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Pittsburgh's Renewal Draws a New Wave of Immigrants

European immigrants flocked to western Pennsylvania at the dawn of the industrial age to work in the steel mills and factories of Pittsburgh, which was the world-famous "Steel City" well into the 20th century.  Over the past 50 years, however, heavy industry has been leaving Pittsburgh, along with tens of thousands of jobs.  But over time Pittsburgh essentially "reinvented" itself, and the city is now best known for high-technology enterprises, medical specialties, banks and universities.  That transformation has prompted a new wave of immigrants, this time including many from south Asia.  Families originally from India now are one of Pittsburgh's largest ethnic communities, and they are thriving.

In the mid-19th century, the western Pennsylvania city of Pittsburgh, a gateway to the Midwest United States at the spot where three rivers meet, helped usher in the industrial age.  Steel manufactured in Pittsburgh extended railroads across the country and changed American cities' skylines.

Regional economist Christopher Briem says, with all the growth came jobs, and Pittsburgh welcomed workers from all over the world.

"The migration that was fueling the mills was mostly European at the time.  Certainly a lot of [migrants were] Eastern European and Central European, so we have ethnic communities here in Pittsburgh that weren't really concentrated anywhere else.  There are Serbian, Croatian, Ukrainian communities here.  They all started coming in the late 1800s for those steel jobs, and this is where they stayed, for the most part," he explains.

Importing steel became cheaper than producing it a few decades ago, and Pittsburgh went from a city with 400,000 jobs in manufacturing to less than 80,000 of those jobs today.  Forced to reinvent itself, the former "Steel City" shifted from a town identified with heavy industry to its current status as a base for technology and finance.  

And with that shift came a new wave of immigration.

"The engines here now are the schools, are the universities, are the high technology firms," Briem said.

Sunil Whadwani owns one of the high-technology firms based in Pittsburgh.  His company, iGate, now employs over 6,000 people worldwide.  Whadwani, who was born in India, chose to stay in Pittsburgh in the 1970s after completing graduate studies at Carnegie Mellon University. 

"When we came over here, the number of immigrants wasn't that huge, and particularly immigrants from Asia and from India - the number was very small.  Over the last 20 or 30 years, though, it has grown dramatically," Whadwani said.

Indians are now one of the largest foreign-born populations living in Pittsburgh, with roughly 12,000 in the metropolitan area.

"The Indians tend to be well organized and very visible, which is why one gets the sense that we are a prominent group here," Kannu Sahni said.

Sahni worked for an American company in New Delhi when he made his first trip to Pittsburgh in the 1970s.  Shortly after, he moved his family here and now works as a recruiting supervisor at the University of Pittsburgh.

"I was always asked by friends, 'Why Pittsburgh?'  Because it has not always been the traditional immigrant gateway, and - according to me - it has so much to offer, and I made that decision quite easily," Sahni adds.

Many of the Indian immigrants who now call Pittsburgh home work in the medical or educational fields.  Research and technology jobs are also a big draw.

"What is pretty neat about Pittsburgh and the immigrant flow into Pittsburgh is that it's been growing again in the last 10 to 20 years," Wadhwani says, "And the quality of people it has been attracting is extremely high.  Highly educated immigrants, professional immigrants, doctors, engineers, educators, researchers, and so on."

But Pittsburgh is not just a destination for people hoping to find work.

The Sri Venkateswara Temple in a northern suburb, Monroeville, is a major attraction for Hindu tourists traveling in North America.

"I came to this town, to live here, because of this temple," Subba Reddy said. Reddy is a retired engineer who now works full-time at the temple, where he welcomes guests from around the world. "We have, typically on long weekends, anywhere between 3,000 to 5,000 people visit[ing] our temple," Reddy says,  "From all the states of the United States, Canada, Europe and India." He says those numbers translate into roughly 300,000 people a year who walk through the temple doors.

The G20 summit is very much on the minds of worshippers at the temple and throughout the Indian community, whose members find themselves also in the spotlight that shines on Pittsburgh these days.  

Many are excited to welcome Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the city, but Reddy doubts he will have time to visit the temple.

"He's probably very busy," Reddy reasons, "Besides, there are three temples, and he may have a tough time to select which one to go [to]."

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