Pittsburgh Pride

Pittsburgh is built around a vaguely triangular sliver of land that slides into the confluence of three rivers in western Pennsylvania, and it is filled with an eye-catching assortment of skyscrapers.

The football stadium isn’t the only part of Pittsburgh to take a CGI bashing in Christopher Nolan’s latest Batman movie — the city stood in as Gotham during filming. And, like Bruce Wayne, it has undergone quite a transformation.

Pittsburgh is a city inextricably linked with the steel industry; the name conjures up images of smokestacks and heavy industry and it is often lumped in with depressed Rust Belt cities such as Detroit, Michigan and Akron, Ohio.

This is a bracket Pittsburgh clearly doesn’t belong in. The steel mills are long gone; any smoke is likely to be found wafting up from food carts. You hear chirruping birds rather than clanking machinery and the only thing that stinks, per se, is the Pirates baseball team.

Pittsburgh is built around a vaguely triangular sliver of land that slides into the confluence of three rivers in western Pennsylvania, and it is filled with an eye-catching assortment of skyscrapers. On either side a series of pastel yellow bridges peel off like a centipede’s legs.

From the top of the Duquesne Incline — a cable railway that links the city’s south side with Mount Washington running above it — the view is staggering. USA Today once named this perch as the second most beautiful place in America.

It’s not the only accolade bestowed on the city. National Geographic Traveler says it’s one of the best places in the world to visit in 2012; Hotwire.com praised itshotel bargains; ABC City Guides for Kids called it the number-one family-fun destination; and the Economist Intelligence Unit has rated it as the US’s most liveable city for four consecutive years.

Native Sons

The plaudits are partly due to a world-class cultural scene. The steel mills may have given way to high-tech industries, but the remnants are still around.

Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie directed much of his philanthropic largesse back towards the city that made him rich. The Carnegie Science Center, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Art would be star attractions anywhere else, but they’re overshadowed by the only one in the Carnegie collection not to bear his name.

The Andy Warhol Museum is the largest single-artist museum in the US and a towering tribute to the king of Pop Art, housing more than 8000 works by the Pittsburgh native. But for all the Jackie Kennedy screen prints, Campbell’s soup cans and scary-haired self-portraits, it’s the biographical aspect of the museum that sticks in the memory; early painted and illustrated works (from Warhol’s days as a prized illustrator for magazines), videos from his forays into directing and his voracious collecting — he gathered more than half a million objects for his collection of time capsules.

The spirit of experimentation lives on in the city’s suburbs. The largely residential neighbourhood known as Mexican War Streets, with its picturesque brick and clapboard houses, plays host to the Mattress Factory. Since 1977 this installation-only gallery has showcased room-sized works that visitors can wander through. It’s a strange experience walking down hallways full of outstretched hands holding bread rolls then stepping into kaleidoscope-like cubes with mirrors on the floor and ceiling.

In with the Old

Pittsburgh rarely destroys when it can repurpose. Most of the old freight railways from the steel days have been turned into walking and cycling tracks, while two of the hottest bars in town follow the same model. Bar Marco serves cocktails in an old fire station and the Altar Bar features beats and bands in a former church.

The two neatly bookend the Strip, an area to the north-west of the city centre that should set even the most disciplined stomach rumbling. For Pittsburghers, the icon here is the original Primanti Brothers outlet. Local legend has it that the sandwiches — piled high with fries and coleslaw — were originally designed so that freight truckers could eat them at the wheel without making a mess.

But the food heritage goes way beyond enormous sandwiches. Sylvia McCoy runs the Burgh Bits & Bites Food Tour of the Strip, concentrating largely on family-run businesses that import recipes and ingredients from all over the world.

“A lot of what makes the food interesting is the history behind it,” she says. “For a long time [the Strip] was for wholesale only. Now, everyone’s coming here to shop and there are food carts on every corner.”

The tour encompasses Polish pierogi, eighth-generation bakers, chaotic sushi counters and custom-made Syrian-style hummus. The star, however, is Parma Sausage Products Inc.

Employee Casey Romig isn’t shy about why. “We make the greatest Italian meats in the world,” he says as he hands out a tasting plate of prosciutto aged for between 15 and 18 months. “We’ve run out of prosciutto before because we’d sooner not serve it than serve it before it’s ready.” But, as with the rest of Pittsburgh, the Strip retains a blue-collar feel. It’s a city that’s as proud of the 100 licensed premises in nine blocks on East Carson Street as it is of any cultural institution.

Surprise Factor

If it was a person, Pittsburgh would be the boy from a working-class background who’s done well for himself but has held determinedly onto his roots.

It’s a city that’s happier in the black and gold of its sporting teams than haute couture, but it consistently manages to throw up the thoroughly spectacular. And along with The Andy Warhol Museum, the views from the Duquesne Incline and the food on the Strip, that includes the Cathedral of Learning, part of the University of Pittsburgh.

It’s the sort of building that makes you double-take as it comes into view: a 42-storey Gothic structure that is completely out of place with everything surrounding it, towering over any competitors from miles around. Inside, students sit with their laptops under gloomy church-like arches.

Yet the lecture theatres on the first and third floors feature something completely different: 29 Nationality Rooms, each designed in the style of a different country. One feels like a Turkish bathhouse, another the central courtyard of a Ghanaian village and another like a Buddhist monastery in India.

The rooms aren’t designed to be flashy, just loving re-creations of what would have been found in small towns and villages across the world centuries ago. In a way, the rooms actually sum up Pittsburgh perfectly: clever, unpretentious, multicultural and capable of producing the most wonderful surprises.

Move over, Batman — America has another secret superhero.

Words by David Whitley - Published in Voyeur October 2012
Quick Facts 
Population Approx. 1.6 million
Area 369.3km2
Time Zone GMT -4
Languages English
Currency US Dollar ($USD)
Electricity 114 - 126V 60Hz
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