This past summer, I was asked to speak to a gang of bikers - bicyclists that is, on bikes without engines, things propelled by people, under their own power - who labored past Pittsburgh by a southern route out of Morgantown. One of the yearly trail events organized by the DCNR or the DNR or some equally unfunded department of government - 300 people give or take. They ride for 7 days along various trail systems. This time they came up from West Virginia, along our Montour trail, and on to Maryland. They were camped in West Newton some 30 miles up the Yough when I met them.
I talked about bike trails, why they were important, how they gave land back to people who hadn't seen or used or crossed that land since the railroads cut thru their towns a century before and why we should respect that process of return and that we as bikers should respect the people we pass along the way whether they're on a bike, pushing a stroller, selling us lunch, or just out for a walk. Rails to trails- an American success story, green space given back to citizens whose parents and grandparents and great grand parents toiled along these lines of industry now dormant to give their kids a toehold.
And them someone asked me "If we do, why should we come back to Pittsburgh? What's good to see? What's so special about it?"
Can someone say, "Softball." ?
And then can someone say, "Strike."?
I mumbled, I laughed, someone prompted me with "the Paris of the Appalachias" and I said, "Yes I know the guy who wrote that, " and then I couldn't remember Brian's name.
In short, I choked. Hard core. Full on.
I failed my people.
So if anyone asks me again or if they ask you…Why Pittsburgh?…. maybe this will help. Maybe this will expiate my sins of omission.
I'm google free here so be kind.
This is my preamble to the Constitution of my hometown. My Haka before its enemies. My pursuit of life, liberty, and some odd kind of local happiness.
Pittsburgh. City in the trees, capital hill town of the forgotten empire of the Appalachians - that swath of radical American geography which to this day can astonish and stymie anyone who has the guts not to fly over it. The Appalachians. Oldest rocks, hills, and dales in the United States. The Appalachians - huddle as well of poverty, cruelty and self hatred unparalleled.
We aren't Midwesterners. We aren't from the East. We're hill people. Hill and hollow, hateful and with a hatful of sorrow, joy, laughter and scorn. A hard place but with more heart than a balkan love song.
George Washington fell out his boat crossing the Allegheny one winter and woulda died if not for a kindly Lenape indian (Delaware? Lackawanna?) who fished him out and built a fire. Probably the first recorded instance of a pgher being too nice to some stranger who had his eyes on local property.
Lewis and Clark didn't start their trip in St Louis, they started it here. Well, Lewis did as he haggled with the drunk Germans who built and misbuilt his precious little bark down in Elizabeth.
Free blacks practiced medicine in pgh before the civil war, Jews came here by the thousands, Catholics built chapels here before there was one in South Boston. Every variation of every delineation of christianity built its churches here. Go to Homestead and in three blocks you can walk by 8 separate denominations. 8 facades built by glass, iron, steel, and wood workers. 8 parishes from the ground up paid for by men and women who fought to make a living wage. Go to Mckeesport and you can do the same. And 5 of them will be abandoned..
Faith, booze, and labor. Our truer trinity.
Speak to any Jew in America and say you're from Pittsburgh, say you know Squirrel Hill and they'll nod. That intellectual and commercial powerhouse of a neighborhood, perhaps the supreme achievement of men like Edgar Kaufmann ( Senior, thank you) who when he wasn't fucking the daughters of the men who wouldn't let him thru the doors of their clubs, was empowering a community that would outlast the Fifth avenues and North Sides of Frick, Carnegie and Phipps. By a long bloody shot.
Pittsburgh- mighty heart in the small body of the African community- the Crawfords- the Grays- best Negro league teams that ever played (sorry KC), Josh Gibson raised in Pgh, Satchel Paige played here, their stories told by The Courier - as Gibson was to Ruth so it was to the Times- all the news that was fit to print in black ink. Its reporters broke every story in black America that mattered, they followed soldiers into battle who in basic training weren't allowed to drink from local water fountains, they followed Jackie Robinson right up to his rookie MVP, they broke the Tuskeegee syphilis scandal, they told the story of the airmen of the same base 5 of whom came from Pgh, they were in the front of the marches in Alabama, in Memphis when MLK was killed, their star photographer Teenie Harris left a body of work over 70 years that tells the story of an American city as well as any chronicle ever assembled. Like his contemporary Romare Bearden, like August Wilson a generation later he laid down a tapestry telling the story of the history of Pittsburgh. Stitch those into Eugene Smith's Pgh Project- 10,000 negatives shot over 5 years, lay them over The Pittsburgh Study organized by the Univ of Wisconsin at the turn of the 19th century. Mix in Luke Swank and Clyde Hare, as I'm mixing metaphors, have Charlee Brodsky and Bob Qualters wrap it up. No town has ever had so many geniuses want to tell its tale.
