Pittsburgh as a grad student?
February 12, 2008 8:31 AM   Subscribe

What's it like to live in Pittsburgh as a grad student?

I know virtually nothing about the city, and have only visited once. Please tell me about the ups and downs of living in Pittsburgh!

Beyond the basics, I'm a highly active, outdoorsy person and would be interested to learn whether the city, its surroundings and its climate are conducive to cycling, running, and other such activities.
posted by killdevil to Education (13 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I do not cycle, run, etc. very much, but other people do here. There's a lot of ups and downs in the city, so you have to watch out for that. It rains frequently enough, and at other points it is cold, so you'll probably have to be better than just a fair-weather cyclist to get that much cycling done. It can also get oppressively humid during the summer, the wilty-paper humidity where everything feels wet and clammy.

I know grad students around here who do all sorts of hiking and camping, and there are a number of woods and parks in the area (car-accessible) for doing overnight-type activities, as well as a few in-the-city parks for more easy recreation. As a Pitt or CMU student you'll be right next to Schenley park, which has tennis courts, jogging track, a bunch of trails, and windy roads, among other things.

There's a climbing-wall place pretty accessibly located by bus or bike, and if you're interested in volleyball, there's a pretty active group that plays at the sand courts in Highland Park when the weather's nicer than awful (and the courts are open). They're not all grad students, but some are, and they're pretty welcoming if you're relatively competetive.

Generally, I would say to explore and get around. Some neighborhoods are seen as a little more sketchy than others, but I wouldn't think of anything in the city as downright dangerous, especially during the day. There are a lot of cute (and ugly) little delicious restaurants around town, so avoid the big chains at all costs. The grocery store is Giant Eagle (you're almost always within a mile of one), but there's also a Whole Foods and a Trader Joe's.

I could go on for all eternity, as I live here, and work for the city. If you need a map, MeMail me or something.

Any more specific questions?
posted by that girl at 9:08 AM on February 12, 2008

I lived as a grad student in Pittsburgh for three years. Like you, I knew virtually nothing about the city before I moved here. I was surprised to discover how much I love it! Though it's possible I may need to move in the future due to career reasons, I truly feel as though this a "home city" to me.

Whatever you do, don't live in Oakland. I think this is the key to being happy as a grad student (vs an undergrad student) in Pittsburgh. Some possible places to consider living are Shadyside (a bit pricier), Squirrel Hill, Bloomfield/Friendship. There are certainly other livable and commutable places to set up house, especially given the public transportation you'll have access to. I know that both Pitt and CMU give their students free public transit passes. You don't specify which school you're going to attend, but if it's one of those, you'll be set as far as getting to and from school. Parking in Oakland is not great. It's easier and quicker to do the bus in almost all situations, so consider the nearest bus stop when you pick an apartment.

We have some pretty cool parks -- namely, Frick and Schenley. I lived right next to Schenley park in Squirrel Hill for a couple of years and found it a very pleasant walk to school. There are trails through the woods, a running track, ice skating rink, playgrounds, etc. Frick Parks have much of the same going for them. I see a LOT of joggers running around town, and I don't think you'll have any problem keeping active. There are also other opportunities for physical activity in reasonable driving distance, like white water rafting or climbing in some state (or nearby state's) parks. In terms of cycling...yes, I see plenty of bicycles around Oakland. Keep in mind, though, that this is one of the hilliest cities in the country. There aren't a huge amount of bike lanes to be had either, but it's certainly one way to get around.

Pittsburgh is a very livable city right now. By that, I mean that it's (mostly) very cheap. Have a look at craigslist.org for average rents. The best bet is to find some place that includes heat in the rent. You'll thank me later. You should be able to find an apartment within walking to distance to a grocery store and other neat little shops. It all depends where you want to live. It's really a city of neighborhoods, and everyone has their favorite one. It has a small city feel, but a lot of major venues come through town. You can see the great symphony orchestra or go downtown to watch theatre. You can see the little indie movies in theatres. There are a few neat bars still hanging around, lots of coffee shops, places to grab sandwiches, etc. There are a few museums that are worthwhile. You can get every weird food imaginable down in the Strip. In short, I feel it has a lot of benefits of big cities without some of the hassles.

