Published in Roadside Magazine, 2001
Roadside Explores the Pittsburgh Pastiche
Several themes thread their way through any honest account of exploring Pittsburgh. First, anyone driving into the city for the first time will get lost. Pittsburgh presents one of the greatest urban navigational challenges of any city I know. Everyone complains about it, comments on it, and ultimately shrugs their shoulders over it. Build a city across three rivers, on hills and in hollows, and the resulting street pattern would baffle even the most skilled explorer.
Secondly, Pittsburgh lives on the fish sandwich. "You should be here at Lent," one native urged. Sure, you can get a fish sandwich everywhere, but in no other place will you find neon signs in the windows of scores of neighborhood pubs each claiming to have the "Best Fish Sandwich." Given Pittsburgh's strong Catholic community, the sandwich's ubiquity is rather easily explained, but what about the city's claim that it's the "inland seafood capital of the East Coast"? As a Massachusetts native, I take umbrage at the audacity. However, one visit to Wholey's Fish Market in the Strip District (no, not that kind of strip district), took me back to the Boston waterfront.
Of course, one cannot talk about Pittsburgh without discussing the steel industry, or what's become of it. Yes, it's gone. History. In the early 1980s, almost all the mighty factories shut down as if hit by an economic Ebola. In fact, if you knew nothing of the city's past, you might never detect that it once served as the world's capital of steelmaking, since little evidence of this history still exists. I was hard-pressed to find even shuttered mills, since the city has turned them asunder like so much fertilizer into a garden. Though the change wreaked havoc on the local economy and psychology, in retrospect the place looks and feels much healthier. The environment has paralleled the progress of the economy, having cleansed itself of the soot that coated every exposed surface, and the human and industrial waste that made the rivers unapproachable, never mind swimmable. Though I wouldn't recommend a dip into the Monongahela just yet, that day will come soon.
Finally, the most important thread of any honest tour of Pittsburgh spools from its people. As solid as the city's signature product, but as colorful as the stained glass that adorns the windows of its great houses and churches, the city's population is an intricate pastiche that reveals something new with every viewing. The city's fifty-five square miles encompass an astonishing eighty-eight distinct neighborhoods, most of which still retain their ethnic cultures. Polish Hill, not surprisingly, still serves as the home base of the city's Polish population. Squirrel Hill remains Pittsburgh's Jewish enclave, Bloomfield for the Italians, and Troy Hill, the Germans. Throw in all the little individual neighborhoods comprising the Lithuanians, the African Americans, the Irish, the Hungarians, the Chinese and Vietnamese, and the Russians, and you have an idea of this tapestry's complexity. A tour of Pittsburgh could serve as a Reader's Digest version of Europe and beyond.
You may assume that a city as historic and significant as Pittsburgh would have all the amenities and landmarks of any great industrial metropolis. It has its zoo, its prized museums, concert halls, parks, and tourist traps. Thanks to the presence of its prestigious universities, Carnegie Mellon, Pitt, and Duquesne, as well as the mountain of foundation wealth left over from its industrial heyday, Pittsburgh's mainstream culture easily holds its own against cities such as Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, or even Chicago. Given that assumption, this tour walks the sidewalks of the neighborhoods, places where it is possible to unearth the real gems of this travel experience.
Downtown: Ground Zero
For some reason, its young people habitually gripe about Pittsburgh. "Nothing to do." "This place sucks." In fact, the city first caught my attention four years ago when I read in the Wall Street Journal about a group of young professionals banding together to form the Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Project. Armed with a great acronym and a simple idea – to throw a party in the heart of downtown's Market Square – PUMP seeks to stem the flow of young talent to hipper places by building an informal social network. Along the way, PUMP has evolved into a quasi-political force that now commands the attention of City Hall.
As I explored the city, I found myself baffled that anyone would complain about the entertainment options. I've since attributed such griping to youthful restlessness, because between downtown, the South Side, the Strip District, and Shadyside – not to mention all the other pubs, galleries, and theaters found tucked into all the little nooks and crannies of this town – one could spend half a lifetime and not get to everything.
