Millennials’ stories of return and longing prove there’s no place like home
When Stacey Stamm — née Asman — left Pittsburgh for the University of Wisconsin in 2004, she had no intention of ever calling Pittsburgh “home” again.
“I thought I was the last person who would ever move back here,” said Stamm, now living in Mt. Lebanon with her husband, Brad, and working at Amazing Journeys, a travel company owned by her mother, Malori Asman.
Stamm is among the scores of millennials — those born after 1980, according to the Pew Research Center — who were raised in Pittsburgh and have either stayed put or returned to their hometown, finding the Steel City a pretty good place to make a life, especially when compared to other, larger cities.
The trend has been nationally noted. In 2014, The Atlantic described Pittsburgh as only one of three cities in the United States (the others being Minneapolis and Salt Lake City) to offer millennials affordable housing and upward mobility. One year later, Forbes named Pittsburgh one of the 25 best cities for millennials, and cited various factors for the decision such as ease of commuting within the city, levels of crime and ethnic diversity. And in 2016, realtor.com called Pittsburgh the second hottest market for home buying millennials and claimed that the city’s low housing costs, public transportation and nightlife led many to consider Pittsburgh the “new Portland.”
Following her college graduation, Stamm headed to Boston, where she lived for five years, working for the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston. But after a phone call from her older sister in Chicago, Erin Herman, Stamm began rethinking things.
“Brad and I were in Boston, and we had no family there,” Stamm said. “Erin and I were talking on the phone, and she said she was thinking of moving back to Pittsburgh, and wouldn’t it be nice if we all moved home.”
Stamm had been running occasional trips for Amazing Journeys, and knew that if she wanted to work for the Pittsburgh-based company full time, she would have to live here. And the idea of living near family began to appeal to her.
Stamm has been in Pittsburgh since 2013, and is confident it was the right move.
“It is way better than I expected,” she said. “When you move back, you have to understand you are not moving back to the same world you left when you graduated high school.”
Raised in Squirrel Hill, then Mt. Lebanon, when Stamm first returned to Pittsburgh she rented a place in Shadyside, where she was able to make new friends who had come for medical school or grad school, and took advantage of a more cosmopolitan neighborhood. It was a different life than the one she left.
Stamm has come to appreciate the benefits of living close to family, she said, and the fact that Pittsburgh offers greater affordability than Boston.
“I like being close to Erin, and her kids, and my parents,” Stamm explained. “There are no downsides. I never thought I’d say that.”
Her sister, who also works for Amazing Journeys, agrees.
Herman, who left Pittsburgh in 2002 for Ohio State University, lived in Atlanta for a short time following graduation, and then headed to Chicago for grad school.
“The main reason I wanted to move back to Pittsburgh was because our family was here,” Herman said.
Herman, who with her husband Chris has two young sons, has found Pittsburgh to be a great place to raise a family.
Although few of Herman’s old friends have moved back, she finds it easy to make new friends through family-friendly programs offered by Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, and Beth El Congregation of the South Hills.
The Hermans, who recently purchased a home in Mt. Lebanon, appreciate the relatively low cost of living in Pittsburgh, as well as the wide variety of first-class cultural opportunities.
“Pittsburgh has the same things as Chicago, just on a smaller, more affordable scale,” Herman said. “I can drive downtown in 22 minutes, park for $5, then be at a theater, so I am actually taking advantage of the cultural things Pittsburgh has to offer more than I was in Chicago.”
For Squirrel Hill native Jessica Savitz, 24, who graduated from Ohio University in 2014, there were several reasons to venture home.
“I came back to be close to where my family is, and it worked out with my career,” she said.
Savitz teaches theater and directs plays and musicals. This summer she will be assistant director for Front Porch Theatricals’ American Dreamers season.
“It’s a big accomplishment and it’s a lot harder in bigger cities to get an opportunity like this,” she said.