In general, my sentiments have been echoed by many of my grad student peers. During the first year, we all sort of got together to express how surprised we were at loving Pittsburgh. If the program itself is the one you really want to go to, I wouldn't be deterred at all by the prospect of living here. It's a great place to be. Feel free to mefimail me with any other questions.
posted by theantikitty at 9:13 AM on February 12, 2008

I went to school in Pittsburgh and ended up living there for almost a decade until recently. It's not the most glamorous city but it's really beautiful in many ways and has a lot of the amenities and specialized communities found in a large city, albeit on a smaller scale.

Your experience will depend on where you're coming from but you can count on a very low cost of living, (mostly) safe neighborhoods, quiet street life, and fair share of precipitation. IMO the East End is the best place to live in the city, you're close to everything and there's a lot of new development around there. Downtown is pretty dead.

As far as outdoor activities go, there are 2 huge parks (Schenley and Frick) with plenty of space for jogging, biking, field sports, etc. Due to the hilly terrain, walks through Schenley are particularly beautiful with its windy paths and dense foliage. There's the Eliza Furnace Trail (affectionately known as the Jail Trail) - a long stretch of paved space for bikes, pedestrian, roller-blades, etc. Some parts of it are right next to the highway so it's a fun spot to feel like you're cycling next to cars. There's a kayak rental place on the North Shore along the river. Seven Springs is nearby for skiing and snowboarding. If the city parks don't cut it, Ohiopyle is a huge state park not too far from Pittsburgh. And of course you can always jog/bike through the city. There are some bike lanes and the rivers/bridges make it a nice, picturesque ride. I have some friends that took part in the Pittsburgh Triathlon and other races in the city if you're into that. And if you like to play organized sports, the Pittsburgh Sports league is huge and is a great way to meet people and get to know the city.
posted by unmodern at 9:25 AM on February 12, 2008

I moved to Pittsburgh a few years as a graduate student and now I own a house and am planning on staying. It's a good city for graduate students. The cost of living is dirt cheap and there are plenty of concerts, museums and restaurants if you get bored.

Pittsburgh is a pleasant place if you like spending time outdoors. There is a well maintained bike trail running through the center of the city, the Eliza Furnace trail, as well as numerous large, woodsy parks. The Rails to Trails system is also well represented in the area and offers lots of options for longer bike rides. We live in the Greenfield neighborhood and my husband takes frequent jogs in Schenley Park nine months a year and on warm days during the winter. Squirrel Hill would also be a neighborhood convenient to Frick and Schenley parks, and would be located of major bus routes to the universities.

For further information, The Guide to Living in Pittsburgh will give you a good idea of the neighborhoods, shops and restaurants in the area.
posted by Alison at 9:28 AM on February 12, 2008

I met the people behind this mapping project a while ago - might be useful.
posted by yarrow at 9:39 AM on February 12, 2008

I just started grad school at Pitt and I like the city a lot. There are a few excellent parks for running and biking (I like Frick). The weather here is generally pretty mild compared to Maine and Colorado, and as long as you don't mind a little rain or humidity, there aren't many days where doing something outside is out of the question.

theantikitty is right on with living near a bus stop, and for neighborhoods I recommend Friendship or Bloomfield...

feel free to e-mail me with questions.
posted by unreasonable at 9:44 AM on February 12, 2008

We lived in Shadyside (Negley + Ellsworth) for about two years while at CMU. It's no world city for sure, but I think you'll find you either love it or hate it. The yinzers really got on my nerves, but you can stay in your little graduate student bubble around CMU/Pitt as much as you'd like. There's plenty of affordable housing (though it'll never make Architectural Digest Monthly) and green space. If you plan on raising a family during or immediately after grad school, you'll like it, but if you're looking for a fun single life .. maybe not so much. It's a highly functional city without any of the frosting that makes people want to actually vacation there. Cleveland is the nearest big city - three hours away - and that says a lot.