Not counting the simple pleasures found in the city's plethora of pubs, three areas of the town serve as its primary entertainment hubs: downtown, the South Side, and the Strip District. Downtown, you'll find the Benedum Theater, Dowe's Jazz Club, and Heinz Hall, the last vestiges of an era when the whole region hopped the trolley for a day of shopping and a classy night on the town. Though your mainstream retail shopping options don't quite match up to the suburban mall, you can still shop at a classic downtown department store. Kaufmann's still keeps its classic urban location humming. Don't miss the Tea Room on the top floor. Department store restaurants once were fixtures, but even Macy's in Manhattan closed theirs several years ago.
More chain stores await you in the Fifth Avenue Arcade in the "drill bit building," but don't go looking for shoes at Nordstrom's. The Seattle-based retailer announced in November that it would not anchor Mayor Murphy's thankfully ill-fated Fifth & Forbes project, forcing him to cancel the massive project (See side-bar). Murphy sought to reshape the nature of downtown retail by leveling 6 blocks of downtown, while inviting suburban-style shopping with the hopes of attracting suburban shoppers. Such projects rarely succeed. In fact, Pittsburgh already experienced one such failure of the urban mall in the North Side neighborhood. Yet the mayor slogged on despite the opposition he attracted, both from such established groups as the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation and from vocal upstarts such as Ground Zero, founded specifically to fight what they believed was a decidedly anti-urban plan. Now, the Mayor finds himself forced to work with these opponents, who all propose smaller-scale plans using the existing buildings, streetscape improvements, and the development of downtown housing.
Besides the smattering of mainstream retail, some of Pittsburgh's own distinct shops deserve your attention. Candy-Rama, currently threatened by the mayor's retail blitzkrieg, has decayed the 'Burgh's tooth enamel since the 1950s. This shop offers bulk sweets of many varieties. You'll find everything from the ever-popular Hershey's Kisses to the locally-produced Sarris chocolate bars. What struck the deepest chord was spotting those simple penny candy once found in every corner grocery. Candy-Rama even offers the decidedly non-P.C. candy cigarettes – the only kind I'll smoke.
As if Pittsburghers refuse to grow up, they apparently rank among the highest per-capita toy purchasers in the country. Many of those toys come from S.W. Randall. While the store offers the ubiquitous Ty Beanie Babies, customers may also find traditional toys. Rocking horses, building sets, and a whole range of dolls make up only part of the extensive selection of toys here.
Downtown comprises of acres of office space populated by the accountants, attorneys, bankers, and executives that push the paper and pull the levers of the local economy. For their after-work entertainment, Market Square provides plenty of options. Most of the taverns fall into the faux-historic category with contrived names and atmospheres, though they all seem to serve adequate fare that makes the suits happy before they head home. However, if one wants the genuine article, check out the Oyster House and the endangered Chart Room.
The Oyster House, which provided my introduction to Pittsburgh's fish sandwich, dates back to Carnegie himself. One can easily imagine the mighty industrialist raising a mug to celebrate another profit record broken – if he wasn't such a teetotaler. Besides the tasty, lightly breaded fish sandwich, which the bar suggests you wash down with a glass of buttermilk (a Prohibition remnant), the interior gleams in white ceramic floor and wall tile, laid in complex patterns and impeccably maintained. Behind the bar, the wall features a gallery of photos and portraits of notable sports figures over the past hundred years, from Rocky Marciano to Willie Stargell of Pirates fame. I'm told this vista hangs for the benefit of the male patrons, because on the opposing wall near the tables, there is as complete a collection of vintage group beauty pageant portraits as you'll find anywhere. Perhaps this softer touch made for a more inviting atmosphere for the fairer sex. Nowadays the eccentric interior stylings charm anyone in search of a watering hole free of artificial ingredients.
The Chart Room, sitting in the cross-hairs of the proposed Fifth and Forbes project, shares much of the same authenticity and charm as the Oyster House. In addition to the cheap beer, locals will tell you to try the fried zucchini. Don't miss this place. This time next year, it may be a pile of bricks instead.
