Returning to Pittsburgh

2019-09-25T11:58:29+00:00August 20th, 2019|

By William A. Eisenstein

I was born in Pittsburgh in 1973, moved away the week of my eleventh birthday in 1984, and, apart from a brief Passover dinner in the early 1990s, had never returned. For all the intervening years, Pittsburgh had lived in my memory like a deceased relative. I could call it to mind, picture its faces and its moods, even live for a moment with the fragments of remembered events and emotions from bygone days. But it seemed windowed away in the past, viewable but not touchable, sequestered behind a one-way mirror of time.

I returned, finally, last spring, a forty-four-year-old man nearly half a lifetime removed from the boy who departed for Illinois at the bottom of the Reagan years.  The Pittsburgh we had left was a city facing disaster. The downsizing of US Steel’s operations in 1983 and 1984 was the capstone on a generation of mill closures and de-industrialization, a seeming death knell for the city’s very reason to exist. Few American cities have ever been as closely identified with one industry as Pittsburgh was with steel, and the subsequent history of the closest peer in this regard—Detroit with cars— would not have been a source of comfort to those contemplating Pittsburgh’s possible futures.

To a boy of ten, of course, those concerns were abstract. What I knew were the leafy blocks of Squirrel Hill, the lineups of the Steelers’ and Pirates’ 1979 championship teams, the roadcuts through the mountains unspooling past the back windows of a Dodge Dart. Even to a child, the city as a whole had a powerful identity. The rivers flowed together at the Point; the skyline exploded into view at the end of the Ft. Pitt tunnel; massive cutstone churches sat at seemingly every major intersection. There were enough civic institutions that mattered—the Carnegie Museums and Library, the symphony and the stadium, the universities and the parks—that we could play a Pittsburgh version of Monopoly on cold winter nights. Pittsburgh’s economy may have been in decline but its vibrancy as a place endured.

I had observed the city’s gradual economic reinvention casually, and from a substantial distance.  I knew that the hospitals and the universities, especially the technology-oriented Carnegie-Mellon University (CMU), where my parents had worked in the seventies, had become the city’s economic lifeboat through the eighties and nineties. I knew that the robotics firms spinning off from CMU since that time had become a major economic driver in their own right, to the point that Uber had chosen Pittsburgh as the city in which to pioneer its fleet of driverless cars. I knew that the city’s affordability and cultural endowment had given it a general nationwide reputation for livability.

What I did not know is what these facts really meant on the ground. What does half a lifetime of change actually look like? Would this long-dead relative be recognizable as one who had cradled me? And what remained of the boy himself?

This trip had been long in coming. My close friend Carrie was finishing her doctorate at the University of Pittsburgh and I had been promising a visit for her entire residency there. I needed a break from the stresses of work, parenting, and renovating a house. And I also felt the pull of middle age, the first dull tidings of mortality washing across my spirit and prompting a certain stock-taking unknown to the young.

And so I rode the subway and the AirTrain and the plane, just one among others seeking their ultimate destination, alone in the crowd, shuttling down corridors of glass and steel.

 

Upon arrival, I felt anticipation coupled with a lack of specific expectations, a confidence that something would touch me without knowing precisely what. It seemed the kind of gift that only a return from a long absence can bring. On the nighttime drive in from the airport, Carrie and I talked about jobs and writing and life, her presence itself a return to an older time of laughter and adventure.

I began my wanderings the following morning, three days of driving and walking with little agenda beyond reacquaintance.  Shadyside, Lawrenceville, East Liberty, Oakland, Polish Hill, the Strip, the Golden Triangle, the Mexican War Streets. As a tourist, I rode the Duquesne Incline and strolled through the Phipps Conservatory. As a companion, I bought meat at Parma Sausage and gawked at the nationality rooms in the Cathedral of Learning where Carrie had taught. As a native son, I stopped in my tracks at the marquee of the Squirrel Hill Newsstand and the blond cobblestones of Ferree Street.

