What Makes a Place, a Home?
From a young age, I have always been curious about what makes a place the way it is. My love of history has driven my desire to understand and contextualize the places where I live.
Before moving here, I knew that Pittsburgh was a city on the rise, brimming with energy and excitement about the future. I didn’t realize how much how quickly it was changing. As I launched Honeycomb Credit and settled into Pittsburgh with my wife Elizabeth, I found myself wondering: What makes a city unique? What gives it character and purpose? And most importantly, what makes a place feel like a home?
It should be no surprise that the geography is paramount in defining a place’s character. After all, a lot of cities were founded because of their proximity to a body of water or the abundant access to crucial natural resources.
Pittsburgh is a case in point on the influence that geography has on a place. When I think of home, I think of the rolling hills and lush trees that envelop the city, especially in the fall. Walking through Garfield and Bloomfield, I feel home in the lanes of beautiful historic houses, the storefronts being renovated, the occasional encounters with neighbors and friends, and the rolling hills just a short distance away, covered in a tapestry of sunset colors. Breathing in the crisp autumn air, I tune into the latest podcast on my list; it’s the perfect time to ponder about the world, as my feet crunch into the falling leaves.
The second force that defines a place are its institutions like museums, monuments, sports teams, and universities; infrastructure and public transportation; large corporate entities; and government agencies and their policies (like zoning). Institutions set rules, regulations, and social norms that influence society in deep and lasting ways. Institutions serve as the cultural guideposts that help define our city.
Home is black and gold, home is our iconic skyline and inclines. Home feels strangely like the Turrell exhibition at the Mattress Factory. To experience Turrell's Danaë (1983), the viewer has to walk through two pitch black hallways before being confronted by an illuminated screen.
Danaë (1983) by James Turrell, Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh
Upon a closer look, the screen is actually an empty room that is shone with black light. You may wonder, how does that sound like home? The exhibition is calming to the mind, evoking a comforting darkness, with just a hint of light in the distance. The reveal of the room challenges the perception of the eye, suggesting that just like home, there's more here than what meets the eye. Not to mention, the site of the Mattress Factory is rooted in Pittsburgh history, as it was originally the building of an abandoned Stearns & Foster mattress warehouse. Joining the old and the new in creative expression is as Pittsburgh as it gets.
It's also worth noting that institutions may include some darker pieces of history. Whether it be prejudiced policies, failed urban plans, or man-made disasters, institutions can also shape our cities in negative ways. In Pittsburgh, the pollution from the steel mills of decades past is an example of how institutions’ impacts aren’t always universally positive for a community. No matter how positive or negative, these institutions are unquestionably a defining force for cities.
The Small Businesses
Small businesses are a reflection of our history, of what we’re known for and what we enjoy. The Italian markets in the Strip District, the bars of East Carson Street, the high end boutiques of Walnut Street—all reflect the communities that they serve. At the same time, small businesses can define the habits of locals. How many people in Western Pennsylvania now put French fries on their sandwiches because of the influence of Primanti Brothers?
Bitter Ends Garden & Luncheonette
Home feels like Bitter Ends Garden & Luncheonette in Bloomfield. Home sounds like the crunch of freshly baked bread, the smell of eggs and fresh potatoes crackling on the griddle. The hodgepodge of eclectic mugs and plates create a unique, homey vibe mixed with a classic American diner. Home tastes like the first bite of the dream-inducing breakfast hoagie that keeps me coming back every weekend.
Geography, institutions, and small businesses don’t operate in isolation. Rather, they work off each other to give places their character and quirks. What connects them are the people, who define and are defined by the city that surrounds them. Home feels like the hustle and bustle of people who trek up and down the rolling hills every day. Home feels like the people who work to make institutions better for our communities. Home feels like the people who make Bitter End Luncheonette's breakfast hoagie enjoyable, like the farmers growing local produce, the cooks and servers who prepare food with love, and the fellow diners who've traveled there for the same reason.
So that's it for what makes a place like Pittsburgh feel like home to me. Now, what makes Pittsburgh home for you?