Pittsburgh forges ahead

After undergoing three renaissances, placing in the top ranks of "most livable cities" and hosting one of the nation's largest concentrations of eco-friendly buildings, this river town still can't seem to shake its bum rap.

Witness the reaction of first-time visitor Beth Whitman, 42, of Seattle, who is taking in an initial view of downtown from the back of an airport cab en route to a conference. She peers through the window at a dense cluster of classic and contemporary high-rises cradled in a lush river valley. Broad waterways hug the sharp angles of the city's urban heart, known as the Golden Triangle.

"Pittsburgh's pretty," she announces. "Too bad it has such a bad image."

Comments like that tend to induce long-suffering sighs from many residents. As it approaches its 250th birthday later this year, Pittsburgh is used to being maligned and misunderstood. In the 1860s, one writer memorably proclaimed it "hell with a lid off." When asked in the 1940s how to improve Pittsburgh, Frank Lloyd Wright quipped, "Abandon it." And in 1985 when Rand McNally named it tops on its "most livable cities" list, an incredulous Washington Post scoffed, "Pittsburgh? No. 1? Gimme a Break!"

Now some civic boosters jokingly suggest "Just Get Over It" would be an apt tourism slogan.

This city of 311,000 is often overlooked and underrated as a travel destination but it has more in the way of diversions than many cities twice its size. Thanks, in part, to the largess of long-dead steel barons, it boasts stand-out architecture and a superior cultural infrastructure. Its natural assets — three rivers flowing through town, a profusion of parks and eye-popping city views from the precipice of Mount Washington — add to the allure. And, not least, its multicultural neighborhoods offer rich, one-of-a-kind flavor.

A work in progress

Its gleaming glass cathedral and downtown centerpiece, the Philip Johnson-designed PPG Place, notwithstanding, Pittsburgh isn't a flashy place. (The closest thing to a star-sighting on a recent weekend is composer/conductor Marvin Hamlisch pushing someone in a wheelchair down Penn Avenue.) Its residents — an inordinate number of whom seem to be from here, even after its emergence as a medical and technical center — tend toward both civic self-deprecation and fierce defensiveness. And despite those multiple renaissances, downtown redevelopment remains a work in progress.

Still, Pittsburgh continues to re-invent itself. And nowhere are improvements more visible than on its waterfronts — the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, which meet at the tip of downtown to form the Ohio River.

"In 2001 when I moved here, there was nothing to do on this river," says river guide Christine Tracy, as she paddles up the Allegheny toward the Andy Warhol Bridge. Now, her group, the non-profit Venture Outdoors, rents kayaks and fishing gear and sponsors events such as after-work "Happy Hour Paddles." Its banks now boast 6 miles of bike trails, and the number of fish species populating its waters has gone from three in the 1970s to more than 40 today.

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