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Home sweet 'heart home' - Tom Purcell

Fewer Americans are relocating these days, which has its upside.

The Pew Research Center has released a new survey report: "American Mobility: Who Moves? Who Stays Put? Where's Home?" The report spotted an interesting trend: Only 13 percent of the population changed residences in 2006 and 2007, the lowest figure since the 1940s.

America has long been a mobile country. The survey finds that 63 percent of Americans have relocated at least once in their lives. Part of the reason for our incredible success, our current recession woes notwithstanding, is that many Americans have been willing to go where the opportunities are.

But here's a number that is equally telling: Nearly 4 in 10 Americans have never left the place in which they were born. Folks who stay put have done so for one reason: to be near family and the close connections within their communities.

Which leads us to the most interesting finding of the survey: More than 1 in 5 U.S.-born Americans say the place where they currently live is not, "in their heart," the place they really consider home.

I understand this sentiment well. I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, land of colorful characters and common sense. I had no idea how connected I was to the place until I spent nearly eight years in northern Virginia beginning in 1998.

At first, I loved my new town. Townhouses, office buildings and strip malls popped up like wildflowers there. Thousands of people moved in from every part of America and the world to take advantage of the growing economy. I befriended interesting people from all over.

But something was missing. I'd noticed, for instance, a simple difference. When walking down a sidewalk, folks didn't often make eye contact. People kept to themselves. This isn't how it is in Pittsburgh -- and many other towns across the Midwest.

One Mother's Day when I returned to Pittsburgh for a visit, a hurricane-like burst touched down just blocks from my parents' house. Large trees were toppled in a 10-block area, blocking several roads.

Within minutes, people in their Sunday best were getting soaked by the rain as they directed traffic, helped clear the roadways and kept others from getting near the downed power lines.

This would never happen in the Washington area.

Which makes me wonder: Is it because we have gotten further away from our roots and our hometowns that we've become less friendly and civil -- less concerned for our fellow man?

As we've moved to large, generic suburbs, have we become more generic ourselves and less like the colorful characters common in places such as Pittsburgh? And as so many of us no longer live in our "heart home," have we begun to become more insular and self-centered?

It would appear to be so. It is the settled neighborhoods of Pittsburgh that have kept people connected. And it is the economic prosperity that has led millions to move to large, transient metros in which we spend hours sitting in traffic alone in our cars.

I am one of the lucky ones, though. I was able to move back to Pittsburgh and reconnect with many wonderful people. I live in an old, settled neighborhood and walk to coffee shops and pubs. I am on a first-name basis with my postal carrier, the UPS guy, my mechanic and dozens of other really wonderful people.

As the Pew researchers note, baby boomers are less likely to relocate now that they're getting older. The recession, too, means fewer opportunities, which means fewer Americans will relocate.

Though a less mobile America will have its downsides, there is one upside at least: Staying put will strengthen family and community ties, and more folks will get to live in their "heart home."

And there is no finer place to be when a nasty storm passes through or your car breaks down.

Tom is a humor columnist nationally syndicated exclusively by CagleCartoons newspaper syndicate. E-mail him at Purcell@caglecartoons.com.