Some American cities are hidden jewels. Pittsburgh is one.
Steeling a march in Pittsburgh
September 4, 2014 Updated: September 4, 2014 04:38 PM
We’re walking through the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. My 12-year-old daughter, Malu, has discovered a dinosaur with cancer. It’s a bone, really, in a glass case, with a tumour that’s 150 million years old. “Wow,” I think. It certainly lends perspective to my anaemic arthritic complaints. What’s the cliché? The only certainties are death and taxes? And now, it seems, tumours.
The museum, named after Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish steel baron whose mark is left all over this city of 446 bridges, is among the reasons why Pittsburgh was recently named America’s most liveable city by a number of publications, including Forbes magazine and The Economist. The Andy Warhol Museum is another crowd-pleaser. To see Warhol’s paintings drenched in celebrities of the time (Marilyn, Jackie, Elvis) is to understand why he said: “In the future, everybody will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” This was prescient in an age before Twitter and Facebook. Warhol, like the authors Gertrude Stein and Rachel Carson, was born here.
My favourite visit is to the Mattress Factory, a museum of contemporary art with room-sized installations (or “environments”) created by artists in residence: Yayoi Kusama’s explosion of polka dots through one room – floor, ceiling and walls – is eye-popping. When we come out, the world seems tame by comparison.
Autumn is a good time to visit Pittsburgh. The humid summer gives way to brisk, cool air that snowballs, quite literally, into winter. Banners welcome incoming students who populate its concentration of universities and teaching hospitals: Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), one of the country’s finest engineering schools; University of Pittsburgh, with its large research programme; Duquesne, with its famous Tamburitzans, the country’s longest-running multicultural folk dance company; women’s colleges Chatham and Carlow; and, unusually, the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science. Pittsburgh is a college town, but one that’s not overwhelmed by them. Its roots go back to working-class America and manufacturing. For a long time, it was called Steel City. Indeed, when Carnegie decided to build a university, he designed long corridors that sloped downwards, to hedge his bets. If the university didn’t take off, he figured, he would convert the building into manufacturing plants with assembly lines. Today, CMU’s orientation includes a walk down long corridors reminiscent of the steel plants that once populated Pittsburgh.
As an admirer of Carnegie, I’m eager to walk in his footsteps. Beginning as a telegrapher, he sold his Carnegie Steel company for US$480 million, the equivalent of about $14 billion (Dh51.42bn) in today’s dollars. He spent the last half of his life in philanthropy, endowing a slew of museums and institutions in Pittsburgh and elsewhere, the most famous of which is Carnegie Hall, New York. In Pittsburgh, his name adorns the museums of art, natural history and science. “Man does not live by bread alone,” said Carnegie famously. “My aspirations take a higher flight. Mine be it to have contributed to the enlightenment and the joys of the mind, to the things of the spirit, to all that tends to bring into the lives of the toilers of Pittsburgh sweetness and light. I hold this the noblest possible use of wealth.” With these sentiments, Carnegie changed the course of his adopted city from one that was beholden to steel for its economy into one that has risen above it.
Geographically, Pittsburgh is located at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, which meet to form the Ohio River. The tri-river convergence happens at Point State Park, marked by a fountain. Indians have long believed that the convergence of rivers happens in sacred places called “prayag” in Sanskrit. The Native Americans perhaps believed the same thing, for the Shawnee and other tribes were drawn to the area centuries ago. Today, a 144-year-old cable car takes visitors up the Monongahela Incline for a stunning view atop Mount Washington. The other cable car with a historic flavour is the Duquesne Incline. Most visitors go up one, walk around Mount Washington for the views, grab a bit to eat and come down the other incline.
The beauteous hilly landscape attracted immigrants – Polish, Jewish, German, Italian, African-American and Croatian – all of whom occupy distinct neighbourhoods in the city even today, giving Pittsburgh an attractive ethnic flavour. They came to work in the steel factories, manning assembly lines and manufacturing units.
When the steel industry went bust, Pittsburgh was forced to reinvent itself. It turned to technology, robotics, biomedical engineering and software – Google has a growing presence in the city – to grow.
