Pittsburgh: The most underrated city in the US?

David Whitley May 13, 2013 4

Pittsburgh from the Duquesne Incline.

Pittsburgh from the Duquesne Incline.

David Whitley follows in Batman’s footsteps in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, discovering the Warhol Museum, Duquesne Incline, The Strip, Cathedral of Learning and more.

Heinz Field has recovered well. Last time I saw it, the pitch was exploding beneath the feet of the Gotham Rogues running back as he headed for a touchdown. The Dark Knight Rises, it seems, employed a few special effects.

The football stadium isn’t the only part of Pittsburgh to take a stunts-and-CGI bashing in Christopher Nolan’s finale to the Dark Knight Trilogy – the city stood in as Gotham during filming. And, like Bruce Wayne, it has undergone quite a transformation.

Pittsburgh is a city inextricably linked with the steel industry; the name conjures up images of smokestacks and heavy industry. It is often lumped in with depressed Rust Belt cities such as Detroit, Michigan and Akron, Ohio.

This is a bracket it clearly doesn’t belong in. The steel mills are long gone; any smoke is likely to be found wafting up from food carts, noise comes from chirruping birds rather than clanking machinery and the only thing that stinks is the form of the Pirates baseball team.

Pittsburgh is built around the confluence of three rivers in western Pennsylvania. A vaguely triangular sliver of land slides into the gap, and it is filled with an eye-catching assortment of skyscrapers. Either side, a series of pastel yellow bridges peel off like a centipede’s legs.

From the top of the Duquesne Incline – one of two cable railways that link the city’s south side with the Mt Washington running above it – the view is staggering. USA Today once named this perch as the second most beautiful place in America.

It’s not the only accolade bestowed on the city. National Geographic Traveler plucked it out as one of the best places in the world to visit in 2012, Hotwire rated Pittsburgh top for hotel bargains, ABC City Guides for Kids called it the number one family fun destination, and the Economist has picked Pittsburgh as the most liveable city in the US for four consecutive years.

The plaudits come, partly, due to a world class cultural scene. The steel mills may have given way to high-tech industries and education but the proceeds from them are still sloshing around. Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie directed much of his philanthropic largesse towards the city that made him rich. The Carnegie museums of science, natural history and art would probably be the star attractions anywhere else, but they’re overshadowed by the only one in four-strong Carnegie collection not to bear his name.

The Warhol Museum is the largest single artist museum in the US, and it’s a towering tribute to the king of Pop Art. It’s spread over six floors and contains over 8,000 works by Pittsburgh native Andy Warhol. But for all the Campbell’s soup cans, Jackie Kennedy screen prints and scary-haired self-portraits, it’s the biographical aspect of the museum that sticks in the memory.

His early works – including some 1946 paintings of women by a produce truck – offer the first surprise. Warhol was known for his mass reproduction art, but he was an incredibly accomplished painter and illustrator. Before he was famous in his own right, he was highly prized by art directors of major magazines because he could draw pretty much everything, and do it very quickly.

Warhol had his fingers in so many pies that it’s a wonder he found time to sleep. His frenetic activity included modelling, setting up magazines, taking up near permanent residence in the Studio 54 nightclub and managing the Velvet Underground.

One room captures the feel of this whirlwind beautifully. It’s darkened, and features scores of TV screens with a stool and headphones next to them. Each plays an episode of one of Warhol’s 1980s TV shows on a loop, but the combined effect is sensory overload.

Warhol the voracious collector is just as interesting as Warhol the artist. One gruesome room displays his collection of suicide photographs obtained from news agencies. Another houses his ‘time capsules’ – Warhol would hoard documents, photographs and other objects that he found important at the time, put them in a box, then seal and date it when full.

The spirit of experimentation lives on in the Mexican War Streets. This largely residential mini-suburb is full of picturesque brick and clapboard houses, but it also plays host to the Mattress Factory. Since 1977, this pioneering installation-only gallery has been showcasing room-sized works that visitors can wander through. It’s a deeply weird experience that veers from hallways full of outstretched hands holding bread rolls to kaleidoscope-like cubes with coloured dots on the floor and mirrored glass on the floor and ceiling.

There are no prizes for guessing what the Mattress Factory used to be, but it fits a general theme. Pittsburgh rarely destroys when it can repurpose. Most of the old freight railways from the steel days have been turned into walking and cycling tracks, while two of the hottest bars in town follow the same model. Bar Marco serves up cocktails in an old fire station and Altar offers beats and bands in an old church.

