Welcome to the Neighborhood
Do we ever really become a local in an adopted place? In the TV show Sex and the City, protagonist Carrie Bradshaw said of New York: “It takes 10 years of living here to be a real New Yorker.” Maybe in that vast stew of humanity one can survive long enough to eventually scoff at tourists. But here, I don’t know if newcomers to Mt. Lebanon ever become bona fide. We do embrace the town and make our way into the fabric of the community. We complain lovingly about “the bubble,” proudly don school district colors and bring dishes to the block party. And yet, no matter how long after the moving truck pulls away, there are still things that strike newcomers as different enough to remind us that we’ve relocated.
When I moved to Mt. Lebanon in March 2008, I knew exactly three people. Two were working moms with similar-aged children and one was a stay-at-home mom. Of these friends, none was from Mt. Lebanon. I knew how to get from the Parkway to their houses. I’d swilled many a beer at The Saloon. When my husband was transferred back to Pittsburgh from Philadelphia, I figured now that we had three daughters, we ought to move to a place I kind of knew. Let’s just say socializing in a neighborhood is very different than moving into it. For me, the first year or so I felt like I was in a perpetual deja vu. Stuff was familiar, but not really. I knew where I was going, but not exactly. And it seemed like everyone was born in St. Clair Hospital.
It’s impossible to say how many of our neighbors are “not from here.” Anecdotally, there’s a lot of us. How do we take root and call new coffee shops our own, adapt to unfamiliar schoolyard politics and customs? Turns out, we do it as determinedly and individually as the gaggles of Lebo cross-country boys jogging through Uptown decked out in their Blue Devils gear on a hazy September afternoon.
No matter from whence we come, all new people to Mt. Lebanon cite the same appeal that brought them and keeps them here: Uptown and Beverly districts. The library. The amount of house you get for the money. And of course, the school district. But commonly noted nuances strike us.
The Born and Raised Thing
Transplant Jill Smolenski of Hazel Drive recalls shortly after moving here from Ann Arbor in 1997, she was organizing a block party and suggested a date for the shindig. “Three neighbors on the committee said ‘no.’ Turns out it was the night of the Class of 1989 Mt. Lebanon High School reunion. That was wild to me. That many people on one block lived here their whole lives?” says Smolenski. To be clear, she found that continuity appealing. “I moved my whole childhood. I was never a local. So I like those deep roots so many people have here. I find it comforting,” she says.
Others, like 2010 newcomer Corey Flynn, 42, found moving into a tight-knit community pretty challenging for a while. Part of it was the overall pall of Pittsburgh weather that the Northern California native just couldn’t (and still can’t) get used to. “I was such a west coast person. I didn’t know where anything was east of the Mississippi. Coming from Oakland (California) to here, the whole landscape was foreign,” she says.
Further culture shock was fomented by the fact she and her husband agreed she’d stay home with the young kids—a role widely documented to be isolating in the first place. “I just did not fit in with the other moms at the elementary school. They all knew each other. I was an outsider,” she says. It didn’t help that she was a bit ahead of the times, bringing ideas to PTA meetings about decidedly California concepts like composting and environmental awareness, which were met with deafening silence. Undeterred, the outgoing fitness buff joined running groups and connected with others who shared her love for the outdoors. While she has grown to appreciate the community’s safety and school district, she admits to longing to return to California someday.
As an in-office working mom, I found the lack of daycare disheartening. My community experience was dashing in and out of Washington Elementary Extended Day to grab the girls before falling into my rented kitchen each night. When I did find time to volunteer at the school it was like being the new kid in middle school. I encountered a landscape of rituals and cliques so foreign I flipped from being a leader to a quiet follower to get my bearings. I’ve learned over the years this is not unusual. It’s adult human nature. Grown-ups don’t often ask strangers if they want to come over and play. They especially don’t if they have friends who knew them when they had braces.
Talking to a range of transplants though, it seems newcomers can smell other newcomers and do in fact extend a hand. Ultimately it was a fellow childcare dasher from Cleveland who reached out to introduce herself to me. From there, she connected me to a group of friends originally from Baltimore, Indiana, Romania and Dormont. For Corey Flynn, it was another newcomer, AJ Dilling (a 2004 Michigan transplant), who came to the rescue. Flynn says, “I was sitting in the play area of South Hills Village, so lonely and in ratty sweat pants. AJ came over to me to ask if I was OK.” Years later they still joke about that moment. Dilling might someday be crowned the Queen of the Newcomers. Her mother, in fact, was the president of The Mt. Lebanon Newcomers Club. “I know so many transplants. Maybe because I am one, I am attracted to them!” She says, “As an overly friendly person, I can find friends. But I get how hard it can be. We have been to parties with people in their 40s and 50s who have known each other from elementary school. That was unbelievable.”
