“Never trust anyone who talks up how great Pittsburgh is. It is a garbage town full of garbage food. And like 90% garbage people.”
Those words were written by someone as arrogant as they are shortsighted, someone utterly and totally convinced they could never be wrong about anything, for whom their word was the beginning and end of any discussion. Someone so blinded by their own preconceived notions of what makes a city matter that they couldn’t conceive, even for a second, of the things that make Pittsburgh singular and, in its own way, mesmerizing -- the surprisingly great food, the gorgeous riverside and hilltop views, the unique cultural architecture of a city in love with both the future and its own past. Someone who is a prick, basically.
I can say all this with certainty, because the person who wrote those words is me.
It’s only recently (very recently) I’ve come to realize all the things I thought I hated about this city were far more about me than about Pittsburgh itself. It didn’t help that I probably never gave it a fair shake to begin with. After a lifetime of the city’s sports teams humiliating those of my beloved Washington D.C. so thoroughly, so humiliatingly (a trend that shows no recent signs of letting up), I was predisposed towards animosity before I even moved here almost three years ago.
It had never been my choice to move here -- I was going to go wherever my fiancée did, and this city is where she earned her master’s degree (and is now earning her doctorate). I’d like to say I was resolved to do the right thing and be steadfastly neutral regardless of my lifelong sports rooting interests and my antipathy to describing any group of people as “yinz.” I’d like to say that, but I’d be lying. I’m not sure what I expected when I came here, but I don’t doubt that the negativity of those expectations colored my outlook.
But there was one aspect to Pittsburgh that always stayed the full extent of my hatred: the unavoidable, inconvenient fact that the extant Pittsburghers I knew were really, really great. Like, stunningly great! Almost universally, they were warm, funny people with a seemingly infinite well of forgiveness towards those who said really, really awful stuff about their hometown. I’m amazed any of them are still friends with me.
That’s the secret, though: Pittsburghers usually don’t care if you talk crap about their city, because they don’t need any external validation -- they know the place is great with a breezy, unshakeable confidence that might be off-putting if they weren’t so darned nice about it. Even though I will adamantly defend my hometown to any of its detractors, that sort of confidence is something I’ve never had -- there’s always a little voice at the back of my head wondering if DC really is what people say about it. Pittsburghers have no such ideological crises; they know it’s great, just as they know there’s nowhere else like it.
You can travel anywhere else in the US, and every major city (other than possibly Cincinnati) has its charms: San Francisco is adorably bizarre and unrelentingly beautiful, New York has the best food on the planet, Philadelphia is the be-all, end-all if you’re an enthusiast of being assaulted on the street by random strangers. But you’ll find few places with as fierce a commitment to their own identity as Pittsburgh.
Make no mistake, the city’s roots are deep blue collar, and everything is designed to make sure you don’t forget it. Even as Pittsburgh’s industry has refocused itself on eminently modern growth industries like robotics, biomedical technology, and (especially) health care, the city still sees itself as working class, and probably always will. The steel mills may be closed now (which, to be fair, is great news for anyone who’d like to be able to breathe the air outside without eventually needing an iron lung), but the shadows they cast are long. Popular legend even holds that the city’s signature food item -- french fries on sandwiches themselves rather than on the side -- came from steelworkers not having enough time on their lunch breaks to eat both a sandwich and fries, so they just smashed them together. In this, as in everything else, Pittsburgh is a city deeply devoted to its own past. Nowhere is this more clear than in the Strip District.
Located on the South bank of the Allegheny River, the Strip District’s convenient waterway location made it a natural spot for shipping and receiving for the warehouses, factories, and steel mills so integral to the city’s identity (both U.S. Steel and H.J. Heinz, among others, were based out of the Strip). By the 1920s, it was the city’s beating economic heart, with open-air markets, restaurants, and grocers catering to all comers. But when Pittsburgh’s steel industry collapsed in the 1960s and 70s, the Strip District collapsed along with it. Like so many neighborhoods in so many cities that relied on industry to survive, it fell into disrepair.
Where the Strip District found itself after the collapse of the city’s industry would usually be the point at which a neighborhood either decayed into virtual nonexistence or was ultimately bulldozed and rebuilt from the ground up by hungry developers. The Strip District, though, took a uniquely Pittsburgh approach: its revitalization would bring new life to the area without sacrificing what it once had been, repurposing old buildings in new and fascinating ways. Factories became apartment buildings, stables became restaurants, warehouses became nightclubs. A lot of similar neighborhoods in other cities have reinvented themselves, but few have accomplished the feat without losing sight of where they came from. Today, the Strip District is one of the city’s hottest club, bar, and restaurant neighborhoods, and probably its most aesthetically fascinating.
