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How Pittsburgh Quietly Became a Culture Capital

Creativity of all kinds—tech, food, art, performance—has transformed Pittsburgh into a model of the top-down, bottom-up, woke American city.


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Many Rust Belt cities are experiencing some kind of comeback, but none has reinvented itself as completely—or as creatively—as Pittsburgh. What was once the fume-belching Steel City has become the lean and green silicon strip. Uber, Facebook, Amazon, and Google all have growing offices there. A metro area that a decade ago could scarcely hold on to its young people is now attracting entrepreneurs, artists, and geeks from around the world. In the past few years, surveys have touted the city’s surprising virtues: Zagat hailed it as the country’s best restaurant scene, and the Economist Intelligence Unit rated it the most livable metropolis in the continental U.S.

But while tech typically gets much of the credit for Pittsburgh’s turnaround, what’s been lost in this rust-to-riches story is the major role that arts and culture have played in the city’s transformation. Just look downtown. Not too long ago, Pittsburgh’s urban core was a sorry spectacle of decline. The handsome skyline—buildings by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, a glorious neo-Romanesque courthouse by H. H. Richardson—overlooked a veritable ghost town. Commercial life was made up of porn shops and shuttered storefronts. In what is commonly referred to as the golden triangle, a slice of premium real estate framed dramatically by the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers, sat a collection of landmark playhouses and movie palaces that time and neglect had turned into ruins.

Starting in the mid-1980s, when Pittsburgh was at its postindustrial nadir, a team of wealthy city leaders, led by philanthropist and ketchup magnate Jack Heinz, banded together to transform this skid row of theaters into a cultural mecca. Eventually organized as the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, the group had a vision of urban renewal through the arts. It bought and restored the buildings, creating an arts hub around the city’s crown jewel, Heinz Hall, and also converted the surrounding structures into galleries and small performance spaces. With the help of some of Pittsburgh’s wealthiest foundations—the Heinz Endowments and the Richard King Mellon Foundation among them—it poured over $500 million into a 14-block area, financed public works by artists such as Louise Bourgeois, and created permanent homes for the Pittsburgh Opera, the Pittsburgh Public Theater, and the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. Slowly, this revitalization led to a downtown renaissance. “Beginning six years ago, growth spiked,” said Rona Nesbit, executive vice president of the Cultural Trust. “With 2 million people coming to the cultural district each year, restaurants and housing began to spring up.” Today, the district, brimming with swish boutique hotels and high-end restaurants, generates $303 million in economic activity annually. The organization’s theaters, meanwhile, are lit nearly 300 nights a year.

The Cultural Trust’s rescue of downtown is an example of the kind of top-down cultural philanthropy that has a long local history. In the city’s industrial glory days, homegrown plutocrats like Andrew W. Mellon, Henry Clay Frick, and Andrew Carnegie fought to outspend one another as they erected ornate temples to culture to both enlighten the masses and burnish their own reputations. Carnegie not only bankrolled the city’s library system (which eventually sprouted iterations all around the world) but also created an art museum with a radical mandate: to collect “the Old Masters of tomorrow.”

Thus the Carnegie Museum of Art was founded in 1895 and became one of the first American institutions to acquire paintings by James McNeill Whistler, Winslow Homer, and Edward Hopper. Just a year after opening, the museum presented the inaugural Carnegie International, now the world’s second-oldest international survey of contemporary art, after the Venice Biennale. Held every five years, the Carnegie International will return in the fall of 2018. “Pittsburgh has changed so much in just the two years since I’ve moved back,” said Ingrid Schaffner, the event’s curator, who was born in Pittsburgh and returned to the city following a 15-year stint in Philadelphia, joining the ranks of so-called boomerangs. “Every day I’m knocked out by something new: an artist-led dinner series or a fabulous little printshop. All these independent initiatives are building a real community.”

It’s an artistic community that is likely to keep growing steadily. The availability of grant money and a low cost of living combine to produce “tons of new opportunities for artists,” said dancer Matt Pardo, who, along with dancer Caitlin Scranton, recently co-founded the production group The Blanket, dedicated to bringing seminal choreographers to the city. Their first collaboration was with postmodern dance icon Lucinda Childs, who staged four of her early works last summer in an amphitheater on the banks of the Monongahela in downtown. “Any passerby could wander into this piece of highly choreographed pedestrian minimalist dance,” Scranton said. “Our hope is that [a piece like this] gets people involved in modern dance who might otherwise be intimidated by it.”

While the inheritance of the robber barons and the tradition of cultural benefaction still play key roles in supporting artistic life, many of the most exciting recent developments, like The Blanket, are grassroots movements started by local artists—and few have a more inspiring story than City of Asylum.

Pittsburgh-born visual artist Diane Samuels and her husband, Henry Reese, started the non-profit in 2004 with a simple mission: to shelter international writers who had been victims of repression in their home countries. They thought the area’s ample supply of cheap housing could be used to protect endangered writers and that the writers could globalize the perspective of native Pittsburghers. The couple bought a series of abandoned row houses on ramshackle Sampsonia Way on the city’s North Side, for $10,000 to $28,000 each, which they then transformed into urban writers retreats. The first dissident to seek shelter in City of Asylum, from 2004 to 2006, was Huang Xiang, a poet who has been called the “Walt Whitman of China.” He had spent much of his working life in and out of prison, where he was tortured by the authorities. “When he came to us, we had to have dental reconstruction done on his mouth,” Reese recalled. “They did everything they could to silence this guy.”

