I learned to hate Pittsburgh at a young age. Growing up in exurban Cleveland, not quite far away enough from the city limits to avoid the flaccid grip of the Browns’ television radius, I suffered irrational fandom. This fandom taught me to loathe a city 134 miles away because of an event that happens twice a year — the Cleveland Browns playing the Pittsburgh Steelers for 60 minutes of professional football.
Embarrassingly, it took me until adulthood to realize how indescribably silly it is to judge any city off of sports alone, let alone a one-sided rivalry that — fantasy land car commercials and male anatomy-hardening ads aside — happens annually for 120 minutes. Yet there I was in my youth, referring to Pittsburgh as “Pittspuke” with the same vitriolic hatred I should have reserved for Shredder like a normal kid.
Boy, how wrong I was about Pittsburgh.
Truth is, Cleveland and Pittsburgh are siblings in the Eastern Rust Belt family that stretches to Detroit, Buffalo, and Youngstown in between. There are far more similarities that bond the cities than separate them.
Case in point, both were abandoned by the American Dream that sent highways into their respective urban cores to suck select residents and jobs out and into the suburbs. Both have a history in demanding stricter environmental protections from the burning Cuyahoga River in Cleveland to the plumes of smoke covering Pittsburgh during the heyday of the steel industry.
In better news, both have their place in the trite but true narrative of revitalizing urban cores. People are moving back to cities like Pittsburgh, shunning the traditional idea of the American Dream in favor of historic, walkable neighborhoods, and culture beyond the strip mall. It’s a new American Dream and Pittsburgh has excelled arguably better than any other city in the United States considering where it once was.
So what better way to celebrate this new American Dream than by traveling to Pittsburgh for the Fourth of July?
Next Stop, Pittsburgh
My wife Melanie and I came into Pittsburgh on the Greyhound — that beacon of mid-20th Century American travel.
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking.
Greyhound? Really? Was it safe? What were the people like on there?
First, how Greyhound got this reputation for being any more dangerous than driving a private vehicle is beyond me. Second, yes, I have actually been asked about the people who ride Greyhound. Guess what? They’re people. Human beings with a pulse. I’m honestly not sure what folks asking this question expect to find on board.
For us, it was a relaxing, stress-free option to arriving in Pittsburgh within walking distance of our hotel at the Renaissance Pittsburgh. Perched on the edge of downtown, this monument to early 20th Century American architecture looks over the Allegheny River, the Simpsons-colored Roberto Clemente Bridge, and PNC Park of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
While my finely tuned architectural sensibilities could spend hours appreciating the historic nature of the old Fulton Building, inside and out, we had an appointment with Venture Outdoors at Golden Triangle Bike.
Did you know Pittsburgh has trains? I didn’t until I killed a night watching Russell Crowe’s The Next Three Days where Mr. Gladiator outruns the bad guys by ducking in and out of the Pittsburgh “T.”
Fortunately, we had the opportunity to warrant a ride on the T when heading over to Golden Triangle Bike, located just around the corner from the First Avenue Station. Even better? Rides within downtown are free.
Donna Bour, Director of Development and Communications at Venture Outdoors, met Melanie and me at Golden Triangle Bike where a number of riders had already been taking advantage of the sunny summer day. We were joined by Jennifer Brown, an urban cyclist and Venture Outdoors volunteer who regularly leads bike tours around the city.
Jennifer took the lead with Donna trailing in the back, leaving us Pittsburgh novices protected in the middle of our small pack. The Eliza Furnace Trial picks up right from the bike rental, though we quickly hopped on the Smithfield Street Bridge to pedal south over the Monongahela River to Station Square and along the edge of the river to more industrial corners of the city. This, now the South Side Riverfront Trail, runs right through South Side Riverfront Park with the occasional shade of forestry planted adjacent to the paved path. It surely makes for an interesting juxtaposition when in less than a mile you go from industrial decay to something that feels removed from the city.
