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.

There's new vitality on the shore, as well. The 7-year-old Heinz Field, home of the beloved Pittsburgh Steelers, and just upriver, the classic baseball stadium, PNC Park, rise on the Allegheny's North Shore, with sports bars, restaurants and clubs nearby. On the opposite shore, the 5-year-old David L. Lawrence Convention Center is the first and largest "green-certified" building of its kind. Prose by Annie Dillard, August Wilson and others scrolls ticker-tape style over a soaring exterior arc in an endless tribute to writers who have made Pittsburgh their focus.

It's just one example of how Pittsburgh honors its own. Baseball great Roberto Clemente has a namesake bridge — one of 446 in a city that claims the world's largest number of bridges.

The late senator and ketchup heir, John Heinz, has a history center bearing his name. It's in a former ice factory and entertainingly traces the city's origins around the 1758 Fort Pitt, to its 19th-century prosperity as the Iron City, to the shuttering of the last steel mills in the 1980s in what it proclaims, "America's most promising post-industrial experiment."

Pittsburgh-born pop-art icon Andy Warhol got a civic salute in 1994 with the opening of a museum featuring 12,000 of his works. Street names celebrate everyone from former mayors to a prominent real estate agent.

Carnegie's legacy

But foremost among local benefactors was Andrew Carnegie, whose philanthropy helped shape the city's cultural traditions. The Carnegie Museum of History just completed a $36 million revamp featuring an expanded Dinosaur Hall. It boasts the nation's third-largest collection of authentic prehistoric creatures.

In the adjoining Carnegie Museum of Art, the 55th Carnegie International, instituted in 1896 by the steel baron in a quest to discover the "Old Masters of tomorrow," continues until January. The contemporary works in the show, dubbed "Life on Mars," are meant to question humans' role in the universe.

To outsiders, Pittsburgh's sports-crazed reputation may overshadow its cultural leanings. But the city has long supported a symphony, an opera and a ballet company. Its compact downtown Cultural District has five theaters and has in recent years been spruced up. Local historian Woody Cunningham is standing in the heart of the neighborhood in tiny Agnes Katz Plaza relating tidbits from the bad old days. "How dirty was Pittsburgh? They built an oil refinery downtown and no one complained. That's how dirty," he declares. "Now, where there used to be dirty bookstores are violin repair shops and day-care centers."

Despite several new lodgings and restaurants and its busy convention business, Pittsburgh's downtown isn't a hotbed of activity after the office workers depart for the day. Gradually, however, more residents are moving in as historic buildings are converted to condominiums.

Distinctive districts

The city's true delights are in its neighborhoods — 89 distinct ones at last count. Some are undergoing economic transformation but are defying the sort of gentrification that strips them of their quirky individuality.

Among those not to miss:

•The Strip District, a former wholesale-produce warehouse area, is a lively retail center where the lone Starbucks couldn't survive, neighborhood leaders gleefully report. Locals prefer to sip at spots such as La Prima Espresso, where the old men at the outdoor tables chatter away in Italian.

Go on Saturday morning when the sidewalks are crammed with vendors selling everything from homemade pirogi to diabetic socks. The scene is messy and a little gritty, and there's nothing remotely precious about it. At shops such as Pennsylvania Macaroni, which carries 60 brands of olive oil and hundreds of cheeses, a fourth generation carries on the family trade. There are homemade sausages at the Polish place and handmade tortillas at the Mexican place and more froufrou fare at newcomers such as Mon Aimee, selling designer chocolate from some 30 countries.

•Lawrenceville's 16:62 Design Zone has emerged in a 2.5-mile working-class neighborhood stretching from 34th to 62nd streets above the Strip. Inexpensive housing has drawn creative types for the past decade or so, and the area now supports 70 businesses, including art galleries and designer clothing stores, alongside beer-and-a-shot bars and Arsenal Bowling Lanes featuring Friday night karaoke.

•The South Side, a working-class neighborhood of hillside houses and onion-domed churches, is scenic by day and wild by night. Carson Street fosters blocks of end-to-end bars, restaurants and clubs. At the eastern end of the strip is the SouthSide Works, a shining tribute to the new urbanism on the site of a defunct steel mill.

Blame it on work ethic

Ask a Pittsburgher why it's so difficult to clear the smoky-city image and you'll hear all kinds of theories: The steel industry was so successful, its stamp is indelible. Television newscasts show outdated B-roll of molten steel being poured at defunct factories. It's a conspiracy perpetrated by Seattle and other cities ruffled when they didn't get the best-city ranking.

But more often than not, Pittsburghers blame themselves.

"We have an inferiority complex," says Enrico Lagattuta, owner of The Enrico Biscotti Co. "We are a bunch of knuckleheaded second- and third-generation children of immigrants, and we have this tremendous work ethic that says: 'Don't talk about yourself.' "

Maybe they don't need to. Like Whitman, many first-time visitors express pleasant surprise. Which sparks another civic slogan suggestion: "Pittsburgh: Who Knew?"

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