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Immigrants from India find a home in Pittsburgh

| Tuesday, May 31, 2011

When Siddhartha Srinivasa told friends and family in 1999 that he was moving to Pittsburgh to study robotics, few people knew the city about which he spoke.

"Everyone asked why I was not going to MIT or Stanford or Berkeley," said Srinivasa, 32, a native of South India who earned a doctorate in robotics at Carnegie Mellon University in 2005. "I think that impression is changing. Now when I go to India, they recognize the city more."

Since they began immigrating to the country in the 1960s, members of the Indian-American population have contributed to the cultural, technological and, more recently, political landscape of Western Pennsylvania. And their numbers are booming.

The 2010 census shows the Asian-Indian population in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area increased to 14,568 people, up from 8,736 in 2000 in Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland counties. More than 103,026 live in Pennsylvania, an increase from about 57,000 in 2000.

"More families are putting down roots here," said Piyush Seth, head immigration attorney at Pittsburgh-based Tucker Arensberg who was born in New Delhi and grew up in New York City.

Several Indian-Americans in the region point to the recent primary election win of Mt. Lebanon Republican D. Raja in the Allegheny County executive race as an example of their growing influence in the region.

"We've grown as a community economically. The next rational step is to become more political," Seth said.

Raja moved to the region 25 years ago to attend the University of Pittsburgh and then Carnegie Mellon University.

"I had the option to move to the Silicon Valley with Lockheed, who I worked for shortly after I came to Pittsburgh. However, I chose not to since the Pittsburgh area was home to me," he said. "While school drew me here, the people of Pittsburgh are what made me stay."

If elected, Raja would join several Indian-Americans serving in high-ranking positions. South Carolina last year elected Indian-American Nikki Haley as governor, and Louisiana elected Gov. Piyush "Bobby" Jindal four years ago. Haley and Jindal were born in America to immigrant parents.

Kollengode Venkataraman, publisher of The Pittsburgh Patrika, a 2,000-circulation quarterly magazine based in Murrysville, said that although Indian-Americans are becoming more visible in Pittsburgh, gaining attention continues to be a "long, painful process."

"We are very recent immigrants," said Venkataraman, 61. "It takes many generations to join the mainstream."

Preetham Gowda, 29, of Scott, a member of the executive committee of the U.S. India Political Action Committee's Pennsylvania chapter, said Indian-Americans still are lacking in the political arena.

"One of the main goals is to raise awareness in the community, be more active and push some Indian-Americans into office," said Gowda, who moved to the area in 2006 for a project management position.

Roger Cranville, president of GlobalPittsburgh, which enhances international awareness, said over the past five decades, members of the Indian community have been drawn to Pittsburgh for jobs with Westinghouse, UPMC, Pitt and CMU. That trend continues as the region continues to define itself as a technology and research hub, Cranville said.

"Many Indian-Americans are doctors, software programmers or entrepreneurs. Hospitals like UPMC draw doctors, software companies like Google draw software programmers, and schools like CMU spawn entrepreneurs," Raja said.

Data from the 2000 census show the 7,487 members of the Asian-Indian population in Allegheny County had median family income of $80,688, compared with the countywide average of $49,815. The average house owned by an Indian-American in Allegheny County cost $193,300, compared with the countywide average of $84,200.

The most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that in 2009, Asians had the lowest rate of unemployment nationally -- 6.8 percent, compared with 7.7 percent for whites, 11.3 for blacks and 11.4 for Hispanics.

Harish Saluja, executive director of Silk Screen, a nonprofit Asian arts and culture organization, and co-host of "Music From India" on WDUQ-FM, said Indian-Americans are among the most affluent members of U.S. society.

"You rarely see Asian-Americans who are poor," he said. "They are generally well off -- very rich and very educated. ... An inordinate percentage of physicians are of Indian origin. Everyone knows an Indian doctor."

Many Indian-Americans become entrepreneurs and create hundreds of jobs for their region, Saluja said. "By that fact alone, they're contributing to society."

Dr. Vijay Gorantla, 40, of Squirrel Hill came to UPMC in 2006 to work in the hand-transplant program. He said the opportunities UPMC provides for conventional and unconventional research draw doctors.

"Not a lot of programs support this kind of work," he said.

Gorantla came to the United States in 1998 and moved to Pittsburgh from Louisville, Ky. He prefers Pittsburgh because it is "more cosmopolitan, and the people are really nice."

"It's the Northeast without the attitude of Boston or New York," he said.

After earning his doctorate, Srinivasa of Shadyside took a position with Intel Labs Pittsburgh. He starts a new job next week as an associate professor in CMU's Robotics Institute. He is part of a team developing robots to handle home tasks such as opening doors and clearing tables.

Srinivasa said he has seen an increase of Indian students coming to Pittsburgh. "The schools made the city popular," he said.

In addition to academia, the city's "Most Liveable City" distinction entices Indians here, said Raja Reddy Vangeti, secretary of the board for Sri Venkateswara Temple in Penn Hills. When Pittsburgh hosted the G-20 economic summit in 2009, Indians took notice, he said.

"Good news like that gets the attention of people," he said.

It got the attention of Pitchiah Balasubramanian, 43, of Fox Chapel, a program manager at PNC who moved to Pittsburgh in September. In America since 1998, he lived in Arizona, Connecticut and Detroit.

Balasubramanian said in addition to his job, he moved here for the school systems, health care options and cultural scene. His family attends Sri Venkateswara Temple, where his two children study Hindu culture.

He takes his family to India for important family events, such as his parents' 60th anniversary, but those trips are few and far between. He talks to his parents weekly via online video chat.

"I definitely miss them ... but with technology, things feel closer to home," he said.

Vangeti, 63, a native of South India, moved to Monroeville in 1989 when he took a job with Westinghouse. He visited the area several times before, specifically to visit Sri Venkateswara Temple, one of the first Hindu temples built in North America.

Like many Indians in the region, he said the temple played a part in his decision to relocate here. The region has several temples for Hindus, mosques for Muslims and gurudwara for Sikhs from India, many of whom participate in an interfaith association to foster unity among religions.

Several cultural organizations target various communities of India, such as the Gujarati Samaj of Greater Pittsburgh and the Maharashtra Mandal of Greater Pittsburgh.

This month, the Bengali Association held a celebration for what would have been the 150th birthday of Nobel Prize-winning Bengali poet, musician and playwright Rabindranath Tagore. About 250 people came -- a jump from the usual 150 the event draws, said Partha Basu, president of the association and professor at Duquesne University.

He knows many Indian students stayed here after coming for school.

"A lot of them take a job or establish their own company," said Basu, who was born in Calcutta and lives in Mt. Lebanon. "Pittsburgh is a nice place to live and raise a family. It has a lot to offer."

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