Text and photos: Gloria Algorta
During the northern summer, I went to visit my oldest child in Pittsburgh, where he is working on a doctoral degree. I was not expecting much from this city in southwestern Pennsylvania because I had the idea that the most beautiful places in the United States are located on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, with the possible exceptions of the wondrous landscapes we see in the movies, like the Grand Canyon or the Great Lakes. I was completely mistaken —Pittsburgh turned out to have many extraordinary surprises in store.
It is the birthplace of Andy Warhol and the capital of the steel industry. Its football team, the Steelers, collected six victories in eight trips to the Super Bowl, the last in 2009. Pittsburgh’s industry collapsed due to the economic recession of the early 1970s and competition from cheaper labor in developing countries. Warehouses, old factories, and abandoned neighborhoods bore mute witness to the city’s idle industrial capacity. That was all I knew about Pittsburgh when I arrived here one night at the end of June.
The following day, I awoke in a one-bedroom apartment in a 19th-century building. Despite the torrential rain, Gabriel slept the sleep of the young, and I had breakfast while admiring the contrast between the dark bricks, the green ivy, and a neighbor’s potted petunias. I don’t know if it was an unusual summer, but the weather during the ten days I spent in Pittsburgh was incredibly varied, with sudden rain showers, ten-minute lightening storms giving way to nearly cloudless skies, dry winds, and very pleasant summer temperatures. Unsuspecting tourists should always carry a light jacket because the air-conditioning runs at full blast essentially everywhere, including bars, buses, public buildings, and museums.
I was amazed by the general friendliness of the city. We went to the supermarket the first day and came out into the rain, loaded down with full paper bags. After just five minutes at the bus stop we were soaked and the bags were disintegrating. A man stopped and gave us a lift home, and as if we were in Montevideo, he and my son found they had acquaintances in common.
I did not see anything that brought to mind the decaying industrial city I had imagined. My son had work to finish and I had a translation to do; since he had opted to dispense with the Internet at home, every morning we went to the fabulous university library, the equally impressive public library in Squirrel Hill, or a café à la Williamsburg —cradle of New York hipsters. Sometimes Gabriel took me around the city and other times I ventured out alone with a camera and a map.
I learned that the economy of Pittsburgh rebounded by focusing on services and technology, as well as culture, domestic tourism, and sustainability. The city sits on wooded hills —scattered around four immense parks in the city and its outskirts— and the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers run through downtown, joining to form the mighty Ohio River. These geographical features give the city a special allure: hilly streets, rivers, and a network of bridges. It is said that Pittsburgh has more hills than San Francisco and more bridges than Venice.
The hills help give the city a postmodern feel: the changing landscapes evoke different cities. Visitors go from downtown’s neo-Gothic skyscrapers and postmodern architecture to neighborhoods of markets and warehouses and residential areas filled with early 20th-century houses, then through university campuses with modern hospitals alongside enormous cemeteries or vast parks. This pastiche is due to the city’s geography.
It is impossible to talk about Pittsburgh without mentioning Detroit, the former capital of the automotive industry, because it is the flip side of post-industrial cities. Detroit has not been able to renew its urban spaces, while Pittsburgh —where magnates like Frick, Carnegie, and Mellon owned factories— transformed its industrial interests into elite universities, hospitals with state-of-the-art technology, and robotics research institutes.
Universities and hospitals drive a large part of the economy of this city in southwestern Pennsylvania. Many of the facilities of the industrial age have become corporate buildings, cultural centers, restaurants, shops, art galleries, and housing. Several buildings in Pittsburgh, which used to be known as “smoke city,” are now LEED certified “green” buildings, based on criteria such as energy efficiency and water consumption. These structures include the visitor center for the Conservatory, the Phipps Botanical Garden, the Senator John Heinz History Center, the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, and several buildings at Carnegie Mellon University.
Adventurers and athletes will be thrilled to learn that Pittsburgh sits at one end of the Great Allegheny Trail, a trail that stretches more than three hundred miles and was built in sections over old railroad tracks, linking the city to Washington, DC. The trail can be traversed on foot, on skates or by bicycle, giving users a view of marvelous panoramas of the Appalachian Mountains. But do not expect a flat, easy trail. It is always satisfying to reach the top of a mountain, and this trail provides many opportunities for satisfaction.
