I grew up on the edge of rural Pennsylvania, about an hour and a half from the city of Pittsburgh. I spent my first years growing up in Pittsburgh, but my family moved out to the mountainous region southeast of the city when I was young. I recently have been spending more time in the region (now living in Pittsburgh) after living away throughout the Eastern US for some years.
Some things I've noticed about this area since moving away and spending more time back:
- It's a confluence of two distinct, but related, American regions and cultures. It's both rustbelt and Appalachian. While Pittsburgh sits on the eastern edge of the rustbelt and of the midwest, the region directly east of it is neither rustbelt nor Appalachian. Some of the towns are dotted with factories (I am sitting in the shadow of an old factory in Johnstown, PA, as I write this). Other ones are with ski resorts. Others with trailer parks. Others with farms. It feels like somebody took elements of old-time Pittsburgh and dropped them in Ohio and added some mountains.
- While Pittsburgh has largely recovered from the collapse of the steel industry and American manufacturing, a lot of these towns haven't. Johnstown, for example, is littered with the decaying factories of John Murtha's government-funded defense manufacturing industry. Some of the areas nearby that were never too heavy on manufacturing found oil and gas to be their saving grace -- although that's quickly drying up. Others see coal mines that sustained the communities closing.
- This presents two sides of the same coin: opportunity and desperation. The opportunity is definitely here, but it will take a few years to propel it forward. I'm here today because of a research and development software company that's hidden in the office parks near a local branch of a nearby university. This company is doing amazing work and really fostering entrepreneurial ventures in ways that you see a lot of people talk about but rarely ever execute on. The cost of living is low. Office space is cheap. You're close enough to a major city to get some benefits of it (but not close enough to really be part of it). There's great opportunity here -- especially since the Internet makes startup costs and knowledge requirements so much lower. There are tech companies, hedge funds, and a bunch of other interesting entrepreneurial ventures hidden here -- and more popping up every day.
- You can see and feel a lot of the desperation of the rustbelt and Appalachia in one place, though. People who have lived here their whole lives have seen their storefronts close up, the factories shut down, oil wells get torn down, and the industry just slowly drip away. That's hard for people and it's easy to feel trapped. It's no surprise that populist politicians do well in regions like this (side note: I've actually seen more signs for populist leftists than populist rightists in areas like this, despite the fact that I would generally describe these areas as politically and culturally conservative).
- The good thing is that the people of this region have historically been very good at picking themselves up and reinventing themselves. The hope is that the reinvention of Pittsburgh can bleed into the nearby regions as well.
These are just a few of the thoughts that ran through my mind while driving out here today.