Off to the east of downtown, following Penn or Liberty Streets, you'll get to the Strip District. Not unlike the festival markets found in sister cities across the country, the Strip District combines the old-time charm of local vendors peddling fruit, fish, specialty foods, and baked goods with the new vibrancy of the city's nightclub scene. Though few of the clubs distinguish themselves as world-class destinations, my own proclivities lead me instead to the simpler pleasures of an espresso at the La Prima coffee shop (Pittsburgh's original) or a pause at Enrico Biscotti. The name indicates their specialty, but they also bake an outstanding brownie and a pretty good scone.
You'll find food from many parts of the world on the Strip. Besides the predominant Italian markets, Mexican and Asian foods abound as well. It's a lively mix of street vendors, antique shops, and fruit and fish wholesalers. Of those markets, Sunseri, the Pittsburgh Macaroni Company, and Wholey's Fish Market stand out. Sunseri and the Macaroni Company sell nearly identical selections of Italian specialties – not without reason. The respective owners represent two feuding generations of the Sunseri family; the Macaroni Company are the young upstarts. The family discord may be regrettable, but it has resulted in two excellent places to find fresh pasta.
Wholey's is another world altogether. Home of yet another fish sandwich (it's enormous), this bustling seafood market has it all, from lobster to tilapia, fresh and frozen, amidst an enchantingly crazed, bare-bones, boisterous atmosphere. On the Wholey's Website, they write, "If you've never experienced shopping at Wholey's, perhaps you should spend some time out at sea and re-evaluate your life!"
What I love most about Wholey's is that it represents a form of retail largely wiped clean of this country's landscape. Not that long ago, we shopped for bread at the bread store, meat at the butcher, and fish at the fish market. Granted, the experience may have proven a little more exhausting than the one-stop shopping we "enjoy" today. However, the convenience of one-stop shopping takes its toll on our sense of community. At Wholey's, the shopper derives at least part of the quality of the experience from the interaction with the employees and patrons, all who seem to have a vested interest in this institution. Native Pittsburghers point to places like Wholey's with considerable pride, because they know that they can trust the store to provide an excellent product as it has since 1912. Nothing to do? Spend a half-hour in Wholey's and browse. P.S., the prices are good too.
You can probably spend a couple days wandering the Strip without growing tired of the adventure, but be sure to extend your walk to Klavon's ice cream parlor at the eastern end of the Strip District on Penn Avenue. First opened in 1920 as a pharmacy with a soda fountain, this gem closed in 1979 when its founder, James Klavon, died. It collected dust and cobwebs until 1998, when Klavon's oldest grandson, Ray, decided to take on the tradition. I've seen such places recreated in museums or on the movie screen, but Klavon's looks, acts, and feels completely genuine. My thick, creamy milkshake might have come in at a hefty three dollars, but it's a small price to pay to keep the place in operation. Klavon's sends Ben & Jerry back to the farm.
Lawrenceville: Better by design
The rising tide of the new economy hasn't lifted all the boats equally. While the South Side, Shadyside, and Squirrel Hill have either retained or regained their former prosperity, several neighborhoods still have some catching up to do.
Fifteen years ago, Lawrenceville reeled after its neighborhood mill shut down. Many of the ancillary businesses that supported the mills also closed, and the area began to take on the look of a battle zone. Buying property and setting up a business on these streets would have labeled you as certifiable, but Joseph Kelly stepped in nonetheless. His studio is a far cry what he found when he took possession, but in the true sense of the urban pioneer, Joe took a chance and now reaps the rewards. He builds custom-designed furniture, and enjoys such a strong business, he often works in conjunction with a competitor four doors up the street.
When he planted stakes in Lawrenceville, Joe became part of another slow, deliberate revival of one of the oldest sections in the city. Eventually, he signed up with the Lawrenceville Corporation for Community Development and now serves on its marketing committee along with other stake-planters. The committee works to publicize the fact that more than 100 design-related businesses operate on Butler Street between the 16th Street Bridge and the 60th Street Bridge, hence the moniker "the 16–62 Design Zone." The small firms in this district design and produce everything from graphics to building interiors to the buildings themselves. "We want Lawrenceville to be more than just an entertainment district like the South Side," Joe said. "Not that there's anything wrong with that, but we want to continue to attract more designers and their businesses."
