Go East: A Western in Reserve
by Tara Goe
with an illustration by Hannah Reiff

As a kid, I never really understood the Western as a genre. I was cajoled into watching a great deal of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood—along with some movie called Water Hole #3, on repeat—by my Western-loving father. Growing up in rural Oregon, I just couldn’t see the romance in moving away from a perfectly agreeable, established civilization to some shitty, dusty, lawless outpost in the bumfuck West. This hesitation was partially due to the fact that I grew up on the West Coast, and having been surrounded by wide open spaces, as well as boasting an almost preternatural preference for places both modern and urbane, I didn’t see much to get excited about in the Western as a genre.

Travels aside, I had only lived in the states of Oregon, Washington, and California until about a year ago. I grew up reading about the great Western expansion of the United States, played Oregon Trail over and over in grade school (“you have just died of dysentery”), and heard the phrase “manifest destiny” so many times that I lost track of its meaning, though I grasped its general essence: advocates of manifest destiny believed that expansion was not only good, but necessary. However, I never thought of man-des as a concept that had anything do with the modern West Coast. I knew, of course, that people still moved to the West Coast, but, in my West Coast-centrism, I never considered how many people who escape to the West, and its California Dream, long to move somewhere new and open and free—a place of endless possibilities, man! Until very recently, I never truly realized I was a West Coaster. And then I moved to the Rust Belt.

Eastern Ho, the Wagons!

This is how I wound up moving East: I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for seven years, an all around groovy place to live, unless you have student loan and medical bills to pay off. In summer 2007, I decided to move to Portland, Oregon—close to my hometown of Odell, Oregon—to save money and work less. Portland had always been a cheap and endearingly scrappy city—a good place to move if one decided she needed to slow down, hide away, or drop out. When I arrived in Portland, I soon realized that something had happened in the seven years since I’d been away. The city had become popular and hip, and people from all over the country had decided to move there to start their new fantastic lives/bands/crafting businesses in good-vibes Portland, Oregon. In the midst of it all, Portland had become settled, expensive, and overrun—just like the West Coast’s other key cities. I was horrified.

Looking at the number of people who moved to Portland, Oregon between the years 2000 and 2008, one becomes acutely aware of the effects of the frontier spirit in action. According to U.S. Census data, over the past eight years, Portland has witnessed a 15 percent population growth. Nearly half of Portland’s new residents are from out of state (in the late 1990s, this rate was even higher—almost two-thirds.) These new residents are people from all over the country who have come clamoring to stake their claim, to start life anew in the West—traveling from far-away and long-settled civilizations such as Chicago, New York, and Boston. I was saddened by all the rapid development and change around me: shops and restaurants that had been around longer than I had were closing due to rising rentals prices while upscale boutiques moved in to cater to the needs of new residents.

However, these citywide changes felt mostly predictable to me, as if things had been heading in this direction for some time—or, to reference another meaning of manifest destiny, this rapid development was not only assumed to be good, but also certain and inevitable. Perhaps non-West Coasters still saw wide-open spaces in places like Portland, but all I saw were dead ends. So I packed my bags and did what any sensible (and extremely poor) girl in her 20s would do: I moved to Pittsburgh.

This Town is Coming Like a Ghost Town

Even longtime Pittsburgh locals can’t quite grasp why I moved here. Bartenders, neighbors, and co-workers all give me suspicious glances when I tell them where I’m from and that I have no family here. Sometimes I justify my move by telling people how cheap and pretty it is here, how much I like the history and old buildings, the empty spaces, old people, and hemorrhaging population. But their eyes usually glaze over. So I just tell them I moved here because it’s awesome.

Pittsburgh appeals to me for precisely the reason most people would never consider moving here: The city is shrinking rather than expanding. In the last half-century, Pittsburgh has lost more than half of its population. According to a 2007 census report, this city of 312,819 residents is losing residents at a rate second only to New Orleans. In the wake of the steel mills closing in the 1970s, and the subsequent loss of jobs, people fled elsewhere, leaving entire sections of the city largely abandoned. According to U.S. Postal data, approximately 13% of the housing in Pittsburgh is unoccupied (almost 24,000 residences), with larger vacancy numbers in surrounding industrial towns.

A more extreme example of urban shrinkage is found in Braddock, PA, an old steel mill town on the edge of Pittsburgh. Between 1950 and 2000, Braddock’s population dropped from over 20,000+ residents to under 3,000, making it a virtual industrial ghost town. The mayor of Braddock, a uniquely tattooed and quixotic character named John Fetterman (who, oddly enough, was recently profiled by Rolling Stone magazine—the one with Bob Dylan on the cover), has said in interviews that he was specifically attracted to the area because of it’s “malignant beauty… It’s like we’re in the Wild West [here].”

The Future is Shrinking

Indeed, one of the biggest problems for Pittsburgh, Braddock, and other Rust Belt cities is the question of what to do with so much unused and unoccupied space after long, drawn-out periods of deindustrialization. Western Pennsylvania is almost a new form of Wild West, with abandoned factories and overgrown lots standing in for prairies and barren rolling hills. These Rust Belt cities are literally shrinking, and while Pittsburgh may be economically rebounding better than, say, Detroit, it is still a city full of wide-open spaces.