I was astonished by the city’s compactness. I had remembered these places in isolation, with a child’s spatial memory that consists only of points floating in a disconnected void. But as a grown man and erstwhile city planner, I was acutely aware that Pittsburgh’s major civic assets are impressively well-concentrated. The Oakland neighborhood is a particular marvel in this regard.  The University of Pittsburgh, CMU, the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History, the main branch of the Carnegie Library, the Phipps, Schenley Plaza and Schenley Park are all virtually across the street from one another, mere moments’ walk apart. This is a remarkable and rare thing in American cities, and creates a critical mass of pedestrian life—combining students, workers, tourists, residents and park-goers at all hours of the day—that is essential to good urbanism.

On my first foray through Oakland, Carrie and I wandered through the Center for Sustainable Landscapes, a brand-new annex to the Phipps that is among the greenest buildings in the United States. The Center not only generates more energy than it consumes but, much more impressively, uses only the quantity of water that falls on the site as rainfall. The Frick Environmental Center, which I would walk through two days later, does the same. Despite being professionally involved in green building policy in California, I had not before entered a building that met this arduous design standard, much less two in three days, and this irony was not lost on me.

We stood on the back deck just below the solar panels and surveyed the cityscape across the ravine through clear April skies. I thought about the stories the old-timers used to tell in the seventies about the days before air pollution control laws, when people didn’t bother to wear white shirts and drove with the headlights on in the daytime. I thought about our alleged president citing Pittsburgh in his announcement of U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, despite the fact that Pittsburgh is probably the Clean Air Act’s greatest success story and America’s best example of how to re-tool a regional economy away from the polluting industries that he thought he was defending. I thought about the global catastrophe bearing down on us all, the rain that will fall on the just and the unjust alike.

Across the street lay Flagstaff Hill, where I had tobogganed as a boy. We departed the Phipps and climbed up to a stone patio where a few men were playing drums together in this first warm evening of spring. The unseasonal cold had delayed greenup, and the trees stood naked on the hillside, just as they had on those winter days long ago when we trudged up the hill to mount our sleds and careen, laughing, down the slopes toward the sun and the rivers and the city.

 

On that first morning, the barista at Carrie’s favorite neighborhood coffee shop recommended an exhibit of Japanese woodblock prints at the Carnegie. This turned out to be an exhibition of Hiroshige’s fabled 53 Stations of the Tokaido, woodblock masterpieces created in the early 1830s to document the journey along the Tokaido Road from old Tokyo (then known as Edo) to the imperial capital of Kyoto.

I perused the prints slowly, savoring the craftsmanship of each one. They depicted a lost world where people traveled by foot and by horse, where a journey between the two largest cities of a great nation was an epic unto itself.  Many of the prints focused on major inflection points along the road—the shallow fords of rivers, the small huts in the hills where the weary could rest, the panoramic views of Mt. Fuji. Hiroshige showed the changing faces of the land, the rainstorms and the steep slopes and the falling dusk that gave shape to the journey, that defined the effort and extent of each day’s walk.

The journey was its own story, not merely a prelude. The fifty-three stations were essentially rest stops crossed with government outposts, and their sequence was cultural knowledge widely shared by the cosmopolitans of the day. Through that shared experience, they became a touchstone that nineteenth-century Japanese culture could turn to again and again in a cycle of re-familiarization, an almost ritualized periodic contact with something that exceeds the confines of a single human life. To tell a story from the Tokaido was not only to recount the events of a journey, but also to recall previous stories from earlier journeys, a kind of rhyming between minds and across generations. In this way time becomes something other than linear, a spiral that both proceeds and returns, a cycling between our destiny and our origins.

 

At the center of it all, for me, was Squirrel Hill. My capital was Northumberland Street between Murray and Shady, my Tokaido the short blocks between my house and the Carnegie branch library and stores of Forbes Avenue. Wightman School was the offshore island where I spent kindergarten and first grade; Negley Hill the precipice of the known world beyond which all maps failed.

As Carrie and I drove in the first morning, it all unfurled with shocking speed. Entering the neighborhood from Wilkins Avenue, Northumberland Street was upon us before I could even process where we were. A forty-four-year-old man parked the car and a ten year-old child stepped out of the driver’s seat. The houses loomed overhead, perched on the shoulders of their long driveways like eagles, observing us silently.

