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  • Writer's pictureAli Riehle

Shaped by the steel city

It’s amazing how when you live somewhere for a while, a city can really get under your skin, become a source of comfort, and start to define you. After being on this journey for about two weeks, I’m taking some time to pause and reminisce about my home for the past four years and the springboard for this adventure: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As I prepare to have no single home for the next 18 months or so (at least), I’m thinking back on my life in Pittsburgh like one might fondly recall time spent with a good friend or family member, and boy is there a lot to reminisce about...

I feel a sense of pride to have been a Pittsburgh-er for a while—something that sunk into my skin as I explored the city’s neighborhoods, waved a terrible towel at a Penguins playoff hockey game during the Stanley Cup Finals, and sat to look out at the beautiful view from Ryan’s apartment. As we say goodbye to Pittsburgh to live nomadically, I thought of some gifts that the steel city has given me that that will forever shape who I am:

A life-changing job

In 2012, I was lucky enough to be sent to San Francisco to attend the Fundamentals of Innovation through Human-Centered Design workshop put on by the LUMA Institute. As I sat in the jam-packed 2-day workshop, I fell in love with the methodology and was dazzled by the energy and enthusiasm of the instructor team. I enjoyed the hands-on workshop from start to finish and felt honored to share the room with people from such well-respected companies. At the end of the experience I thought to myself... "Wow, I would love to work for a company like that someday." For the next two years I kept trying to use the LUMA methods, tell anyone I knew about them, and build Human-Centered Design skills.

In January of 2014 I reached out to my contact at LUMA as I was considering a job change and looking for new opportunities in other cities. It ended up being a time of growth for LUMA and I was able to fly out for an interview to have a chance to meet the team and be introduced to Pittsburgh. I immediately loved the city and was thrilled to receive a job offer after my visit. Four years have past and I'm now sitting here reflecting on all I have been able to do through my position at LUMA.

Moving to Pittsburgh helped bring me to a great company that has given me the opportunity to teach workshops, learn facilitation skills, and help build LUMA Workplace from the ground up. In addition to all of that, though my time at LUMA in Pittsburgh I have been introduced to great friends, mentors, colleagues, and my travel buddy, Ryan Nee. Ryan and I are so grateful that we are both able to continue working for LUMA while being nomadic and I'm so excited to see the possibilities this presents for us and the organization.

A 2018 highlight of working at LUMA: Leading an early morning brainstorming session to come up with ideas for how to help immigrants & refugees feel welcome in Pittsburgh (Photo: Repair the World in the East Liberty neighborhood)

A home away from home

Before moving to Pittsburgh to join LUMA, I had only ever lived a few hours from where I was born. Growing up, I spent my time between “up north” (Aitkin county) and the Twin Cities (Minneapolis—Saint Paul). My High school years were spent in Saint Paul and for college I went to UW-Stout just across the border in Menomonie, Wisconsin. The longest trip I went on was a study abroad experience in India for 20 amazing days. Put all of this together and it reveals that for 24 years, I had never lived more than and hour or so from home. Of course I always loved being close to my family, but moving to Pittsburgh gave me the independence I needed and taught me a lot about myself that I likely wouldn't have learned otherwise.

For the past two years, I've been living solo in a small house in the Polish Hill neighborhood. Having never lived alone before, it was a bit scary, lonely, and unfamiliar at first. As time went by and even as Ryan and I grew closer, we both enjoyed our time apart and I learned to cherish Friday nights on my couch, walks to brunch at the local café on Saturday mornings, and cooking special meals just for one.

A chance to see more of the country

Growing up in the midwest, the big city to me was Chicago. We made many trips there when I was a kid and it was the farthest city I considered when looking at colleges. I had been several places in the U.S., but moving to Pittsburgh enabled me to explore more of the country, got me traveling (both for work and for fun), and allowed me to finally go to New York City and Washington, DC for the first time. I have been back to both cities several times and they are now among some of my favorites.

