After being a Pitt student who relied entirely on the rarely punctual Port Authority, I was on cloud nine with Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority — the metro for short.
I lived in Washington D.C. for 10 weeks during my internship with Campus Reform, a news organization headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. I worked there full time and commuted from Woodley Park in D.C., which was about a half-hour ordeal.
My friends who attended George Washington University and Georgetown University in D.C. all told me their harrowing tales about the metro — it would catch on fire, it was often delayed, or it would have an odd odor, considering many of the trains’ carpets had not been replaced since the ’70s.
As a rising junior at Pitt, I shrugged off their grievances instantly after more than two years of riding Pittsburgh buses. Sure, the metro may be delayed two or three minutes sometimes, but there have been times where I was stuck waiting an extra 15 or 20 minutes for a bus in Shadyside when I was already running late for a class taking place in Wesley Posvar Hall. I was impressed with the metro taking me three miles in the amount of time it would take a Pittsburgh bus, including waiting time, to take me one.
But, as weeks eight and nine of my internship approached, I began to realize something — I spent two months in an incredibly lively, diverse city without having seen much of it at all.
In Pittsburgh, while there have been occasions where I awaited my bus in the frigid cold for what felt like an eternity, I still was able to look out my bus window and see Lawrenceville’s array of quirky shops and diverse community, or South Side’s variety of bars and restaurants en route to wherever I was heading.
Riding the bus allowed me to acquaint with the people and places between my apartment in Shadyside and my dentist’s office in Squirrel Hill or PNC Park Downtown. The bus allowed me to figuratively foster a relationship with the city just by the mere exposure to the homes people lived in or the playgrounds children filled.
In Washington, all I was acquainted with as I stared out my metro train’s window was the dark tunnels I’d spend an hour in everyday, when I could have been orienting myself with the communities that don’t usually surround the polished areas I worked in or the tourist attractions such as the Washington Monument and the White House.
While complaints about Pittsburgh public buses can certainly be warranted and we may not have the luxury of reliability or efficiency, we do have the luxury of seeing all of our city’s idiosyncrasies. I learned delving into a city requires engrossing yourself in, not only the final destination, but the route you take to get there.
A few weeks ago, I decided to take an Uber from my apartment in Woodley Park to Columbia Heights to buy groceries from Target — the closest grocery store to me, but which has no direct metro line. It was along this ride I realized that Washington had an extremely diverse community, and the places I was living and working in were not representative of that.
My car passed dozens of Hispanic restaurants in Adams Morgan, which I learned was the center of Washington’s Hispanic community. I learned from my driver, who was a D.C. native with Puerto Rican heritage, that Adams Morgan was originally called “18th and Columbia” after the streets that intersected, but was later changed in 1956 during the desegregation of schools in the south. “Adams Morgan” was the combination of the names of two segregated schools that later desegregated.
My driver also told me that most of Washington is African-American, and there’s a large Hispanic community right down the street from where I lived — an area saturated with students, professors and other young professionals who, for the most part, are D.C. transplants.
According to Census Reporter, 48 percent of Washington D.C. is African-American, while 36 percent is White. This is in stark contrast to the U.S. population, which is 63.7 percent White and 12.2 percent African-American — 12.2 percent of the D.C. population is Latino, and 10 percent of the U.S. population that is Latino. For being part of the north, the Hispanic population of Washington is significantly larger than most surrounding areas.
I also passed many stores selling ethnically diverse crafts and products, which was certainly a nice change from the run-of-the-mill D.C. souvenir trucks that pandered to tourists with “I love D.C.” shirts or President Barack Obama bobble heads.
After realizing what I was missing, I felt that, despite temporarily making Washington my home, I was deprived of an authentic experience. I had seen and met people and places that were not actually pieces of the fabric that wove Washington together. I had seen the people who called Washington their home for a few years while they obtained their degree, and kids who came and quickly went after a few days while they were on a school field trip. I had seen commercial chain stores such as H&M and Starbucks that I could find anywhere else, rather than the small business I had discovered on my Uber trip that sold Mexican pastries or the shop that sold handmade Ethiopian crafts.
Unfortunately, after working full time five days a week, I would return home from work without a morsel of energy to go explore the parts of D.C. hidden away from tourists only seeking to take the metro from their cozy hotels to the pristine and well-kept areas they could cross off their bucket lists.
For this, I’m remorseful, but I am leaving Washington with a newfound appreciation for Pittsburgh Port Authority and the parts of Pittsburgh I have the luxury of seeing.
As Pitt students, we have the ability to travel anywhere the bus will take us for free. Next time you venture out to Southside Works to shop at Urban Outfitters or eat at the Cheesecake Factory, don’t forget to appreciate the culture of the people and places between you and your respective destination.
Take the bus Downtown or to Oakland and don’t bury yourself in your phone, but rather, try to familiarize yourself with the moms and dads walking their children home from school or the girl taking her lunch break after waitressing for nine hours.
Look out your bus window and engross yourself in Pittsburgh’s people, because they are ultimately what makes Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh.
Marlo Safi is a Senior Columnist for The Pitt News. She primarily writes about public policy and politics for The Pitt News.
Write to Marlo at firstname.lastname@example.org