Once upon a time Pittsburgh was called “Shittsburgh”. I am from Cleveland. I know this well. But while we said “Shittsburgh” in more of a sibling rivalry/shared suffering sense, others without the common history simply declared the city as “shitty”.
The reasons were supposedly ample: Appalachian, Rust Belt backwater; worn and craggy aesthetic; kitschy domesticated style; homey parochialism; a “loser” pop culture embodied by the city’s infatuation with the arena rock band Styx; and a “loser” panache epitomized by feathered hair.
Of course given Pittsburgh’s ongoing ascension we now know that this interpretation was misguided. You see, Pittsburgh wasn’t “shitty” as much as it was distinctly peculiar–a regional distinctiveness, mind you, that kept from having its quirks pounded out into culturally regimented styles. Good thing. Other locales weren’t so lucky. Everywhere, USA is everywhere. Said architect Jonathan Glancey: “Cities are beginning to resemble one another all too closely…The joy of great cities lies in their differences”.
I recently took a trip to Pittsburgh. I stayed away from things that Pittsburgh has that other cities have. Instead, I went to hunt the peculiarities of Pittsburgh’s culture. And while I never found the Holy Grail that is the Pittsburgh Potty, this is a photo essay of what I did find.
The first thing you notice when you enter Pittsburgh–besides the mountains that create for a comforting compact feel throughout the whole of the city–are the bridges. They are Steeler yellow. They cross rivers that seem to flow in every direction. The bridges are walkable, beautiful, steel, and completely the city’s own.
There is an old church in Pittsburgh that was decommissioned. This is nothing new in the Rust Belt. A lot of folks around here meant a lot of churches for folks to kneel down in and pray. But people leaving meant churches closing. One church in the Lawrenceville neighborhood was turned into the Church Brew Works. Flags read “Man Created Beer” on formerly holy pillars. Up on the alter brew kettles sit where the priest held grace. Yes, you can argue it is all a bit ungodly. But the vibe felt clean: family- and community-driven, not to mention the revitalization of the vacant.
In Millvale–a former mill town not far from the city center–there is the real deal: St. Nicholas. The church sits up on a ridge (everything in Pittsburgh either sits on a ridge or down in a hollow). Inside, mural tours are given by first-, second-, and/or third-generation churchgoers. They are showing off the Croatian Michelangelo: Maxo Vanka. The artist–the tour guide explained–wasn’t so much into god or war or money. His striking, searing works nonetheless express testament that he was into soul. Of his style, Pitt professor Barbara McCloskey writes:
His combination of traditional and modern aesthetic elements also set the tone for the central thematic concern of his murals, namely the relationship between the old and the new, and between enduring values and the human cost of accelerated change.
Of course the same can be said for Pittsburgh, if not the whole of the Rust Belt for that matter.
Given the topography, Pittsburgh has neighborhoods that feel nowhere even though they are in proximity to everything else. One such neighborhood is Four Mile Run at the base of Junction Hollow. It was settled by Rusyn immigrants from the Carpathian Mountains in Central and Eastern Europe. The subsequent community, called “Ruska Dolina”–or Rusyn Valley–was one of steelworkers and their families. They built a church. The church is where Andy Warhol made his bones regarding average man chic, having attended their as a child.
Near the church is a place called Big Jim’s “In the Run”. From the outside you perceive a no-nonsense look: a shot and a beer, sausage, blood and knuckles type of establishment. Inside is warm lighting with old school, wood-paneled décor and an ancient cash register. People eat meatball subs and Reubens. Oh, it is also gay friendly as evidenced by the Miller Lite rainbow sign hanging on the glass block window near the front door. Finding ironic tolerance–unabashedly and unpretentiously so–in the depths of blue collar everything is more common in the Rust Belt than one would imagine.
Before my arrival I kept running into Styx and Pittsburgh connections while researching the city, and found it had largely to do with their song “Renegade” being played obsessively at Steeler’s games. Anyway, my last night I was on the sunroof of a modestly upscale restaurant called Six Penn. The place is a off shoot of Eat n’ Park: an old, pull-up burger place that held on and still has chains in the region. On the patio there were many locals: smoking smokes, drinking Michelob Ultras or craft brews. There were dueling firework shows going off above us with periodic breaks of silence interrupting the display. The timing apparently coincided with a concert happening in the nearby PNC Park. Styx–of “Come Sail Away” fame–was playing, no joke. I then just presumed Styx was from Pittsburgh. They weren’t. They were from Chicago. I wondered about the connection. Then I found this 2011 article called “Pittsburgh played key role in Styx success, guitarist says”. In it, Chicagoan James Young says: “We’re all connected through the Rust Belt…The connection is deep and wonderful”.
This is true–we are connected through working class culture, but I think there’s more to it than that. You see, Styx–much like Pittsburgh–has been perceived as “damaged goods” for some time–all cheese, hair, and crap; and a vestige of yesterday–but in a tired, depressing way. Yet Styx didn’t give a damn and kept plugging on like a rock cockroach despite the Brittney Spear-ification around them. They had their voice and stuck with it, and have thus lasted in a field where most only last through the fad that made them.
The same sentiment can be echoed for the Steel City.