The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

Sep 25, 2009 10:21am

That's the title of Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon's first novel, a loving, semi-autobiographical ode written when he was still a student at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.  It's one of my favorite books, and in it, the main character walks past a smokestack he calls the Cloud Factory, a remnant of Pittsburgh's former glory days as a steel town.  Big steel is all but gone, but Pittsburgh, far from turning into a ghost town, has resurrected itself with new, thriving industries… So much so that the Obama Administration chose the city to host the G-20 Summit.  Pittsburgh?! some scoffed.  Yes, Pittsburgh.  White House officials wanted to highlight the city's renaissance from aging rust-belt has-been to tech-savvy metropolis.  Turns out Pittsburgh has weathered the economic downturn better than most — it lags behind some other major cities in two important areas:  its unemployment and foreclosure rates are well below the national average — two categories I'm sure they're happy to lose.  "Pittsburgh didn't have the party, so we don't have the hangover," said Paul Culley, president of the Realtor Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh.  Prices remain stable, Culley said, and while they're "not immune" to the foreclosure problem, Pittsburgh has fewer than some other older industrial towns.    "Well-maintained homes are moving well, while some houses that are not in good shape are moving slower in this depressed market," Culley told me by phone.

And what great housing stock the city has.  On the low end you can't beat $59,000 for this tiny two-bed, one-bath starter home.

Then there's this: a 122-year-old mansion in the West Allegheny section of town, offered at $525,000.  It's on the high end, but take a look at the woodwork and stained glass and the seven fireplaces and you'll see why.  Multiply that price by 10 if it were in New York or Los Angeles.

Michael Chabon was right — Pittsburgh is mysterious to many of us.  It's Pennsylvania's "second city."  It's got a great modern airport, which is all many people ever see of the city.  Lucky me, I have two close friends from “The Burgh," so I wondered what they thought of their hometown being thrust onto the world stage. 
My questions unleashed a torrent of memories from Lisa Simeone, host NPR World of Opera, Soundprint, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra series.  Lisa's transplanted to Baltimore now, where she also writes the Glamour Girl column for Baltimore's Style magazine.  But Pittsburgh is home, where she grew up the child of a first-generation Italian mother and an immigrant Italian father who arrived after World War II and set up shop as a tailor.  "I …remember the old J&L (Jones & Laughlin) steel mill still belching smoke when I was growing up," Lisa says.  "But it's gone now."  She also has fond memories of the beating heart of downtown.  "I remember it as a thriving, exciting, crowded, fun place when I was growing up," she says.  "I used to take the bus downtown all the time, first with my mother, then by the time I was 12 on my own.  I loved it.  Three big major department stores — Kaufmann's, Gimbel's, and Horne's.  All thriving.”  And lots and lots of other stores in between.  Also some beautiful parks — Mellon Square, The Point (where the 3 rivers converge).  Great places to stroll and have lunch and people-watch." 
But the old industries gone are gone, and downtown rolls up the proverbial rug after 5 p.m. "(S)ad, sad, sad," Lisa says.  "It's deserted.  Except for the arts venues, Heinz Hall and the Benedum Center, it's empty." But there is life in many of those old warehouses.  "They have done a wonderful job of restoring, renovating, developing in certain parts of town, especially at the waterfront, of which there is an abundance," Lisa said.  "With three rivers, there's a lot of waterfront.  The old steel mills have either been turned into condos or dismantled and disappeared entirely," she adds. Another friend and Pittsburgh native is Tamara Tunie, who plays medical examiner Melinda Warner on NBC's "Law and Order: SVU."  She grew up one of six children, living upstairs over their parents' mortuary.  "I miss the glory days of a thriving downtown Pittsburgh," she says. "However, I have seen it slowly coming back with new restaurants and clubs. Working on developing a night life downtown.  And oh yes — the Strip District.  It is a mirror of the Meatpacking District here in New York.  Formerly, warehouses  and factories, now restaurants, shops, clubs — and yoga."Yoga and lofts.  Paul Culley said the city is making a big push to get people back into the city, promoting it through websites such as and  Not everyone wants a mansion like the one above, but there's a lot of interest in downtown lofts, he said, some affordable, some, like this one near where the G-20 is being held, pretty seriously luxurious and pricey.  But it's a great 'repurposing' of some venerable and sound old structures.  Lisa also recalls Pittsburgh being very "neighborly," very much like her adopted home.  "Like Baltimore, the neighborhoods have their own distinct styles and flavors and are very proud of them.  Like other east coast industrial cities, it's a mixed bag.  Lots of poverty in certain places, too, like the Hill District, where (the late playwright) August Wilson was from.  Lots of drugs there now, just like Baltimore.  But there are a lot of well-preserved beautiful neighborhoods, Shadyside being the jewel in the crown.  It's never gone under, has always been beautiful — the architecture, the trees, the gardens, the restaurants, the shops.  Always.  It abuts Oakland, another vibrant neighborhood, the education center — University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie-Mellon University.  And the arts in Pittsburgh have always been diverse and healthy…because of all the "robber baron" money:  Carnegie, Heinz, Frick, Mellon,” says Lisa.

But what will the G-20 attendees see?  Well, right now, they're seeing each other in meetings, and if they venture out they'll see protesters being tear-gassed.  Their spouses will see more of the beauty of the city, and all my Pittsburgh correspondents agree, if the delegates do get out and about, they'll encounter a beautiful, proud, thriving city that reinvented itself, and may have flown so low under the radar that the storm clouds of a bad economy may have passed right over. 

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