Four of the city’s hospitals are nationally ranked: Pittsburgh University Hospital, Children’s Hospital, Magee-Womens Hospital, and Western Pennsylvania Hospital, all of which generate quite a bit of helicopter traffic.
As for universities, Pittsburgh has the prestigious Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh (where my son studies and teaches), Duquesne, Point Park, and Chatham University, among others. The central campus of the University of Pittsburgh would merit a separate article.
Built in 1937, the University of Pittsburgh boasts a centerpiece structure known as the Cathedral of Learning, for the obvious reason that the building resembles a cathedral. While the outside is certainly impressive, the inside is breathtaking. The feeling is one of stepping into a Gothic Cathedral, like those in Barcelona or Chartres, leavened by a prickle of strangeness, since there are libraries here instead of altars, pews, or confessionals. Happy students walk the halls rather than faithful worshipers or gloomy monks. The 535-foot high building has forty-two floors and, of course, an incredible view of the city and the surrounding areas. The extraordinarily high ceilings, the immense spaces, the stone, the iron, the wood, and the stained glass, all as imperious as in a real cathedral, contrast with the students’ colorful backpacks and summer clothing. The young people are not intimidated by walking through the dark high hallways and studying at the long, valuable tables of solid wood.
Like Manhattan, downtown Pittsburgh makes people crane their necks upward as they walk. Visitors can easily imagine the Caped Crusader clinging to any skyscraper in this Gothic city: Gothic in the sense of stretching skyward, reaching for the heights, and trying to touch the heavens. I am of course talking about Batman, because in 2012 Christopher Nolan came here to film scenes from the third movie in his Batman saga: The Dark Knight Rises.
But skyscrapers are found only downtown. We went to a barbecue with Hispanic students (Spanish, Mexican, Colombian, and Chilean) at an enormous house with a lovely garden. That very morning I had gotten lost in Frick Park, the entrance of which is less than one thousand feet from Gabriel’s house. I headed down the forest trails, skipping the one marked “Nine Mile Run,” and I still ended up on the other side of the park. I even saw two deer crossing a clearing. “Seeing a deer is like seeing an angel,” I announced at the barbecue. The pragmatic hostess from Valencia replied: “You wouldn’t be so mystical if the deer were eating the lettuce in your garden.”
But I digress; I was talking about Pittsburgh having skyscrapers only downtown. The barbecue was held in a large, typically U.S.-style wood house, with a carefully-tended garden full of flowers and shaded by a huge, ancient oak tree. The city abounds in residential neighborhoods, some with small streets lined with more modest homes; there are also Bohemian and artists’ districts; university areas; and the Strip District —a narrow strip between a hill and the river in what was once part of the industrial belt— filled with ethnic restaurants, ateliers, art galleries, street vendors, designer shops, and hip bars.
Museums constitute yet another attraction. Andy Warhol may be the most famous homegrown artist, but there are many more. The Carnegie Museum of Natural History delights children with its unique collection of dinosaur skeletons, and the Carnegie Museum of Art possesses, among other things, an impressive sculpture hall that looks like the Parthenon. The Pitt Fort Museum is an 18th century fortress located near Point Stand Park.
Lovers of architecture should not miss Fallingwater, the cutting-edge house Frank Lloyd Wright designed to sit partly over a waterfall in the mountains a little more than an hour southeast of Pittsburgh. Built between 1936 and 1939, the house is now a national heritage site.
All these attractions bring in a great deal of domestic tourism. I saw many U.S. residents of other states touring the city’s attractions, but few foreigners. Pittsburgh would be a pleasant place even without museums or universities. I love cities with bridges, and if there is one feature that is omnipresent in Pittsburgh, it is bridges. The elements of iron, water, stone, and riverine vegetation combine in landscapes that would do honor to any city. The ubiquitous contrast between old and new is yet another enticement.
I left Pittsburgh feeling happy to have a child there, because it would not have occurred to me to go there otherwise, which would have been a pity, since this city merits a stay of several days or perhaps more. In fact, it is ranked among the fifty best cities in the world in terms of quality of life. I would enjoy living in Pittsburgh.