And then lets count the geniuses that left. Some of them can fuck off and then some of them did what they had to.
Fuck off: Gertrude Stein, Philip Glass, Martha Graham, Jim Laughlin, Alex Katz, David Mccullough , (why?- because he never wrote about US)
Do what ya gotta do: Andy Warhol, Mary Cassatt, Thomas Cole, Bessie Smith, Earl Hines, Stanley Turrentine, Billy Strayhorn, Gene Kelly, Roy Haynes, Ray Brown, Rachel Carson, Duane Michals, John Edgar Wideman, Washington Roebling (bridge building's an art you shits),
(Jeff Goldblum can go fuck off too but he's so far from genius he's not worth bringing up except to single out a dude who's disowned and badmouthed, and actively made fun of his home town more than anyone I can think of. What was the name of that guy who had the local access channel in NYC - ha Al Goldstein! - and every week gave out the golden screw award to any shit bag of a landlord, cafe owner, tv repairman, editor, producer or all around bozo who screwed over Al. And each week he'd show their name address and business on air and then flip off straight to camera, "Jeff Goldblum? Fuck you!!!")
Every building in NYC under 16 stories is made of Pittsburgh Structural steel. Every. One.
Pittsburgh made more steel more quickly than every Axis nation in WW II. One city. More than the GERMANS! And in 1982 a team of Homestead Steel workers set a record of man hours per ton of steel that's only been beaten once by a squad of Koreans who were tasked to break the record. When someone tells you how inefficient US Steel workers were tell them to go fuck themselves like Homestead resident Jeff Goldblum and read their history. We just paid our men more. Like one would fellow humans, neighbors, and kin. A living wage. How dare they ask! The cheek, the umbrage.
Pittsburgh was the center of the glass industry, the oil industry - people don't know the Mellons didn't make their money in steel they made it in oil and chemicals and land and plain old banking, steel was too radical, too boom and bust for them- the food business, the aluminum industry, industrial grease, coal, shipping, nuclear engineering, tool and die, carpentry - the skills of the mold makers of the steel industry who carved every piece ever cast in a foundry first as a piece of wood were unparalleled. They built to tolerances unheard of- they knew wood like renaissance craftsman- Pittsburgh birthed and raised an entire army of physical builders who when they weren't toiling in its many mills were building the housing stock of the city's neighborhoods - and its churches and schools- which to this day can astonish in its variety and brick shit house solidity.
Pittsburgh was the home of the first US Croatian diocese, the place where the Czech's and Slovaks made peace during WWI, the home of the Polish national government in WWI, the birthplace of the VFW, the greatest contributor to the Union army in the Civil War, the greatest contributor percentage wise of population to the armed forces in the entire history of the country, the most medal of honor winners came from here, the most NFL quarterbacks, the most Hall of Fame jazz musicians, when Duke Ellington and Count Basie brought their bands thru here they used to say "We're comin to the land of the giant killers. " Stanley Turrentine's little brother Tommy used to hang out and wait for the big boys from New York to finish their set so he could go out and embarrass them. Gene Kelly's older brother never left East Liberty and according to Gene's widow was the better of the two. There was a piano player from Homewood who'd warm up by playing scales with both hands, playing in opposite directions just to spook the visiting pros. How many, how many decided to, had to, couldn't anything but stay- who could play rings around the names we know now as the giants of jazz?
And how bout who did leave? Earl Hines, Bessie Smith, Art Blakey, Billy Strayhorn, Errol Garner, Ahmad Jamal, Stanley Turrentine, Dakota Staton, Billy Eckstine, Ray Brown, Roy Haynes, George Benson - who if you haven't heard play a standard after he gives the audience his "hits" you should do so before you die - and the exodus continues today - the students of those giants teaching kids today who can't get enough work here to live. Good bye and good luck Sean Jones, how long can we keep you Dwayne Dolphin?
Pittsburgh has more green parks per capita than any town in the Country. It has more golf courses, more hospital beds, more bars, more thickening and evolutionarily astounding accents than any city in the country. A writer from the Wall Street Journal wanted to do a contemporary field study of the Dictionary of American English which if you haven't paged thru it is like finding three lost Gospels- anyhow he was going to cross the country and track where the accents described and transcribed in the 50s had gone. How had they changed and faded?
