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Pittsburgh makes list of great 'home towns'

Wednesday, February 21, 2001

By Stephanie Franken, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It couldn't pull ahead of Hickory, N.C., or Birmingham, Ala.

But Pittsburgh made it, sliding into the last spot on ePodunk Inc.'s national ranking of top 10 "Home Town" cities.

Should Pittsburgh be flattered to be recognized by ePodunk, a Web company whose name conjures up the dull and provincial, the very image this city struggles to shake?

Absolutely, said Brad Edmonson, ePodunk's director of content development, whose analysis helped to bestow this seemingly dubious honor on the 'Burgh. "I hope that it makes people proud."

"Our company is about hometown spirit and spirit of place in the U.S.," said Edmonson, an expert on demographics and social change. "What we wanted to do is look at places in the U.S. that have exceptional hometown spirit."

To develop its Home Towns Index rankings, ePodunk didn't look at a given community's economic opportunity or cultural sophistication, but instead prioritized its depth of roots and civic spirit. The company developed two lists -- one for cities, which it defined as counties with populations of 100,000 or more, and another for small towns, counties of 20,000 to 99,999.

"Among large metro areas, Pittsburgh probably has the strongest civic spirit," Edmonson said, noting "Pittsburgh" for the survey's purposes actually was Allegheny County.

So how can statisticians develop a formula to measure a community's spirit, or the depth of its roots? ePodunk approached this task by seeing how various cities and towns across the nation stacked up on "activity" indicators such as the number of civic associations, bars, cafes and social halls, small manufacturing firms, historic buildings, per-capita number of churches and church memberships.

It also measured the number of people who had lived in the same residence during two five-year periods -- a trait that fell right into one of Pittsburgh's main demographic characteristics, that its residents tend to stay put in the same house for generations. Deep roots matter to ePodunk, because, "people who have lifelong ties to a community are more likely to make sacrifices to keep its institutions going," said Edmonson.

It's a new way of evaluating a place, and that's exactly what the four journalists who formed ePodunk, or, had in mind -- with an assist from hometown researchers Michael Irwin and Troy Blanchard of Duquesne University, as well as Charles Colbert of Lousiana State University and Thomas Lyson of Cornell University.

"We're all from very small towns," said Edmonson. "We're all fascinated by the things that make places unique, irreplaceable, not part of chain-store culture."

While Pittsburgh ranked fifth in the Home Towns Cities index, with a composite score of 85 out of 100, neighboring Sharon and Mercer County ranked even higher, tying Burlington, N.C., for third with a score of 89. Heading the list was Sheboygan, Wisc., with a score of 97.

Despite their showing, neither Pittsburgh nor Sharon had the highest score in Pennsylvania. That honor went to Johnstown and Somerset County, which had a 91, good enough to tie for fourth in the Home Towns Small Towns index.

The ePodunk ranking marked the second time this month that Pittsburgh has rated high in a rather obscure publication's view of the most livable places.

Early this month, Pittsburgh showed up on the Utne Reader's list of "The Ten Most Underrated Towns in America." The magazine, known as a clearinghouse for new or unusual ideas, defined the list as "Ten great American cities, once dismissed as bad news, that deserve another look."

Pittsburgh ranked fifth on the Utne list, which was developed by Peter Katz, a well-known "New Urbanist" who advocates against urban sprawl and seeks to get citizens involved in designing livable urban neighborhoods. He called Pittsburgh "the affordable San Francisco: great neighborhoods lining valleys and perched atop hills. And unlike San Francisco, it's not losing all its working-class character."

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