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City of the Future: Pittsburgh (Safe Behind the Mountains)

What about Pennsylvania's other great city, the city of Pittsburgh? Is life in Pittsburgh better than life in Philadelphia? Is Pittsburgh's downtown section more pleasing to the eye than Philadelphia's?
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What about Pennsylvania's other great city, the city of Pittsburgh?

Is life in Pittsburgh better than life in Philadelphia? Is Pittsburgh's downtown section more pleasing to the eye than Philadelphia's?

My first glimpse of "the steel city" was from a Greyhound bus at 18 when I took a cross country trip to San Francisco. I'd been napping in my seat when the driver announced "Pittsburgh." I woke with a start and spotted the Golden Triangle. For a second I felt what Brigham Young must have felt when he first laid eyes on the place that would later be called Salt Lake City: This is the place! I wanted to get out and explore, but the bus headed off into Ohio. I never saw Pittsburgh again.

That all changed two weeks ago when I teamed up with friends Tom and Diana who were headed to Pittsburgh to visit their son and daughter-in-law for a 3-day visit. I didn't have to think about it when they asked me if I wanted to join them. I packed my bags and before I knew it we were on the turnpike (with occasional detours on the Lincoln Highway) until at last Pittsburgh's skyline came into view. There it was, just as I had remembered it from the Greyhound bus window, only the view was nicer: newer skyscrapers, mountains and buildings perched on the tops of the great hills that surround the city. Most spectacular of all, were the multiple multicolored bridges in the middle of the city. So many bridges!

Pittsburgh's bridges have a fairyland quality to them and they contrast nicely with the houses, buildings and onion domed churches perched on the hills surrounding the downtown area. Philadelphia's flat topography cannot match this singing, striking landscape.

"Pittsburgh looks great from this angle," Diana said, "but you wouldn't want to live here." I asked 'why not?' and was told that Pittsburgh is a very small town where everybody knows everybody, a kind of Mayberry with skyscrapers. Funny, I thought, this is what they say about Philly. Pittsburgh is also a huge sports town but we're talking all consuming sports as in sports-as-a-reason-to-live and sports-as-religion. Nearly every bar and restaurant in the city has a big screen TV for any game that happens to be on. It doesn't matter what kind of game--hockey, football, baseball or tennis -- as long as it is...s ports. Both Tom and Diana hate sports, and I can't say I am a fan either.

First impressions of a city are important. At first glance, Pittsburgh seems far less diverse than Philly. Tom and Diana told me that there are more redneck types here than in Philly although their numbers are diminishing fast as the city becomes more cosmopolitan. Pittsburgh has made many "best lists" since the year 2000. Forbes Magazine, for instance, rates Pittsburgh as the nation's most livable city. Pittsburgh beat out Honolulu, which came in second. The Farmers Insurance Group also voted Pittsburgh as third on a list of ten as the "Most Secure Places to live in the United States." But the real topper is the city's inclusion in one of the 'hottest cities of the future,' lists where it is called "The Next Hipster Haven." (Philadelphia is also on this list as a city of art (murals) and culture.)

Philadelphia isn't the only city to call itself "the city of neighborhoods" because Pittsburgh uses the same line.


Our first night on the town gave me a sense of the city's smallness in comparison to Philadelphia's never ending flat streetscapes. Pittsburgh is a big city in miniature, with miniature crime, miniature graffiti (or no graffiti at all), a highly walk able downtown section and of course all of those bridges.

The city is ranked among the smartest in the nation. It's been called a city of bookworms (despite the emphasis on sports). It has the best hospitals in the country, and (best yet) the most affordable housing. Many refer to it as a "hidden gem." When travelers think of Pennsylvania they tend to think only of Philadelphia. 'The Economist' has rated Pittsburgh as the most livable city in the United States.

When we visited Pittsburgh's waterfront area, Three Rivers Park, where the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio Rivers meet, it was refreshing not to have to cross an I-95 in order to get there. I also liked the way the waterfront piers meet the water as opposed to the elevated piers at Penn's Landing.

