In the first of a series, NEXTpittsburgh profiles four movers and shakers who have recently returned to Pittsburgh. They share their stories here: why they left, what brought them back and—in all cases—their changed perspective of Pittsburgh, including one thing that is truly needed here.
Abby Wilson had a “Wizard of Oz” moment in November 2014. After achieving success in various environments around the world—working in South Africa, studying abroad in The Netherlands and completing a D.C.-based job tenure that involved consulting with the White House—she realized there’s no place like Pittsburgh.
“I’d been drawn to these incredible places around the world, but I was finally ready to feel fulfilled coming home,” says Wilson, then 35. It was the second time she had left Pittsburgh then returned. This homecoming, she says, is “probably permanent.”
Wilson first moved back at age 26 “by circumstance,” after graduating from Columbia University in 2002 then relocating to South Africa as part of an AIDS project. She quickly integrated into the city’s sociopolitical fabric, serving as campaign manager for former Pittsburgh City Council member Patrick Dowd then in 2007 starting the nonprofit GLUE (Great Lakes Urban Exchange).
By 2008, Wilson had reached another fork in the road. “I was restless. I hadn’t gotten my ya-yas out.” California was on her radar but she landed a scholarship to Pitt Law School, which enabled her to study for a year in The Netherlands.
Then she became a program director for LUMA Institute, an innovation and design spinoff of MAYA, which led to a stint with the Office of Personnel Management in D.C. “The position brought with it insane exposure to all the highs and lows of being in D.C. and working with high-profile projects coming out of the White House. After two years, I’d made my contribution and was ready to leave D.C.”
She considered San Francisco, New York City and . . . Pittsburgh. “I did a series of yoga retreats and was going to take a couple of months to reflect. Then I visited Pittsburgh and thought, ‘If I just remove the fact that I grew up here, the choice is obvious. I realized that this is not just a special place because I was born here. It’s a special place, period. It’s affordable. I get to have a life here instead of being totally obsessed with work. There’s great food, green spaces, cultural amenities.” Wilson solidified her decision by purchasing a house in Squirrel Hill. She now works as deputy director at the Allegheny County Department of Health, Bureau of Public Policy and Community Relations downtown.
Certainly, living elsewhere has informed Wilson’s perspective on her hometown. “I sincerely hope, as I know many others do, that our region continues to diversify. Diversity strengthens a city’s economy and culture, and we want this region to be welcoming for everyone. The homogeneity and provincialism that accompany working here frustrates me at times, and the amount of time I spend in the car is absurd. I’ve been deeply spoiled by the New York subway and Paris Metro. These problems take time to untangle. I’m excited that we’re managing growth and not decline.”
Before Abby moved back, she would find herself telling people that Pittsburgh is the best place ever. “There was always this source of pride and excitement when I’d read all the good press. Now, I am choosing affirmatively to live here. It’s home.”
After graduating from Virginia Tech, Bryan DeCecco’s first job was with Campos, Inc. (then Campos Market Research), followed by a position in ad sales at WPXI. Four years later, he decided to make his mark on Madison Avenue.
“I was 28 and it was something I wanted to experience,” he recalls. DeCecco’s time in the Big Apple was fruitful. He quickly rose to senior roles at Viacom and Crown Media Family Networks. Then one day while Yvonne Campos, founding CEO of Campos, was in Manhattan, the two went to brunch. “She was talking about all the exciting things happening with her company. I got excited, too.”
So, almost four years to the day of Bryan’s NYC relo—2011 to 2014—he returned to his hometown as Campos’ director of business development. The job was only part of of it.
“I had always kept tabs on the city. I remember visiting for my 30th birthday party and a Pitt game. My friends who’d lived in New York their whole lives were saying things like, ‘Wow, this city is so cool.’ ‘There’s a lot of opportunity here.’ ‘The restaurants are incredible.’