Pittsburgh and its Golden Triangle

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 (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.

Stunning Topography

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
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.

Classy Architecture

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.

Living Patterns

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
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.

Post-Industrial Economy

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

Michael Cumming is a designer, writer and photographer concerned about sustainable design and urban development. He has training in Architecture and Computational Design and has lived in several cities in Canada, the US and Europe. He is delighted to have settled with his wife and two children in the Strathcona neighbourhood of Hamilton. You can view his website or follow him on Twitter.


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By canbyte (registered) | Posted December 10, 2009 at 09:12:24

It is unclear how the city makes it money these days.... What are municipal taxes like? Does the city have much debt? Are they being subsidized? Public transit, services & amenities? Condition of roads?

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 .....

going down the toilet.

Obama is being unmasked for what he is - same team as Bush. Both openly acknowledge NWO stuff. This is a real threat as shown in Copenhagen Treaty (Clause 38) which destroys democratic constitutions. By the time greens figure out they've been duped, globe will be cooler, we will be serfs with no rights & chips in our bodies, America will have had another civil war/uprising, Canada will have reacted to that by ?splitting up? in which case Ontario becomes rust bucket outpost except mining industry, health care/ pensions/ welfare will be gone due to the expense of WW3. Optimistic, eh! Well, to avoid that future, we better start reacting - could start by clawing back bankers bonuses. As Plato said, our silence gives consent.

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By rgy265 (anonymous) | Posted December 11, 2009 at 08:40:43

Great city to live, work and visit.

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By artie (anonymous) | Posted December 11, 2009 at 08:44:20

An interesting observation from a citizen of America's 51st state. Pittsburgh is a remarkable city with a even more remarkable story. And for the credentials that Cumming has, at times I felt like I was reading an essay written by an 8th grade student.

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By Tammany (anonymous) | Posted December 11, 2009 at 10:11:06

^ That comment may not have been nice, but it was honest criticism.

No need to downvote.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted December 11, 2009 at 10:26:27

Calling Canada the 51st state and claiming the author writes at a grade 8 level is not 'honest criticism'. They are gratuitous insults that contribute nothing to the discussion.

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By jason (registered) | Posted December 11, 2009 at 11:01:39

that's actually the normal was American's have discourse with each other. Ever watched Fox or CNN? If there aren't insults and yelling matches, it's been a bad show.

And this response here is to a largely positive article about one of America's cities that is actually doing well. Imagine if Michael had written a piece on Detroit?? LOL

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By jason (registered) | Posted December 11, 2009 at 11:02:25

can we PLEASE get the editing feature up and running. My first sentence of course should read "the normal WAY...."

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By jason (registered) | Posted December 11, 2009 at 14:19:11

Wow. All I needed to do was ask eh? LOL

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By Tammany (anonymous) | Posted December 11, 2009 at 15:09:42

"They are gratuitous insults that contribute nothing to the discussion."

I'm not sure if either is a "gratuitous insult". Clearly artie could have chosen more delicate language, but as far as I'm concerned he/she shouldn't have to. A critique of a published article shouldn't have to bear any regard for the author's personal feelings.

As far as contributing to the discussion, I think comments with respect tothe formal/stylistic merits of a piece are perfectly valid and should be heard.

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By sselway (registered) | Posted December 11, 2009 at 15:59:46

I also stayed in Pittsburgh a few months ago in the Golden Triangle. One of the features I loved was FREE transit in the downtown. They have a huge number of people who take transit to the downtown from the burbs and once they are there it is free! We could easily do that in Hamilton.

They also have trams/cable car going up which are also connected to the transit, so people take the tram up, and transfer to the next bus. Great idea for here also - lets bring them back!

I walked around many places, and took transit, and light rail and had a tour of their "op centre".

Hamilton has more parking lots, at least surface ones - in my opinion. :>)


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By jason (registered) | Posted December 11, 2009 at 17:03:10

I hope Hamilton has more surface lots than Pittsburgh. Any city worth it's salt will have less surface lots than us.

Many cities have free transit downtown. Hamilton could easily do something like that from Dundurn-Wellington to encourage more transit use by folks close to downtown and by folks who travel into downtown from elsewhere. Mind you, why use transit when there are hundreds of surface parking lots all advertising $2.00 parking?

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By highwater (registered) | Posted December 11, 2009 at 19:07:35

Tammany wrote:

As far as contributing to the discussion, I think comments with respect tothe formal/stylistic merits of a piece are perfectly valid and should be heard.

Why does everyone equate disagreement with silencing these days? I thought he was rude and insulting so I downvoted him. I didn't muzzle him.

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By Tammany (anonymous) | Posted December 13, 2009 at 20:07:09

"Why does everyone equate disagreement with silencing these days? I thought he was rude and insulting so I downvoted him. I didn't muzzle him."

I certainly would not equate disagreement with silencing, but some registered users won't see the comment if it's downvoted.

I would certainly encourage active, verbalized disagreement. Downvoting, on the other hand, is, at least potentially, a form of censorship.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted December 14, 2009 at 09:44:06

Tammany wrote:

I would certainly encourage active, verbalized disagreement...

As do I, that is, when someone is actually trying to make a point. Artie managed to fit two gratuitous insults into a two line post. Comments like these are precisely why the comment voting system was instituted.

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By ep (anonymous) | Posted December 17, 2009 at 21:25:32

Why the constant comparisons of the USA with Canada? Our population is around 34 million and they have over 300 million. Of course poverty and other societal problems are going to be amplified. I think the more interesting comparison lies between Hamilton and Pittsburgh, as cities. Pittsburgh provides a good framework for the future of Hamilton. Investing in tech, hospital and education. Developing the waterfront and improving traffic. Pittsburgh may be in the the USA, which provides a lot of economic advantages; however, Hamilton is only 30 minutes from the largest city in Canada, there is no reason for it to be so blighted.

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