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Iron Man Meets Mr. Clean

June 2024
7min read

What Rust Belt? Pittsburgh shows how a city can lose its industry but retain its soul.

Most cities have some activity that’s mandatory for out-of-towners. Every tourist in San Francisco has to ride a cable car; everyone who vacations in New York has to complain about the prices. And every visitor to Pittsburgh has to remark with wonder that the place is no longer a smoky mess.

This has been going on for quite some time. As early as 1949 Newsweek said Pittsburgh was “no longer the smoky city or the tired milltown, but an industrial metropolis . . . with clear skies above.” A decade later Stephen Potter, author of the Gamesmanship series of books, marveled that “in fact there is very little smoke and quite a lot of green.” Even today writers feel compelled to explain: “Gone are all those huge steel mills gushing black smoke into polluted air.” Or: “Some people still envision a grimy steel town. But that was the old Pittsburgh.” This article, of course, is no different.

By now such incredulity should have become rather quaint; one might as reasonably be surprised that the residents of Denver no longer ride horses and twirl lariats. Yet so strongly is Pittsburgh identified with its brawny past that visitors never cease to be shocked to find the city changed since McKinley was President.

Pittsburghers take all this with surprisingly good grace, considering that it’s like telling a man his wife isn’t as ugly as you’d expected. In recent years the city has scored high in surveys of that vague quality called livability, but rather than be insufferable about it, like many towns similarly rated, Pittsburgh seems almost bemused by its status as America’s latest and unlikeliest Shangri-la. For all the talk of renaissance and renewal, the switch from Steeltown to Livability Land is just the latest transition in Pittsburgh’s long history, which stretches back way before the days of heavy industry that brought the town to the peak of its grimy glory.

In the mid-eighteenth century, as British and French colonists vied to settle the continent’s interior, the confluence of the Mananguelé (Monongahela) and La Belle Rivière (Allegheny) to form the Ohio River became a place of great strategic importance. The struggle started to heat up in 1754, when Virginia troops began building a fort there. Before they could finish, French and Indian forces evicted them and put up their own, Fort Duquesne. Soon the American phase of the Seven Years’ War was in full swing.

In November 1758, after repulsing several attacks, the outnumbered French burned their wooden fort and withdrew. Gen. John Forbes wrote Britain’s chief minister, William Pitt, to say that the site had been dubbed Pittsbourgh. He also predicted that “these dreary deserts will soon be the richest and most fertile of any possest by the British in No. America.” As it happened, the rocky hills of western Pennsylvania were not destined to become the nation’s breadbasket. Even had Forbes known about the deposits of coal and oil beneath those cliffs, their significance would have eluded him in that preindustrial age.

Still, the merest glance at a map was enough to show the importance of the Ohio River to controlling North America’s heartland. Recognizing this, the British strengthened and expanded Fort Pitt between 1759 and 1764. It served as a site for trade, negotiation, and battle with local Indians until the British withdrew in 1772. During and after the Revolution, American troops occupied the site and used it for similar purposes before finally closing up shop in the 1790s. Within a few years the fort was reduced to ruins.

By that time the surrounding town was already turning into a transportation hub. Its population had grown to about a thousand, and its reputation for livability was long in the future. In 1790 a visitor wrote that the town was “inhabited . . . by Mortals who act as if possessed of a Charter of Exclusive Privilege to filch from, annoy and harass her Fellow Creatures.”

Today the site of Fort Pitt is the pleasant, tranquil, and surprisingly uncrowded Point State Park, opened in 1954. On a summer afternoon, sunbathers surround a two-hundred-foot fountain at the very tip while office workers stroll along the riverside, looking up at the steep green hills across the Monongahela or at Three Rivers Stadium—the true nerve center of western Pennsylvania—across the Allegheny. As the rivers merge and flow together into the distance, one can see how the early settlers felt a similar compulsion to keep moving westward, into the fertile valleys that lay beyond.

Little remains of the Point’s colonial-era fortifications. The location of Fort Duquesne and the shoreline of 1754 are outlined in a large central lawn. Some uninspiring remnants of the rampart walls have been excavated. There is also a small blockhouse, some of which consists of original materials, that was restored in 1892 after a century of neglect. Today it is a souvenir shop for the Fort Pitt Museum.

The museum itself, one of whose walls is built of excavated bricks from the fort, is the murky, old-fashioned type, filled with glass cases, maps, artifacts, detailed captions, and dioramas that play a stirring narration over fifeand-drum music when you push a button. A rebuilt trader’s cabin and displays of a typical soldier’s meager possessions give a good sense of what eighteenth-century frontier life was like. Still, the sheer quantity of information on exhibit can be daunting. You almost need a few nights of cramming beforehand to deal with it all.

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.

Such constant striving for improvement is what Pittsburgh has always been about. As early as the 1850s a traveler wrote: “There is a perfect mania here for improvements. Every day somebody commences to tear down an old house and put up a new one with an iron front.” By the 1880s civic leaders were trying, with mixed success, “to correct architectural formlessness, to abate the smoke nuisance, and to improve housing and traffic conditions.” During its long industrial heyday the city’s discoveries and innovations in technology and finance were copied around the globe.

Today, having achieved a successful balance of urban bustle and smalltown intimacy, Pittsburgh continues its restless pursuit of livability. Through it all, the region’s eternal verities—family, church, the Steelers—have retained their hold on the populace, making for the sort of stability that quality-of-life surveys love. Yet stable as it is, Pittsburgh is a safe bet to keep on changing. The city’s history illustrates a basic truth that Andy Warhoi knew and the steel industry forgot: To be a success, you have to keep redefining yourself.

—Frederic D. Schwarz

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