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Steel City Renaissance
Ari Kaufman in Pittsburgh

The website for the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, recently claimed that, "if you haven't been to this Renaissance City in the last five years, you haven't seen the new Pittsburgh!"

While I wouldn't put this erstwhile mining, smokestack-laden town along the same lines of "Renaissance" as Florence or Madrid, there is little doubt that Pittsburgh would be nearly unrecognisable to someone who had not visited since as recently as the Clinton Administration.

Any discussion of Pittsburgh should pay attention to what the city has always had: a visually striking location, divided by three rivers and countless bridges, surrounded by hills, including Mount Washington, which provides one of the best urban panoramas in America. Further, as the NY Times once said, "Pittsburgh is the only city in America with an entrance," referring to the Fort Pitt Tunnel. As I stood on the Mount Washington Overlook (just west and up from the tunnel) on a brilliant fall afternoon last week, the elderly man with his tripod and camera next to me said of the tunnel, "you come out of it, and bam, the city just smacks you right in the face." This is factual, and only rivaled (domestically) in my mind by the Brooklyn Bridge's view of the length of Manhattan as you cross the East River.

Pittsburgh's recrudescence, which began just over a decade ago, has centered around such major landmarks as the new football and baseball stadia, America's shortest, cleanest free subway system.

The Roberto Clemente bridge (which links the heart of downtown to beautiful PNC (baseball) Park) via a pedestrian walkway, the three nearby universities with their distinct communities and medical centers, the unique Andy Warhol Museums, the revival of the Southside and Strip neighborhoods, the preservation of the two inclines (Fort Duquesne and Monongahela), and the revitalization of the downtown skyline highlighted by One PPG Place, constructed in 1984, and now one of the most recognizable skyscrapers in the country. The removal of any remnants from the hiedous smokestacks, still etched in the memories of many, also contributes to Pittsburgh's newfound "glory."

Although it cannot be ignored that Pittsburgh has run budget deficits for more than a decade and the population has been dwindling due to surprising lack of job opportunities, the city still hosts two of the nation's biggest financial institutions, Mellon Financial and PNC Bank. It is the headquarters for Alcoa, US Steel and HJ Heinz, from which the immaculate, riverside, new football stadium drew its name. The city's schools are quite good, in comparison to most major US city school districts, and the University of Pittsburgh, the city's largest employer, boasts one of the nation's best-run hospitals. All of these factions led Rand McNally to label Pittsburgh as America's most liveable city in 1985, and that was prior to most of the "renaissance" efforts. Pittsburgh continues to rank high in quality-of-life comparisons.

I have been to the city three times as an adult; all of these forays have occurred in the past 14 months. The first two were cursory visits, lacking an overnight stay, in which I did little more than attend a baseball game and briefly walk around on a warm summer day and a rainy summer night. My most recent tarriance was an extended one, in which I was able to breathe in Pittsburgh en masse, walking and driving through the bulk of the city and its outskirts, encompassing the sights, sounds and smells of this majestic midwestern marvel.

With much of my family hailing from nearby Cleveland (Ohio), my only prior knowledge of Pittsburgh had been from what they recalled of the "Steel City" in the 1970s and 1908s: "ugly, smokestacks, bleak, or worse..." But they had never been recently, for certain. The only two people I knew who had made the two hour trek southeast along the Ohio and Pennsylvania Turnpikes were my uncle and a friend from high school. Their description was 180 degrees the opposite: "awesome, cool, unique, picturesque." With those contrasting views, I knew that I had to explore this further.

Maria (my girlfriend) and I arrived in the mid-afternoon of a brilliant mid-October day with temps in the high 60s. After climbing through the Appalachains of Western Maryland (we started in DC and were on our way to a wedding in Cleveland) and through the rolling hills of Southwestern Pennsylvania, we entered - of course - through the Fort Pitt Tunnel. After taking U-turn to go back up Mount Washington via the Wabash Tunnel, in order to gaze at the city and snap some photos from elevation, we parked the car along the Allegheny River on Fort Duqesne Boulevard, and began to stroll through downtown.

With a myriad of yellow bridges in the backdrop across from the downtown, connecting the "North Shore," sports complexes, Carnegie Science Center and college areas, we quickly found the Theatre District (highlighted by the Byham Theatre) which later drew many middle-aged, well coiffed couples on this Friday night.

Rush hour drew nearer as time passed, and although many roads became congested, with so many various (free) bridges to choose from, Pittsburgh did not seem to suffer from major traffic problems. Many folks rode the inner-city free subway, and others stood in reasonable lines to board buses as they smoked cigarettes to pass the time. Overall though, in comparison to other sizeable cities, Pittbsburgh seemed melancholy and clean at the heart of pre-weekend rush hour.

As we emerged from the theatre and cultural district, passing some trendy shops and restaurants, Maria pointed out how "airy" the city seemed, even with the numerous skyscrapers dotting the perimeter of each street corner. This is doubtlessly true, as Pittsburgh, unlike a city like New York, spreads out their tall edifices in order to achieve more light throughout the downtown. Architecturally-speaking, and I have never claimed to be an expert on architecture, the buildings seem to be a mix of old and new, rustic and shiny, mid-size and gigantic. After seeing antiquated photos of Pittsburgh at a small museum store later that evening (where I bought a fantastic aerial photo of the demolition of the old Three Rivers Stadium), I deduced that many had been built in the past 20 years and others have been standing for nearly a century.

Later, ambling through a welcome lack of construction, past some innocuous looking panhandlers, down Liberty Avenue (home of many of the aforementioned financial institutions), and through the hotel areas, Maria and I finally came to the gorgeous Point State Park. The park, replete with a majestic geyser, sits along the confluence of the Ohio and Allegheny Rivers, just west of the heart of downtown, replete with a majestic geyser. Its view looks out to the west at the Ohio's snake-like format as it disappears toward Northern West Virginia and Ohio. The Carnegie Science Center and Heinz Field are directly in your view. It's quite quaint and romantic.

By the time we headed back into the city (no more than a quarter-mile), darkness was settling in. One minor negative about Pittsburgh is that it shuts down quickly. While bars, nightclubs, coffee shops and book stores are open fairly late, most stores, malls and restaurants close by 7pm. While this is surely unfortunate, it does make the city quieter and easier to navigate when dark. Pittsburgh, overall, seemed very safe, even late at night when more desolate.

In my three visits to Pittsburgh, I have taken two friends of mine and my girlfriend. Each had pre-conceived notions about the city, and each were overwhelmingly stirred. One even opined, "maybe they should take the "pitts" part out of the name, since that is like false representation." My high school friend, who originally implored me to visit when I was traversing the midwest watching baseball last summer, recently called me to ask how I enjoyed the city. After we discussed what I saw and what I enjoyed, we both laughed at how our acquaintances never want to go to Pittsburgh, but when they do, they are impressed. Josh mused, "yeah, I think the Chamber of Commerce should add us to the payroll, or at least give us some recognition." Well, that most assuredly will not occur soon, but I hope this informational piece will aid everyone in their future travel choices. Getting to Pittsburgh and staying there is certainly cheaper and more feasible than the Bahamas.

© Ari J Kaufman October 2005
Rockville Centre, NY

Pittsburgh Re-Born
Habeeb Salloum

"Did you see the new Pittsburgh? It’s awesome!

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