I pretty much didn't cycle at all for those years.. the Jail Trail was nice and all, but boring and smog-filled since it's right next to the pahkway. There's virtually no bike lanes, but there are potholes you can fish out of and the majority of streets within city limits are really narrow. I think the mountain biking possibilities are a lot better once you drive out of the city proper, but I can't abide by driving to cycle. :)

Pittsburgh is kind of Hot Topic if NYC is a punk scene. It's a bunch of pasty white people with no style, but it's clothing nonetheless. If you find what you like there (cheap, low-key) it's heaven, but if you want style or a job market, good luck. Good for grad students for a few years, not so good for young single folks out of school.
posted by kcm at 10:54 AM on February 12, 2008

Great stuff above. Other east end neighborhoods to check out include Friendship and Highland Park. In addition to to the whole foods and trader joes, there is the East End Food Co-op which may top them all.

Bike Pittsburgh, a bike advocacy group, has recently published a free bike map available at many outlets throughout the city. It can give you an idea of how it is to get around the city. There are several new bike lanes that just went into some of the more heavily traveled routes and the Hot Metal Bridge was recently converted to be a pedestrian/bike only bridge over one of the rivers.

There's also an REI which recently opened and is becoming the hub for all things outdoorsy, as well as a local non-profit, Venture Outdoors, which advocates for outdoor rec in the region.

Also, we are America's most livable city and something like number seven nationwide in walkability. Also, we are becoming incredibly green and eco friendly.
posted by buttercup at 11:19 AM on February 12, 2008

I love it here. I loved grad school, and left the area but came back. There's something weird (in the water?) that gets in your blood, and converts a lot of people to seeing the beauty amid the quirks.

If you plan on raising a family during or immediately after grad school, you'll like it, but if you're looking for a fun single life .. maybe not so much.

This is what I would consider one of the biggest downsides in the area. I had thought that NYC was a tough place to make friends... it's nothing compared to here. Pittsburghers tend to be very cliquish, insular people. And from what I've been given to understand, it's hell to be a single person here looking for a partner. But if you're coming with a SO, or already have one, it's an entirely different city.

Don't live in Oakland proper, as mentioned above - the undergrads will drive you insane (as will the slumlords). I think that it's one of the greener (as in trees, but getting there with environmental issues) mid-to-large sized cities in the area - many of our hills can't be built on so they're covered in trees. I live in the city proper, and see deer probably on a weekly basis in my neighborhood. If you don't mind running/cycling up hills, you're good.

One trivia fact I took away from grad school - we have more grey days than Seattle. So be prepared to forget what a hot, yellow sun looks like. I think last year we only saw it 52 days.
posted by librarianamy at 12:57 PM on February 12, 2008

Pittsburgh is probably my favorite city in the whole world: winding streets, green space everywhere, great old architecture (with incredible stories behind it), and incredible-yet-accessible arts community (which means lots of funding for young people to start galleries, literary journals, performance series, public art projects). Housing is incredibly cheap and plentiful, even if you'd like to live in a "good"/"family friendly" neighborhood. The city's layers of cultural history are visible and palpable, and nearly all the residents seem really aware of (& enamored of) those histories, even if they're recent transplants. Almost all the neighborhoods have distinct personalities and cultural/ethnic histories, and if you search hard you'll find an old Italian dude for a landlord and he'll charge $300/month for a huge 1br and leave charming notes like "careful don't waste energy!" next to the light switches. Lots of good music comes to Pgh, the alternative weekly (the City Paper) is well written + politically savvy if you're a lefty + provides a really broad spectrum of things to do no matter your sociocultural niche. Good food all over town whether you want vegetarian Indian, Cambodian, Vietnamese, pizza of all sorts, generic "American," kosher dairy Chinese, halal, vegan eats, handmade pierogies, quick lunch truck food between classes, etc (when I moved to a much larger, hipper city, I was shocked at how hard it was to find good ethnic food). There are a lot of incredible film festivals and small theaters that play indie films, a large handful of good coffee shops, lots of good-but-small-and-obscure-and-ridiculously-quirky bars (& a smoking ban, fyi). If you're a music nerd, Jerry's in Squirrel Hill purportedly has the best & cheapest vinyl anywhere in the country. A charming (losing) baseball team with pierogie races between innings, and a passionately revered football team--which is inexorably wrapped up in the history's identity as a union town/milltown, and which you'll grow to love even if you have no idea what the fifty yard line is (also I guess a few people may pay attention to hockey). Funiculars! Amazing industrial decay (my favorite, the Armstrong Cork Building, a century-old cork processing plant, was just turned into fucking luxury lofts). Gentrification hasn't hit too hard in most places, yet. Lots of local lefty activism if you're into that stuff, or just appreciate it exists. Also, great hospitals, a solid tech industry, and about 11 colleges & universities within the city limits. Plus: it has such a dismal recent stereotyped history as a polluted town full of geriatrics and knucklehead yinzers that when you discover how great it is, you'll be in on a secret nearly no one knows.

