All Roads Lead to Etna, Pennsylvania

Etna is a small town right outside the city limits of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A former booming mill town, Etna was home to much of my father’s family. A place where I spent many days of my early life. Summers with my aunts at the pool, nights of my teens at the street fair. Thanksgivings and then wakes. On towards adulthood and all the nights out at the local bars. Where your last name was a credential to get you in the door, or at least to stay once you got inside. I have always felt tied to Etna. 

After the industry in Etna faded, and as people began to spread out into the suburbs, families from Etna moved further north towards Glenshaw, Burchfield, and other points north in Shaler Township. The Shaler school district still encompasses all of these diverse communities.

Those that were part of this great migration from the city exurbs (including Sharpsburg, Millvale, and Etna) lost access to main street business districts, public transportation options, and communities with bakeries, butcher shops, and…souls. But, there were tradeoffs to be made, and grandma always would be there. They could visit.

A discussion with three high school friends today, who have since relocated all over the country, uncovered mutual connections we had to Etna. Some of these connections were known–friends who had played there together as toddlers or fathers who grew up there together. Some connections unknown–mutual friends, relatives who owned favorite businesses, or those who had attended dance classes together at the Etna studio.

Although none of us had grown up in Etna together, we had all grown up there in various ways together. Some, by living there for ten years, some one year. Some by having family there, some by shared experiences that could only be had in Etna. But all of us were connected. It was a revelation.

This is what is so amazing about Pittsburgh, these connections. The roots, branches, and fallen leaves–all part of that same tree.

I feel lucky to be from Pittsburgh. I feel lucky to know where I came from. I feel lucky to know my history. And I am filled with joy to talk to others who have had these shared experiences of growing up here. There is nothing exactly like it, and no words to quite explain it–just how connected I feel to these people.


These are photos from an old panorama I have in my home. The subjects are from The Ex-Service Club (1917-1918) taken in Etna, Pennsylvania on Memorial Day in 1921. I have always loved this photo, but now I love it even more thinking that I probably look at a friend’s great-grandfather, or great-great uncle every day.

I’ll never know for sure who these people are, but I do know I am connected to them in some way. Of that, I am certain.

Today my children went through an important Pittsburgh field trip rite of passage. They became a part of the large group of people who during the last century, and as young students, toured the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Oakland. Most importantly, as members of this group, they have now seen this horrifying/enthralling/totally crazy/“really freaky”(their words)/wicked cool taxidermy diorama entitled: ARAB COURIER ATTACKED BY LIONS. You remember the first time you saw this scene…trust me (1981). 

(Photo by  Bob Donaldson/Post-Gazette)

Read more about the permanent display here:

Kennywood’s Open

If you visit Pittsburgh and wear pants, please take note:

1. We have an amusement park called Kennywood.

2. When your pant’s zipper is down, we will point at your crotch and tell you that “Kennywood’s open.”

3. People from here then react accordingly: they immediately look downward and zip up their fly.

Don’t ask why. No one knows. It happens.

Just zip it–before Jeeters makes an unwanted cameo.

F you area code.

The Pittsburgh area adopted a two area code schema and a local ten digit dialing system close to 15 years ago. The deliniation of codes was somewhat geographically based, not totally at random.

This business recently repainted its name and number on the building facade. They’re basically saying, “listen, if you don’t understand how this whole area code thing works, or if you’re not from around here, then we don’t really care if you call us. I mean, do us both a favor.” Followed by a friendly “F you!!”

Pittsburgh Connections

Pittsburgh can best be explained to others as being “America’s biggest small town.” With this definition in mind, there are three rules of Pittsburgh connections that an outsider must know:

1. There will be Pittsburghers.

No matter where you go in the world, if you were/are a Pittsburgher you will run into another Pittsburgher, many times from your specific neighborhood. My Mom was riding on some form of public transportation in some town in Italy, and she found herself standing next to a law clerk that used to work at her office back in Pittsburgh. If you ask any Pittsburgher, they will have dozens of these stories. Be prepared if you ask.

Other Pittsburghers will also make it very easy for you to find your gate on your return flight home from anywhere: look for Steelers, Pirates, and Penguins shirts or jackets. Seriously, make it a game if you have time before a flight home someday–try to find your gate blind, without any identifying numbers/letters. I guarantee you will figure it out (caveat: in some circumstances, may only work with direct flights).

2. We were there!! (Or know someone who was!!!)

No matter what happens in the world, the local news media in Pittsburgh–and most everyone that you know in Pittsburgh–will find a way to connect Pittsburgh/themselves to the “event.”

The examples are way too annoying and odious to share. You get it, it’s the most horrible of all the connections in this list.

3. You look familiar…

If you were born in Pittsburgh or lived here for any amount of time: wherever you go within Pittsburgh, you will run into someone you a.) have seen before, b.) know personally, or c.) are related to. Oftentimes, this person d.) used to date your cousin Keith.

Also included under this connection: if you strike up a conversation with anyone anywhere in Pittsburgh, it will take you approximately 6 minutes to figure out mutual friends or a connection to former co-workers.

Forget 6 degrees of separation…in Pittsburgh, it’s probably more like 3.


Mr. Rogers…he’s ours, Pittsburgh. And this is my favorite show clip ever.


Primantifying: Adding coleslaw and french fries as an accoutrement to any food item. (See Primanti’s for etymological reference.)

In Pittsburgh, we defile perfectly good food…and make it even more delicious. The associated post photos show examples of “Primantifying” an item; in this case, using coleslaw and french fries as a pizza topping.

See also:

Pittsburgh synesthesia: A localized version of gustatory synesthesia; imagining what french fries might taste like on a food item when discussing said food item outside of Pittsburgh. (e.g. salads, sandwiches, wraps, etc.) Long story short, we put fries in places they’ve got no business being.