An event that underscores Lawrenceville's transformation takes place each May. The neighborhood works together to stage the 24-hour long "Art All Night." The spotlight is on the efforts of its artists, from fine arts painters to homemakers displaying their God's-eyes.
In one refurbished block on Butler Street, you'll find a row of spiffy antique stores, including AHA (Anderson Hartley Antiques), owned and operated by Mary Hartley. Mary and her husband, Bob, moved from Chicago after they grew tired of rampant gentrification overrunning the Second City. They saw in Pittsburgh much of what they'd seen disappearing in Chicago: the true, stable, neighborhood sense found in any community that retains a mix of ages, income levels, and ethnic groups. In particular, Mary made quite clear her preference for having the elderly as neighbors, believing quite correctly that they tend to keep an eye on things. As Mary puts it, "We came for the house and stayed for the neighbors."
One well-kept secret of Pittsburgh is the surprising strength and size of its artist community. The city better known for smoke and steel has managed to attract and foster more than 5,000 working artists, who take advantage of the low rents and large industrial spaces left vacant when the mills and warehouses closed. Unfortunately, as the story too often unfolds, such artist's communities become the victims of their own success, creating a district so attractive that the influx of nonartists drives up rents, displacing those responsible for the revival.
To help insulate the creative community against this trend, and further stabilize the neighborhoods the artists helped revive, organizations such as Artists and Cities, Inc. have moved to convert vacant industrial properties for creative use. Led by Linda Metropulos and Becky Burdick, Artists and Cities will soon have developed its second artist loft space in the city in Lawrenceville. This group hopes to continue its successful track record established after the opening of the Spinning Plate Artist Loft at East Liberty and Friendship. Between Butler Street and the riverfront stands the hulk of a building that once served to produce and distribute ice. The Ice House will provide working space in 32 units. Look for the opening of the Ice House by February 2001 and the ripple effect well into the new century.
Butler Street serves as main artery of Lawrenceville, offering most of what anyone would need for daily living, including a modern grocery store. It also has fine entertainment options. The growing legions of bowlers can enjoy their game at the Arsenal Lanes. Most modern alleys have streamlined themselves into the banality found in any strip plaza. However, the Arsenal's unlikely layout – on the second floor of this tax-payer strip – is reached by literally walking through an original mural entitled "The Perfect Game," a painted collage of pins and bowling balls in a perpetual state of collision and collapse. In the lane's two large rooms, the rows of alleys lie perpendicular, which made for the special treat of peeking behind the scenes of the mechanical pin-setters as I walked past.
And, the fish sandwich appears. Lawrenceville shines here, too. Sufak's on Butler reportedly may be the city's oldest tavern (though at least three bars we visited claim this distinction, albeit with various caveats – oldest family-owned, oldest continually operated, etc.). Like the best of Pittsburgh's bars, you'll find loads of history and atmosphere. At Neid's, at the other end of this district, also on Butler, it proclaims the quality of its fish sandwich in neon. The long piece of deep-fried cod makes for a full meal and is probably best washed down with the native Iron City Beer. Still, no fish sandwich tour of this area would be complete without a stop at Cygna's. Although a bit harder to find on Hatfield Street, this little place was touted by locals as the best fish sandwich in this section of town. Forgive me, but I could only take so much deep-fried fish. Write in and tell us your own opinions.
Because the history of the great American diner has close ties to the history of American industry, one would expect to find Pittsburgh loaded with the prefab wonders. Unfortunately, only five remain, with four in operation. Yet even this small number represent a long span of diner history. Pip's Diner, tucked into the West End, is a rare 1920's Tierney diner, built in New Rochelle, N.Y. Though remodeling has altered much of its original design features, the neighborhood fixture has all the atmosphere and ambiance of a classic. Polish specialties stand out here, but the traditional meat and potatoes fixtures round out the menu. Anyone lucky enough to catch WQED's "Pennsylvania Diners" special on PBS got a great little tour of Pip's with its "Table of Knowledge," where regulars discuss and solve the world's problems over lunch and a game of cards. They also met Dutzer, the woman at the grill. Is Dutzer her first or last name? Don't ask. She won't tell you – but she will serve up fare that will stick to your ribs in classic Pittsburgh fashion.