Downsides: the winters feel long and cold and dark to someone from the south (& what you save in rent, you may pay in your winter heating bill), the public transportation is iffy and expensive (and even if you like to bike, most people don't bike through the winter), and if you're from a larger city you may long for a hipper environs. Stick it out (and if you're in the Pitt/CMU bubble--break out of it! CMU students in particular are famous for never setting foot farther than a five minute walk from campus).

Also, has no one mentioned the Strip District??
posted by soviet sleepover at 10:26 PM on February 12, 2008

Shoot. I'm not really sure what's left for me to add, especially given soviet sleepover's panegyric (which I completely agree with), but I'll just say this. I love Pittsburgh. I moved here a couple of years ago, intending to stay permanently, even though I didn't grow up here and started out having no ties to the region. This is somewhat unusual, and no doubt the rareness of transplants like me (though you can see there are others here) contributes to a regional inferiority complex. (I'm not a grad student anymore, but was until 2003.)

Probably the thing about this place is the mysteries (with a nod to Michael Chabon's novel). There always seems to be something new and unusual to discover in the city, which results partly from a combination of tightly knit neighborhoods with their own watering holes, special places, etc., that no one from outside that neighborhood knows. I also like that the city is small enough, and hidden enough from the outside world, that when I discover a place, I really feel like it's mine - like I have a stake in things, and a stake that matters.

Okay, that's a little vague. Other things about this place that I like -- the way how, from so many of the hills in town (Mt. Washington inclines, e.g.) Pittsburgh looks like a giant Lionel train set - rivers wending their way through the city, trains loaded with coal threading their way between roads and the hills, barges floating down the Ohio, and people on their way to work or wherever.

And as far as outdoorsy activities go, this is a good place to be. I live in Squirrel Hill, in between Schenley and Frick parks. I can ride my mountain bike to Frick park, and there are some great, challenging trails there. How great is it not to have to drive to get to a trailhead! I also ride my road bike all around the region. It's true that sometimes roads can be unfriendly to bikes - sometimes because they are so narrow on account of being forced through whatever gorge or cut was available between hills - but again, that's where the process of discovery comes in. With the help of the bike map recently published by Bike Pittsburgh, mentioned above, you can find the secret ways of getting around the city. I bike to work downtown every day - and the ability to do that is something that I treasure.

Now, I should also add that I like hills. Someone who prefers flat terrain will not be happy here, because you cannot avoid hills - of every size from long, gradual rises to 20% gradient leg breakers (and even beyond).

Oh, and I can also ride my bike to the Great Allegheny Passage, a rail-to-trail project that currently stops a few miles from Pittsburgh in a town called McKeesport (you have to ride on roads to get there), but in a year or two should be connected to the city. Right now, from McKeesport, you can bike all the way to D.C. on trails, since the passage connects to the C & O Canal towpath in Maryland. I've done a bike camping trip on the passage; I'd happily spend every weekend doing the same, if I could find the time. This is a huge benefit to living here.