Nothing had changed. I could not have described the street in any great detail five minutes before, but once there its absolute continuity with the past was overwhelming. Each house was made of brick, usually with vinyl siding on the upper half. Every two houses shared a steep single-lane driveway that widened out to a two-car shared garage at the top. The sloping front yards were covered in ivy and bushes and small patches of grass.

The colors and materials all came back to me. The bright red siding of the Turkdogans’ house next door, the dull brick of the Franklins’ house across the street. The chest-high chain-link fence too low to protect Mr. Turkdogan’s roses from particularly high bounces of our basketball. The three squares of sidewalk that for some reason were smooth stone instead of poured concrete.  The brown upper level of the garage of the house behind ours that I once, finally, reached with a mighty home run off my big brother’s wicked wiffle ball pitches. The massive sycamore tree with its mottled bark that embraced such scenes for all the decades of its life.

We walked the blocks to Forbes Avenue. The facades of the library and the newsstand appeared exactly as they had when they were my portals to the worlds of books and baseball cards all those years ago. But they were among the few storefronts unchanged from the past. It’s a basic truth of cities that commercial spaces change with time far more than the residential. We think of houses as structures that each owner can customize to their taste, but in fact they are quite static over long periods of time, especially when built of very durable and inflexible materials like brick or stone. As my own experience had attested, renovating a house is a big undertaking, and in most cities most of the time, very few owners have the motivation or the capital to do it.

But commercial uses change as quickly as economic trends and popular tastes evolve. A healthy retail district like Forbes and Murray Avenue, when viewed over decades, is a barometer of the city-in-time, a flickering dashboard of shifting demographics, transient consumer preferences, and changing technologies. Even deeply rooted cultural institutions like the Jewish Community Center, where I went to preschool, are rebuilt more frequently than most houses, because institutions have the incentive (and, often, the capital) to keep themselves abreast of the times in a way that individual homeowners do not. So, yes, Murray Avenue Kosher was still there, but now there was a gluten-free bakery across the street.

Two days later I saw another example of this: the very hospital in which I was born. Magee Women’s Hospital today is but one branch of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and its name, bestowed in an older time, is about all it retains from the era of my birth. Much of the façade had been redone since the early seventies, and additions sprouted from the original structure.

The man called Bill Eisenstein stood outside on the sidewalk looking at the building called Magee Women’s Hospital. None of the cells in my body survived from the early July day in 1973 when I was carried out of its doors, and few of the bricks in the building. Yet these entities persist in time, the structures somehow more lasting than the components of which they are made.

 

Oakland is a dramatic, but not isolated, example of neighborhood success in Pittsburgh. On several drives through the city, I was struck by the continued survival of retailing along all the avenues. I saw no extensive commercial vacancies until driving into Homewood (one of Pittsburgh’s historically African-American neighborhoods, and probably the most economically distressed neighborhood in the city) late on the third day. Though some of this retail was clearly a result of recent gentrification, especially in East Liberty and Lawrenceville, a sizable proportion was not new or notably upscale. This sort of long-term retail survival does not come out of nowhere, but is in fact a trailing indicator of the continued survival of the neighborhoods themselves. One reason for that is that Pittsburgh is one of the least suburbanized major cities in America. While its one-time sister cities such as Cleveland, Baltimore, and St. Louis are surrounded by dozens of suburban municipalities that are collectively far larger than the cities themselves, Pittsburgh has a relative handful of sizable suburbs.

Part of this is a function of the mountainous topography; there aren’t many large stretches of flat land within an hour of the city upon which to build anything big easily, and most of those that do exist were occupied long ago by steel mills, foundries and factories. Even if no longer operative, these have to be demolished and cleaned up at great expense to make way for residential uses. Even roads are expensive when they have to be tunneled through mountains and bridged over rivers repeatedly.

More fundamentally, though, Pittsburgh was almost alone among major American cities in experiencing economic stagnation, rather than breakneck expansion, in the economic salad days of the 1950s and 60s. Its growth years were 1880 to 1920, when some of the world’s largest fortunes were made by burning Pennsylvania and West Virginia coal to refine Minnesota iron ore into steel, then putting it on the Ohio River or the railroads to reach nearly any point in America cheaply. After the Depression and World War II, however, steel was in lower demand, cheaper sources of coal opened up in the West, the interstate highways changed the economics of goods movement, and American corporations began their long campaign of breaking industrial unions by moving production to the South (and ultimately overseas). As a result, new money and new residents were comparatively scarce in Pittsburgh during the suburban Big Bang of the 1950s, and it basically stayed that way for the rest of the twentieth century.

