It has been over twenty years since the collapse of the Pittsburgh steel industry. Where there once was a mill, there now stands a strip mall. A blacktop parking lot that stretches as far as the eye can see leaves the neighborhood in which it stands in something of an identity crisis. These natural bumps in the course of development are to be expected. We fall. We get right back up.
Look, and you see it everywhere: the city that once was, the city that is yet to be.
I was recently sent to Pittsburgh for a business assignment. This assignment was no accident; I was chosen because my adoration of Pittsburgh is no secret to anyone around my office. I should mention that this adoration took years to cultivate. As a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh, I was filled with contempt for this little city and the people in it. Why the inferiority complex? I wondered. Why can’t a girl get a sandwich during a football game? I lamented. (Pittsburgh essentially shuts down when the Steelers play.) The relationship between my adopted city and me was strained. We butt heads, bickered, fought, made life miserable for one another. Shoot, it even ran me over with a car. (True story). Then, something buckled. I went abroad for four months, and in a stunning testament to the power of travel being able to open one’s mind, I came back and eased into the rhythm of being a “yinzer.” To live in Pittsburgh and truly appreciate it feels like you have a secret on the rest of the world. They see: Collapsed Industry. You see: Thriving Culture. And $1 Blue Moon drafts.
Here I am, older. Wiser? Always looking in the rearview mirror at my life in the ‘Burgh, wondering what might have been. Should I have stayed? Could I have? Leaving after graduation felt so right and the city itself seemed to nudge me on out when I outcouchsurfed my welcome. It issued me a parking ticket, closed my favorite pizza stand, rained constantly. A business trip in Pittsburgh seemed like the perfect chance to confront the Pittsburgh I had known and loved, and, by being stationed Downtown, the Pittsburgh everyone else sees.
A city has little opportunity to nab the affection of a business traveler. I must confess, being in the business of conventions I have heard Pittsburgh described as the “more economic” choice by convention planners, as opposed to places like San Diego and Las Vegas. None of this surprised me. There’s nothing outwardly glamorous about Pittsburgh. The David Lawrence Convention Center sits along the banks of the Allegheny River, right in the Cultural District of Downtown. Downtown developed organically, the streets running parallel along two of its famed three rivers, which arrive at a point at the nose. There’s no grid, no logical way to navigate. Go too far in one direction and you may find yourself at a five-point intersection, or a dead-end, or as it happened to me this week, a wrong turn will funnel you under a tunnel and spit you out on the other side of Mount Washington. (To be fair, that last scenario can only happen if you drive.) Oh, and if you need to cross a river there are about a gazillion bridges to choose from (more bridges, in fact, than any other American city, and second only to Venice in the world.) The business traveler who orders room service and who prefers not to interact with anything beyond his hotel window will not see it. But Pittsburgh is extraordinary.
True, the Economist ranked Pittsburgh as America’s Most Livable City (edging out Honolulu if you can believe it.) Only, unfortunately for business travelers, you might not necessarily know it if you only visited Downtown. Pittsburgh’s webbing of neighborhoods (more than 90 strong, of which Downtown is only one), I suspect have a lot to do with its livability rating. And what is livability to a business traveler, who by nature only spends a few days, or a week at most? I issue a challenge to all those passing through Pittsburgh. Open your eyes.* Go out and bear witness to this wonderful transformation. Pittsburgh’s ability to reinvent itself in the wake of economic tragedy is what makes it so damn special. Would you believe that a city literally stained with the soot of the industry of years past would be declared in 2009 as having more LEED-certified buildings per square foot than any other city in the United States? (Source: Green Building Alliance). The hub of business travel, the Convention Center itself, the only “green” convention center in the world, was less the depressing expansive box of a room I’ve been subjected to in other places (like San Diego and Las Vegas). Its white, arched, tent-like features invoke a feeling that something truly spectacular is about to take place.
And indeed, in Pittsburgh it is. Look and you will find it: the old and the new. Alongside the clean, “green” convention center, a graffiti-adorned metal bridge which periodically plays host to a passing-by freight train; the gentle hum of this exchange seems to say “I’m still here!” The memories of the past, the promise of the future. The Pittsburgh I left behind three years ago (and the part of myself I left with it) is different from the one I visited this week. And I know the next time I go, I’ll be met with something new to discover. Look and you will find it: the rose in the rough, challenging us all to do as Pittsburgh does. Fall down. Get up. Move forward. Evolve. Become a better version of yourself. I wouldn’t be the me I am today if it weren’t for my years in Pittsburgh. It is a sort of home to idealistic me. And there’s no place like home.
*Okay, so your company is sending you to Pittsburgh. If you want to make the most out of your trip, you can easily access these things if Downtown is your hub:
Inclines – Fully functioning little boxcars built in the late 1800s which are still used as a legitimate form of transportation up and down Mount Washington offer spectacular views of the city
Warhol Museum – A great starting point in experiencing Pittsburgh’s surprising but thriving arts subculture
Market Square – Features great views of Gothic PPG Place, also great for people-watching. Also there’s a Primanti’s in there, which is kind of a big deal to the locals
PNC Park – What better way to live Black and Yellow than at the ballpark with the best view in baseball?
If you’re feeling super adventurous, take a Port Authority bus to one of Pittsburgh’s charming little neighborhoods. The buses are clean, have amazingly cushiony seats, and some even feature fun little pictograms on the sides.
During this particular trip, I got to patronize two completely new(!) restaurants/bars, which, although outside of the Downtown (take a bus!), I highly recommend.
Burgatory – What brunch is to Philadelphia, and cupcakes are to DC, burgers are to Pittsburgh (apparently). A two hour wait isn’t enough time to decide what burger to order (or design). Believe me.
Local Bar– A new fixture on the Southside bar scene that highlights local brews and food, and a great ceiling too!