The Mysteries of Pittsburgh
Its comeback from postindustrial malaise was already one of the best stories in the annals of American urbanism. Now something even more unlikely is happening: the Steel City is turning into Cool Town, U.S.A.
If you're looking for an ideal vantage point from which to contemplate the oddity that is 21st-century Pittsburgh, head for a patch of waterfront in Lawrenceville, a picturesquely postindustrial neighborhood northeast of downtown. Locals call this place Concrete Beach. It is easily reached, provided you have a sturdy pair of shoes and some aptitude for bushwhacking. Just follow 43rd Street until it dead-ends on a bluff above the southern bank of the Allegheny River, and then keep going, scrambling down the weed-choked hillside until you reach the river’s edge. There you will find the beach, which is indeed concrete—a rugged stretch of broken pavement, sloshed and washed by the Allegheny.
It dates to the 1940s, an era before environmental regulations, when a concrete plant dumped cement into the river. The views are spectacular. On the opposite bank, the graceful turrets of St. Nicholas Church, home to the oldest Croatian Catholic parish in the United States, peek above the tree line of the old suburban steel town of Millvale. Downriver, the Allegheny flows beneath the arches of the 40th Street Bridge. But the most transfixing spectacle might be the one that unfolds around you. You never know what you’ll find on Concrete Beach: anglers tossing fishing lines, someone launching a kayak, a dozen tattooed punk rockers gathered around a campfire. Like many spots in today’s Pittsburgh, it is a place of scruffy beauty, half-hidden, vaguely illicit, a great secret that you feel lucky to be in on.
When you head back up the embankment to 43rd Street, you discover more ruins and remnants where new forms of life are springing up. The familiar signs of urban revival are here, the sculptor’s studios and small-batch distilleries and century-old foundries repurposed as robotics factories. If you stroll this stretch of road on a lazy weekday afternoon, you may also spy Bonnie Drake, a 28-year-old woman with a mop of hair dyed a vibrant magenta who likes to roost on 43rd Street in the shadow of a former chocolate factory, performing an elaborate exercise regimen involving multiple Hula-Hoops. “There are more and more hoopers around these days,” she informed me. “I think hooping is at the same stage now that yoga was maybe thirty years ago.” A manager at a wellness center in nearby Shadyside, Drake moved to town four years ago with her boyfriend, who is working on a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh. The couple previously lived in Minneapolis and Portland, Oregon, but profess loyalty to their new home. “Housing here is still pretty cheap, the craft beer is great, the dining is great,” Drake said. “Plus, Pittsburgh is weird. It has a weirdness to it.”
Weirdness, you might say, is the urbanist’s holy grail. It’s what draws many of us to cities in the first place—the promise of strangers and strange possibilities, of unknown enticements lurking around the next corner. For decades, it seemed laughable that Pittsburgh could hold that kind of frisson. It was a decaying city, a Gilded Age jewel gone to seed. There was no denying the splendor of the town’s topography: its hills and ravines, its three rivers spanned by 26 bridges. It had lovely old architectural bones, too. The moguls who for a time made Pittsburgh one of the wealthiest places on earth—the Carnegies and Mellons and Fricks and Heinzes—left behind beautiful buildings and, crucially, well-endowed universities and hospitals that sustained the city when its manufacturing base collapsed in the 1970s and early 80s. But deindustrialization drained Pittsburgh of its vitality and its young people. Despite decades of urban renewal, 2010 census data showed Pittsburgh to have the highest concentration of residents over 60 of any metro area in America.
Increasingly, though, the Carnegie Mellon and Pitt students who once hightailed it out of town after graduation have been sticking around. The city has also seen an influx of “boomerangers,” Pittsburgh natives or their kids, who have returned to their ancestral turf. And new waves of transplants are arriving, from Philadelphia, New York, and beyond, lured by a quality of life that consistently earns Pittsburgh a perch in the upper reaches of the Economist’s annual Global Liveability Ranking. The selling points are considerable: affordable housing, a robust job market anchored by a thriving tech sector, those redoubtable educational and health-care institutions, and an arts community awash in foundation money.
