I'm the Co-founder and CEO of The Grommet. We launch undiscovered consumer products. It's also the birthplace of Citizen Commerce. I write about design, cultural anthropology, and start-ups, mostly.

What happens when you take the boy out of Boston

My oldest boy has lived in three places:  Boston, Dublin, and now Pittsburgh, as a student at Carnegie Mellon.  He loves change and is generally really open-minded, so he surprised me with an exchange we had last night.  (I’m down in Pittsburgh visiting him.)  He’d just returned from a week-long trip to San Francisco.  He visited design offices in the city with classmates, and he also had a summer internship interview with VMware.  CMU grads have been telling him how great it is to work in Silicon Valley,  so he was eager to spend a day touring around the place.

googleplexHe borrowed a car, and dutifully drove himself to a raft of legendary tech campuses, from Google, to HP, to Apple, to eBay.  He parked in the lots of the famous companies. He penetrated as far into the buildings and campuses as he was allowed.  For a kid, he had a decent enough look-see at the Valley’s overall architectural/external vibe.   (Kids make $200K college choice decisions with less research, after all.)  I was excited for him, because I love doing business in San Francisco, and have told him that a few times myself.  (And he if he ever moves there, I’ll have yet another reason to visit.)  However, here’s our conversation.

University Ave, Palo Alto

University Ave, Palo Alto

Me:  How did it go?  How’d you like Silicon Valley?

He:  Well, it’s really just a bunch of big office buildings with stuff in between.   It’s like……Waltham.*

Me:  (After I laughed at the apt analogy)  But hold on.  How about Palo Alto?  It has a cute little town.

He:  Well it’s like one big Whole Foods.  Interesting, expensive.  But it’s like buying culture, rather than finding it.

Ouch.  But here’s his frame of reference–and I think it goes beyond a college student’s “chain stores are soul destroying” simplicity.  Last night he took us to a brew pub in Pittsburgh that is a converted church.  It was like going to an old fashioned speak-easy.  Other than a dirt-colored unlit sign, there was absolutely no indication of the hive of activity inside the place.  The stained glass windows had been covered up and I was highly skeptical when he led us to the old double doors of the church.  Not a peep of sound through the 3″ thick wood, not a crack of light from within.  Then WHAM!  Half of Pittsburgh, mid-revel.

This is the kind of place he’s grown up around.  Palo Alto can’t suddenly sprout 150-year-old Gothic style churches cum brew pubs.  It’s just not a level playing field.

Church Brew Pub, Pittsburgh, full swing Friday night

Church Brew Works, Pittsburgh, full swing Friday night

Anyway, my son is a person you discover in layers.  He kind of makes you work at it.  Not to be provocative or annoying.  He just doesn’t mind if you don’t “get” him all in one go.  I guess he likes his cities that way too.

*Waltham is suburban high-tech central for Boston.  No one aspires to work in that rather dull location, but it just works out that many people do.  Central, cheap, and  lots of office space.  And my son happens to know Waltham well…he spent a summer delivering catered lunches to offices, mainly to venture capital firms in Waltham.

7 Responses to “What happens when you take the boy out of Boston”

  1. Richard

    Thanks for this wonderful post Jules. Your last two posts hit me for a few reasons. I grew up 30 miles from Pittsburgh in Steubenville, Ohio, my grandmother lived in downtown Pittsburgh for 30 years, and my uncle had an auto parts store in a very rough section of town for 40 years. We visited often and I always felt like it was a “real place” full of “real people” who worked hard for anything they had and never made a big thing of it. I feel lucky to have some of that in my DNA and in my memories of family and life.
    Now to your son. He sounds like a good guy….”big offices with stuff in between” and “buying culture rather than finding it” then he takes you to Church Brew Works. That is wonderful. I have 3 totally different sons and so relate to the notion of “discovering them in layers”. Thanks for providing that picture. It is also clear that this happens at very different paces and times. In fact it is helpful to remember that “all kids” are on a different schedule and part of our challenge is understanding and being plugged into whatever that schedule is.

    Smells of Pittsburgh and words of sons will be part of my day….thanks!

    Richard

    Reply
  2. julespieri

    Richard…I’m so glad this was meaningful to you. And that you shared my perceptions of Pittsburgh. Everywhere you turn in that city, you have the sense of a manufacturing culture…and it translates into entrepreneurship and small businesses. I miss that in Boston. We make bytes and biotech breakthroughs, mainly.

    Re. my son. I share his preference for slow, layered discovery. I LIKE working for that knowledge and awareness. In houses, people, brands. It is pure delight, when you feel like you have a personal connection or find. I need to write a post about that!

    Reply
  3. Doug Banks, MHT Editor

    Jules,
    I attended grad school at Pitt and remember the city fondly — including places like Church Brew Works. Pittsburgh is filled with such places, and your post captures its essence well. From public radio stations such as WYEP to unheralded yet world-renowned technologies such as the comp-sci and robotics expertise that pours forth from Carnegie Mellon, Pittsburgh’s charm is a well-kept secret that deserves, frankly, to be less-well-kept.
    -Doug

    Reply
  4. David

    Julie! I love talking about Pittsburgh! I am a lifelong RI/Southeastern MA guy, but I’ve been a Pittsburgh Pirate fan since the late 60’s (long story). Since I was 18 I’ve been visited The Burgh to watch baseball, and have not only grown to love the “city of neighborhoods”, but have watched it’s revitalization. When people find out I’m going to visit for 3-4 days, they look at me quizzically, and start conjuring up smoke stacks, no night life, and bad food. If they only knew! I’ll be heading out there in both May and August, and, like every visit, will absolutely come away with something new to add to the mix. Thanks for all you do Julie!

    Reply
  5. julespieri

    @David. I get it, I get it. We went to PNC park last year and that magnificent stadium is reason alone for a visit to The Burgh. Even if you didn’t like baseball! I think people in Pittsburgh keep it a secret to themselves, which is charming.

    Reply
  6. Richard

    David. So glad to know there is another Pirate fan out there. I thought I was the only one.
    How is this memory…1960, Yankees vs Pirates in the World Series, 2:30 in the afternoon, living in Virginia, in school with a transistor radio and ear plug listening to the greatest game ever played, almost peeing in my pants because I can’t scream with every amazing play, Maz hits the homerun around 4:10 in the afternoon….and everything since then is a bit of a blur.
    Go Bucs!
    Thanks Jules for getting this Pittsburgh thread going leading to wonderful childhood memories.

    Reply
  7. DJP

    Turns out the beautiful old buildings in Pittsburgh are not only beautiful but they are often Green too. From Wednesday’s NYT http://bit.ly/18UWwh Pittsburgh leads the nation in Green commercial real estate. Take away line: “A number of century-old landmarks have been revived as energy-efficient buildings in the last decade….” Now for @Richard and @David, if only your Pirates could have done so so well during that decade. Maybe this year. And sorry we took Jason Bay.

    Reply

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