If the city of Pittsburgh has anything at all in common with every other struggling Rust Belt town in America, it’s this: It’s a very fashionable place to poke fun at. In fact, perhaps only the good people of Detroit–and possibly those of Cleveland–can accurately claim that their town is the butt of a higher number of tasteless jokes than the Steel City.
But do you want to know how I describe Pittsburgh to people who’ve never set foot inside the city limits, and yet still assume they know exactly what it’s like? I tell them this: “If you haven’t seen the city since the time of the steel mills, when the soot and smoke made the air so dark that streetlamps were kept illuminated around the clock, well… then you’ve really never been there.”
And you know what? It’s true. It’s also an overused cliché, I realize, but in Pittsburgh’s case, it really is true. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that Pittsburgh occupies a relatively ample space in the popular American imagination. Don’t forget, Pittsburgh was an incredibly wealthy place in the early-20th century, thanks in large part to the U.S. Steel Corporation and the entrepreneurial acumen of Andrew Carnegie. And so naturally, all of that begs the obvious question: What exactly is Pittsburgh like today?
Well, for starters, there’s much more creative energy and activity than almost anyone realizes–including many of the people who’ve lived in Pittsburgh all their lives. The area is home to more than a dozen colleges and universities, and as a result, has a fairly transient population. That’s why so many underground events and literary magazines and envelope-pushing artists seem to come and go with the wind here. You’ve got to keep your ears open and your eyes peeled if you want to find the good stuff, but it’s definitely out there. You’ve got your internationally-recognized performers and musicians, for instance. You’ve got contemporary museums and galleries with world-wide acclaim. You’ve got a cutting-edge literary scene, and always-active political organizations, and on and on…
But please don’t get me wrong: No matter what any über-enthusiastic Pittsburgh booster tries to tell you, Steel City is most certainly not New York, and it never will be. And to me, that’s a good thing. Because somehow, despite the fact that its population has annually suffered a steady decline for a half-century now, Pittsburgh has actually managed to hang on to its very individualistic identity. And because of that, a visit to Pittsburgh is completely unlike a visit to Buffalo, or Baltimore, or Boston.
The late journalist Brendan Gill once wrote in The New Yorker that, “If Pittsburgh were situated somewhere in the heart of Europe, tourists would eagerly journey hundreds of miles out of their way to visit it.”
Agreed! And I don’t believe I could have said it better myself.