In time for G-20, book explores Pittsburgh neighborhoods
World leaders coming to Pittsburgh next week for a global economic summit may have a limited view of the city: They’ll be whisked from the airport into town for a whirlwind series of meetings that will last less than 48 hours.
But look beyond the security zones and official venues and you’ll find a collection of vibrant neighborhoods, shaped by geography, history and deep-rooted traditions. It’s a history of the country’s 60th largest city that University of Pittsburgh art and architecture professor Franklin Toker chronicles in his new book, “Pittsburgh: A New Portrait.”
Copies of the book are being distributed to the hundreds of media members who will be coming to town next week to cover the summit.
“You bring outsiders to Pittsburgh and, of course, they exclaim ‘I love it,'” said Toker, a native of Canada who has lived in the Northeastern U.S. city for 35 years. “I had no idea of the richness that was here. So the real po int of the book was to bring outsiders to Pittsburgh through this book.”
Toker says Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods differ from other cities because they are small, sometimes made up of just hundreds of people, and mostly defined by geography. Take the North Shore, for example, which is a collection of smaller neighborhoods separated from downtown by one of the city’s three iconic rivers; or the South Side slopes, an area of mostly brick homes set along a hillside and interspersed with dozens of public staircases.
And though some of the city’s neighborhoods are defined by nationality or ethnicity, the people who lived in them were also traditionally defined by where they worked. If you were among the Lithuanian, Polish or Russians who lived on the South Side, chances are you worked at J&L Steel; today, the mills have been replaced by upscale shops and a practice facility for the NFL champion Pittsburgh Steelers.
“The commonality in these neighborhoods was ex ceptional – 60 percent of menfolk are taking their lunch pails to the same places,” Toker said.
Because of those commonalities, great rivalries were forged between communities.
Mill owners encouraged their workers to compete against mill workers in other towns to see who could produce steel faster. Lawrenceville’s Lucy furnace raced against the town of Etna’s Isabella furnace. The men of Homestead raced against those in Braddock. Working in the mills was hard, physical labor, yet these contests brought meaning to their work, Toker said.
Years after the shuttering of the mills, that competitive spirit lives on at everything from wildly popular Friday night high school football games to the frenetic and fanatic support of the city’s beloved Steelers and NHL Penguins.
“The city is very civilized, (people) have really gotten along well basically,” Toker said. “You had your place and it was cemented with ethnic roots and still further by the industrial hie rarchy.”
Toker first wrote a history of Pittsburgh in 1986, a time when the city was still reeling from the collapse of steel. He said he naively hoped his book then would draw national attention to the city, which was “cruising in the water, if not stagnant in the water.”
He says the latest book is not a revision of that earlier work, but a brand new book. He spent several years exploring the city, often on his bike, and affectionately refers to Pittsburgh as “the classic overachiever among American cities.”
He notes that the city is full of contradictions: most livable city in America, but also “most leave-able” with a population that has dwindled from 424,000 in 1980 to just about 310,000 now. Natives wonder why others want to come here, and outsiders wonder why they didn’t come sooner.
Bill Flanagan, executive vice president of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, which is distributing the book at the G-20, said he hopes those who re ad the book will understand more about the city’s transformation and why it is unique.
“We’re proud of our past and it’s important. But we’re not afraid to invest in the future, and I think people who look at it through that lens will appreciate that,” Flanagan said.
Toker chronicles those collective features that define Pittsburghers: the downtown trolleycars that brought generations of women to downtown to the now closed Kaufman’s department store to buy their wedding dresses, the towering Cathedral of Learning in Oakland that stands as a landmark viewed from all across the city and the so-called Golden Triangle where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers meet to form the Ohio.
Though not intended as a guidebook for visitors, Toker included neighborhood maps and glossy photos throughout the book. He intricately showcases the city’s architecture, from an iconic Chrysler dealership built in 1934 on Baum Boulevard to the boyhood home of playwright August Wils on that sits in the historically black neighborhood known as The Hill.
“I got as close to the heartbeats of the neighborhoods as I could,” Toker said.
The book is currently being distributed to stores by the University of Pittsburgh Press.
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