There seem to be two distinct impressions of Pittsburgh in conversations I’ve had surrounding my recent, short trip to the city. You either think of Pittsburgh as “that place that won ‘most livable city’ a couple years ago, right?” Or, you think of Pittsburgh as a floundering city six decades on, one that never really found its way in the post-industrial era.
If you are in that latter category, I beg you to go check out the Wikipedia page on Pittsburgh, and read about the incredibly successful series of urban modernization and renewal projects the city has engaged in over those six decades.
Wartime has typically has a been boon to Pittsburgh, the city becoming so important to war production efforts that it was known during WWII as the nation’s “arsenal of democracy.” The War of 1812 was the first true, modern-era boomtime for the city, and the Civil War’s demand for iron helped the city recover from the Fire of 1845.
More deliberate, and perhaps more difficult, have been the city’s post-WWII renewal efforts. The 1940s and 1970s saw two efforts known as “The Renaissance” and “The Renaissance II,” both projects aimed at cleaning and revitalizing a city that had become used to omnipresent coal dust and dirty rivers. Although the 1980s were difficult for the city, as its industrial economic base was left behind in the wake of globalization and manufacturing advances, the city maintained efforts to develop the education, tourism, high technology and healthcare service sectors that are driving its economy today.
(It’s worth noting that, as someone who lives in a city currently struggling with the effects of gentrification, economic disparity and a housing crisis, not all of these renewal efforts should be regarded as “everybody wins” scenarios. Ten of thousands of minorities were displaced, and some of the negative effects are discussed in this article.)
Pittsburgh endured the most recent recessions better than most cities, adding jobs and increasing home values. Tourism has boomed in the most recent years, and Pittsburgh is considered one of the world’s most livable cities. That’s a stark contrast to the post-WWII Pittsburgh, where the streetlights were known to stay on all day because of smoke and smog.
The One Thing About Pittsburgh…
…is traffic. My initial plan, on this quick-turnaround trip, was to get familiar with downtown after lunch on Friday, figure out where I could shoot at dusk that night and on a return trip Saturday morning. That plan broke down at about 4pm when we found ourselves stuck in traffic on the south side of the city, taking an hour to go seven miles. I lost my “get familiar” time and had to pivot, and make a couple educated guesses about the best places to shoot in a small amount of time.
All that’s to say that, despite the Saturday morning plan nearly falling apart, as well, because of traffic, I was extremely happy with where I ended up in both time slots.
Station Square in Pittsburgh
I love to travel, but I hate to be a tourist. It’s a balance (and one that’s extra hard to pull off when hauling camera gear around). When I had to pivot quickly to Google searches and hotel guidebooks to find the right place to visit on Friday night, I knew I wanted waterfront vistas. Station Square certainly had those views, but with a strip-mall style lineup of chain restaurants, it’s not my normal first choice.
Station Square is a revitalized area across the Monongahela River on the south side of Pittsburgh. It used to be the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad station, and many of the old buildings remain, sitting alongside strikingly large pieces of decommissioned machinery now doing duty as sculptures and statues.
Despite the culinary selection being utterly devoid of character, the area has a wonderful life to it, with outside music and entertainment. The riverwalk has beautiful views, which was what I came to see. It’s a great night out, as long as you eat before getting there.
Roberto Clemente Bridge
I guess it was a foregone conclusion that I’d end up strolling around the baseball stadium, even if I hadn’t initially intended it. My early-Saturday gametime decision was to actually visit Point State Park, with its wide views of the city, but when I finally got down there, I found myself wandering across the Roberto Clemente Bridge towards PNC Park.
The Roberto Clemente Bridge, which connects a large part of the city to Heinz Field and PNC Park, is one of the oldest bridges in the United States. It’s one of the Three Sisters, three parallel and largely uniform bridges that cross the Allegheny. Named after the famous baseball player and pretty exceptional human, the bridge is an integral part of the landscape that many call the most beautiful in baseball.
Pittsburgh’s beauty lies in its old but lovingly maintained industrial-era feel. Some of the best elements of this are on display around the bridges, and it’s credit to the architects of recent decades that the new buildings fit so well with the old. On this morning, against the steel and brick infrastructure of a vital part of the city, the 6am peace and quiet of the riverwalk made for a gratifying walk.
I rarely feel like I’ve had enough time in a new city, but it’s obvious that Pittsburgh has much more to offer. I’ll return soon, staying downtown (and minimizing the need for a car), with the intention of giving myself as much access as possible to the most walkable areas of the city. I’ll also plan on visiting some of the higher points of the city (probably via one of Pittsburgh’s two working inclines) and tackling the city with a wider angle lens.
Can’t wait to return.