Would a return to my hometown after 20 years in and around New York prove the perfect move for a mom determined to say “yes” and kindle community? Here’s how it went for me.

By Molly Campe, Public Source

This article was originally published by PublicSource, a nonprofit newsroom serving the Pittsburgh region. Sign up for its free weekly newsletters at publicsource.org.

I am a Millennial Boomerang. I left Pittsburgh in 2004 and moved back almost 20 years later after trying to recreate the Pittsburgh vibe elsewhere. Spoiler alert: I failed.

Raised in a fraternity of nonprofit professionals and artists, I had assumed the sense of community, nurturing and optimism that shaped my childhood was typical. I figured that no matter where I went from here, I’d find the “artsy” neighborhood, and I’d be set!

The truth, I later learned, was that my family had stumbled into something exceptional, beginning one night in 1999, when my parents went in search of good Indian food.

On their way to People’s Indian Restaurant in Garfield, they came across a house for sale: a gorgeous brick Victorian that had been converted into a halfway house, complete with 10 smoke-stained units and communal bathrooms. Six months later, my family was living in the basement while the floors above us were refurbished to bring the house back to its former glory, thanks in large part to a neighborhood development loan.

Molly Campe remembers waiting for the bus along this section of Penn Avenue during her childhood in Friendship. The scene is photographed through the colored glass at Pittsburgh Glass Center. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

The house was later featured on the Friendship House Tour and became a frequent stop for neighborhood progressive dinners. Thanksgiving included guitars and the Christmas season highlight was the Seven Fishes/Winter Solstice fusion party, where a didgeridoo toned across the fire where we would burn the year’s memories we wished to leave behind us. A neighborhood friend wrote a Euripides-esque play for my high school graduation, performed enthusiastically on our front porch by neighbors in togas and wigs.

We found ourselves immersed in a world curated by the Penn Avenue Arts Initiative, the local business owners, nonprofits and our bohemian neighbors — musicians, textile artists, poets, professors and activists. As a high schooler, opportunities were tossed my way: camp counselor at the Bloomfield Garfield Corporation [BGC] and free classes at Dance Alloy. It was a culture of inclusion, of paying it forward and of just saying “yes.” My mother, the former editor of the BGC newspaper The Bulletin, describes the neighborhood vibe as a willingness to pursue an idea with abandon and “see what sticks,” without perseverating over the potential failures.

People crowd to watch a glass blowing demonstration during First Fridays: Unblurred at the Pittsburgh Glass Center on April 5. At right, Campe at the Glass Center. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

So in 2004, when I packed my bags for New York University as a college freshman, I assumed NYC was going to be the same way, only bigger. My  expectations were as straight as a ruler and I measured the world strictly against them.

My disappointments started small: I cooked “family dinners” for my roommates on Friday nights and was ghosted by all three. If I wanted to take a dance or poetry class, there was always a fee attached. Everyone was looking for what was next and never taking in the now.

The disappointments packed a wallop once I graduated and I no longer belonged to an institution providing the guise of community. Despite having been in New York for four years, I felt isolated and untethered, floating listlessly. I joined a theater company, thinking we were creating an enclave in which the performers would work and live communally. The artistic director left to shoot a documentary and we disbanded. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was beginning to bend, each disappointment gradually adding a few degrees to the curve in my resolve.

A decade later, in 2018, I was a new parent. I’d recently resigned from a job that I loved (because: childcare) and I found myself crying on the floor of my baby’s room. “This can’t be the way it’s supposed to be,” I thought. How could parenting be so cold, competitive and isolating? I have vivid childhood memories of running around the house of whichever neighbor was on host duty that week for our Friday night potluck. There, exhausted parents would collapse into their camp chairs and chat away that week’s stress to folks who just got it.

People walk through the sleet along the Penn Avenue Arts and Commercial District on April 5 in Bloomfield. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Yet in New Jersey, to which I’d moved after graduation, my own parenting village was vacant. If I came across another parent pushing a stroller, they would look resolutely at their phone, avoiding eye contact. Unlike in Pittsburgh, millennials don’t initiate contact unless they know the outcome. They never RSVP “yes.” They just click “maybe” on the Evite and wait to see if something better comes along.

