In my hunt for relocation out of Chicagoland, I set some parameters (good music college, strong cycling community and good outdoor recreation particularly rock climbing) and I began making lists of urban locations (LA/Riverside, Davis, San Diego, Sacramento, Portland, New Orleans, Atlanta, Savannah, Austin, Santa Fe, Denver), and lesser urban areas (Lexington, Stanton, Slade, Joshua Tree, Taos, any-mountain-town-Colorado) thinking maybe I’d try homesteading or loosen my parameters.
At the time, I had just finished Derek Sivers' book, Anything You Want. At the end of his book he writes something like send me an email when you finish this book, I’d like to know your thoughts and, yes, it is me not an assistant answering emails. So, I sent him an email.
He wrote me back: Oh, you’re from Chicago? I used to live in Hinsdale.
Yes, I do, but I am getting ready to move, I replied.
Where to? He asked. And I gave him a partial list saying that Denver and Riverside were out due to breed specific legislation and that Portland might be rising to the top of the list.
Consider Pittsburgh, he said. I've heard many people say it's the next Portland. One of the cheapest cost of living in America now, but partially due to Carnegie Mellon U has attracted a bunch of smart cultured people, and many of NYC's top chefs have left New York to open their restaurants there, because it's affordable to do so, and run it profitably.
Sounded like good advice and I have a friend there who I can tap into to get the scoop. After looking at some properties and some maps and googling ‘cycling Pittsburgh’, I reached out to Dianne Peterson to see what trouble she’d been causing and gather her thoughts on the ‘next Portland’. Knowing what a character she is, I told her I’d be interviewing her and writing about it as well since surely she’d have taken over the town by now. Although she insists on a do-over, she didn’t disappoint and, yes, she has taken over the town.
At the time, Dianne and I had another thing in common: we were caring for aging mothers suffering with memory loss and strange new habits. My mom would collect and fold paper towels so as not to be wasteful and reuse them. She was wheeling her mom around to protests and painting signs that say, Mother Earth is Even Older Than Me - Respect Your Elders! I loved it! (She had wielded a 'Science is older than me' also - Dianne likes Mother Earth better)
“Well, the first thing you should know about Pittsburgh is it’s got poor air quality. I’m just going to get that out right now,” she insisted. “However … How-EVER, it IS an opportunity hub. You can’t spit without hitting an astrophysicist or someone with a Ph.D. CMU is here, the mayor is great, there’s Google … Disney Creative … It is NOT Chicago. The museums and such don’t even compare, but there IS a Warhol Museum where we threw a prom for alternative kids that didn’t have a prom: trans kids, LBGT kids, boys in dresses and the like.”
Dianne always speaks with such emphasis, and she speaks really quickly which is very much how she seems to live as well. She lives with emphasis and she gets things done quickly, yet always with modesty. Dianne moved to Pittsburgh with her daughter, Anaïs, who is eighteen and going to University of Pittsburgh, her son, Boomba, who is in high school and her husband, Bob, who works at the University of Pittsburgh. Their motto could be ‘the family that protests together, saves the Earth together’.
“Bob was at University of Chicago, but wasn’t feeling the support,” she said. “He is a full professor at University of Pittsburgh. He wants to save lives. He is getting the support he wanted and needed to move forward at University of Pittsburgh (in cancer research). You would looooove it here. I’ve met Bernie Sanders twice and Hillary since I’ve been here - Did I hug and kiss them? Yes.”
She laughed. Of course, her laugh is contagious, so I had to laugh too.
“Anäis - who is currently involved on divestment (through the student organization, Fossil Free Pitt Coalition) - created an anti suicide event called the Festival of Hope,” she continued. “But the Merton Thomas Center for the environment - You MUST call them and talk with the director - you would LOVE it. The dance community is fabulous. We went to see Alice in Wonderland and the director was right there and so welcoming. The theater is amazing. I have seen my favorite top five performances here in Pittsburgh. There was this one - it was French hand dancing and after you get to hang out with the dancers and director. It’s amazing.”
Dianne runs an eco friendly goods company which used to be mostly composed of toys, but she now has reusables such as to go containers and portable picnic plates and forks and such. She doesn’t have a website (yet), but she stays busy enough that she doesn’t want to have to pay attention to it more than she is right now because of family obligations and her other activism. In addition to considering having a monthly salon for teens at her home, she occasionally opens up the house for product parties.
Eight or nine years ago the family moved back to the states from Sweden - where Bob was working at the time.
“Everyone biked everywhere. If you were running late and had to get your kids to school and it was raining you’d still just pile your kids in their bike seats and on their bikes and off you’d go. There was a saying in the town we lived in: there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear. Swedish people were clueless to being so environmental. They just cycled everywhere with their recyclables and with kids on their backs. It is just a part of their culture. When we moved back, we went to Trader Joe’s which is great, but still I was just appalled at all the plastic. Why waste? We vote with our dollars. If we don’t buy it, they won't produce it. What was worse, there was no way to bike there even though it was just a few miles. Then Anäis got involved in Batavia’s Environmental Commission, I went to one meeting and ended up running programs for 5 years.”
She invited me to visit to see Pittsburgh for myself, but alas, I could not being very busy with work and being the sole support for my mom at the time. My mom, who passed in May, would have been a big deterrent from a move to Pittsburgh due to the cold and the hill I’d have to climb to even get to my front door and the stairs thereafter. Many hills in PGH - hills I would have loved to ride my bike up and down. Dianne informed me that you can find a great home in ‘the middle of the woods’ yet be fifteen minutes from the art museum. Pittsburgh, she said, is one of America’s top ten bicycle cities. Lots of road riding and in winter people ride with chains on their tires.
It was time for our conversation to end since we each had things to do and she was heading out to an event called “Eat, Watch, Resist” that she helped to create with Mark Dixon, Wanda Guthrie from the Thomas Merton Center, Kate Fissell from 350.org where they were going to watch “Fence Line” (a film about the chemical-petrol in Louisiana) and which required her to get Chipotle catering or something. I’m certain there was a protest involved also since Shell was turning ethane into plastic pellets and, OF COURSE, we would have to paint signs for that. No one makes going to a protest more fun than Dianne. I found myself slightly envious in a very good and thankful way.
As we said our good byes, she gave me plenty of homework and people and protests to look up and she also recommended I watch a film by a fellow activist friend of hers, Mark Dixon, called “YERT”.
This interview took place a few months ago and much has changed since - but the spirit of it all remains the same. Dianne and her family was recently spending some time in Canada as I've been settling in to my new home in Austin, Texas with mine.