Unfortunately, the most expedient solution to dealing with abandoned buildings and homes is often demolition, which is back in fashion in cities like Detroit (city building permits in the last 50 years: 3,540; demolition permits: 167,130). However, Pittsburgh may be less quick to use demolition as a solution to the vacant building syndrome if it takes into account the ill-conceived “urban renewal” of its East Liberty neighborhood in the 1970s. At this time, vast amounts of vacant residential structures were demolished in order to make way for redevelopment. Consequently, existing urban fabric was ruined, organic regeneration was disrupted, and longtime residents and local businesses were displaced from their community. When no real policy exists against it, demolition seems the easiest (and cheapest) solution to the problem of vacant space.

But, there may be other solutions. As John Fetterman says, “destruction breeds creation; create amid destruction.” Where many see terminally ill industrial areas, Fetterman envisions the potential for experimental urbanism, a concept that emphasizes communal living, interdependence, urban gardens, collective arts communities, and creative re-use.

To longtime Rust Belt residents, some of these ideas may sound far out. Even so, one might easily argue that these older, deteriorated areas offer the best opportunity for urban regeneration. The 21st century is not the 1970s, a time when many cities hit rock bottom, and the urban exodus launched into full swing. Cities are enjoying a renewed appeal among middle and upper-income groups, particularly among young 20-somethings. Artists and other members of the “creative class” are seeking out abandoned or underused industrial neighborhoods. People who can afford to are moving into less car-dependent neighborhoods, meaning that a car-free life may begin to replace the suburban dream of car ownership that so pervaded the mid-to-late 20th century. Nevertheless, the opportunity for individuals with limited income to live in urban areas becomes difficult when low-income neighborhoods are bulldozed, and demolition renders readymade space virtually unusable.

The New Frontier

Which brings me back to the idea of the Western. While I may have chaffed at the idea of moving to the middle of nowhere as a kid (since I felt like I already lived in the middle of nowhere), I think I’m finally starting to understand the frontier spirit. In fact, I may have recently caught something akin to postindustrial prairie syndrome. I moved to Pittsburgh a year ago precisely because it has so much empty, unclaimed, and usable space up for grabs—space that is both physical and psychic.

Unlike key West Coast cities, Pittsburgh has not (yet) gone through rapid cycles of gentrification. Although there are gradual changes happening in some neighborhoods—specifically the adjacent neighborhoods of Bloomfield, Friendship, and especially Lawrenceville—there is nothing on the wholesale level of, say, the complete displacement of most Black and working-class residents of North and NE Portland, OR. For the last 10 years, it seems many 20-somethings who grew up in suburban environments are escaping to cities to settle down and build their communities. On the West Coast, many longtime, low-income city residents have been forced to trade places; no longer able to afford living in the city, they are forced to move to the suburbs and commute to work. When communities are in constant flux like this, cities like Portland can start to feel more like gated communities than vibrant, diverse urban landscapes.

For this reason, the West Coast to me presently feels, in the practical and financial sense, cramped and depleted. Its cracks and blank spaces are getting harder and harder to find. But shrinking cities such as Pittsburgh hold an odd fascination and excitement for me. There is so much empty space in these cities that the standard cycles of gentrification and shifting communities barely apply. Shrinking cities move a step backwards in their development, which is the exact opposite of what we have always been taught to consider as “progress.” Yet creating a new form of progress may not be such a bad idea during these bleak economic times. Unlike current West Coast cities, there are numerous holes and gaps to be filled in places like Pittsburgh, and no one yet knows the shape of things to come. An old warehouse could become a gallery or school; a factory could be a community center, or a parking lot a garden. And everywhere, young people with student loans who never dreamed of owning a home might be able to purchase old houses on the cheap and slowly bring them back to life.

I’m enamored with this idea of living in the cracks, re-building on top of what’s already been built. Developing backwards, and slowly. Perhaps it goes against every notion of progress this country has been founded on, but I think there is something of the frontier spirit to be found in thinking of shrinkage as a form of growth. Personally, I look forward to a future when people are scaling back and living smaller lives, creating a vision of manifest destiny that is more about contraction than expansion.

When not working for the amazingly awesome Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Tara Goe enjoys reading about urban geography and radical urban planning. She recommends the beautiful “Shrinking Cities” by the Kulturstiftung des Bundes. She also recommends that you support your local public library.

Hannah Reiff has lived in the Wilkinsburg neighborhood of Pittsburgh for the past 6 months after moving from Boston, MA, where she went to art school. She admires the abandoned houses in her neighborhood and spends her afternoons gardening in a vacant lot after her dog-walking job. She loves to draw and make hand-bound story books. She lives with her boyfriend Jason, their cat Nico, and an unruly set of porch tomato plants.



All Material © 2009 The New Yinzer and its respective authors