I expend a lot of breath defending Pittsburgh to people who have never been there. They (and probably you) assume it is dirty, ugly, and culturally desolate. Yes, during its steel-making heyday Pittsburgh was infamously grim and industrial. But over the past thirty years Pittsburgh has cleaned up and now it wins all sorts of awesome-city awards (http://www.visitpittsburgh.com/media/press-kit/pittsburgh-rankings/).
Gross industrial Pittsburgh vs beautiful present-day Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh has been ranked the smartest and most affordable American city as well as the artsiest midsize city; it’s among the best places for retirement and most underrated travel destinations. The Economist and Forbes independently named Pittsburgh as the “most livable city” in the United States. Pittsburgh natives are very proud of this even if it sounds backhanded (does livable mean tolerable?) The publications quantified livability by complex models that optimized metrics of employment, education, crime, cost of living, and cultural opportunities. I could inundate you with the data, or you could just believe me: math twice proved that Pittsburgh is the best.
But perhaps you’re not impressed by livability rankings, especially considering the #2 spot for Forbes went to Ogden, Utah, and no one outside of Ogden, Utah has ever heard of Ogden, Utah. So instead I could point out Pittsburgh’s stunning landscape of hills, valleys, and rivers. Or how about bridges? Do you like bridges? Pittsburgh has 446 bridges, more than Venice (and that is a fact that all Pittsburghers know by age 8). And then there’s Pittsburgh’s under-the-radar, yet vibrant restaurant scene.
We have the most bridges! That’s a merit, right?
But none of these attributes or metrics is why I am a fervent advocate of Pittsburgh. The reason I love Pittsburgh is its pervasive and distinct character. There’s an essential Pittsburghness steeped into the landscape, the businesses, and the people. It’s so everywhere that you don’t notice it until you leave. I can’t define Pittsburghness, but I can certainly list examples…
1) T. Rex at the airport: Arrivals at Pittsburgh International Airport must descend an escalator that passes three life-sized statues: George Washington, Franco Harris, and T. Rex. These are figures of historical importance for Pittsburgh. Franco Harris was a football player who caught the immaculate reception. George Washington? I’m not sure what he did in/for Pittsburgh, but I think it had something to do with leading troops across a frozen river. And T. Rex was king of the dinosaurs. Due to the diversions of wealthy Pittsburgh industrialists, Pittsburgh has an outstanding collection of dinosaur fossils and persisting reverence for the creatures. Most of the fossils you see in New York, Chicago, Paris, are just copies of the real ones on display in the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh (an awesome exhibit called “Dinosaurs in their Time”). We’re very proud of our dinosaurs, and we are equally proud of our sports heroes and founding fathers.
T. Rex is right down the escalator from F. Harris and G. Washington.
2) Giant Eagle: Our main grocery store is called Giant Eagle. What sounds more awesome- Whole Foods or GIANT EAGLE? It’s not weird; it’s Pittsburgh.
3) Rollerblading: It never went out of style in Pittsburgh. We don’t understand why it went out of style everywhere else. It’s joyous recreation. Why aren’t you doing it?
Actually not much goes out of style in Pittsburgh. When we like something, we keep doing it and wearing it—like blond highlights and belly button piercing. For this reason GQ ranked Pittsburgh as the third worst-dressed city in America (btw Boston was #1), but we don’t care. Everything comes back into style eventually, so you could also say Pittsburghers are ahead of the trends.
Yeah, we’ll have the last laugh when you start rollerblading again in ten years.
4) The Great Pierogi Race: During the seventh inning stretch of professional baseball games, there is a race of four people dressed as pierogies, which are delicious Polish dumplings popularized by Eastern European immigrants in Pittsburgh (the best are from Pierogies Plus). Jalapeno Hannah, Cheese Chester, Sauerkraut Saul, and Oliver Onion dash around the city (animated on the Jumbotron) and finish live in the stadium, with some antic like Hannah whacking Saul with her purse or Chester borrowing a bicycle from the umpire. Oliver Onion is my favorite because he has glasses and that means he’s smart. There was once a Potato Pete, but no one knows what happened to him. Probably drugs.
My dad can’t remember my birthday or any of my friends’ names, but he knows my favorite Pierogi is Oliver.
And while we’re speaking of sports…
5) Die Hard Sports Fans: Pittsburghers are hopelessly devoted to their sports teams: the Steelers (football), Penguins (hockey), and Pirates (baseball) (I annotated the sports for my European readers). All the teams are black and gold, and Pittsburgh sports attire is considered appropriate for most semi-formal occasions (another reason GQ rated us among worst-dressed). To church as a child I was permitted to wear a dress or a Steelers jersey. A lot of cities are obnoxious about their sports teams (i.e. Boston), but Pittsburghers are just heartbreakingly passionate about them. If you said to Pittsburghers, “the Steelers will win their next game if you shoot yourself in the foot,” most would shoot themselves before you could explain that it was hypothetical.
Personally I find professional sports unbearably boring. The most I’ve watched on TV is half a Steelers superbowl and that was because the hosts were serving pulled pork bbq. But although I’m not going to watch, I sincerely want Pittsburgh to win because I understand how important it is to other Pittsburghers. My dad is most likely going to die from a heart attack after the Steelers fumble in a hideous fashion or Sid the Kid gets concussed again. So yeah, I care how Pittsburgh sports teams do. We genuinely believe that Pittsburgh teams are the good guys, the other teams are bad guys, and it is a battle of good vs evil (even when our quarter back is an alleged rapist).
Plus we have this black and gold towel called the Terrible Towel that we fanatically wave in support of our teams. The Terrible Towel! You’d understand if you were from Pittsburgh.
6) Honest to God good people: The reason that we have this distinctive character is because Pittsburghers have great personalities. We’re a blend of East Coast humor with Midwest geniality. We’re sarcastic without being cynical. We’re proud, yet self-deprecating. We know we’re not the fanciest people and we don’t care because we don’t take ourselves too seriously.
Pittsburgh is an awesome city. I agree that it’s livable, but it’s a lot more than livable. The charm of my hometown can only be explained in terms of pierogi races, dinosaur statues, and sports fanaticism. If you don’t believe me ask Oliver Onion. He’s the smart one.