COLUMN: Smaller American towns connect in ways Washingtonians don’t

After living in Washington, D.C., for nearly 8 years, I love being back home in Pittsburgh.

I met many interesting people in the D.C. region, but one thing was missing there that’s common in places such as Pittsburgh: a basic connection among people.

I remember visiting Pittsburgh one Saturday morning while I lived in D.C. As I walked to a downtown coffee shop to meet some friends, a short, elderly Pittsburgher shouted at me.

“Hey, pal, your wallet is about to fall out of your pocket!”

I explained that my wallet was long and designed for the vest pocket of a sport coat. It appeared to be falling out of my pants’ pocket, but wasn’t. I thanked him and began walking away.

“But, pal,” he said, “a dollar bill is showing at the top of your wallet. Flip it around.”

I continued walking, smiling at him.

“I said flip it around,” he shouted.

In Pittsburgh, you see, people are outgoing and concerned about their fellow man. The kindly old Pittsburgher didn’t want someone to swipe my wallet (though the odds of that in Pittsburgh are much lower than in D.C.).

Pittsburghers hold doors open for strangers. They politely wave your car ahead in traffic. They don’t hesitate to help in your time of need – as they demonstrated when thousands of Pittsburghers came together in response to the horrible Tree of Life synagogue shooting a few weeks ago.

I remember when a hurricane-like burst – a macroburst – hit just blocks from my mom and dad’s house one Sunday morning. It toppled large trees in a 10-block area, blocking roads. Within minutes, people in their Sunday clothes were getting soaked by rain as they directed traffic around downed trees, helped clear roads and kept others away from downed power lines.

I hate to say it, but such a response likely wouldn’t happen in the D.C. region. People connect with each other in the Pittsburghs of the world, but there’s a lack of connection among people in Washington. Walk down a D.C. street and people go out of their way to avoid eye contact. Strangers don’t often hold doors open for others. And good luck if you break down on the highway.

According to the Brookings Institution, the 53 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, with populations over 1 million, are experiencing significant growth, while smaller metro areas, with fewer than 250,000 people, are shrinking.

I wonder how this trend will affect our country’s “friendliness factor.”

As we get farther away from our roots and hometowns, will we become less friendly and less concerned for our neighbors, as I experienced in Washington?

Will people become more generic and bland and less like the many colorful characters who are common in Pittsburgh? As we move to larger areas of sprawl, will we lose our sense of place and home? Will we begin to care less?

There’s a story about a large Pittsburgher visiting D.C. He’s in a bar, watching the Steelers play. A Washingtonian shouts, “There are only two types of people in Pittsburgh – prostitutes and football players!”

The large Pittsburgher grabs the Washingtonian by the shoulder.

“My mother is from Pittsburgh!” he says.

“What position did she play?” says the Washingtonian.

You’ve got to love a town that creates colorful characters who care so much.

Tom Purcell is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review humor columnist and is nationally syndicated exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

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