The two neatly bookend The Strip, an area to the northwest of the city centre that should set even the most disciplined stomach rumbling. For Pittsburghers, the icon here is the original Primanti Brothers outlet. Local legend has it that the sandwiches – piled high with fries and coleslaw – were originally designed so that freight truckers could eat them at the wheel without making a mess.

But the food heritage goes way beyond enormous sandwiches. Sylvia McCoy runs the Burgh Bits and Bites tours through The Strip, concentrating largely on family run businesses that have brought recipes and ingredients in from all over the world.

“A lot of what makes the food interesting is the history behind it,” she says. “For a long time, people wouldn’t come to the Strip. It was wholesale only. Now, on the weekends in particular, everyone’s coming here to shop, and there are food carts cooking something up on every corner.”

The tour passes through Polish pierogi, 8th generation bakers, chaotic sushi counters and custom-made Syrian-style hummus. The star, however, is Parma Sausage Products.

Employee Casey Romig isn’t shy about why. “We make the greatest Italian meats in the world,” he says as he hands out a tasting plate of prosciutto that has been aged for between 15 and 18 months.

“We’ve run out of prosciutto before because we’d sooner not serve it than serve it before it’s ready.”

But, as with the rest of Pittsburgh, a blue collar feel remains in The Strip. It’s a city that’s as proud of the 100 licensed premises within nine blocks on East Carson Street as it is of any cultural institution. If it was a person, Pittsburgh would be the boy from a working class background who’s done well for himself but has held on to his roots.

It’s a city that feels instantly comfortable, happier in the black and gold of its sporting teams than haute couture. But it consistently manages to throw up things that are thoroughly spectacular. And along with the Warhol, the views from the Duquesne Incline and the food on The Strip, that includes the Cathedral of Learning.

It’s the sort of building that makes you double-take as you come into view. It’s a heavy-looking 42 storey Gothic structure that is completely out of place with everything around it and towers over any competitors from miles around. Inside, students sit with their laptops under gloomy church-like arches – it’s the main building of the University of Pittsburgh.

Yet the lecture theatres on the first and third floors throw up something completely different. The 29 ‘Nationality Rooms’ are created in the style of different countries. One feels like a Turkish bathhouse, another the central courtyard of a Ghanaian village, another a Buddhist monastery in India.

They’re not flashy – just loving recreations of what would have been found in small towns and villages across the world centuries ago. And, in a way, they sum Pittsburgh up – clever, unpretentious, multi-cultural and capable of producing the most wonderful surprises. Forget Batman – America has another secret superhero.


Do it yourself…

Duquesne Incline – 1197 West Carson Street; 00 1 412 381 1665; www.duquesneincline.org

Warhol Museum – 117 Sandusky Street; 00 1 412 237 8300; www.warhol.org

Mattress Factory – 500 Sampsonia Way; 00 1 412 231 3169; www.mattress.org

Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History – 4400 Forbes Avenue; 00 1 412 622 3131; www.carnegiemuseums.org

Carnegie Science Center – 1 Allegheny Avenue; 00 1 412 237 3400, www.carnegiemuseums.org

Bar Marco – 2216 Penn Avenue, 00 1 412 471 1900,

Altar – 1620 Penn Avenue, 00 1 412 206 9719, www.thealtarbar.com

Primanti Brothers – 46 18th Street, 00 1 412 263 2142, www.primantibros.com

Parma Sausage Company – 1734 Penn Avenue, 00 1 412 391 4238, www.parmasausage.com

Cathedral of Learning – 4200 5th Avenue; www.nationalityrooms.pitt.edu


Stay: The Fairmont is Pittsburgh’s top upscale option – it’s fresh, centrally located, right next to the theatres in the Cultural District and serves up excellent fusion cuisine in its Habitat restaurant. Room rates start at $189 per night. 510 Market Street, 00 1 412 773 8800, www.fairmont.com/pittsburgh.

Explore: The Burgh Bits and Bites tours of The Strip cost $35 per person. 00 1 212 209 3370; www.burghfoodtours.com

Tourist information: www.visitpittsburgh.com


Disclosure: David was a guest of the Fairmont Pittsburgh and Visit Pittsburgh. This story was originally written for Voyeur, the in-flight magazine of Virgin Australia.


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