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Pittsburgh’s Authentic Attractions

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© Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao

The plucky Pennsylvania city stays true to its roots.

Some children grow up thinking they’ve been born into the wrong family; I grew up thinking I’d been born into the wrong place. Clearly, I’d been destined for some glittering metropolis, where suave men and glamorous women lounged in evening attire and talked in epigrams. Instead, I found myself in Pittsburgh, so far west in Pennsylvania that, to quote a friend from Philadelphia, “you might as well be in Ohio.”

Admittedly, the city had come a long way since the days when the steel mills were at full throttle and the streetlights stayed on around the clock to penetrate the coal-smoke haze. But it would take another 30 years—and the outsourcing of America’s heavy industry—for Pittsburgh to shed its reputation as a sooty lunch-bucket town. No tourists came, and no wonder. Even the natives would have told you that there was nothing to see. Other cities were easier to love, and I proceeded to live in three of them—New York, Paris and Milan. Until, five years ago, I moved back, trained by those cities and others to appreciate Pittsburgh’s virtues: the presence of so many mountains, rivers and trees in an urban setting; the buildings’ stark juxtapositions in style and scale.

When friends ask why I live here, I urge them to come see for themselves and then show them. My private Pittsburgh isn’t the one in the guidebooks, which take you to the top of Mt. Washington, with its postcard views, or to Shadyside, an enclave of Victorian houses surrounding a street of boutiques. Some of the sights on my list are obvious landmarks, like the courthouse and jail designed by H. H. Richardson and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. Others are lesser known, like Richardson’s Emmanuel Episcopal Church, with Tiffany windows and a wood interior like a ship’s hull turned inside out.

The Pittsburgh I came back to is not the Pittsburgh that I left, although at first glance it looks remarkably unchanged. Home to the founders of many of the great American fortunes—Andrew Carnegie, George Westinghouse, Andrew Mellon, H.J. Heinz among them—the city was shaped by them. And though locals old enough to remember still lament what is gone, the miracle is that, here, much of the Gilded Age survived the late-20th-century urge to dismantle it. While other cities were razing their architectural heritage to make way for progress, Pittsburgh was still reeling from the departure of steel. The local historic preservation movement seized the moment and has since saved hundreds of landmarks.

These days Pittsburgh is cited as the paragon of a rust-belt city that has reinvented itself, having shifted its base from manufacturing to medicine, technology and education, leading the transition from an economy of commodities to one of ideas. The population of 306,000 is now less than half what it was when I was growing up, but the cultural infrastructure remains. No other city on a similar scale—say, St Louis, whose population is equivalent—can claim so many institutions of the caliber of the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History, the Andy Warhol Museum, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Glass Center, the Phipps Conservatory, an opera company and several thriving theaters. Mattress Factory is a welcome stop for artists on the international circuit. City of Asylum has provided sanctuary to four writers persecuted in their countries, including Huang Xiang, a dissident who painted his poems, censored in China, on the outside of his house here.

What sets Pittsburgh apart is it’s not so much a city as an amalgamation of small towns, each with its own main street, bars, coffee shops. While most cities cluster their business, retail and cultural activity in one or a few zones, with residential areas fanning out around them, Pittsburgh is a mosaic, where downtown (the business district) and Oakland (universities and museums) are only two of any number of neighborhoods worth investigating: Lawrenceville, Squirrel Hill, Regent Square, Highland Park, the Strip, for starters. I take friends to Millvale, a borough whose iron foundries, sawmills and breweries have given way to Attic Records, a destination for collectors of vinyl; Pamela’s P&G Diner, a favorite of the Obamas, who order the pancakes; Librairie Les Idées, a French bookstore (by appointment and open Sundays); the bakery of Jean-Marc Chatellier, a Breton pâtissier whose macaroons in salted caramel, Nutella and peanut butter and jelly marry French techniques with comfort-food flavors; and St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church and its allegorical murals, painted in the late 1930s and early ’40s by immigrant artist Maxo Vanka.

What I hated most about Pittsburgh when I was a teenager is something I have since come to love: The absence of glamour now seems a welcome relief from what a colleague calls “the fabulousness that permeates life in New York.” The city’s age-old, blue-collar, shot-and-a-beer profile is deeply ingrained in its self-image, right down to the Steelers’ grinding style of football. And though it may be less relevant as the demographic changes—and local Google employees threaten to outnumber the handful of steelworkers still holding a job here—there’s a work ethic that endures, established by the city’s Calvinist forefathers and perpetuated by generations of immigrant laborers. Modesty, dedication, generosity—in sports, these qualities constitute what’s known as “heart,” and it’s no coincidence that Pittsburgh is a town obsessed with athletes. Travelers arriving at the airport are greeted by a waxwork figure of Franco Harris making the Immaculate Reception. A statue of Mario Lemieux, the Hockey Hall of Famer and former Pittsburgh Penguin who saved the team by buying it out of bankruptcy in 1999, presides over the lawn outside their new arena.

It’s hard to imagine a museum like the one dedicated to former Pittsburgh Pirate Roberto Clemente in any other city. In 2008, Duane Rieder, a local commercial photographer, opened the museum to showcase memorabilia from the Clemente family archives, augmented by his acquisitions. Displayed in a restored firehouse, the collection, now numbering more than a thousand items, ranges from a 1960 World Series pocket scorecard to Golden Gloves to a pin-striped suit. In the basement is Rieder’s winery, Engine House Twentyfive, where he hosts tastings of the Cabernet, Zinfandel and the Malbec he makes from Chilean grapes aged in oak barriques imported from France.

I nominate Rieder and Pittsburgh as models for a new movement—call it localization—a groundswell of resistance to the inexorable march of all things global. With real estate prices dramatically lower than on the coasts, anyone with a dream can lease a storefront here. Nowhere is the transformation more apparent than in the thriving food shops run by solo entrepreneurs. The guidebooks will send you to Primanti Bros., a restaurant famous for its sandwich with fries inside—a one-handed meal and best seller with long-haul truckers. Skip that. Instead, go on a shopping tour of the Strip and buy some homemade pâté from Crested Duck Charcuterie, crusty bread from Enrico’s, burrata from Pennsylvania Macaroni Company, mini donuts from Peace Love & Little Donuts and some Draai Laag ale from The BeerHive, then pack a picnic and take it to Point State Park, where the rivers converge, or to Frick Park, which borders Clayton, Henry Clay Frick’s local mansion—more modest than his Fifth Avenue palazzo in New York but well worth the guided visit. If you’re hungry for the genuine experience of a singular place, I give you Pittsburgh: a city that, in the face of ubiquitous logos, standardized menus and assembly-line entertainment, has held on to its soul.

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