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Thursday, 19 July 2012

Downtown Dead After Dark

Will Culture Vultures
Invade Old 'Steel' Town?
By Richard Carreño
[Writers Clearinghouse News Service]
This is a 'zombie' city. After 5 pm, downtown, or the 'Golden Triangle,' loses its lustre. Worker bees by the thousands turn off the lights, abandon their high-rise office hives, and head home. With few downtown residents and even fewer downtown condos or rentals, the Golden Triangle oozes its life-blood and turns into a urban desert. Until the next morning, it's a land of out-of-town conventioneers, in-and-out suburban threatre goers, and, increasingly given the local and national economy, out-of-work hookers. A variant of Newark maybe. But with tall, very tall, buildings.
In this ossuary-like setting dwell Pittsburgh's great and good -- and long dead. You can hardly not encounter, as you roam the the Burgh, as Pennsylvania's second largest city with about 300,000 living souls is affectionately monikered, the names of such past historical luminaries as Frick, Carnegie, Schenley, Heinz, and Mellon.
'Would that by Bunny Mellon?' an associate inquired when we passed the BNY Mellon Bank Building. Actually, that would be 'Bank of New York Mellon.' But never mind. The Mellon family's vestigial presence (Mellon Square is downtown's hub) is still strong here, even if its financial interests -- including those of Bunny Mellon, Paul Mellon's widow -- have been long been sucked dry by BNY.
The after-5 wasteland has not gone unrecognized. City government, led by the Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, a thirty-two year-old locally-touted wunderkind, has underscored the importance of a downtown resurgence, reaching out to culture vultures far and wide in a 'be downtown' campaign publicity blitz.
One result of that has been the rebranding of twelve-block along the Allegheny, long under the radar as the city's theatre district, as a new, improved, and expanded 'Cultural District.' Sponsored by the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council and Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, more than a half-dozen theatres have been renovated, including Heinz Hall, home of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra; the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts; and the August Wilson Center for African American Culture. New restaurants also now dot the district's main drag, Penn Avenue. (One night during my visit, the district sponsored an evening arts crawl. It's a beginning).
In fact, even without Babbittry, downtown has a lot going for it. Bold architecture and dense street-scapes, with about 150 high-rise towers, frame a tightly-packed urbanized centre-city. Many are post-modern gems. Others, old, wondrous piles, rusticated stone hulks like the old Penn/Union (now Amtrak) station (1900-1902), designed by Daniel Burnham, and the Allegheny County Courthouse (1888) by Henry Hobson Richardson (Boston's answer to Philadelphia's Frank Furness), speak to the city's monumental, empire-building past. Scores of mammoth bridges span the Ohio, Monaghela, and Allegheny, connecting the city's downtown and East Side with its an urban North Shore and residential South Shore. Two suspension bridges were built by famed 19th century bridge architect/engineer John Roebling, best known as the builder of the Brooklyn Bridge.
For the casual observer, though, Pittsburgh is a legacy city, a place that was. Through its early and mid-20th century heyday, well before the Burgh sobriquet, it was known as the 'Steel' or 'Iron' city. It was then, too, a head-office city -- now the former HQ -- of such bed-rock capitalists as Gulf Oil, Alcoa, Westinghouse, and, yes, U.S. Steel.
Make that also a city of odd exceptions. It's one of the few municipalities in the United States of its age (founded, 1758; chartered, 1816), if not the only, sporting the suffix 'burg' that retained the 'h' in its name. Think colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, as the template.
In fact, nomenclature got serious in the late 19th century when the federal bureau that signs off on such things declared that 'Pittsburgh' had to revert to its original colonial spelling as 'Pittsburg.' Between 1890 and 1911, so it was. Officially at least, until Pittsburghers decided to reclaim what was, in fact, the city's original original name. When General John Forbes christened the strategic military outpost, on the the peninsula where the fork of the Monaghela and Allegheny rivers meet the Ohio, it was said that he introduced the 'h' and pronounced 'Pittsburgh' in his native Scottish burr as if it rhymed with 'Edinburgh.' That one, obviously, didn't stick.