After arriving in Pittsburgh, Huang was desperate to perform his poetry live, despite the language barrier. Reese and Samuels found jazz musicians, including famed alto saxophonist Oliver Lake, to score his poetry readings and subtitled the performances so that audiences could understand. Huang was so overwhelmed by the reception that he inscribed a poem on the façade of his house at 408 Sampsonia Way—where his writing remains today. A master calligrapher, he created a monument for City of Asylum and began its tradition of having local artists collaborate on decorating each new home with text-based artwork.

Since starting City of Asylum, Reese and Samuels have sheltered seven writers long-term, from countries as diverse as Venezuela, Iran, Burma, and Syria. The organization has established its own online literary magazine, called Sampsonia Way, and hosts regular readings and free events that attract a cross section of locals, including literary types from nearby universities and curious neighbors lured by the free food, music, and atmosphere. “Unpredictable things happen at our events,” Reese said. “With different types of neighbors being in the same audience, at once lost in and embraced by a foreign language, it feels like we are making a home together.”

A year ago, the organization significantly raised its profile by opening Alphabet City, a $12.5 million grant-funded cultural space in a former Masonic lodge on the North Side’s main drag, West North Avenue, a ten-minute walk from the writers retreats. Inside is a bookstore selling the works of City of Asylum writers alongside other international fiction and pieces that have local resonance. There’s also an outpost of Casellula, the cheese-centric New York restaurant, and a performance space where major visiting authors, such as Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich, give readings. The investment in both hard currency and cultural cachet has helped transform a formerly blighted block into an arts destination that has accelerated the pace of renewal on the North Side. A library branch, a coffeehouse, and several restaurants have opened in the past few years.

The North Side’s arts scene is booming, but such innovation is not limited to any one area. Across the river, in the Strip, Pittsburgh’s teeming market district, is the country’s first “restaurant incubator,” the Smallman Galley, which serves as a springboard for underexposed chefs, giving them the experience they need to open their own places. Four promising cooks chosen for 12-month residencies take up their own stations in a salvage-chic warehouse space that seats 200 people, where they attend business classes, test their concepts, and tweak their menus. The project debuted in late 2015 as the brainchild of two former Navy lieutenants turned entrepreneurs, Tyler Benson and Benjamin Mantica, who were inspired by the conviviality of the hawker centers they visited while on tours of duty in Southeast Asia. “We loved how the food halls in Singapore and Tokyo were like community hubs,” Benson said. “We married that with the tech world’s incubator concept.”

The Smallman Galley is so profitable—both for its owners and for the would-be restaurateurs, several of whom are already in the process of opening their own spaces—that Benson and Mantica will soon open a second location not far from City of Asylum. “For us the lesson is, you don’t have to be a traditional nonprofit to make a positive social impact,” Benson said. “In a city like Pittsburgh, the right kind of business can move the needle.”

That lesson has been taken to heart in the old steel town of Braddock, just east of the Pittsburgh city line. Deindustrialization nearly killed Braddock, which has lost 90 percent of its population since the ’50s, with a sizable number of the remaining 2,000 residents living in grinding poverty. In 2014, local chef Kevin Sousa broke Kickstarter records by raising over $300,000 to build an ambitious restaurant there, in a place that until recently was considered a food desert. After years of financial trouble and some controversy about the project’s role in the area’s gentrification, that restaurant, Superior Motors, finally opened this summer in an old Chevrolet dealership. The place promises to be much more than a superb New American eatery: It’s also a job-training program and a performance space for local theater director Patrick Jordan of Barebones Productions. Three-fourths of the staff live in or near Braddock, and the town’s residents are offered discounts to eat there. Sousa said that every night so far, people from the neighborhood have come to enjoy a meal, sitting alongside diners from posher parts of the region. “There’s a special feeling, especially among residents who haven’t had a place to sit down and eat for so long,” he said. “Some who have come in to see the finished restaurant have wept, hugging me. It’s been emotional for many of us.”

The town’s revival has been a longtime ambition of its eccentric Harvard-educated mayor, John Fetterman, whose scrappy idealism has made him into something of a celebrity among the urban-studies set. Fetterman may have begun his efforts in Braddock over a decade ago, but his recent advocacy has helped lure 12 new small businesses, including Brew Gentlemen, a brewery by two Carnegie Mellon grads; Studebaker Metals, an industrial-inspired jewelry brand; and Braddock Tiles, a ceramic-tile company supported by the renowned mixed-media street artist Swoon.

While there’s certainly still much room to grow in places like Braddock and the North Side, there is a sense that all these individual projects are adding up to something bigger. “We seem to be at a tipping point,” said Reese, the cofounder of City of Asylum. “The changes in Pittsburgh over the past 10 to 15 years have been enormous. It feels like we’re on the cusp of becoming a great city.” Some would argue they’re already there.

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