And speaking of the city’s restaurants: it’s worth bringing up that I’ve given this city a lot of crap in the past about its food culture in the past. To be fair, Primanti Brothers, the city’s most well-known purveyor of french fry-laden hoagies, actually is garbage food -- I wasn’t talking out my ass on that one. And while many Pittsburghers vehemently insist sandwiches with french fries on them can be great if they come from other sources, I remain dubious. That being said, any city’s “signature” food is likely to be kitschy garbage riding high on reputation over substance. It’s unfair to hold Chicago responsible for the atrocity that is deep dish pizza, half-smokes are a sad clownshow that shouldn’t detract from the rest of DC’s food scene, Cincinnati chili is a blight upon all mankind and… ok, actually, I’m cool with blaming Cincinnati for that one. Anyway, the point is, french fries on sandwiches are no exception to the rule of “trademark” food being hot garbage not reflective of a city’s overall food quality.
On the other hand, a lot of the other food here is shockingly good. You can walk into any random burger or sandwich place (Primanti’s notwithstanding) and expect a level of quality far above what you’re paying. Pittsburgh’s pizza, meanwhile, is far better than it has any right to be -- I’ve yet to eat a bad pizza from any local place here. It’s not even that Pittsburgh does anything unique or bizarre when it comes to pizza; it’s just really, really damn good. (Granted, I’m from DC, where terrible pizza is the one blight on an otherwise sterling food scene, so it’s possible my opinions are warped from the start.)
If high-end eats are more your thing, the city has plenty of those, too -- the city’s Italian food in particular is phenomenal (Girasole in Shadyside and Piccolo Forno in Lawrenceville are both fantastic), and 2016 saw three James Beard Award nominations handed out to Justin Severino’s Cure and Morcilla in Lawrenceville and Rick Easton’s Bread & Salt in Bloomfield. Pittsburgh’s food scene is widely regarded as being on the rise, and that only seems likely to continue.
And the views in Pittsburgh -- my God, the views. Let no one say this city isn’t stunningly, staggeringly gorgeous. Funny thing about putting a city on and around hilltops in a lush, forested area at the confluence of three rivers: it leads to some damn beautiful sights. The steel mill smoke may have obscured the area’s natural beauty for a long time (and let’s not kid ourselves; even with Pittsburgh’s vastly improved pollution control efforts, the air quality still has a way to go), but the scenery isn’t hidden any more.
Even as far back as 2007, Parade magazine rated the view from Mount Washington as the best in the entire country. It’s only gotten better since as the air has continued to clear, and it’s far from alone: Pittsburgh has a commitment to ever-present greenery few other cities can match, and the city’s parks are outstanding (Schenley Park and Frick Park are particularly beautiful). The views from Point Park, located right at the place where the three rivers meet, have to be seen to be believed. Even the city’s many bridges, which should be the sort of unseemly metal monstrosities you’d find elsewhere, have an odd sort of charm to them -- maybe because most of them are painted bright yellow.
It’s not hard to see why Pittsburgh’s native sons and daughters are so attached to it, but the remarkable thing is how committed the city itself is to them. Much as I love DC, it rarely even bothers to remember its hometown kids -- and it’s far from the only metropolitan area with that problem. Pittsburgh has no such issue.
You might not expect a fiercely blue collar town to proudly extol the virtues of an openly gay artist from the 1960s-80s who managed a now-legendary avant garde-rock band in his spare time, but this city loves Andy Warhol; the Andy Warhol Museum is actually the largest museum in America devoted to a single artist. The main thing Pittsburgh cares about (with Warhol or anyone else who makes it big, even if that success happens elsewhere) is that he was one of theirs. There are even bridges named after Warhol, historian David McCullough, naturalist Rachel Carson, and baseball player Roberto Clemente; once you belong to Pittsburgh, the city refuses to forget you.
A part of me knew all this, even as I gave Pittsburgh hell on Twitter and took potshots at it in blog posts. It’s telling that when people would ask me, “so, you really hate it there, huh?” at any point in the past three years, I would hesitate, invariably coming up with some excuse about how I didn’t really mean it. The worst I was ever willing to say when confronted about it directly was something along the lines of “well, it could always be worse; I could be stuck in Oklahoma.” It was the closest my pride would let me get to admitting I was thoroughly full of it.
So there you have it, Pittsburghers: my mea culpa to the rich tapestry that is your city. All the crap I’ve talked has been driven by nothing more than jealousy and spite. You win; your city is great. I concede defeat.
Sidney Crosby can still bite me, though.