgh work and contacts that were giving me a leg up in New York.
Yes, she does wax poetic about a few landmarks – she mentions Forbes Avenue and the Cathedral of Learning. She name-drops Michael Chabon and Sally Wiggin. But it never rises out of the mire of condescension. She romanticizes Pittsburgh, but ultimately it was a forgone conclusion that Ms. White would choose living in NYC and writing books titled Simply Irresistible: Unleash Your Inner Siren and Mesmerize Men With Help From the Most Famous and Infamous Women in History over living in the ‘Burgh (as she affectionately refers to it).
But there’s no going back now on that decision made a decade ago. In truth, I am a committed New Yorker and happy to be.
So her longing for what she thought Pittsburgh could be sounds so much like the prom queen who remembers that special summer she spent “slumming it” with the lifeguard from the YMCA. She congratulates herself for how she broadened her horizons, how she’s in touch with what it means to be an “ordinary person.” But in the end, she’s just a tourist in a crown and sash.