For the rising professional, Pittsburgh has been the perfect fit.
“In a bigger city you wouldn’t get to work one-on-one with the producers and be in such a close-knit group,” Savitz explained. “It’s like being a part of the family, and I don’t think in other cities you get that experience.”
While Pittsburgh has been professionally beneficial, there are also economic plusses.
“My peers think I am smart for being here,” she said. “It’s a really affordable city. I’m saving money. I love it, it’s a great home for me and it’s nice to be back here now, older and with a different perspective on life.”
Carolyn Slayton, 28, also cited affordability as just one of Pittsburgh’s perks.
“You get a ton of space for very little money,” said Slayton.
“In the last two to three years, Pittsburgh has just become a really awesome place. We have cultural events, and there’s always something to do. The traffic has gotten a little worse, but nothing like Los Angeles or New York, so it’s still better.”
Slayton, who is the Shalom Pittsburgh associate for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, grew up in Squirrel Hill, went to the University of Pittsburgh for college and then considered exiting the region’s bounds.
“When I was looking for law schools I thought about leaving,” she said. “I almost thought about moving to Florida, [but] I ended up meeting my husband.”
At that point, Slayton decided to attend Duquesne University School of Law.
“It was close to my family,” she said. “I didn’t have to move. I already knew people here.”
Although Slayton lived in New York for a short time, she never really felt compelled to make that city, or any other, her home.
“I just never really fell in love with another city and felt so passionate that I had to be there,” she said.
For Mark Pattis, 25, Pittsburgh has always felt like home, despite moving to California from Squirrel Hill during high school.
“I was able to meet nice people everywhere I went, but Pittsburgh is special,” Pattis said. “It’s a small city and there’s a nice feel to it.”
Pattis established new bonds during his years in California and at Indiana University, where he attended college, but the relationships differed from those he had formed while growing up in Pittsburgh.
“Nothing was going to be as strong as the friendships I created in Pittsburgh from childhood,” he said. “Leaving all those friends was tough.”
So when Pattis started looking for employment following college, the place he sought was home.
“I had such a great childhood experience,” he said. “The feelings and thoughts I had of Pittsburgh were just great.”
Such sentiment drove him to leave sunny California for not-as-sunny Pittsburgh.
“The big thing was I had a job opportunity at the JCC — it was like a second home,” he said.
As program coordinator of sports and recreation at the JCC, and program director at Emma Kaufmann Camp, Pattis has found a way to give back to the programs that gave him so much growing up.
“Whether going to EKC as a camper or being involved in Maccabi or basketball programs, those were ways I built strong relationships with my friends,” he said.
And while he feels that growing up in Pittsburgh was “great,” even as an adult the Steel City still is special to Pattis.
“There’s a great spirit here, there’s a lot of genuine people here,” he said.
Max Louik, a 2001 Mt. Lebanon High School grad, has been back in Pittsburgh since 2011, and is happily settled in the suburb where he was raised, but now living with his wife Kate and his two daughters.
The K&L Gates attorney earned his bachelor’s degree at Brandeis University, and his J.D. at the University of Michigan, and lived in New York City for a time working as a paralegal in between. But when he graduated law school, he headed right back to Pittsburgh.
“My immediate concern was finding a job,” explained Louik, who noted that the country was in the midst of a financial collapse during his law school years. When he was offered a position at the downtown law firm, he took it.
“I wanted to come back to Pittsburgh, having lived in New York City, which I didn’t like at all,” he said.
Louik and his family are now firmly planted back in Mt. Lebanon.
“Growing up, Mt. Lebanon was boring,” he said. “But as an adult, I appreciate how affordable it is, and how nice it is. And it’s nice to raise a family close to my parents [Betty Jo Hirschfield Louik and Howard Louik].
“I’m very enthusiastic about Pittsburgh,” Louik continued. “I’m trying to convince all my friends to move here, both the ones that grew up here, and others.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com. Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.