After a pit stop on the Hot Metal Street Bridge for Jennifer’s favorite view of the remarkable Pittsburgh skyline — her favorite because it’s lesser known, even to locals — we returned downtown to take advantage of the recently christened Penn Ave. protected bike lane. It’s worth noting that Pittsburgh has been at the forefront among American cities of promoting and implementing cycling infrastructure. Their mayor, Bill Peduto, actually cycles himself and has said he wants to “Copenhagenize” Pittsburgh, a reference to Copenhagen, Denmark — arguably the cycling capital of the world.
Indeed, I can say without hesitation that Pittsburgh instantly became a personal favorite for cycling.
There were other things on our agenda besides cycling. To be honest, cycling was to an extent merely a means to an end. That end being getting our hands on some local booze.
First, it was a stop at the East End Brewing Company growler shop in the Strip District’s Pittsburgh Public Market. (Now closed, but their “Taproom in the Strip” opened June of 2016 in the same neighborhood.) Then it was further east into the more residential Lawrenceville for a stop at Roundabout Brewery at the edge of the Allegheny Cemetery. Well into the afternoon heat, it was standing room only here.
As if more booze were needed, Jennifer led us to a final stop at Maggie’s Farm, an independent distillery and the first of its kind in Pennsylvania since the American dark ages — Prohibition. While I admittedly know as much about good rum as I do astrophysics, I do know that I enjoy a well-crafted glass every now and again. Maggie’s Farm did not disappoint before sending us back to Golden Triangle Bike for the end of a 17-mile jaunt around the city.
I won’t travel for football or basketball, but I will for the right baseball stadium. Pittsburgh, one can easily argue, has one of the best stadiums in major league baseball. It also just so happened that Cleveland was in town for a game, allowing us the full game day experience.
Before game time, however, we opted for a little walk north to West Park for a taste of urban greenery before turning back south to Point State Park where Independence Day and Three Rivers Regatta festivities were well underway. This meant large, happy crowds with musket weaponry demonstrations by costumed revolutionary soldiers and a little game of frisbee among a small pack of competing dogs.
So far, Pittsburgh was shaping up to be a preeminent car-free city in the United States.
Adding, or perhaps even cementing the argument, was the fact that Pittsburgh closes off to traffic on game day the iconic Roberto Clemente Bridge that leads right to the ballpark. This means people, bikes, food trucks, and small shops instead of a mess of 5,000-pound metal death machines blowing poison into your lungs. Why doesn’t every city do this?
Celebrations continued after the game over at Las Velas Mexican Restaurant on the pedestrianized Market Square, complete with live music and more happy faces. Suffice it to say Las Velas provided the sufficient, tasty calorie boost we needed to get back to Roberto Clemente Bridge for the night’s firework display.
Rust Belt Envy
Opting for the afternoon return to Cleveland, we decided to spend our morning with a ride up the Monongahela Incline up to Mount Washington. Besides the opportunity to walk around this historic Pittsburgh neighborhood, it’s also the place to go for those postcard shots of the Pittsburgh skyline. Though it’s never been a notably large city, Pittsburgh lucked out on geography that demands density, so you see less of the heinous sprawl here that plagues so many other corners of the country.
However, like so many other Rust Belt cities abandoned by the American Dream, Pittsburgh remains half its 1950’s peak size at 304,000. But when you actually visit Pittsburgh, you can’t help but wonder how they’re still losing people — even if, thankfully, at a much slower rate than at the zenith of suburban sprawl.
Pittsburgh is a wonderfully dynamic, cultural, and walkable city with what appears to be a progressive eye toward the future. Who wouldn’t want to live here? I certainly left envious.
Meantime, I’ll settle for visiting my Rust Belt sibling whenever I can and as much as possible. Lord knows I’ve only scratched the surface.
Disclaimer: This trip was supported in part by Visit Pittsburgh. As always, all opinions are my own.