A funny thing about transplants is that we tend to keep our original area codes for a long time. I kept my New Jersey number for years and it’s very common to make friends with foreign phone numbers. Corey Flynn’s happens to be “415” which tripped her up with local merchants. “We were kicked out of our dental practice here because they kept calling me to confirm appointments, but they figured I’d mistakenly put 415 instead of 412. I was baffled by that!” she says.
Joining and Jumping In
Flynn eventually found salvation through the Mt. Lebanon Public Library, where she is now an active, happy member of the board. She loves spending hours there studying for her master’s degree. Dilling, too, found connectivity through the library’s Story Time. She and other transplants also sing the praises of Sunset Hills Preschool. “Mt. Lebanon is like a lot of places in Pittsburgh. People grow up here and it can be hard to break in. But getting involved can solve that,” says Dilling.
Some newcomers embrace the relocation with strategic aplomb. Texan Laura McGaha, of Avon Drive says before they moved here in April of 2016, she did a lot of research to find the right church. Flynn was sold on the town when she looked up online how much the school district spends on each child.
McGaha, her husband and two children had moved eight times prior, crisscrossing the country for Keith’s career. She considers herself a “professional newcomer” and jokes her family’s hashtag is #livelikeatourist. “We know how to jump right into a community. It’s a matter of joining. For us church was our vehicle for instantly finding like-minded people.” Her online research led them to a group of kindred spirits at Bower Hill Community Church. In a twist of irony, she recently took a job at the bustling office of Howard Hanna Real Estate thinking she might meet others from out of town. Not so much. “Most are people moving from one local address to another whose parents live the next street over.” She says she’s never lived somewhere where there are so many natives, but she thinks it’s endearing.
Location, Location, Location
It probably goes without saying that we all love the walking district and amenities. Practical realities reign supreme too. Aaron Raymond moved here in December 2016 from Silicon Valley. The 42-year-old and his wife were disgusted with skyrocketing housing prices and through their respective technology companies discovered Pittsburgh. “My house in Mt. Lebanon cost $300,000. Back there it would be at least 10 times or more, $3.5 million, easy.” They also embraced the area’s proximity to the Oakland hospitals. With ongoing brain cancer treatment a part of his life, quick access to medical care was at the top of his list. Between the weather and the French fries on the salads, enrolling their child in Sunset Hills Preschool helped ease the culture shock. Raymond says, “We really met most of our friends through there and now at Lincoln Elementary we’ve all started kindergarten together. The schools are just great.”
During the move from Oakland, California, Corey Flynn knew what she didn’t want. Certainly she’d had it with earthquakes and riots. Flynn recalls, “When our real estate agent asked me what I was looking for in a house, I said I didn’t want prostitutes fighting with their johns outside and preferred people not be rummaging in my garbage for food.” Needless to say her agent was a bit taken aback, replying, “Um, no I meant do you want an island in your kitchen or a cul-de-sac type of thing.”
Philadelphian Trish Kindermann discovered Mt. Lebanon while driving to meet her husband, whose company had put him up in the Crown Plaza Hotel in Bethel Park as part of the relocation. “I just remember driving through Uptown and thinking, ‘Oh my God. This is Dawson’s Creek! It’s so cute!” After a breakfast of hotcakes at Pamela’s, the deal was sealed.
Nearly every transplant I’ve met mentions the friendliness of strangers. The absurdly polite drivers sometimes throw us for a loop. Kindermann says the eye contact and friendly “hellos” from people on the street take a minute to adjust to when you are from a busy city like Philly. “We just loved the neighborhood, but it did take a while to get used to the friendliness!” she says. Shortly after moving here she lost her mother and was deeply touched by her new neighbors’ kindness through a terrible time. “I will never forget that,” says Kindermann.
In my experience, I still have to catch myself looking twice at a super chatty merchant. But I love being part of a small community that offers beauty and familiarity. It’s wonderful to feel safe and to bump into teachers at the supermarket who know everything that is important to know about my child. My gang of girlfriends and I may still be mostly transplants, but I can honestly say we all call this home now.
For Flynn’s part, she says, “Whenever we think about moving I have a hard time finding a safe community with an excellent school district and affordable housing. So, I suck up the gray days, expensive avocados and fantasize about visiting mountains and the ocean on the next school break.”
Great job caprturing all of our experiences, Jen. Fellow transplants make yourselves at home for you are not alone.
Rose Bruno Bailey
Lovely story. I’m a fellow transplant, and a serial newcomer in every city we move to. I totally related to your story. We were transplants in Mt Lebanon From 1999-2004. I have a connection because I met three of my best friends living there, and it was my first home as a newlywed. I love visiting and it’s always like a home coming. I remember sitting in a Manhattan restaurant craving fries on my salad.