- Historic Sites
Iron Man Meets Mr. Clean
What Rust Belt? Pittsburgh shows how a city can lose its industry but retain its soul.
September 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 5
Visitors to the Point will see another aspect of Pittsburgh’s rebirth: pleasure craft gliding through the water. The existence of boats in a city with three rivers might seem less than remarkable, but it’s significant nonetheless, because for much of this century, boating on the rivers of Pittsburgh was about as appealing as being the man on the raft in the Ty-D-Bol commercial.
Pittsburgh’s changing attitude toward its rivers mirrors the stages of the city’s history. In the earliest days they were an indispensable means of transportation. As industry intensified, they became essentially open sewers; the best residential sites were far from the foul-smelling, flood-prone rivers. Nowadays, with flooding under control and pollution greatly reduced, the waters glisten in the sunshine (another item once in short supply), and the city is rediscovering its rivers. Instead of turning their backs on the waterfront, buildings have started to promote their scenic views, while cruise ships, party boats, racing shells, and jet skis greatly outnumber the remaining barges, scows, and other working craft.
The cleanup of Pittsburgh’s rivers has been matched by an equally thoroughgoing effort on land. The first major step came in 1946, when it became illegal for industries to burn soft coal within the city. At the same time, business leaders began aggressively demolishing much of downtown and putting up shiny new office towers surrounded by verdant parks. The rebuilding they began has never stopped, and today the city is dotted with Centers, Plazas, Commonses, and Squares virtually beyond number. Even in the unrenewed sections, one sees the inevitable concomitant of urban renewal—a Starbucks clone on every block.
This strategy of continuous revolution works because through it all the city has managed to retain its soul. From the beloved Steelers to the equally beloved Iron City beer, Pittsburgh performs the difficult feat of continuously invoking its smoky past even while celebrating its deliverance from it. Modernistic buildings are proudly clothed in the materials that made Pittsburgh—glass, steel, and aluminum—and however much the city shifts to banking, computer software, medicine, and education, it will always be known as Steeltown. Most residents wouldn’t have it any other way.
In keeping with this, the streets, buildings, and parks tend to be named for magnates from the city’s manufacturing age: Frick, Mellon, Heinz, and especially Andrew Carnegie, who makes an ambivalent symbol for Pittsburgh. On the one hand, besides building and financing much of Pittsburgh’s industry, he endowed dozens of civic institutions in the city (and hundreds more around the country). On the other hand, he lived in Pittsburgh for less than two decades before moving to New York for good in 1867. Similarly, Pittsburgh’s newest attraction commemorates the work of a native who left the city as a young man and never returned.
The Andy Warhol Museum is a repository of the Prince of Pop’s best work, including early commercial illustrations; death and disaster paintings; enormous renderings of Liza, Liz, Marilyn, and Jackie; a series of works described as “synthetic polymer paint and urine on canvas”; film experiments; and re-creations of his late196Os installations, including a room filled with metallic-coated balloons that visitors love to bat around. The museum works quite well even for a non-devotee; somehow, experiencing Warhol’s entire career in a few hours has much greater impact than watching him do the same thing over and over for twenty-five years.
A comparison of the Andy Warhol and Fort Pitt museums provides a neat summary of the old and new Pittsburgh. Fort Pitt is a TV baby’s nightmare: static dioramas and artifacts alongside wordy captions in a dimly lit cave. The Warhol, by contrast, is as brash as a rock video. The conscientious Fort Pitt Museum contains a good-size book’s worth of history, and it can make you feel vaguely guilty if you skip a map or sign. At the Warhol, on the other hand, you get the feeling that Andy is laughing at you if you take anything too seriously.
Warhol’s museum is located on the North Side, a short, scenic walk or drive across the Allegheny from anywhere in downtown. (Pittsburgh’s steelmaking past shows up in its abundance of bridges; if the Sixth Street Bridge is closed for repairs, there are others at Seventh and Ninth, and more a few blocks away.) A second excursion to the North Side, in search of an 1850s neighborhood with streets named after Mexican War events, was less pleasant. The surrounding area was a succession of porno theaters, broken liquor bottles, debris-filled vacant lots, and all the other wearily familiar signs of urban decay. The Mexican War streets themselves contained a few nice old townhouses but nothing of particular note; outside of the opportunity to walk east on the south side of West North Avenue, there was little to interest a visitor.
That day’s Post-Gazette detailed a just-announced $41.8-million renewal plan for the very same neighborhood, with a legitimate theater slated to replace Super Erotic Action, and the usual assortment of offices, nice restaurants, and boutiques supplanting seedy bars, a boarded-up Masonic Hall, and the Original New York Quick Lunch. Clearly, Pittsburgh has no plans to rest on its laurels.