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Views from the Steel City

Last weekend a friend of the blog and I ventured 130 miles to east from Cleveland and visited Pittsburgh. In the spirit of other trips I've made to various cities, below is a recap of the visit and a few of my thoughts. Believe it or not, I'd never really spent any time in Pittsburgh (I have gone to Kennywood Park, a fantastic amusement park and way better than the corporate mega-parks in Ohio) so this was a pretty new experience for me.

This post makes a lot of comparisons between Pittsburgh and Cleveland. People often tell me it's unfair to compare Cleveland to Chicago or New York because they are very different places. But how about Pittsburgh? They are metro areas of roughly the same size... they have very similar historic economies (manufacturing)... and they share a similar climate. I'd say that's fair for comparison.

Let's Go Downtown.
Downtown Pittsburgh is legit. It's geographically compact, there are pedestrians and there is some semblance of streetlife even outside of the workday.

(from Flickr user macwagen)

The casual visitor might not notice, but one thing that makes downtown Pittsburgh different from downtown Cleveland is parking. Much of the parking in Pittsburgh is owned and operated by the Pittsburgh Parking Authority, a municipal agency. Much of the parking in Cleveland is owned and operated by private individuals and companies, and the result is that Cleveland has a lot more awful and wasteful surface lots and garages in the central city than Pittsburgh does.

Take a Walk
Pittsburgh is walkable, except when it isn't. On Friday night we ventured across the 10th Street Bridge over to Pittsburgh's South Side neighborhood. I've been trying really hard to come up with a neighborhood in another city that has a similar feel and character, but I'm coming up with nothing.

(from Wikipedia)

When you're walking down East Carson Street, you'd think that the neighborhood is extremely walkable, with crowded sidewalks pedestrians everywhere. But if you venture even as little as one-block off the main drag, you are instantly in a sketchy, unwalkable part of town with no pedestrians, empty sidewalks, and blank walls all around. The same is true in the Strip District, the other neighborhood we visited during the weekend. Stay on Penn Street up to a certain point and there are people everywhere. Venture a little too far to the east and bam! everyone disappears.

Pittsburgh suffers from a few other walkability flaws. The terrain is extremely hilly, so in certain places, that can be a challenge, and the street grid (or lack thereof) is one of the worst I've seen in any city. Pittsburgh might just be the most confusing city to navigate that I've visited. For what it's worth, I imagine that these features also make Pittsburgh challenging to bike.

Local Business Culture
I love the fact that Pittsburgh has so many unique local businesses. And I'm not just talking about bars and restaurants, which most cities have in abundance. There are locally owned retail stores and groceries and sidewalk vendors. Businesses that basically do not exist in Cleveland.

(from Flickr user nooccar)

I wish I could have visited more of Pittsburgh's local businesses during the weekend, but I will have to save that for a future trip.

Urban Amenities
On the flip side, Pittsburgh has certain urban amenities in the city limits that Cleveland does not, and which few people in Cleveland could conceive of existing outside of the suburbs. By that I means that Pittsburgh has at least two downtown department stores (a Macy's and a Saks) and a Whole Foods within the city limits.

In Cleveland, you need to travel away from downtown to get to any of these places. I grew up believing that such places couldn't exist in the inner-city and that's just the way the world works. It's nice to see a city of similar caliber to Cleveland prove that notion dead wrong.

Missing Transit Links
Pittsburgh has a light rail system, 'the T' but where does it go? It didn't really connect to the Southside, and it didn't at all service the Strip District, the two neighborhoods we visited. It also doesn't go to Shadyside or Oakland, the next two neighborhoods that locals recommended we visit.

(from Flickr user Emdee (Maryland) Guy)

I'm disappointed that I didn't get to ride the T, and I know, only a huge urbanism/transit nerd would say such a thing. It seems clear, though, that light rail in Pittsburgh serves a rather specific purpose and connects only a select few neighborhoods. In this sense, it's very similar to the rail system in Cleveland.

We did ride two Port Authority buses, and for the most part, the experience was very meh. Another thing to add to my list of grievances against buses is that it's very difficult to determine exactly where they are going, and there were no maps to help us figure it out. In both instances, we simply hopped on a bus that said "Downtown" on it and hoped for the best. Few visitors (even locals) are willing to do such a thing.

Closing at 4:00 PM
We visited the Strip District on Saturday around noon. The whole neighborhood was bustling with people. Sidewalks were overflowing, businesses were packed with customers and restaurants had lines stretching down the street. We left and came back around 5:30 and it was like an entirely different place, I could barely believe my eyes.

Many of the businesses were already closed. The restaurant where we wanted to eat had been closed since 4:00. For a neighborhood that was able to pull such an incredible number of people during the day, it was disappointing to see it closed for business by late afternoon.

Final (Uncategorized) Thoughts...
In Pennsylvania, you can still smoke indoors in some places (I don't know the exact details of the law) including a number of places that we visited. This is a big thumbs down to Pittsburgh and thumbs up to Cleveland. And yet, at the same time, Pennsylvania has such strict liquor control laws that you can't even buy beer or wine at a Whole Foods. Irony? Hipocracy? I don't know...

There were tons of people walking around in Steelers gear, even though it isn't football season; but I didn't see a single Pirates shirt or cap. I know the Pirates are notorious for being a losing team, but I didn't realize people in Pittsburgh cared that little about their baseball team.

I liked Pittsburgh. It's a nice city. In some ways it's better than Cleveland, in others, not so much. But the real distinguishing characteristic that separates Pittsburgh from Cleveland is the vibe that things are getting better, not worse, in the city, and that people really enjoy living there.


paxamericana said…
The closest comparison I have to the South Side is Adams Morgan in DC, but more blue collar bohemian and fewer ethnic restaurants. Both have lots of bars and restaurants next to each other, with local young, poorer (relatively) residents nearby and close to several major universities.
I've been going to Pittsburgh a lot for work and have been more and more impressed with the city. Obviously the hills and rivers add a lot of character.

What I've learned recently is that there are lot of neighborhoods that locals consider to be "bad" that I consider to be wonderful. The residents are clearly poor, but the housing stock and built environment are incredible. There are a lot of historic buildings, well, everywhere. I chalk this up to the geography making sprawl difficult near downtown.
John Morris said…
Yes, I visited from NYC when my sister lived here and a few years later, I decided to move here.

The built environment or what's left of it is truely amazing and the waterfront practicality is great. Look how one can walk easily from Downtown to The North Side or South Side.

"If Pittsburgh were situated somewhere in the heart of Europe, tourists would eagerly journey hundreds of miles out of their way to visit it. Its setting is spectacular, between high bluffs where the Monongahela River and the Allegheny River meet the Ohio.”

Brendan Gill

Sadly, Pittsburgh is has only recently started to understand it's geography and make wiser use of it. So much of the valuable land on the North Shore is taken up by stadiums (which sit empty most of the time_, highways and surface lots. So much of the downtown is taken up by garages and the Strip is the same way.

Somehow, the South Side hung on and wasn't "renewed" by the wrecking ball.

Next time bring your bike for some pretty extreme riding.

Visit San Francisco some time.
nadia said…
I always wanted to take a trip to Pittsburgh but was not sure whether i should attempt it or not..thanks to your blog that i have made my mind to hit this city in next vacation..also the way you have expressed yourself in this article is excellent..good work..keep it up

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