I'm just guessing, but as others have said, probably the biggest negative living here would be if you're single. That was not an issue for me. I don't know how you compare cities on this basis but it's something you should try to evaluate.

Oh, also it is ridiculously cloudy here, in general. In my opinion, we should seek federal funds to do something about this.

Random links: The Dirty Dozen, an annual bike race up the city's thirteen steepest hills.

Bike Pittsburgh, local advocacy group.

Pop City, dedicated to touting the city's business environment, but also with informative pieces on neighborhoods.

The Pittsburgh City Paper's city guide (the page on neighborhoods is worth reading).
posted by chinston at 10:00 AM on February 13, 2008

Also: recent N.Y. Times report on neighborhood of Lawrenceville.

And I am trying to confirm this quote, as soon as I get to a New Yorker archive, but supposedly in 1990, Brendan Gill (1914-1997), architecture writer for The New Yorker, wrote, "The three most beautiful cities in the world are Paris; St. Petersburg, Russia; and Pittsburgh. If Pittsburgh were situated somewhere in the heart of Europe, tourists would eagerly journey hundreds of miles out of their way to visit it."

Feel free to MeMail me with questions, and good luck in your decision!
posted by chinston at 10:15 AM on February 13, 2008

I've been living in Pittsburgh for nearly three years. It can be a hugely frustrating place to live, and to try to find a job, so we're planning to move when my fiancée finishes her grad school, but it's also the most fun---and most beautiful---place I've ever lived. There are places where you can be driving along and forget you're in a city at all, let alone a place of more than a quarter-million people....

I live with my fiancée, dog, and 2 cats on the North Side, in the very aptly-named neighborhood of Fineview. We have a massive three-bedroom house whose rent is less than $100/mo more than the 1-bedroom apartment she formerly lived in in Squirrel Hill, and we have a great panoramic view of Downtown and Mt Washington, rather than the ass end of a bowling alley. This may have something to do with why we think the East End neighborhoods are generally lame.

However, the view does come with a price. Our hill rises 400 feet in less than half a mile, and that's the easy side. (The aforementioned Dirty Dozen race comes up the back of our hill, and down the front of it...). I haven't been on my bike since we moved up here last spring. . . . We started running on a regular basis when we got our dog in May... and promptly stopped in November or so. There are plenty of people who still go running in the snow (or, more commonly, the slush and ice), but most of them aren't attached to a hundred-pound dog. . . .

As a grad student, you're unlikely to have to care about the cost of public transit (if you do care, it's now $2 within a pretty wide radius of the city); CMU and Pitt students ride free with ID. The Mexican War Streets (weird name, gorgeous neighborhood), Brighton Heights, and the inner suburbs of Bellevue, Avalon, and West View all feature a direct bus to Oakland. (It does take a while, though, especially from West View.)

soviet sleepover referred to, but did not explain, the Strip District. The Strip is another of Pittsburgh's aptly-named neighborhoods, a mile long and three blocks wide. It's home to few people but many tasty foods: it's where all the restaurant wholesalers are located, and many of them have retail storefronts. (It's a direct bus from the War Streets, East Allegheny, Bloomfield, Oakland, and the South Side, but it's a pain in the but to get to from Squirrel Hill and much of the East End....)
- There's a greengrocer with produce cheaper and fresher than any supermarket. (this week, we got an entire flat of strawberries for $5. Yeah, it's like that.)
- Two or three Italian bakeries, where you can (and we usually do) get a loaf of bread fresh from the oven for $3.
- La Prima Espresso, Pittsburgh's only certified-organic coffee roaster
- A Penzeys, one of the only non-locally-owned stores in the Strip, where you can get just about any spice known to Man.
- Wholey's, one of several seafood markets.
- Oh, yeah, Mon Aimee Chocolat.

Come on a Saturday morning, and don't forget to empty your trunk.
posted by FlyingMonkey at 8:08 AM on February 26, 2008

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