Another anomaly is the city's northeastern social and cultural sensibility. This, though the city is high in the Allegheny Mountain range, close to Midwestern cultural currents. Still, Pittsburgh is less Midwestern than Northeastern. More Boston than Akron. Its cultural icons. Frick, Mellon, and Carnegie (pronounced, incidentally, in the Pittsburgh way, as Car-NAY-gie, the last syllable rhyming with 'knee') are all 'Eastern' names, identified with Eastern institutions from libraries, museums, and to foundations. (Exceptions: Anti-abortion billboards dot the landscape, orange juice is served at breakfast, and streets are clean).
My interest in visiting the city recently wasn't connected to turning over old stones, much less old grave stones of Pittsburgh's illustrious old-timers. High on my list was getting touch with the roots of another dead Pittsburgher, albeit, a more recent one and one hardly less in keeping with the hand-me-down stories of Pittsburgh's founding ancestors, who owned, managed, and ruled the city through the last century.
Such was Andy Warhol (1928-1987), the godfather of America's Pop Art movement, who moved, in the 1950s, from the Golden Triangle to New York, to create what he dubbed mischievously the 'Velvet Underground.' Born Andrew Warhola, Warhol was Catholic, ethnic, and gay, different by light years from the rich WASP lifestyles of Pittsburgh's blue-blood heirs. Warhol's memory and art are now showcased in an eponymous museum, housed in a a seven-level former factory building on the North Shore..
Warhol's claim on the city is not the only modern one. Native Pittsburghers also include author Annie Dillard, conservationist Rachel Carson, historian David McCullough, and arts maven to the Parisian Lost Generation, Gertrude Stein. Who knew? (Actually, as far as Stein was concerned, I did know).
In addition, the city is still economically better than most, with the financial (PNC Bank HQ),legal (Reed, Smith HQ), and educational (Carnegie Mellon University, University of Pittsburgh) sectors alive, well, and kicking. (Even Chatham University, a small, bustling women's institution, has its Mellon connection. The school's administration building was donated by Paul Mellon. It was his family home).
Also thriving, at least competing, are two, count 'em, two independent daily newspapers, the Post-Gazette and Tribune-Review. (The Trib is owned by Richard M. Scaife, a buy-in member of the Mellon clan).
Opened in 1994, the Andy Warhol Museum is one of 'Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh,' a brilliantly executed complex of four institutions, including the Carnegie Science Center, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, and the Carnegie Museum of Art. Normally, I get to visit museums gratis, given my journalistic creds. This time, I went 'civilian' and still visited three Carnegie museums -- I skipped the Science Center -- for free. You can too. If you have a reciprocal museum membership. (Mine was that of the Philadelphia Museum of Art).
The Art Museum, a strong regional institution in a fresh, new building, has all the right moves of place that wants to sit at the adult table, alongside encyclopedic museums like the PMA and the Met and, even, the National Gallery in Washington, founded by Pittsburgh financier Andrew Mellon and nurtured by his son, Paul Mellon, the legendary art connoisseur.
The Art Museum's current 'main stage' exhibit, called 'Impressionism in a New Light,' running until 26 August, intertwines 'the visual dialog' between Impressionism on canvas and in photographs. More than 150 works are represented, including a good smattering of pictures by Cassatt, Cezanne, Renoir, and Van Gogh from the museum's permanent collection, and photographs, prominently by Stieglitz and Steichen, on loan from the Met. The thematic trope worked. (The Stieglitz and Steichen pictures were familiar, hot off the heels from a their Met show, which I saw in New York late last year).
Unfortunately for the Burgh, the Art Museum, the Natural History Museum, major universities, the main branch of the Carnegie public Library, and other first-class institutions, are located in the city's Oakland neighbourhood, a vestige of when in the early 20th century Oakland was the bedroom hood for the city's power elite. Even today the neighbourhood is remote, thanks a truncated light-rail subway that was never extended East from downtown.
Had these venues been sited in the Golden Triangle, of course, the energy that now infuses the East Side residential neighbourhoods with tourist and student-related frolic could have been transfused to that downtown area. Much-needed new blood. For all those culture vultures the city is now eager to cater to.