In Pittsburgh's Golden Triangle, the remnants of previous eras when Pittsburgh was incredibly prosperous are everywhere to be seen.
By Michael Cumming
Published December 09, 2009
Our family spent the US Thanksgiving weekend in Pittsburgh. We booked a hotel on priceline.com (highly recommended) and managed to get a very reasonable deal.
Luckily, the hotel - the Renaissance Pittsburgh - turned out to be stunning as well as affordable. It was by far the best hotel we have every stayed in - or ever expect to stay in.
The boys were ecstatic when they saw the sumptuousness of the lobby and the fluffiness of the pillows on our king-size bed. This hotel had been recently restored and had an impressive glass dome in its lobby and marble balconies worthy of the palace of Versailles.
We couldn't afford to eat any food in its restaurants or, as it turned out, to use its telephones even for local calls but overall the value was impressive. We suspect that something must be deeply wrong with the new world order when people like us can stay so comfortably in such a fine American hotel for so little money.
Our hotel was in an ideal downtown location along the Allegheny River waterfront called the 'Golden Triangle.' It was the first time we had ever stayed in downtown Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh has an unusual urban configuration in that its central business district, the Golden Triangle, is relatively isolated from the rest of the city.
The Triangle is where the two rivers meet to form the mighty Ohio. As we told the boys, this is where in the old days people drifted lazily down the river, Huck Finn style, all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
Even though Pittsburgh is a northern city, this access to the Mississippi River basin does add some romance to the city's narrative. At one time, Pittsburgh was the 'Gateway to the Continent.' It held a similar role to that of Buffalo - as a trans-shipment hub for a nation bent on Manifest Destiny.
What is striking about Pittsburgh, which you tend to forget when you've been away from it, is its stunning topography. Pittsburgh is extremely hilly outside of its downtown core. You soon get into the rhythm of driving through valleys, around hills, along ridges and on top of cliffs. Houses in some neighbourhoods are perched precariously on hillsides, which gives them aspects similar to the Amalfi Coast in Italy or those Greek monasteries built on cliffs.
At first this topography is disorienting, then you get used to it. When I look at online maps of Pittsburgh I forget how the neighbourhoods I knew are interrelated, but when I am driving around in them, I can remember where routes lead based on muscle memory.
Pittsburgh has the policy of fixing up its downtown core to make it the most attractive part of the city. This policy seems to have worked out well. Fortunately, there were many splendid, historic buildings in the core to fix up.
Heinz Hall Staircase
Pittsburgh has re-branded part of its downtown as the Cultural District. There, they have renovated several old movie and vaudeville houses to become venues for live theater and music. The Cultural District holds Pittsburgh's major cultural attractions such as Heinz Hall (home of the Pittsburgh Symphony), the Benedum Center, Byham Theater and the O'Reilly Theater. These venues happened to be a block from our hotel.
In downtown Pittsburgh there are many instances of interesting civic sculpture, and the quality of new and renovated architecture is generally very high. In addition to restored buildings, there are also other civic improvements such as sculpture parks, river walkways, and new state-of-the-art sports stadiums along the Allegheny river.
Overall, Pittsburgh has done a very good job of fixing up their downtown and I would say that the quality of design and execution is superior to most things you see in Toronto or Hamilton. Pittsburgh can be a very classy place, which is something that many outsiders might not realize.
In Pittsburgh's Golden Triangle, the remnants of previous eras when Pittsburgh was incredibly prosperous are everywhere to be seen. Some buildings have splendid cast bronze sculpture, or intricately carved stonework in the Gothic style. Others are clad in cream-coloured terracotta, an extraordinarily elegant and long-lasting building material.
These buildings were obviously built to communicate a level of cultural sophistication on the part of their builders. They are as impressive as buildings you might find in New York, Boston or Vienna.
They were built by names such as Carnegie, Frick, Mellon, and Heinz. These are the people who in old cartoons dress in top hats, wear cashmere overcoats and smoke fat cigars. They made incredible amounts of money when Pittsburgh was the centre of steel production for a rapidly-expanding continent. At the time they may have been 'new money' but now they seem as old as the Medici.