During my stay, I saw little or no graffiti nor did I spot a single homeless person with a cardboard sign. Perhaps I was in the wrong section of town, because I'm sure Pittsburgh has homeless people, but I couldn't find any. The town has a 1960s' time warp quality. As Tom, Diana and I watched the motorboats come and go along the piers, Tom reminded me that Pittsburgh isn't really a Northeastern city at all but primarily a Midwestern city, then an Appalachian city and only lastly somewhat of a Northeastern city, but only somewhat.

The Midwestern flavor of the town is probably why artist Andy Warhol left Pittsburgh on a Greyhound bus after his graduation from Carnegie Mellon. He needed a monolith badass city like New York, and he got it. After his death in 1987, his home town honored him with the Andy Warhol Museum and even a small bridge named the Andy Warhol Bridge. The Warhol Bridge is just down the street from the Andy Warhol Museum.

People either love or hate Andy Warhol but in the museum there is only love. I saw large families with little children, teenagers, elderly folks on walkers or canes, and even a few people in wheelchairs inspecting the Campbell's soup can paintings, the Liz, Marilyn and Elvis portraits, and even checking out the dicey Joe Dallesandro film stills and the Rolling Stones Sticky Fingers album covers. I think Warhol would have approved of the museum staff. Most are college students decked out in Warhol T-shirts and although observant and focused, the staffers don't have that TSA-style museum security guard harshness that one sometimes encounters in standard art museums.

The museum houses the complete set of Warhol's 610 time capsule boxes and many photographs of Warhol's youth and family, his early paintings and his later films and videos.

In the Warhol video room I watched a black and white film that Warhol made of Lee Radziwill, John, Jr. and Caroline Kennedy a few years after JFK's assassination. The movie was made one summer at the family's private beach at Hyannis Port. We see John, Jr. peering into Warhol's camera making goofy faces and then doing strange zombie contortions with his eyes. John, Jr. is about nine years old and Caroline is 11 or so. In another scene Warhol's staff buries John, Jr. in the sand up to his neck and then (with sand) they make him a mermaid body from the neck down, even giving him big sand breasts and then arranging seaweed (as hair) over the lower extremities. John, Jr. is on a non stop giggle. At one point he complains that he just washed his hair and can't get it dirty; then he announces that he has a head itch. A very slender Lee Radziwill walks along the surf in her barely modest string bikini, her wet pony tail looking oddly chic and very "New York."

We ate in a lot of restaurants and found the food and ambiance to our liking. Popular are pubs with the kind of bar food you'd find at Standard Tap in Northern Liberties, only you won't find breaded smelt, probably the most awful dish in the western hemisphere, anywhere in these Pittsburgh pubs. (Standard Tap, unbelievably, insists that breaded smelt is a best seller there). In Pittsburgh, as in Center City or Fishtown, popular restaurants mean long lines, especially at those places that do not take reservations. At one highly prized French eatery the lines were so long that patrons lingered outside with drinks or sat at the bar until called. Our wait was so long that the bartender offered us an apology.

"I am so sorry about this," she said. "I don't know why these people aren't moving. They have their checks but they won't move. They won't go home."

The chronic sitters didn't seem to care that other people had been waiting in line for more than an hour. We humorously suggested that the restaurant print on its menu that customer occupation of a table not exceed two and a half hours. We found that one upscale Pittsburgh Korean restaurant in the Squirrel Hill area has this request printed at the bottom of their menu. Please do not allow your dining experience to exceed two and one half hours. Ironically, the service in this Korean restaurant was extremely bad and so we came to see the time limit as a reverse psychology protective device.

It's weird the way the world works sometimes.

Sadly, the food at that most sought after French style pub with the hour wait was extremely mediocre, while the "no name" casual walk-in lunchtime pubs we visited constituted our best dining experiences.

Back in my home in the City of Brotherly love, I'm still thinking of Pittsburgh's beautiful multicolored bridges.