Where there are fewer suburbs, there are also fewer freeways, both as a cause and an effect. One consequence of that, in turn, is a central city less fragmented by the freeway cuts that devastated large swaths of other industrial cities such as Oakland and Boston.  Pittsburgh was not spared other slash-and-burn urban renewal schemes—the Civic Arena and Point State Park are the two most notable examples—but their extent was relatively small, and the new land uses relatively successful, compared to many such schemes in other places.

The timing of Pittsburgh’s economic rise and fall was also out of phase with a second major demographic trend of the twentieth century: the Great Migration of African-Americans out of the South to the industrial cities of the North. Prior to WWII, Pittsburgh was an important center of African-American life, with one of the most influential Black newspapers in the country (the Pittsburgh Courier), a thriving jazz scene that gave rise to Art Blakey among others, and a famous Negro League baseball team (the Homestead Grays) headlined by the legendary slugger Josh Gibson. After the war, as African-Americans flooded out of the South to escape segregation and seek an economic foothold in northern cities, Pittsburgh’s stagnant regional economy meant that those migrants instead overwhelmingly went to Chicago, Detroit, New York, and elsewhere.

It also meant that the devastating white flight and disinvestment that followed in those places was not duplicated to the same degree in Pittsburgh—probably not for any reasons of racial enlightenment, unfortunately, but for lack of sufficient stimulus. It is not a coincidence that the large American cities most lauded today for their livability and relative economic equity—Portland, Minneapolis, Denver—are those that were, and are, heavily white. Pittsburgh today has as much in common with these cities as it does with Cleveland. They were able to walk the narrow path between poverty and gentrification partly because they were spared the whiplash of racialized disinvestment.

For all of these reasons, the human-scale, neighborhood-centered city of the early twentieth century still survives in Pittsburgh, a kind of partial time capsule from an era before freeways, white flight, and misguided modernist planning. Yet Pittsburgh today is also a classic knowledge-sector economy, oriented around robotics startups, tech industry satellite offices, and the massive University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, whose facilities are seemingly around every corner. Throw in all the old-line white-collar employment in government, law, banking, and corporate management that still comes with being the urban capital of western Pennsylvania and you have a city that is now far removed from its steelworker roots.

This is less contradictory than it sounds. The lasting quality of prewar city design is a major factor in urban economic revival all over America, and Pittsburgh is no exception. In the 1910s, the depredations of the industrial revolution made the creation of ennobling urban environments a necessity to a humane civilization. In the 2010s, the quality of life created by these same environments is a key recruiting pitch of industries whose main factor of production is human creativity. The common denominator is the building blocks of a suitable human habitat, whether for a steelworker or a software engineer: walkable scale, memorable views, buildings that engage and endure.

There is a kind of winnowing process that unfolds with time. Passing trends are just that. But what works, stays.

 

Squirrel Hill called me back for one more visit, alone this time. I spent the morning in Frick Park, walking from the Environmental Center all the way to the Monongehela River, acquiring an early spring sunburn through the bare branches of the trees. I lingered in a nondescript gravel parking lot at the river’s edge, watching the brown waters flow by.  Soft music and cigarette smoke drifted from the open windows of a few cars likewise pointed at the river, their drivers and I momentarily joined in an unspoken community of contemplation. The buildings on the opposite shore stood impassively in the sunlight, as they had decades ago when the coal barges churned toward the mills upriver and all the nameless detritus of industrialism silently slipped past their feet toward the Ohio.

Afterwards I drove back to the old neighborhood, parked on Forbes Avenue and sought out a much-needed lunch. There was a small Thai restaurant a few doors down from the library, comfort food for the traveling Californian that I had become. Yet as I sat in the restaurant looking out at the busy avenue I felt something deep settle into place, a sense of belonging wholly disproportionate to the circumstances. I was, in fact, no mere traveler. I had a claim, a membership, that had not been eradicated with time.