At the other end of diner design history, Ritter's Diner on Baum Boulevard displays the typical for the "Me Decade." Built in 1976 by Fodero, diners of this period had completely shed the "train car" look. Fodero, like the rest of the diner industry, had abandoned the transportation styling metaphor ten years before building Ritter's. Early diners were actually mobile lunch wagons, then they looked like something mobile – train cars and trolleys – then, in time for Sputnik, they resembled flared-roof spaceports. The industry built diners like Ritter's not to stand out from, but to fit into their surroundings. Much the same could be said of the menu, which offers few surprises among its classic comfort-food offerings.
The precursor to this generation of Ritter's stands somewhat forlorn in Station Square, the city's historic, albeit formulaic entertainment district and shopping center across the Monongahela from downtown. Though it still displays its 1950s stainless steel flamboyance, the structure serves as a ticket office for Pittsburgh Duck Tours, which provides amphibious tourist excursions across the city's roads and rivers.
Representing what Richard Gutman has deemed the Golden Age of diner manufacturing, Charlie's Diner on Penn Avenue has churned away at this location since 1947. Built by the National Diner Company in 1940, Charlie's began operation as the Downtown Diner, but was moved by Thomas Scott, a fellow who ultimately owned and then sold off several diners in the city. In 1993, he sold this one to its current owner and former employee, Charlie Huwalt, who has ably continued the tradition of good basic meals and reasonable prices available 'round the clock, seven days a week.
One other diner, a pristine 1938 O'Mahony, sits in storage within the city. In 1992, the Western Pennsylvania Historical Society adopted the Willow Diner after its owners, John and Lillian Rolka served their last meal and retired. The Society had hoped to make it a showcase artifact in nearby Greensburg, donating it for eventual restoration and installation inside its new museum. The Willow began its service as the first of four successive Serro's Diners and now awaits a decision by the Heinz History Center regarding its future use. Center historian and local diner expert Brian Butko hopes to see the rare 1938 O'Mahony used once again, perhaps as a concession serving the museum's visitors.
Land of a thousand pubs and the Mystery Sandwich
According to the Pittsburgh Bar Rag, a local Website devoted to, well, drinking in Pittsburgh, the city "boasts" one of the highest liquor-license-per-person ratios in the country. True enough. After a couple of days exploring the neighborhoods, I began to wonder if the city had a beer pipeline running under the streets. I look to the taverns, not simply for a good blast, but also for an entré into the indigenous culture. With so many distinct neighborhoods, the local taverns, for better or worse, serve as virtual information kiosks to the city's attractions not found in any visitor guide. I had little problem striking up conversations with the locals, and each one of them provided a wealth of information about this fascinating town.
One would think that with the closing of the historic Homestead steel mill, Homestead would have little reason to remain in existence. Certainly, the favorite watering hole of the mill workers seeking their shot-and-a-beer should have withered away by now, but Chiodo's Tavern, like the rest of the area, has managed to redefine its role in the post-industrial economy. On the site of the mill where in 1880 the Pinkertons fought the battle against striking steel workers, people now shop for bargains at Lowe's Home Improvement Centers, catch a flick at Loew's Cinema and sip their Lowenbrau's at TGIFriday's (it goes no lower than that). Ironically, just up the hill from this site, at Chiodo's Tavern, you can sip the same or better beers in an atmosphere as charming as TGIFriday's is contrived – for less money.
Had the tavern followed the pattern of so many other neighborhood joints in similar towns across Pennsylvania, it might have withered into a festering dive, worth more for its liquor license than for any of its business or sum of its fixtures. Instead, the local college crowd adopted the place. Meanwhile, the Chiodo family expanded their beer selection. Now locals recognize the tavern as one of the area's best beer bars. That alone might warrant a Roadside-Approved rating.