Google’s office is round the corner from SpringHill Suites, a Marriott hotel where we’re staying. Guests have access to the fitness centre next door. Panera Bread, at the base of the building, provides quick sandwich lunches, and Coffee Tree Roasters, across the street, gives us a morning shot of espresso in an environment that is more distinctive than a Starbucks. Bakery Square, where the hotel is situated, is also where Social, one of Pittsburgh’s popular resto-bars, is located. At 5pm one evening, the place is packed with locals drinking and dining on homestyle chicken and meat dishes.
Pittsburgh has the dubious distinction of having the largest number of bars per capita in the United States. Its restaurants aren’t to be sniffed at either. Some are local legends. Primanti Brothers, a chain of sandwich shops, is a favourite among students for its low-key vibe and large portions. Pamela’s Diner, where Barack Obama enjoyed pancakes during a campaign stop, reminds us of an old-fashioned Jewish diner in New York. The recently reopened Fuel & Fuddle is famous for its hanger steaks, Buffalo wings and pizza. One evening, we enjoy ravioli and salads at Legume, a stylish restaurant with local art and friendly waiters in the Oakland neighbourhood. Over the course of four days, we try homemade ice cream at Dave & Andy’s; Sushi Fuku; Everyday Noodles; and the atmospheric Spice Island Tea House. Ethnic grocery stores – Indian, Mexican, Chinese – abound. Restaurants in Pittsburgh aren’t fancy and, indeed, locals use the word almost as an accusation. People value humility and discretion in this Pennsylvanian city on the brink of the Midwest. Molecular gastronomy, sculptural desserts, drinks as chemistry – all the things that can seem normal in a New York restaurant – are viewed as over the top and pretentious here.
Where Pittsburgh goes to de-stress is at Heinz Field, home of the Steelers, its National Football League team. The city also has the Pirates for Major League Baseball and the Penguins in the National Hockey League. Locals have fierce loyalties towards these teams and tickets for games have long waiting lists. The golf legend Arnold Palmer learnt his game on Pittsburgh’s courses and the three rivers foster a vibrant water community in clement weather, with rowing, kayaking and the annual Three Rivers Regatta.
Equally vibrant is the artistic community. Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama is among the best in the country (the actor Gabriel Macht, who plays Harvey Specter in the television series Suits, is an alumnus). During the annual Tony Awards for theatre, CMU ran an advert featuring all the illustrious screenwriters, actors and directors who walked the portals of its school. Perhaps because of this connection, hundreds of films, including The Dark Knight Rises, The Avengers, The Fault in Our Stars, Jack Reacher and the upcoming American Pastoral were fully or partially filmed in the city. On tour buses, it’s fun to spot the movie locations, all of which are enthusiastically pointed out by locals.
We assumed that the Phipps Conservatory would be just another botanical garden. What makes it exciting is the toy trains, which children are allowed to touch. Narrow aisles take us through a stunning array of plants, orchids and flowers. The cafe inside has a number of vegetarian options, while we spot academics talking to each other about esoteric subjects as they walk through the conservatory.
For those inclined, Pittsburgh has a number of cultural offerings, including a symphony, dozens of theatres and a thriving jazz and bluegrass music scene. The National Negro Opera Company, the country’s first, was founded in the city. The Benedum theatre, built in 1928, seats about 3,000 people and hosts movies, Broadway shows and music. Across the street is the Proper Brick Oven & Tap Room, serving amazing pizza and locally brewed drinks on tap.
Fancier still is the art deco Heinz Hall, dripping with chandeliers and red carpets. Here too, however, Pittsburgh doesn’t take itself too seriously. Along with the city’s symphony orchestra and George Gershwin’s music, Heinz Hall has hosted Bugs Bunny at the Symphony. Think animated Bugs Bunny goofiness with a live orchestra playing Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro or Rossini’s The Barber of Seville.
On our last day in Pittsburgh, we do something that only a Hindu Indian family would do: we go to the Hindu temple to see Lord Balaji, who occupies India’s richest temple atop a hill in Tirupati. After eating tamarind rice at the Balaji temple, we board our flight for the long journey home.
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