From 2014 to 2018 I was also able to visit: Victoria, British Columbia; Seattle, Washington; Portland, Oregon; Portland, Maine; Cleveland, Ohio (several times); Edgewater, Maryland near Baltimore (twice); Asheville, North Carolina; Austin, Texas; Los Angeles, California; Morgantown, West Virginia; Toronto, Canada (twice); Buffalo, New York; Niagara Falls, Ontario... and I think I might be missing a few. All told, this experience has deepened my love of travel and made this impending journey such a natural fit.

One of my favorite places: Toronto. In the past year, I have taken one solo road trip to the city and one with Ryan

A warm embrace through hard times

While much of my time in Pittsburgh was bright and sunny, there were some cloudy days as well. When my grandmother passed away, a long-term relationship I was in came to a close, and my beautiful dog Addy had to be put down for health reasons, the resulting life changes were painful and challenging. Throw in the political turmoil across the U.S. after the 2016 election and it became a really tough year for me. Through getting the support I needed, leaning on my friends, and starting to spend more time with Ryan exploring the city, I began to heal and find the new pace of my life. While I still think about all of the things that happened during this time, because of the support I received in Pittsburgh, I am now able to look back with a smile and feel stronger than when I moved there.

A fondness for public transportation

One of my favorite things that happened to me while living in Pittsburgh is that I became a bus person. I thoroughly enjoyed my daily commute, and cherished the reading, podcast listening, and decompression time that riding the bus provided. I loved this lifestyle so much that I even sold my car at the end of 2017 to join Ryan in the car-free club. It was trickier to get groceries, pop over to visit a friend, or go shopping, but I didn't miss the cost of gas and expensive repairs my Volvo required...

I didn't take my bike to work as much as I would have liked, but when I did, it was a thrilling ride through Pittsburgh's Strip District, where business owners were busy opening their shops for the day and older Italian men sat chatting and drinking coffee outside of La Prima Espresso Company. I also enjoyed several weekend rides with my Aunt and Uncle who live in Cleveland. They both just turned 60 but really gave me a run for my money on the GAP trail, taking me on my longest bike ride ever (45 miles!) during the summer of 2015.

My love for public transportation and cycling deepened even more when I joined the board of BikePGH, a local organization committed to building infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists, as well as focusing on advocacy, safety, and community engagement. I enjoyed volunteering for their events, attending board meetings, and learning what makes a city's public transportation hum. I will miss being a part of this group while on the road, but will always keep my eyes peeled for public bikes we can ride or bike lanes we can explore.

Enjoying the beautiful trails along the Monogahela river on my last bike ride in the city. Downtown Pittsburgh in view

A place in the resistance

With the result of the 2016 election, Pittsburgh gave me a place to find my voice and learn how to fight for what I believe in. There were times where I felt helpless and didn't know what to do, but also moments when I felt truly alive with tears in my eyes in the middle of an angry, screaming crowd. Being able to ride a bus to Washington, DC with my Aunt Liz for the Women's March was something I likely wouldn't have done if I lived anywhere else. I want to make sure I am politically active while traveling, but I'm so glad to have found people in Pittsburgh I could lean on and learn from during some very trying times in our country.

An open doorway

Probably the best gifts Pittsburgh has given me is that it has served as the gateway to this adventure. I feel like everything that has happened as led me to this opportunity and introduced me to a new best friend and adventure buddy. As we grew closer, Ryan and I started to spend our weekend days going on long walks through different Pittsburgh neighborhoods. All in all, we walked over 100 miles, making it a rule to stop at breweries and dive bars wherever we went. We called these walks our "Le Derive", a French term that translates to "drifting". These walks quenched our desire to travel for a while and piqued our curiosity, taking us everywhere from suburban neighborhoods to beautiful parks to old steel furnaces to a church that Ryan's grandfather helped build 100 years ago. We'll miss our Pittsburgh walks, but I'm excited to see where our legs take us next.

Exploring downtown Pittsburgh together in late 2017


Aside from a visit to Pittsburgh with Ryan this coming December, I'm not sure when I'll go back, or if I will get the chance to live there again. Either way, I'm so grateful for everything Pittsburgh has given me and I can't wait to be shaped by the cities we visit in the days, weeks, and months ahead.


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