Across the entire nation regional accents are eroding. All of them. TV has done its work well and everyone is slowly beginning to sound like Tom Brokaw.
Everyone except two regions in the country.
Inner city New Orleans. And Pittsburgh. In fact, all of Western Pennsylvania.
The writer was going to stay a day here. He stayed five and came back for more.
We are, he said, "The galapagos islands of American dialect."
Fuckin A right.
CBS tv spearheaded the use of local metrics to count tv viewers in their larger markets. Local Nielsons they're called.
KDKA -the only tv station east of the Mississippi that leads with a K- is their affiliate and when it turned in its numbers for a Steeler game in the mid 70s the folks at CBS corporate in NYC laughed and said "Idiots you screwed up, count em again."
KDKA's engineers said nope, those are the numbers.
CBS had a goldmine.
High viewer ship nationally is 20 million viewers. A rating above 15 % lands you these days in hit territory. The finale of MASH in 1982 was the highest rated show in history. It had something like 69% of the national viewership glued to its story.
High regional sports viewership is the NY Giants, or the Redskins who pull in about 48-55% of their local viewers, The Green Bay Packers have been known to break 60 but they have no other sporting team within 50 miles and they're a city of less than 200,000.
Every week the Steelers routinely break 75%.
3/4s of all the tvs in the greater Pgh area are tuned to the Steelers week in week out. The finale of MASH every week. And more. Now imagine what they can't count. The bars. The bars in cities all across the country, across the world where the diaspora of Pittsburgh has set up shop, turning "Black and Gold" into a religious mantra.
So what is it? What's the twisted chromosome in the mind of every Pittsburgher -well, most of them- that turns them toward home like Salmon like Monarchs like Carrier Pidgeons like everyday work a day folks in cities across this country that I've sat with ...and thru the first two quarters they're happy, they're well paid, they're out, they made it, they've made a life in Santa Monica, in Portland, in Northern VA, in Austin, in NYC, in New Hampshire, in Indianapolis, in San Fran, in place after place where there's sufficient mass to keep the creative class burning what is it come late in the third quarter and then the fourth when they start screaming like they're Palestinians swearing to return, like Irishman promised to a home, like people torn from the arms of loved ones, who somehow inexplicably must have done something wrong in their hearts when they decided to make it on their own?
What did it to us?
And this in the end is the point.
You can add up all we've done, built, made, forged, cast and sold. You can name 100 Pittsburgh names that should be set in bronze somewhere or other, you can say how many, and how much, and how often it's happened in Pittsburgh and you can do it with numbers that are pretty damn accurate. And then you can say therefore there must be this many reasons why you should live here. Ka chink, deal, escrow, done.
And you'd be totally wrong.
You'd have no idea what makes a Pgher with two happy kids in a good school in sunny California taken care of by a high paying rewarding job, you'd have no accurate way to estimate "Why is this man crying about a town he hasn't seen in over a decade? About a father he barely knew? A mother who gave him as much pain as love?
Because it's all bullshit. The PR, the counts, the ratings, the councils and the conferences, and oh the howler- the number of times we've been called livable.
Pittsburgh might only make sense on a Sunday when you can't get a decent meal or see a show and the roads are as empty as a bombed city, and in all this absence suddenly you feel happiness. Because the emptiness, the reason the commercial thoroughfares have been left to themselves is quite simply everyone's visiting their families.
Pittsburgh doesn't, and I'm speaking quite literally, it's a city that doesn't "add up".
For all its centrality to the history of world commerce and capitalism, as a people we don't much care. There are better things to be doing.
You won't find "Pittsburgh" on a graph or a spread sheet. What life it has will be found in its language and its laughter and its music. It's a city of poetry. It is one.
Good luck. Cause the poem is long and it's printed in places you might be afraid to visit.
"The gritty alleys where we played every evening were
stained pink by the inferno always surging in the sky
as though Christ and the Father were still fashioning
the Earth. Locomotives driving through the cold rain
lordly and bestial in their strength. Massive water
flowing morning and night throughout a city
girded with bridges. Sumptuous shouldered,
sleek thighed, obstinate and majestic, unquenchable.
All grip and flood, mighty sucking, and deep rooted grace.
….our spirits forged in that wilderness, our minds forged
by the heart."
And when you drive around you'll get lost and some Pittsburgher will come up and without being asked start to give you directions and usually end by telling you, 'You gotta know it by heart."