Nostalgia: Community Development Friend or Foe? Pittsburgh as a Case Study

Mabel-NostalgiaRecent podcasts about the benefits and drawbacks of nostalgia got me thinking about this human experience, its influence on communities, and what this means for community developers. I believe nostalgia can help create community, but prolonged nostalgia can be detrimental to a community’s ability to adapt and thrive. Community developers should recognize the value of a community’s collective nostalgia, but they should also work with communities to build upon this legacy and develop an inclusive story of the future. Pittsburgh, like many communities across the U.S., may benefit from this approach.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines nostalgia as, “a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition.” Humorist and author John Hodgman has claimed that, “nostalgia is the most toxic impulse of all,” and that, “the idea that things were better once and are terrible now and getting worse every minute is what fuels the worst, in my opinion, movements in contemporary culture.” On the other hand, the Stuff You Should Know team argues in their nostalgia episode that nostalgia may not be so harmful and may actually provide some benefits. Indeed, in his article, The Lies We Tell Ourselves: Resiliency and Nostalgic Reverie, Dr. Steven Schlozman of the Harvard Medical School connects nostalgia with psychological resilience, and cites research indicating that collective nostalgia is a positive group emotion that strengthens internal support and self-esteem of a group, and that nostalgia is linked to individual psychological health and well-being. But Dr. Schlozman also cautions against taking nostalgia too far and losing sight of the truth. Think about that 1960s-themed diner that is quirky and fun to visit. It’s a charming trip back in time, but then eventually you remember that society has come a long way since then – and for the better.

While nostalgia enables communal comfort and strength, I believe prolonged nostalgia can prevent a community from being truly dynamic or resilient. Pittsburgh may be a good case study in nostalgia and its influence.

I moved to Pittsburgh three years ago after having lived in the Southeastern and Midwestern parts of the U.S. all my life. Even without significant exposure to the region, I felt a connection to it when I arrived. I attribute this connection to years of watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood as a child. Pittsburgh’s houses, dominated by massive window awnings, seemed eerily familiar. The bright red inclines on Pittsburgh’s hillsides are reminiscent of the Neighborhood Trolley.

Once my Mr. Rogers nostalgia faded away, however, I started noticing other things about Pittsburgh. I appreciate the culinary, neighborhood and cultural traditions that locals uphold. But I also noticed the absence of newer immigrant communities that I have become accustomed to in many U.S. cities, large and small. I noticed that concerns about poor air quality in the region – some of the worst in the U.S. – were non-existent or mostly expressed by non-natives or people who had gone away and come back; many locals responded to such concerns with, “it’s better than it used to be!” or a willingness to look the other way due perhaps to staunch loyalty to industries that have supported the region’s families for generations.

In another example, a politician recently promised to bring back Pittsburgh’s steel and coal industries if elected. While this political rhetoric was well-received among some, James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute describes this as nostalgia economics and suggests that this may be an “outdated” view of the Pittsburgh regional economy. Mr Pethokoukis points out that healthcare, not steel, is now the largest employer, and companies like Google, Facebook and tech startups are locating and growing in the Pittsburgh region. I would take it a step further and argue that nostalgia tactics such as these are detrimental to the development and resiliency of a community as it promotes an “irrecoverable condition,” to use Merriam-Webster’s phrase. Why focus on the impossible when so much else is possible?

Pittsburghers – the local and far-flung – love their city. There is much to be proud of, and it is understandable that many can truly recall better days when the city was an industrial powerhouse. The City has also experienced a renaissance, but it has taken many years and hard work to create the community it is today. There is more to be done, and the stories locals tell each other can shape the energy and direction of ongoing efforts. For example, practically every planning discussion or presentation about the City – presented by Pittsburgh organizations, in many cases – almost always includes a chart showing the dramatic population and economic loss that occurred over the past few decades. I understand that this helps explain current conditions, i.e., oversized infrastructure, vacant properties, and brownfields, to name a few. It seems to me, however, that this approach also re-enforces the story of loss and may make it difficult for Pittsburgh to move on. I’d rather wrap myself up in nostalgia, too, than remember and deal with the memory and reality of family, friends and jobs moving away.

How might we change the narrative? How might we get past the irrecoverable, and instead put our energy into developing inclusive, thriving communities that are excited about the future? Nostalgia may have helped some communities survive, but it is now time to launch from a position of communal strength and truth to develop a visionary story that all community members can participate in and be proud of.