A reader in California e-mailed the following comment about Pittsburgh in response to my initial posts: “It seems the stories in such a place are right on the surface, not distracted by the charminess of a place like the Bay Area.” That’s a pretty astute observation, and I especially liked her coinage of “charminess” to imply a negative connotation – charm as a veneer that can be misleading.
The topography of Pittsburgh is that of steep hills and river valleys, and it is this landscape which attracted the industrialists and the workers who settled here. While Pittsburgh has evolved into a high tech white-collar city over the past several decades, there is a blue-collar down-to-earth sensibility that remains deeply ingrained in the people who live here. That tenacity is symbolized by the homes that cling to the hillsides above the three rivers.
Pittsburgh’s hillside houses are not the “Painted Lady” Victorian row houses that cover the hills of San Francisco, or the cute and colorful “Little Boxes” on the slopes of that city’s southern peninsula. Our hillsides are more rugged and untamed, with hillside houses rising vertical and defiant, jutting up amid lush greenery, precipitous on the steep slopes and atop the crests. I didn’t always see their beauty, which may be an acquired appreciation. It’s an unexpected beauty, suddenly noticed when the morning light slants a certain way to sharply define the rooflines and angles, or when last rays of a sunset cast a golden glow reflected by the windows.
From the East End to the West End, the South Side Slopes to the North Side, Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods are defined and divided by hills and rivers. We don’t have a touristy and famous Lombard Street curving past stately homes, but we do have Rialto Street which steeply plummets with no curves straight down the side of Troy Hill and is as thrilling a ride as in any amusement park. There are grand and stately homes here, too, as well as genteel neighborhoods and gated communities, and there are even sections of Grandview Avenue on Mount Washington which remind me very much of San Francisco.
It seems I’m fated to always compare these two cities, loving each of them in different ways. But I’ve long ago claimed Pittsburgh as home. It’s a city with a rich literary history, an active writing and artistic community, and a visually interesting landscape. One of my favorite writers here, Chuck Kinder, wryly describes Pittsburgh as the “Paris of the Appalachians.” Now that sounds like just my kind of town.
Photograph: Houses on Troy Hill, used by permission, copyright 2009 by Kevin Scanlon