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Postcards from Pittsburgh

2007.03.04 — Culture | Postcards | Travel | by Derek Jensen

Pittsburgh downtown

Gulf Tower, from US Steel Tower. (full res)

I started traveling to Pittsburgh a few weeks ago. The weather immediately turned bitter cold and snowy—appropriate for a Pittsburgh winter, I think, but tough to take photographs. Still, a city in winter can be interesting too. Pittsburgh, it turns out, is a city of contrasts—a history as steel town, a future as a financial center. And it has some of the lousiest drivers I've ever seen in my whole miserable, misbegotten life.


I don't recall ever seeing signs in a city that actually say "DON'T GRIDLOCK, please." Apparently, some Pittsburghers are ignorant of the cause of gridlock, which is people crowding into intersections when the traffic is already stopped, thereby disabling cross traffic when the light changes. I say this because it's exactly what Pittsburghers do when the traffic backs up—they drive right into the intersection anyway and cause gridlock.


Pittsburgh downtown

Sixth Avenue on a chilly night. (full res)

But the thing that brought Pittsburgh drivers to my attention was almost getting run over by them. I don't recall any other city where drivers will turn right into pedestrians crossing the street with the light.


Honestly, if you're ever on a Pittsburgh sidewalk and you get the walk signal, don't just look left and right—look in front and behind, because the guy in the turn lane is going to go, even if it means crossing that crosswalk in the midst of foot traffic. Smack his hood and shout "I'm walkin' here!" in your best Ratso Rizzo voice.


Pittsburgh downtown

US Steel Tower which is—cleverly, I think—made of steel. (full res)

Mount Washington overlooks Pittsburgh, and the view is quite nice, but the weather hasn't been good enough to entice me up one of the "incline" trams to take pictures from there. I just had a brief car ride.


The city has quite a heritage, starting as a fortified camp by the French—Fort Duquesne—just ahead of the British, who sent a young colonial officer to establish one. Finding the French unwilling to leave, the colonial lieutenant hastily established Fort Necessity, which was basically a picket fence in a boggy gully.


Pittsburgh downtown

Brooks Brothers is the optimistic clothier; note the parka-clad pedestrian at camera right. (full res)

He successfully took a French scouting party unawares, but an Indian in his party murdered their leader in the middle of his interrogation. He then got captured and unwisely signed an admission in French that he had "assassinated" the French leader, starting the French and Indian War.


And that colonial officer was: George Washington. It's the second-funniest start to any war in history.


The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand is still funnier: "Sophie, darling, I feel awfully about those poor wretches injured by that anarchist bomb meant for me earlier today. What say we take our open sedan back thru town to the hospital to visit them?"


Pittsburgh downtown

The 1916 William Penn Hotel, in all its stuffy, retro-Victorian glory. (full res)

Once the French left and the British built Fort Pitt, the steel industry came to Pittsburgh. And—long story short—a while later it left for China.


Its former wealth and slowly reviving wealth give Pittsburgh a rich mix of architecture. The 19th-century is represented by a Romanesque revival courthouse and jail and a turn-of-the-century hotel, while the 20th century is represented by gleaming (or, in the case of US Steel Tower, rusting) steel and glass skyscrapers.


Pittsburgh downtown

PPG Place: Gothic revival in glass. (full res)

The city of Pittsburgh straddles the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers where they meet to form the Ohio, so naturally, Pittsburghers named a sports stadium after them (the dearly-departed Three Rivers Stadium). I think there is also a couple of tributaries called the Garbanzobelomalbia and the Himemisnarsnargalli, but I could be thinking of Cleveland.


Speaking of Cleveland... none of Pittsburgh's rivers ever caught fire. That was the Cuyahoga, which is fed by the mighty Exxonmobil.


With all the rivers flowing every which way, there are a lot of bridges in Pittsburgh. They seem to be rather plain bridges, but I'll try to get a few good pictures of them when the weather improves.


Pittsburgh downtown

A trolley, moving on down the line, with the Mt Washington incline tram in the background. (full res)

Some of the bridges have crazy names like the Andy Warhol Bridge, Roberto Clemente Bridge, Rachel Carsons Bridge, and Hot Metal Bridge, which, frankly, hasn't been hot in a long time. I'm not sure which of these is weirdest: naming a bridge after an eccentric fake artist, a really good right fielder, or an environmental activist.


At least Hot Metal Bridge used to carry giant vats of molten hot metal. Of course, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge used to carry lots of gangsters, but you don't see anyone calling it "Gangster Bridge." Sure, it was named by gangsters, but not for gangsters.


Despite all the rivers, people in Pittsburgh still say something is "across the river," as if that has any meaning. I'm not sure why that is. There's an excellent light rail system called "the T" that acts like a trolley (push the bell to request a stop). And downtown it's free: you only have to pay if you cross a river; so maybe that's the source.


More postcards from Pittsburgh....


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