On Pittsburgh: A Trip to the City of Bridges to Our Forgotten Past

27Apr08

In which The Gay Recluse leaves New York.

Last month we went to Pittsburgh for a few days.

Even though we “grew up” there, it was almost like visiting a new (as in unfamiliar) city.

We always lived in the suburbs, and almost never went into the city except to see the Penguins!

This time though, we stayed downtown at a former railway station called The Pennsylvanian.

During the dark ages, they were going to tear it down.

Thankfully they turned it into condominiums!

It’s the most beautiful building in the world.

And as far as we’re concerned, the real reason Pittsburgh is known as “The City of Champions.”

This is the top of the dome when viewed from the inside.

We were reminded of the great cathedrals of Europe.

And how like so many of the great cathedrals, there is something sepulchral about The Pennsylvanian; its grand spaces are now almost always empty.

We went to the Strip District, which is only a few blocks away.

On the way we admired old signs for dead companies.

In person, you can see the ketchup pouring out of the bottle, which makes this the Times Square of Pittsburgh!

Heinz doesn’t make anything in Pittsburgh anymore, but its corporate headquarters are still here, in the Death Star U.S. Steel Building, which hovers malevolently over everything downtown.

Growing up, we always liked to tell people that this was the tallest building between Chicago and New York!

These companies don’t seem to have prospered the way Heinz has.

We passed an old church that has apparently been “rezoned” into a gay dance club.

We had our doubts, but the front door of “Altar” seemed to prove it! It made us remember how we watched every episode of the worst series in the history of television Queer as Folk, which hilariously was set in Pittsburgh.

Finally we arrived at the Strip, which was filled with Hillary Clinton supporters people!

The Strip is like “the Queens” of Pittsburgh, but all in a few blocks.

Here’s one of two Italian places owned by the Sunseris. When we were growing up, the Sunseris (or at least some of them) lived in our town and we thought they were the richest people on earth because they had a pool in their backyard and columns in front of their house. They have great Italian food though, so they deserve to be rich!

Chipped ham is something everyone in Pittsburgh remembers. Sometimes we meet people from Pittsburgh in other places around the world and they go on and on about how they miss the chipped ham, which is fun for about a second and then gets annoying.

“Wholey’s” is a combination fresh-fish market and Zabar’s mixed into one well-oiled operation. It pretty much has always ruled the Strip and we can see why.

This is a billboard they have on the side of their building: “Vote for Hillary Clinton or I’ll smash you over the head with this pot!”

We ate lunch at Primanti’s, which is where they serve the fries and slaw right on the sandwich! We thought it was pretty awesome, but our nephew was like: “Yeah, except now they have one in every mall in Pittsburgh.”

We had dessert here, which was fucking great. We would pretty much give anything to have one of these within walking distance of us in Washington Heights. (Even if it does make us evil gentrifiers!)

On the way back to the Pennsylvanian we passed the 16th Street Bridge, only one of hundreds in the area, almost all of which are achingly dignified and beautiful.

Here’s another shot, somewhat marred by the obnoxious Tequila sign.

And another.

And then we saw this: ha!

And the best sign ever for a dentist.

Back at the Pennsylvanian, we spotted this “DONT WALK” sign: we’ve met a lot of people in New York who are nostalgic for these more acerbic signals. Guess what? In Pittsburgh they still have them! (Also note the “Purple Belt” sign, which is part of a hidden code to navigate the city that nobody understands, but has existed for centuries!)

We took a picture of the Civic Arena, which is where the Penguins play. (Nobody in Pittsburgh calls it the “Igloo.”) They’re going to tear it town to put up something with luxury suites. Which makes us a little melancholy when we remember all the games we saw there.

But we suppose we’ll be able to relive all those great memories of the Penguins here, once the Sports Museum is finished.

People sometimes ask us why we don’t watch sports anymore.

Part of it for us was growing up in Pittsburgh during the 1970s. For us, nothing will ever surpass the Chuck Knoll era Steelers, or — because we lived and breathed hockey for so many years — the Mario Lemieux Penguins in the early 1990s.

We see all the rabid sports fans now and we can relate: how desperately we wanted the Penguins to win — we literally prayed to god for them to win — and they did! Twice!

But that obsession has given way to new ones, and we don’t need to relive the desperation of those years.

When these days, we are happiest finding bridges to the landscape of our forgotten past.



7 Responses to “On Pittsburgh: A Trip to the City of Bridges to Our Forgotten Past”

  1. Excelente impagenes de pittsburgh, sus puenetes y edificios emblematicos… ers un rinconseo expectacular

  2. 2 jesus

    this entry is quite beautiful.

  3. 3 James van Maanen

    Thanks for these lovely shots. I have only been to Pittsburgh once (around 1980) to help host an art conference at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh (wonder if that commercial art school still exists?). The New Yorker’s Brendan Gill and cartoonist Lou Meyer (or was it Meyers?) and I think Seymour Chwast were the panelists. I remember being incredibly impressed with the city’s architecture (Gill clued me in to how terrific it was). I ate one evening at a good restaurant atop that hill overlooking the three rivers. The whole experience was wonderful and quite a surprise, but the thing I most remember is how beautiful the city seemed to me–especially since I had only heard about how depressing and poor and sad it was. Not true then–and from the looks of these pix and TGR’s accompanying copy, not true now!

  4. Thanks, Jim–yes Pittsburgh is incredibly beautiful in spots; what I find remarkable (or not, since it happens all the time) is how similar the landscape is to parts of Eastern Europe where so many of Pittsburgh’s first-wave immigrants arrived from (Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, etc), with Andy Warhol being perhaps the best-known example. The hill you refer to is “Mt. Washington,” which is where some of the more panoramic shots were taken.

  5. 5 Sue Boyle

    I guess I was too young when we left to remember some of these spots. But last time I visited for a friend’s birthday we went on the incline! One of my clear memories is YOU wearing your Steelers ‘one for the thumb in ’81’ which you had to modify later to ‘none for the thumb…’. Now I’m going to peruse the rest of your site since this is the first page link my mom sent me – your writing is wonderful.

  6. Sue! Thanks, that’s awesome…none for the thumb. Hope all is well wherever you are. One of my earliest memories is of you twirling on the swing in the backyard of your house on Greenhurst, so that your dress filled with air and billowed out, which your brother and I thought was about the most hilarious thing ever (of course, we were five!).

  7. OMG–I’m totally getting lost inyour blog. GREAT post. Your writing is so hypnotic, the photos make me believe that I have been to Pittsburgh, even though I have not. Wow, I really ache for these majestic cities Pittsburgh, Rochester, Buffalo, Toledo. I do hope they rise with a new era of prosperity and keep all the architectural gems that make them such special places in America.


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