Even as I settled into the warmth of this feeling, I wondered about its pre-requisites. Squirrel Hill, after all, had not been gentrified or redeveloped beyond recognition, as are the childhood homes of some people. It is not a cookie-cutter suburb lacking in history and identity. It is socio-economically stable and moderately privileged, then as now a bastion of white-collar professionals and merchants. It accommodated newcomers in the way a healthy city neighborhood can, the Indian family at the next table making this their new home precisely as the Jews had done a hundred years before. And so while not a single soul in the neighborhood today would recognize me or know my name, the place itself retained a capacity to reincorporate me into its story, and to play a refreshed role in mine.

I returned once more to Northumberland Street.  I strolled slowly, pausing at great length to savor and remember each house that had played its role in the narrative of those bygone days.  The Simons’, where the famous professor lived.  The Dicklers’, where the unkempt vegetation on the back slope contained wilderness enough for a boy of eight. The Knapps’, where we played with a boy named Jimmy until the day our touch football game ended in a tearful argument, never to be resumed. And of course, 5824, where my dad found a newspaper and milk bottle from 1909 behind the wall in the third-floor bathroom, and my mom played old westerns on the piano under the staircase, and our dear housekeeper Thelma laughed her pack-a-day laugh and talked about her Great Danes.

At the end of the block stood a combination fire and police station, utterly unchanged by the intervening decades, and beyond that a small early-1900s commercial building hosting a deli, a dry cleaner, and a fitness studio. It was fronted by a small plaza, which had been entirely concrete in the early eighties but was now broken up by three flowerbeds. My brother and I used to ride bikes there, practicing riding tricks and swooping through the plaza in broad arcs until the shopkeepers had to ask us to stop. The vending machine in front of the fire station still sold sodas in glass bottles for fifty cents and had a sign proudly announcing the persistence of this small neighborhood tradition.

I went into the deli for a bottle of water and came back out to the metal patio tables they had set out in the plaza to sit and refresh. A soft wind swayed the trees and their young leaves, but the houses themselves stretched down the block unmoved by the weathers of years. Bricks of yellow and dull red, the deep porches and candy-stripe awnings, a few duplexes mixed seamlessly with the larger homes.

I sat for a long time, a simple pilgrim come to the end of his journey. Or rather, come back to its beginning. Squirrel Hill had waited for me, had stored something for me in its buildings and its pavements, and I could not have found those things in any other place in the world.  Yet it also continued its own life, holding its new young families and sending them on in due time, the daily bustle of commerce and work and worship unceasing. This was both a time capsule of remembrance and a living neighborhood, and both of these sacred roles emerged from a deep and enduring functionality that was once the planner’s art but for which the culture at large does not even have a name.

We go on building the world anew, rarely pausing to acknowledge the great power in simply living among buildings and cities that are older than we are, that were here when we arrived and will be here after we are gone. We think of them as mere temporary stage sets for the drama of our lives, or worse yet as mere machines for profit. Yet they witness us as much as the other way around. They remind us of time’s circle in a world driven relentlessly by time’s arrow. And in them we can make pilgrimage—not to a distant god, but to our own history, to bear witness to our own experience and come to peace with it as we may.

After a time, a young woman emerged from the deli with two slices of pizza and sat down at another table. She was on a late lunch break and we struck up a small conversation.  She was from Green Bay, Wisconsin and had been in Pittsburgh about a year working the counter in the deli. I told her that I had grown up on the block and talked a little about what had changed and what had not. Yet even as I did so, her mention of Wisconsin turned my mind to the Great Lakes and the features of my later life, to my adolescence in the Midwest and the gray clouds of Lake Erie that hung over my college years and my wife’s home place of Duluth, Minnesota.

As she said goodbye and returned to work, I continued to sit with all of this passing through me, both forty-four and eleven, both father and child, both the rememberer and the remembered, still holding my place within the streets and the rivers and the wide light of the Pennsylvania day. ■

 

 

William A. Eisenstein is a writer, planner, scholar, father and husband living in Albany, CA. He is the executive director of the Center for Resource Efficient Communities at UC-Berkeley, and an alumnus of Wightman and Falk Schools in Pittsburgh.

Cover image of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Photo by Flickr user kimwillen (CC BY-ND 2.0).

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