Adding to Chiodo's funky appeal is the array of artifacts hanging from the rafters, all items brought in by customers. The collection, which must amount to hundreds of things, by now obscures the actual ceiling. It began in 1947 after Joe Chiodo found that one of his whiskey suppliers, whom he carried exclusively, contributed a nice hanging lamp to a competing, but less brand-devoted, tavern up the road. A sympathetic customer brought in his own lamp, thus beginning a long tradition of customer decoration. (This hanging gallery also includes hundreds of brassieres removed by women of all ages and shapes right there in the bar.)
Plenty to drink, plenty to look at, and with yet another attraction to enshrine this visit in permanent memory: The Mystery Sandwich. Don't ask what's in it. They won't tell you. But do make sure that unless you have the appetite of a steelworker, you order a half portion. My tastebuds discerned hamburger, maybe some pork, cheese, some kind of red sauce, and I read a report that listed sauerkraut and cold cuts as additional ingredients. Whatever's in there, it works.
Last call: Brewpubs
Predictably, for a city with such prodigious beer consumption, Pittsburgh also makes its mark in the craft-brew movement. The city boasts four brewpubs and one thriving regional brewery. I tried two of the four, the Penn Brewery on the Northside and the Church Brew Works at the edge of Lawrenceville. The locals speak well of the two I missed, but everyone talks about the Church and not without justification.
As much as I love this town, the typical Yuinzer diet contains such a high fat content, my arteries harden just writing about it. (For those of you not in the know, a "Yuinzer" is a working-class Pittsburgher whose vocabulary includes "you-uns," an East-Coast version of "y'all.") Between the burgers, pierogis, bacon, sausages, deep-fried you-name-it and all the joints that drown unsuspecting vegetables with cream sauces, butter and/or cheese, I half-expect to see the city post defibrillators on every street corner. Even the salads come with french fries heaped on top.
The Church Brewery gets high marks for two reasons: A well-balanced, creative menu and excellent beers. Make that three reasons: Its unlikely setting. Formerly the St. John the Baptist church, the archdiocese of Pittsburgh deconsecrated the property in 1993 and sold it to the brewery in 1996. The building's architecture compares well against some of the city's other amazing churches, chapels, and cathedrals, but it celebrates a more earthly pleasure. As I was told, Pittsburghers don't simply love beer, they worship it. I must confess I find something a little unsettling, albeit oddly compelling, about seeing those gleaming stainless-steel tanks illuminated upon the former altar.
When Tom Pastorius first primed the taps of the Penn Brewery in 1986, it was one of the earliest modern-era brewpubs to open east of the Mississippi. Its distinctly German flavor fits in well with the surrounding neighborhood and its location at the base of Troy Hill on the North Side. While I completely enjoyed the Penn Pilsner, a signature brew distributed to most bars in the city, the German-styled menu will weigh you down. My plate of Pasta Baton Rouge – hardly a German specialty – tasted fine, but swam in sauce. Still, I loved the setting, the atmosphere, and the Penn Dark.
Good night, greater morning: The Priory
I have long sung the praises of staying in the locally owned motel while traveling. Finding a classic motor court, with its vintage neon sign ablaze, vintage yet cared-for furnishings and appointments inside, flowers in the window box abloom – all for under fifty dollars per night – scores high marks for the back-road devotee. Unfortunately, the current reality of the hospitality industry has severely diminished this opportunity, particularly when close to the big cities. Roadside explorers are hard pressed to find comfortable, safe, and affordable motel options outside the realm of the resort area or along classic scenic routes. Once inside the city, options generally hone down to the chains, plain and simple. When worst comes to worst, there's always the Super 8, or possibly, a bed and breakfast.
I generally avoid the B&B route because I don't like staying somewhere where I feel like the poorer relations. Thus, the Priory on the North Side carved a proud notch in my belt. Historic, well-located, and excellently appointed, this Victorian-style inn was far from the populuxe era in design and intent, but its gentility and comfort compared well against hotels at twice the price. Zagat's even rated it number one for Pittsburgh, placing it above such vaunted names as Westin, Hyatt, and Hilton.
