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.’
“It’s an exciting time to return. What made it even more convincing is the talent pool and changing dynamic of downtown, seeing a critical mass of people in various places in the city using the amenities.”
Accustomed to an urban pace, Bryan and his wife, Jaime, considered living downtown but with a baby girl and another on the way, they opted for Mt. Lebanon, in part, because of its walkability.
DeCecco echoes Wilson’s outside-looking-in opinion about Pittsburgh’s deficits. “The biggest thing is the lack of diversity, especially in the professional world. It feels unreal to me. I grew to value that while in New York.”
On the flip side, what does feel real to Bryan is Pittsburghers’ genuineness. “There’s a lot of talent and ego in New York and people hustling really hard, but here, people say what they mean and really do it. Learning that while growing up here served me well up there. I wasn’t the flashiest guy but I could get things done.”
Being in New York was “a great experience,” Bryan says, though the famed city’s luster wore off during his transition from tourist to resident. “My first job was in Times Square. At first, I thought, ‘Holy sh**! I’m in Times Square!’ That became more like, ‘I’m in Times Square. This is awful’.
“But I wanted to make sure I could have the same success on a much bigger national scale as I’d had here. That was my game to play, so to speak. Coming back to Campos and having an opportunity to help rebuild the company and be a strategic player is a pretty rare occurrence. I feel pretty lucky to be here.”
Not too long ago, DeCecco attended a performance at Bricolage Production Company, where he is a board member. “It was a totally immersive experience, totally affordable and totally accessible, unlike New York,” he shares. “I had a moment where I thought, ‘Man! It’s so good to be back. This is true Pittsburgh’.”
Doug Allen left Pittsburgh at the age of 17 “to see what was out there” after graduating from Sewickley Academy. He ventured far, living abroad a few times—Paris, London, Nice—and then to New York for law school.
“No place felt like home,” he says.
So in 2011 when he got the chance to work for Reed Smith as an attorney for a year, between federal judicial clerkships, he decided to give it a shot. A year later he made it permanent when he joined Reed Smith’s Appellate Group.
He’s now 30 and lives in Rivervue—the new apartments facing Point State Park—with his fiancé, who followed him here. “We love it, “ he says of living downtown. “We both walk to work. The convenience factor is great,” he says. But there was a lot more to his move.
“I’m from Homewood, from the inner city. There aren’t a lot of people who come from those circumstances who can come back and do something positive. I wanted to give Pittsburgh a chance and see if it would work for me so I could be an example.”
During his last stint here, he was very active in Urban League Young Professionals and volunteering a lot. Now he’s getting actively involved again in things that matter the most to him.
“There are significant social issues that I was aware of and I knew that if I’m going to be here I want to be part of the solution to the problem of why Pittsburgh struggles so much to recruit and retain black talent.”
While he became a board member of Sewickley Academy, he’s also involved with a new group focused on the diversity issue.
“It’s an initiative of Vibrant Pittsburgh where they’re putting together a coalition of young professionals to start brainstorming what are the things we can do in the community to make it more attractive to people of color and other diverse groups.”
George Stewart, managing partner of Reed Smith Pittsburgh, is concerned about the issue, says Allen, and suggested him for the program.
Does he feel hopeful things will change?
“I feel the bar’s really low. There’s nowhere to go but up,” Allen says. “I read Mayor Peduto’s plan about making Pittsburgh more diverse and it’s heavily, heavily focused on immigration which is great but there’s little conversation about what’s happening to the community that’s here and that’s a concern to me. What is the plan to improve the circumstances for people of color who are already here? If change is going to come, it’s going to have to come from those of us who are here, who get it, and who have the vision.”
Michelle Fanzo grew up in the bedroom community of Bergenfield, New Jersey, attended Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts then chose Pittsburgh from a list of six potential cities in 1992. “Pittsburgh had just been rated number one and it seemed like a really interesting city. I loved it.”
The job she took at The Pittsburgh Press ended two months later when the paper folded. She stayed for six years, writing for local publications including AIA Pittsburgh’s Columns. “I ran around writing stories about different neighborhoods, and talking to architects and engineers. This gave me insight into the city. It took being an outsider to understand what was happening in places like Munhall and Rankin.”
Fanzo’s time here was brief yet power-packed. She started PUMP (Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Project), which encouraged young people to affect change in their communities. Then she studied international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.
In 1998, Fanzo moved to New York which was her home base for the next 16 years as she worked and lived in a handful of countries—Nairobi, Kenya and Burma, Southeast Asia, primarily—and traveled to more than 40 as a policy advisor for the United Nations Office of the Secretary-General under Kofi Annan, and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations.
In 2005, Fanzo became director of field operations for Arzu in Afghanistan, an NGO that provides jobs, education and healthcare to Afghan families. A few years later, she was back in New York running her own strategy consulting business, Four Corners Consulting, working mostly with the nonprofits sector and companies with a social responsibility component.
Ultimately, what brought her back to Pittsburgh was love. While here on business, she met Mike Schiller, CEO of the Green Building Alliance. “We had a long distance relationship for a while and I got to see how Pittsburgh has evolved.”
Fanzo cites affordability and opportunities for entrepreneurship among Pittsburgh’s plusses. “In other cities, you have to maintain such a high level of business just to keep the lights on. In Pittsburgh, a lot more is possible here. You can be creative and try something new, and it’s not the same kind of intense pressure and competition as you see in some of the coastal cities. We’ve been innovative since the beginning, with steel, iron, glass and coal. There’s a palpable sense of possibility for those who are interested in expanding what they can do.”
Ironically, when Fanzo started PUMP in the ‘90s, her goal was to keep young people in the region. “What we envisioned is now happening. Millennials are now the largest cohort of individuals who are coming and staying.”
Our city is “still at the beginning of its evolution to the new Pittsburgh,” Fanzo says. Being an optimist, I think about, ‘How do we leverage this?’ Back then, I spent time talking with people at reasonably high levels who were trying to move economic development forward but there wasn’t much of a grassroots voice. Now there’s innovation coming from a grassroots level. Many voices are taking up the idea of ‘How can we engage with our city to make it better?’ That’s what feels different from the ‘90s.”
Living elsewhere, Fanzo routinely noticed the Pittsburgh diaspora. “I met Pittsburghers all over the world—an economist at the World Bank who was from Ben Avon, for example—and the neat thing about it was they always got so excited. It’s not just the Steelers. Pittsburghers are ferociously loyal even if they haven’t been back for 25 years. I don’t see that in other places. People are incredibly connected emotionally here.”
With this concept as inspiration, Fanzo recently started an initiative that uses technology to connect and re-engage those who’ve moved on from Pittsburgh—at least emotionally, if not physically—in an effort to rebrand the region from the outside. “The idea is for the region to connect with its extended family around the world.”
The name of this initiative? Pittsburgh Homecoming, naturally. See more in Fanzo’s recent TEDxPittsburgh video:
All photos, except for Doug Allen, by Brian Cohen.