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What the popularity of Banjo Night reveals about Pittsburgh’s changing demographics

Only five tables are occupied in the main room of Elks Lodge #339 on Pittsburgh’s North Side. Six, if you count the one along the wall claimed by a glowing popcorn machine and its operator. A group of three men wearing black Veterans hats—Vietnam, Vietnam, US Army—drink Yuenglings up front. They’re as close to the stage as they can get, though at 7:30 on a rainy evening it holds nothing but two wavering lines of metal folding chairs and a few banjo cases.

My companion and I choose a table next to three elegant older women, well-dressed and coiffed. One of them is wearing a magenta pants suit and a golden four-leaf clover lapel pin. The server asks what she’d like to drink. A beer, she says. Bottle or draft? She waves her hand, turning to her friends, who are already laughing and pounding the table. “It doesn’t matter!”

The median age in the room hovers around 60, though it trends lower as you draw near the bar: a few isolated knots of 20-somethings sit hunched on stools pulling on two dollar drafts. As the night progresses, that trend will intensify. It’s Wednesday night at the Elks Lodge. Banjo Night.

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When the steel industry bid Pittsburgh adieu in the 1980s, the city hemorrhaged 50,000 residents. Seventy percent of those seeking brighter futures were under the age of 39. The loss of a generation of young people—and their future families—drained the city of its vitality, gaining Pittsburgh a reputation as a futureless metropolis and making it one of the greyest cities in the nation.

Pittsburgh still trends older, but in the past five years—according to the University of Pittsburgh’s Urban Center for Social & Urban Research (UCSUR) and PittsburghTODAY—the city has seen an influx of new arrivals, 70 percent of whom are under the age of 35. Most are between the ages of 22 and 34.

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In focus groups, young people explained Pittsburgh’s attractiveness in terms suited to a city brochure: tremendous cost of living, a bustling cultural and civic scene, bike trails and parks that allow urban dwellers to sate their appetite for the great outdoors.

But there’s more to Pittsburgh’s draw than that.

“Pittsburgh people have great pride; they want to see the city succeed,” said Abby Faett, an insurance defense lawyer at a firm downtown. “I think it’s exciting for a lot of older people to see young people moving in. We’re the pulse of the city. Young people have revitalized a lot of these neighborhoods—you see elderly people living next to people in their 20s, and everyone gets along.”

Wearing a bright red coat, Faett walked into the Elks Lodge with a wave that immediately drew her grandmother, Mary Lou Faett—of the pants suit and four-leaf clover—out of her seat. “Abby!”

The music had just started. Sixteen banjo players, two trumpeters, and one E-flat clarinetist sat shining under the stage lights, struck here and there by a patch of glitter thanks to the disco ball suspended, still, above them.

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Abby grew up in Mt. Lebanon, attended Duquesne University for undergrad, and Duquesne Law. She’s one of those life-giving youngsters helping to revitalize the city by investing their social capital—part of a group of Pittsburgh lifers who sought and found post-graduation opportunities. But she noticed something UCSUR confirmed: even people without Pittsburgh ties are choosing to make the city their home, drawn by its offer of scope.

A bullet point buried on the fifth page of PittsburghTODAY and UCSUR’s special Young Adults Report reads: “And several young adults, particularly those in positions of leadership, felt there are ample opportunities for them to initiate change in southwestern Pennsylvania, perhaps more than in larger metropolitan regions.”

The typical class of leaders and managers, those in their 40s and 50s, is largely absent in Pittsburgh. The US Census shows a decrease in populations of 40-59 year olds, while populations on either side—ages 19 to 34 and 60 to 84—are growing.

The out-migration of the 1980s, an aging population, and a new influx of young residents created a bubble of opportunity born of demographics. In Pittsburgh, more so than in other large cities, young professionals have a greater chance of take a leading role in their chosen field or community.

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By 8:30 the age range at Elks Lodge #339 expands dramatically to include mustachioed young men, hip younger women, and families with toddlers. By 9:00, three servers work the floor, running to and fro with pitchers of beer, weaving carefully through the thickening crowd of 20-somethings at the bar.

It would be easy to romanticize the casual conviviality on display at the Elks Lodge as the banjos play on, especially as Abby stands up to dance the polka at the invitation of a twinkly-eyed WWII veteran. But there are no pat conclusions to draw from this room.

Banjo Night is a microcosm of a changing city. Just as Pittsburgh—and the opportunities it offers younger people—takes on the cast of its participants, so, too, does Banjo Night. On any given Wednesday, the specificity of its charm depends on who shows up.

Table space reaches a premium and I move closer to Faett and friends. “We’re moving into your neighborhood,” said my companion to the lady seated next to her.

Clapping and red-cheeked, she grins at us. “Just behave yourselves,” she says and winks.

PHOTOS BY RYAN HOWARD, LUX AETERNA CREATIVE.