They built some splendid buildings for their city and therefore gave back to the city in a physically enduring way. This is somewhat of a different practice than what is done by today's obscenely wealthy, for which these forms of architectural philanthropy are less common. As an architect I enjoy visiting such buildings despite misgivings about the economics and labour relations of Gilded Age capitalism.
If you live in Pittsburgh and don't work downtown, you probably will not spend much time downtown, even if you have interest in the urban attractions that the downtown has to offer. The suburbs of Pittsburgh spread for miles and this is where most people live. In general, these suburbs are similar to those in any other American city and have little in common with the hard-core urbanity of the Golden Triangle.
The people who tend to frequent the downtown seem to be: well-off people who work in corporate offices and drive Audis; poorer black people who also work downtown and who take the bus; and those who attend cultural and sporting events such as football games, plays, and concerts. This gives the tourist a slightly skewed demographic impression of the city.
Pittsburgh's downtown is busy during the work week but it tends to empty of people when the work week ends. Very few people appear to live in the Golden Triangle itself. It lacks the high density pedestrian traffic or residential amenities you might find in Toronto or New York.
There is some evidence of higher-end residential development for those who work in corporate towers and wish to live adjacent to their work, but this is a tiny portion of the population. The Golden Triangle seems to lack some basic services for residents. For instance, it does not appear to have many (or any) grocery stores.
6th Street, Pittsburgh
Despite the overall attractiveness of the Golden Triangle, it is unclear whether it will ever become a compelling place to live. One reason is that Pittsburgh has many residential neighbourhoods that are attractive, inexpensive and full of residential-type services such as shops, schools and synagogues.
Pittsburgh prides itself on the warmth and sociability of its neighbourhoods. The Golden Triangle may be stunning from an architectural perspective but seems to lack this home-town warmth and practicality.
Since the border between adjacent neighbourhoods and the downtown is so distinct in Pittsburgh, people living downtown have to be hard-core urban homesteaders to make that jump. In fact, we know no one who lives or has ever lived in the Golden Triangle. This is why staying there briefly, in a fancy hotel, was such a novelty for us. It is an experience that many Pittsburghers have also never had.
Pittsburgh is now a largely post-industrial city with little evidence of heavy industry in its city core. It is unclear how the city makes it money these days, beyond the usual sources such as universities, hospitals and financial services and whether Pittsburgh is still running on old money or whether new fortunes are being made.
Despite the fact that its downtown is very attractive and they have managed to convert the Smoky City's downtown into a show place that rivals midtown Manhattan, Pittsburgh is not always an optimistic city. It has the typical rust-bucket maladies of declining population, pockets of extreme poverty, racial segregation and flat employment growth. I sense that the attractiveness of the Golden Triangle may not be indicative of the health of the rest of the city.
Travelling to the USA from Canada is interesting because it is so different from what we are used to. This feeling of difference occurs the minute we cross the USA-Canada border. On one side of this border is one set of rules and expectations and on the other is another.
America gives the impression of promises of great wealth and comfort for those who succeed, but also great pain and degradation for those who fail. The wealthier seem wealthier but the poor seem poorer than in Canada. Not being too clear about which of these two categories we fit into makes us hesitate to move back to Pittsburgh.
One does get the impression that in parts of the USA during this current recession, some of the working population is in absolute crisis - more so than in Canada. The USA has never been known for having much of a safety net and this recession seems to be more severe than previous ones. There is greater fear this time not only that the American economy is in rough shape, but also that the position and status that the USA has enjoyed up until now is in some jeopardy.
Pittsburgh derives part of its power simply from being situated in the USA. Pittsburgh has direct access to American markets and to American economies of scale. The USA does have a population and an economy that dwarfs that of Canada. As we often thought when we lived in Pittsburgh, the USA may not be better than Canada but it sure seems bigger.
this essay was first published in Michael's blog
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