This former residence for Benedictine monks adjacent to St. Mary's Church almost became a right-of-way for I-279, but for the efforts of the parishioners to save St. Boniface, a church further north along the planned route. Their success in saving their own church required the planners to shift the path of destruction about 40 yards east, just enough to miss both the Priory and St. Mary's, which the owners have converted into an elegant 350-seat Great Hall.
Though largely abandoned, the site caught the eye of Ed and Mary Ann Graf. Mary Ann had looked forward to golden years of relaxed retirement, but her husband had other ideas. After retirement, Ed took advantage of the fire-sale prices for the real estate on the North Side and embarked on a new career in hospitality.
Mary Ann didn't quite share in her husband's enthusiasm or confidence at first. She told me she was extremely nervous about going into debt for the first time in their lives. "One night, I woke up at four in the morning and asked him, 'What are we going to do if this fails?' He said, 'We'll sell the house if we have to, but we won't owe anything to anyone.' That satisfied me, so I went back to sleep." She never looked back.
The Priory and the accompanying Great Hall of Pittsburgh represent a $2.5 million investment in a corner of the city almost obliterated by two foolish development decisions. One being the aforementioned highway, the other being the Allegheny Center, an early-1970s urban renewal attempt that ripped out the core of the neighborhood. Where once stood the Markethouse and the palatial post office building now stands a failed downtown mall – a redundant term, actually. Now completely devoid of retail, the urban fortress is an office complex, and a monument to the follies of the last generation of planners.
Meanwhile, having hit bottom, the North Side struggled to rebuild. Mary Ann explained that the North Side Civic Development Council assisted in the approval process of the Priory because it sought an anchor for the neighborhood. Waivers and exemptions were needed before construction could begin, mainly because current zoning prohibited the operation of an inn on that street. (Had it not previously served as a residence for visiting monks, the Grafs might not have had enough precedence for a waiver.) Retaining the architectural services of the Landmark Design Associates, the Grafs began the transformation of this wreck of a property into a first-class guesthouse.
The Grafs didn't exactly create an overnight success. "We used to turn on lights and keep shades drawn in empty rooms to show activity." Positioning themselves first as a business hotel proved a wise move. With IBM in the Allegheny Center and all those companies just across the river, the Priory immediately appealed to the traveling executive tired of ordinary lodging.
Each room at the Priory offers a respite from the cookie-cutter quarters of major hotels, sporting most of the amenities of a good business-class hotel plus the Victorian appointments desired for a romantic weekend. The rooms on the third floor facing the front also overlook the Pittsburgh skyline and two busy railroad mainlines. As a railroad buff, the distant rumble of the locomotives hardly bothered me at any point, but if you prefer a quieter view, ask for a room that overlooks the courtyard. The Priory also serves a continental breakfast and serves complimentary wine in the evening. I found the self-service bar (using the honor system) yet one more reason to adore this place. If you go, ask Mary Ann to give you the tour of the Great Hall.
The happiest music in the world
Every Wednesday night in the function hall above the James Street Tavern on the North Side, you may find anywhere between twenty and forty people playing banjos in unison, usually accompanied by a few other instruments. Indeed, when I dropped in, I counted twenty-two banjos, two trumpets, one tuba, and a guy playing electric bass.
I'm hard-pressed to describe the feeling of watching this quaint spectacle of mostly older gentlemen – each a story in himself – strumming traditional ragtime tunes for the benefit of a similarly aged audience, all while enjoying the excellent meals offered by the tavern. In my imaginary Pittsburgh documentary, it ends with this scene, credits rolling.
Frank Rossi, founder of Pittsburgh's Banjo Club, all but welcomed me into the coterie as I asked after its history as well as his own. Like so many other 'Burghers I spoke with, Frank left and came back. He joined the military as a youth and stayed away when he worked as an air traffic controller in New York. Taking early retirement in 1988, he returned to his hometown where friends, family, and fellow banjo players awaited him. Already a member of the Long Island Banjo Society, he connected with others in this close-knit community who shared his interest, to form Pittsburgh's club. The club began with seven charter members and now has more than 100, with eight from as far away as Erie. Frank also edits The Resonator, a newsletter for Banjos Unlimited, a worldwide umbrella organization of such clubs.
