What Belt?

In New Jersey, a common local idiom for asking someone where they are in the state is, “What exit?”, meaning what exit of the New Jersey Turnpike would one have to use to get to where you are. Over time it’s even come to be used more generally to mean simply, “Where?”, regardless of one’s position relative to the Turnpike.

There is actually a bit of underlying significance to this question beyond being a quirky idiom. To some extent, what exit you live on in New Jersey also determines what kind of lifestyle you have, since the character of the state of New Jersey changes as you travel along the Turnpike. (Obviously it’s not a perfect system, but in general, low exit numbers refer to the more rural southern areas, middle exit numbers to the suburban central areas, and high exit numbers to the industrial urban areas near New York City.)

I know of no other places that have local idiom like that, but it seems like there are many places where lifestyle correlates to nearby roads. Many locations could have a question like that.

In Pittsburgh, my home city, the question would be, “What Belt?”

The Pittsburgh area, being on the western edge of the Appalachian Range, is a mess of hills and streams, which makes it more or less impossible to have any geographic sense over a large area. Various boroughs (which is the Pennsylvanian word for town) and small cities have their own street grids oriented parallel to the nearby stream, but as soon as you leave the borough the streets begin to twist and turn, following the landscape, so that nearby boroughs will have completely separate grids and no common sense of direction. For this reason the Pittsburgh area is notoriously difficult to navigate.

To help people navigating the suburbs, Allegheny County created the Belt System. These are a system of road routes that circle (partially or fully) the city’s downtown. The Blue Belt is innermost Belt, it circles the city near the city limits. As you go away from the city, you hit other belts, in the order the colors appear in the rainbow. So the Green Belt is further out, followed but Yellow, Orange, and, in the northern suburbs, Red.

The Belts are the key to navigating Pittsburgh’s suburban roads: if you are on a belt, you know you’re generally moving around Downtown Pittsburgh, not toward or away from it. If you are lost and happen upon a Belt, you know roughtly how far from the city you are. If you are on a Belt, and turn off it, you’ll know whether you’re now moving toward or away from Downtown. The belts are quite well marked, so they are hard to miss. It’s a great system.

But, because the Belts all circle at a relatively fixed distance from the city, the also tend to have relatively fixed characters (although, as with the New Jersey Turnpike, it isn’t perfect). The Blue Belt circles through a lot of the blighted neighborhoods, for instance. The Green and Yellow Belts hit a lot of suburban areas and boroughs, while the Orange and Red belts hit some of the rural exurban areas and outlying boroughs. There’s a Purple Belt, too (which is separate from the Belt system), which is is entirely Downtown, and there probably ought to be an Indigo Belt for some of the city’s trendy neighborhoods like Squirrel Hill, Oakland, and Mount Washington.

Point is, what Belt a Pittsburgher lives on says a lot about their home and lifestyle.

So, the obvious question is, what belt did I live by?

I was born on the Green Belt, but earlier than I could remember, my family moved to the Yellow Belt and stayed there till I graduated from college, and the whole family moved away from the Pittsburgh area.

The Yellow Belt didn’t really suit me, though. If I were living in Pittburgh today, my belt would probably be the fictional Indigo Belt I mentioned above, or even the downtown Purple Belt.

Anyone visiting from the Burgh who stumbles across this page for some reason, I have a question for you which you may answer in the comments below: What Belt?


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  1. I grew up in Pgh and am quite familiar with the belt system. It’s origin was not as you suggest, as a way of facilitating citizen travel. They were created as a civil defense project to facilitate the movement of emergency response assets: read National Guard and the like. They were intended to help these groups navigate around a disaster.

  2. Mike, that sounds urban-legendy to me, but I got my historical information from random web sites so who knows. Thanks for your input.

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