PITTSBURGH — With bone-chilling temperatures dipping into the teens and a light dusting of snow on the ground, Pittsburgh’s bitter cold can freeze nose hairs in minutes.
But then you realize something: This is actually one of the warmest places on Earth.
We’ve encountered an unending stream of Midwestern hospitality and kindness ever since touching down in the Steel City a week ago.
And it’s not just those who are familiar with our GeekWire HQ2 project, some of whom have dropped off growlers of beer, fresh produce, pistachio macaroons, Terrible Towels and Penguins tickets. Go Pens!
It was the manager at Cinderlands Beer Co. who spoke to the GeekWire team for five minutes as the restaurant closed for the night, and then insisted that we tour the downstairs brewery. It was the bartender at Elk’s Lodge #339 during their iconic Banjo Night who — despite a busy crowd — genuinely asked how the night was going, took the time to pose for a photo and shared a laugh.
It’s the smaller things, too. Like the long-bearded Uber driver and punk rock musician who lovingly — and in good humor — responded to one of my wisecracks by saying that I’d spoken “with the air of a real jagoff.” We laughed, and then discussed hanging out at Gooski’s.
Not really needing more examples, I nonetheless texted GeekWire’s Taylor Soper and Todd Bishop for other nuggets of kindness they’ve noticed since arriving in Pittsburgh, and Todd immediately responded: “I am at a barber shop and they just invited everyone to grab a beer from the fridge.”
A Miller High Life, and a haircut. That’s the personality of Pittsburgh.
As a child of the Midwest — growing up two-and-half hours from Pittsburgh in a small Ohio town — this style didn’t catch me off guard quite as much as my West Coast colleagues who’ve wondered at times — with suspicion — why everyone is being so nice. I even found myself reverting back to my Midwestern pleasantness (Yes, I swear, I really used to be nicer). The friendliness of Pittsburgh rubs off on you.
But, before I go further, let me be clear. This not just a love letter to Pittsburgh. It’s a warning.
If Amazon anoints your city for its second headquarters — and many people do want the multi-billion prized tech juggernaut and its 50,000 jobs — Pittsburgh will change. For the better, and for the worse.
In addition to the headquarters of Amazon, Seattle is known for something else. And it’s something our new Pittsburgh friends should know about.
It’s called the Seattle Freeze.
A coldness pervades the city, an iciness that manifests itself in unusual ways and is oftentimes hidden by the striking beauty of the place. If you move to Seattle, bring your own friends because it can be hard to make your own.
While Pittsburghers greet strangers with a charming Midwestern ethos, Seattleites stare at their shoes.
The notion of the Seattle Freeze certainly predates the current tech boom, with some even tracing it directly to the reticent Scandinavians who settled in the Northwest more than a century ago.
But the tech economy — and particularly the rise of Amazon and its 40,000 employee strong workforce — has exaccerbated the freeze. Seattleites (old timers and newcomers alike) are even less likely to talk to one another, let alone connect with a stranger over a beer, a sporting event or just a quick moment of shared togetherness.
I am not saying that the Steel City should adopt the Keep Pittsburgh Shitty” bumper sticker mentality. And I don’t think Pittsburgh should pull its bid for Amazon HQ2, as we jokingly mentioned to Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto earlier this week after sharing insights about the possibilities that the culture of Seattle-based Amazon might not mesh with Pittsburgh.
But Pittsburghers need to know what could happen.
Amazon in many ways embodies a variant of the Seattle Freeze — closed, disengaged, secretive, quiet and not entirely welcoming. The company, to its credit, has tried to shed this standoffish image in recent years, which in part is what the Amazon HQ2 effort about. Things are so soiled in Seattle, better to reinvent yourself somewhere else.
Now, after a week in Pittsburgh, with reinforcements on the way to GeekWire HQ2, I am headed back to Seattle — truthfully, with mixed emotions.
In the security line at the Pittsburgh airport, I happened to strike up a chat with a nice Florida man who grew up in Pittsburgh and returns frequently to visit family. (We met when he showed me the route to a shorter security line).
He left like many others when the steel mills went bust. When I told him I was from Seattle, an older women in front of us — who hailed from Pittsburgh — weighed in about her recent travels to the Emerald City.
Her most vivid memory: The glorious views of Mount Rainer? The ferries crisscrossing Puget Sound at sunset? The bike-loving and coffee-crazed outdoorsy people?
“I couldn’t believe all of the construction cranes,” she said in wonder.
Welcome to new Seattle.
Pittsburghers may want Amazon HQ2 for their city — desiring construction cranes and the tens of thousands of jobs that go with them.
I’d just note this: Pittsburgh may feel cold on the outside, but it’s warm on the inside. Try to keep that warmth burning as long as you can.