Tall, affable, and exuding an air of contentment born from an enjoyment of life and its simple pleasures, Frank's effortless recounting of this story suggests both his experience with handling nosey writers like myself and his pride in this particular accomplishment. "Banjo music is the happiest music in the world," Frank will tell you. The smile on my face for the three hours I spent entranced by the charming, yet wistful sight of these folks playing their hearts out proved Frank's assertion, not just to me, but to the other 150 or so in attendance that evening. Spreading this happiness at area performances and regional tours has raised more than $25,000 for local charities, further bolstering the city's reputation as the most charitable community in the country.
The James Street Tavern, which hosts this event, shines as an attraction all by itself. Known as one of the city's better jazz clubs, the tavern's menu reflects the owner's affection for Cajun cuisine. Though I shy from crab cakes when more than 100 miles from Chesapeake Bay, Tom the bartender's recommendation swayed me. Spicier than the typical crab cake, the chef topped two patties with Jack Daniel's sauce. I savored each bite, then extinguished the heat with a glass of Penn Pilsner. At twenty dollars, the entree wasn't one of the city's better bargains, but it was worth every penny.
Part of James Street's long-running history includes one rather unsavory chapter. Tom said that the third-floor hall had served as the local headquarters of the Nazi party during the 1930s. "When Craig Pool bought the tavern and began its restoration, he had found all kinds of Nazi party paraphernalia and flags that the previous owners had simply forgotten." Given the city's considerable German population and the mood of the country at the time, political extremism infected Pittsburgh as it had many urban industrial centers. However, after Pearl Harbor, the city's German community rallied with the rest of America, and the city of Pittsburgh helped produce staggering amounts of war material used in the defeat of Nazism.
The case for things urban
Healthy cities change. People forget that the nature of society closely mimics that of other living organisms; that they suffer from illness and debilitating conditions; and that often the solutions come from careful study combined with common sense. The decline of our urban centers took more than a generation to manifest itself, so we must expect revivals to take at least as long. Meanwhile, we should content ourselves with the simple yet definitive signs of gradual progress. As it takes weeks for wounds to heal, it will take years for the great urban organism to recover.
Though Pittsburgh has suffered mightily, we must remain mindful that it also had so far to fall. More than any other city, Steeltown stood as the greatest symbol of America's industrial might when it produced the raw materials for so much we manufactured and consumed. With the maturation of our economy into the information age, Pittsburgh had more to lose than most other major cities. More amazing, then, that it has rebounded so confidently. Now the city only needs to resist the urban quackery proposed by its current mayor and follow the lead of the citizens who simply ask for a better place to live, neighborhood by neighborhood. Not coincidentally, such a plan of action makes Pittsburgh a better place to visit.
In 1925, Frances Lester Warner penned an essay about her visit to Pittsburgh at its peak of industrial production, entitled "The Pittsburgh Owl." Having described it as a "most masculine place," she wrote, "Every part of Pittsburgh has an expression of its own. One can no more expect the busy craggy sections of the city to take on the aspects of a pretty pastoral village than one would require the mastodon in the museum to preen itself like the flamingo. Pittsburgh is a mastodon, but it is a live one."
Fast forward to 1999. Barry Chad, assistant head of the Pennsylvania Department at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, boosted his city thusly: "It's a cliche that Pittsburgh is a city of bridges, a city of churches, and a city of neighborhoods, but like most cliches, these titles are valid. What's Pittsburgh like? Well, when the buses pass in front of Roman Catholic churches, the ladies make the sign of the cross."
Thanks for their help in writing this article go to Mark Zingarelli, Brian Butko, Deborah Gross, Rick Sebak, Jonathan Kline, Christine Brill, and the folks at PUMP and Ground Zero. Special thanks to Al Hoff and Pat Clarke.