Pittsburgh is a city transformed and on the rise. Yet it still finds time to reflect on its fascinating history, writes Joe Leogue.
The thing about some places in Pittsburgh,” my dining companion tells me, “is that they still serve portions for guys heading down the steel mills and not for people behind desks.”
He’s Prof Andy Masich, President and CEO of the Senator John Heinz History Center, and I’m someone wondering if I’ve unwittingly signed up for a Man vs Food challenge by visiting the western Pennsylvanian city for a few days.
Packing a lot into a short sitting seems like an apt metaphor for the long itinerary for my short stay at the Steel City.
We’ve met Prof Masich in Pamela’s, a quintessentially American, Formica-furnished diner whose speciality — crepe-style pancakes with crispy edges — were so loved by the visiting Barack Obama in 2008 that the owners were subsequently guests at the White House on a number of occasions.
The aforementioned steel mills are gone from Pittsburgh, a city that is reinventing itself as a base for the likes of Google, Apple, Microsoft, and other household names in the tech and medicine world, all of which are benefiting from graduates coming out of the city’s Universities.
The so-called “Eds and Meds” revolution has seen a surge in the real estate value of some neighbourhoods, and growth in upmarket restaurants, bars and entertainment venues across the city.
Anecdotes about white-collar workers having to change their shirts after lunch due to the dirt in the air back in the old days are told on more than one occasion; a look-how-far-we’ve-come boast about the turnaround in the environment in a literal and industrial sense.
A city rejuvinated, Pittsburghers — or Yinzers in local slang — don’t just tell you what a building is, they tell you what it used to be.
Prof Masich tells me the Heinz History Centre used to be an ice warehouse.
The Distrikt Hotel where I am staying is a contemporary reworking of a former Salvation Army building.
A seven-floor museum dedicated to city native Andy Warhol was once another warehouse.
The Ace Hotel in the hip East Liberty neighbourhood used to be a YMCA — its ballroom is the old gym, its original interior remains intact.
An old fire station was transformed into a museum dedicated to baseball star Roberto Clemente, who died in a plane crash while en route to carry out humanitarian work in Nicaragua.
It’s a city looking to develop its future without compromising its past, and the legacy of its founding industries are everywhere you look.
Cultural institutions across the city bear names reflective of the philanthropic endeavours of both the late 19th-century steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, and the world-famous Heinz family, who founded their food empire in Pittsburgh in 1869.
After our breakfast, Prof Masich gives a whistlestop tour of the Heinz History Center — a 370,000-square-foot museum whose affiliation with the Smithsonian brings with it access to hundreds of millions of items.
Pittsburgh was the starting point for the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition across America in 1804, and the Heinz Museum’s extensive exhibitions covers this and all aspects of western Pennsylvanian history stretching back 250 years.
It also contains a museum within a museum dedicated solely to the region’s sport history, appropriate for a city with strong fan bases for its three main franchises, the Steelers (NFL), Pirates (baseball), and Penguins (ice hockey).
The Carnegie name is associated with four museums in Pittsburgh, including the extensive Warhol museum.
Among the highlights in the Natural History Museum is an original specimen of a full Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, while the adjacent Carnegie Museum of Art has a collection of more than 30,000 objects.
These two museums are in the Oakland neighbourhood on the west side of the city — but Pittsburgh is easily navigable, and everything of interest is within a maximum 5km journey.
Downtown Pittsburgh is hemmed within the acute angle formed by the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, which converge at Point State Park from which the Ohio then flows on westwards.
The main tourist attraction Downtown is the Cultural District, which hosts six theatres as well as art galleries, eateries and bars.
Both Pamela’s Diner and the Heinz Centre are in the city’s Strip district— so called because it is the strip of flat land between the hillside Lawrenceville neighbourhood to its East, and bustling Downtown to its West.
On more than one occasion a local would describe the Strip as ‘gritty’, which would prove to be an overcautious euphemism for ‘working class’.
It’s an area as yet untouched by gentrification, a solitary McDonald’s being the only multinational incursion into the one and a half square kilometre area.
This neighbourhood along the south of the Allegheny was once a food distribution and wholesale district, and the legacy of that era are the grocery stores and eateries, some run by the same families for generations, which offer cuisines from Italy, Greece, Poland, Syria, or whatever you’re having yourself.
Knowing where to try the food on offer in the Strip can be daunting, which is why we were grateful for Sylvia McCoy, whose Burgh Bits and Bites Company (burghfoodtour.com) give curated tours of the Strip, picking the best places to stop for a sample of delicious wares and a chat with the owners.
By the time we hit Enrico Biscotti followed by Colangelo’s —specialising in northern Italian pastries — I’m making excuses and packing slices to go, physically unable to eat anymore.
The other notable aspect of the Strip is the abundance of stores selling the black and yellow of the city’s three major professional sports teams.
Even by US standards, Pittsburgh is sports crazy, and the three franchises are unique by American standards in that they all share the same city colours across the different sporting codes.
Both Pirate’s PNC Park and the nearby Heinz Field — home to the six-time Super Bowl-winning Steelers — are along the North Shore where the two teams shared the Three Rivers Stadium until its demolition in the late ’90s.
The construction of the stadiums ushered in a new era for the surrounding North Shore, which has seen bars, restaurants and office space among other developments sprout up in the area over the last 15 years or so.
Major League Baseball’s marathon regular season means the Pirates play 81 times at home from late March to early October — giving ample opportunity for summer visitors to check out the magnificent PNC Park.
Often cited among sports writers’ favourite baseball stadiums, the view of Downtown and the Roberto Clemente Bridge to the south are worth the admission price alone.
The best views of Pittsburgh, however, are rewarded to those who take the Duquesne Incline funicular on the South Side of the city.
Night or day, the summit of Mount Washington offers a view of Pittsburgh in all its glory — the rivers, many bridges, stadia, and skyscrapers that make up a city underappreciated by travellers on this side of the Atlantic. Looking over Pittsburgh, it’s a wonder it has been overlooked for so long by Irish holiday-goers.
BA offers a direct flight from the UK to Pittsburgh, its service runs four times a week from Heathrow Terminal 5 on Tuesdays, Wednesday, Fridays and Sundays.
Return fares start from £536 in World Traveller and £1,010 in World Traveller Plus.
Customers can fly in economy (World Traveller) premium economy (World Traveller Plus) or business (Club World) – all three provide food, and drinks.
Rooms at the Distrikt Hotel Pittsburgh start from $189.