The pandemic hit in 2020 and I’d had enough. I refused to accept adulthood as an endless series of empty encounters forcing you to live vicariously through your children. Something had to give. That’s the moment I felt it. I had fully embodied my U-bend shape. I was a boomerang, thrown away from home (with gusto) only to return right back to where I started – with a sigh of relief.

A combination of affordability and parenting support (courtesy of family and friends) sealed the deal: We were moving to Pittsburgh.

Molly Campe grew up amid the growing art scene taking root around this section of Penn Avenue as her family restored a nearby house on Negley Avenue. Her childhood soundtrack, she says, was the whirring hum of the 71A bus announcing itself at the bus stop outside their home. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

My network here showed up for me instantaneously. A family friend for whom I’d babysat revamped my resume and sent it, along with a resounding endorsement, to everyone she could. A contractor, who didn’t remember me but did remember my brothers, agreed to come look at some properties with us and share some advice. Someone from the administration of my brother’s high school, who I’d never met before, happens to live in the same apartment building as my mother. He discussed school options with me for hours, walking me through my questions as a parent, not getting up until each one had been answered.

This sense of citizenship, of responsibility to one another, has manifested in new friends, too. Parents in the pick-up line actually exchange numbers with me and schedule playdates. They’ve invited me to Mom’s Night Out. A musician who I met through a collaborator invited me to sing with him at his next gig.

One of my kids recently tried ice skating because the barrier for entry was literally one-tenth what it would have cost me elsewhere. Why? Because the Penguins subsidize that program. I also took a kid to a free dance class. How? RAD Days. Pittsburgh is infused with endowments and foundations that galvanize cultural engagement.

Every summer in NJ, I would strap our kids into the stroller and head out to the arts festival in the park. “I don’t understand why you go,” my husband Brian would exclaim in exasperation. “You’re always disappointed. What do you expect?”

What I expected was the Shadyside Arts Festival, with live indigenous music performed by Runa Paca on Walnut Street. What I got was music pumped through the speakers of food trucks charging $10 for fries.

I expected Penn Avenue Arts Festival: Music, dance, improv groups and hands-on textile workshops. What I got was crafts and jewelry at booths run by disengaged salespeople, often not even the artists.

People crowd to watch a glass blowing demonstration during First Fridays: Unblurred at the Pittsburgh Glass Center on April 5 in Friendship. First Fridays: Unblurred is organized by the Penn Avenue Arts Initiative, a joint program of the Bloomfield Garfield Corp. and Friendship Development Associates. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

I expected Art All Night, with skateboarders zooming past as graffiti artists created a mural so close to me that the paint residue ended up in my hair.

I expected the Three Rivers Arts Festival with aerial silks dancers overhead while I lost time weaving in and out of endless booths, unable to decide on a favorite.

I expected Rusted Root performing at the Flower Fest in Baum Grove while I perused used books, tracing the gold embossed bindings.

That was my baseline. People being generous with their time and eager to share their talent with others is not ubiquitous. I am here to tell you: only in Pittsburgh.

Molly Campe looks at photos during the BOOM Unblurred Take-Over pop-up at Lab @ Silver Eye on April 5 in Bloomfield. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Less than two years into our relocation, we have settled into our Pittsburgh lives. I started a new job as community programs manager at Venture Outdoors, cultivating outdoor experiential programming for folks aged 50-plus. Every person I’ve contacted for collaboration has said “yes.” Enthusiastically. No gatekeeping. I have one kid in a neighborhood school and another in a charter, their unique needs being met. I joined a rowing team and my husband joined pickleball. Next week, I’m meeting a Mom-friend made through our kids’ gymnastics class at a local brewery. I figured I should introduce myself. The more, the merrier!

Molly Campe is working on saying “yes” to as much as she can from her house atop a hill in Greenfield with her husband, Brian, and two brilliant kids. She can be reached at molly@ventureoutdoors.org.