The most improbable aspect of Pittsburgh’s comeback is the aura of cultural cool that has lately settled over the city—most notably in two neighborhoods on the east side, Lawrenceville and East Liberty. This notion—Pittsburgh? Cool?—would have been inconceivable to the city’s most famous self-exile, Andy Warhol, who fled as a young man for New York City, scorning his hometown as a backwater. Warhol was a posthumous boomeranger, who came home with the 1994 opening of the Andy Warhol Museum in the North Shore neighborhood, an event seen by many as a catalyst for the city’s broader cultural revival. Meanwhile, a style-savvy new generation has brought amenities familiar from other urban hot spots: fair-trade coffee, fixed-gear bicycles, music clubs, galleries, and a restaurant scene that Zagat recently deemed the country’s best.Left: Kelly Lane, a designer at the Ice House, a complex of artists’ studios and small businesses. Right: A pop-up flea market in the Gym, a multiuse space at the Ace Hotel. Christopher Testani
But the pace of development here is statelier, the gentrification gentler, than in Brooklyn, Portland, Austin, and other fashionable enclaves. Pittsburgh in 2016 is a city that offers both bourgeois-bohemian comforts and plain old bohemianism. If Warhol were around today, he would be astonished, probably appalled, to discover that life along the three rivers is more unpredictable, more outré—in a word, weirder—than it is in the now-spit-polished streets of downtown Manhattan. No one is more surprised by this turn of events than Pittsburgh’s stalwarts. “We’re seeing young people arriving in Lawrenceville, in East Liberty, areas that they haven’t been moving into for fifty years,” said Pittsburgh’s mayor, Bill Peduto. “It’s real hard for some people to comprehend that Pittsburgh has become a hip place.”
To wrap your mind around Pittsburgh, you must first come to terms with the basics of its geography, and some simple math. The city has always been atomized, carved into villages of Poles, Irish, Germans, Czechs, African Americans—communities that were self-sufficient and hermetic. The divisions were reinforced by the landscape, the gulches and waterways that formed physical barriers between neighborhoods. But the defining fact of life in Pittsburgh today is the lopsided ratio of land to inhabitants. Simply put, there’s a whole lot of Pittsburgh, and not a lot of Pittsburghers. The collapse of the steel industry in the 1970s accelerated a population decline that had begun in the 1950s, shrinking the city by half, to its current total of just over 305,000. There is, to say the least, room to grow.
That’s especially true of East Liberty, four miles east of downtown. The neighborhood presents itself to visitors as a code to be cracked, concealing its gems on side streets that run off anonymous thoroughfares. The neighborhood’s history takes in the broad sweep of Pittsburgh’s last century-plus, a saga of rise, decline, and rebirth. In the late 19th century, it was home to the lavish mansions of the Negleys, one of the city’s founding families, and the iron entrepreneur John Shoenberger. By the mid 20th century, East Liberty had become a middle-class stronghold and thriving commercial zone. But suburban flight and botched urban-renewal efforts decimated the area. For decades, relics of past glories—like the soaring Cathedral of Hope, East Liberty’s neo-Gothic focal point—loomed over blighted streets and vacant storefronts.
There’s a good view of the cathedral, which still has one of Pittsburgh’s largest congregations, from the office of Matthew Ciccone, a 36-year-old real estate developer who is a key figure in East Liberty’s comeback. Ciccone is a boomeranger, a Pittsburgh native who played keyboards in a Chicago rock band and worked in New York publishing before returning to pursue graduate work in urban design and public policy and management at Carnegie Mellon. After getting his degrees, he teamed up with a few architects and policy wonks he’d met at school and began to plan for a population that hadn’t yet arrived in East Liberty. “We were pushing development ideas that didn’t really make sense at the time,” Ciccone recalled.
The logic is clearer now. Residential towers are rising above dusty lots. New businesses have moved in, some prestigious: five years ago, Google established its Pittsburgh beachhead in a refurbished Nabisco factory. At Zeke’s Coffee, on Penn Avenue, knowledge workers hunch over laptops and espresso. On the streets that wend and bend around the cathedral, there are shops selling fine housewares and clothes and excellent little restaurants with gleaming, high-design décor—subway tiles, marble curbside counters. Neighborhood fixtures like Kelly’s Bar & Lounge, one of the best of the city’s legendary dives, have become destinations for young scenesters. Other East Liberty watering holes are unmistakably New Pittsburgh. A minute’s walk from Kelly’s, in a glass-fronted space that wraps around the corner of South Highland Avenue and Baum Boulevard, is the Livermore, a cocktail and tapas bar where mixologists fix drinks with the gravity of priests preparing sacraments. The Boulevardier, one of the signature offerings—a generous pour of bonded bourbon, aromatized by Torino vermouth and Campari—makes for an especially bracing nightcap.
The showpiece of the East Liberty revival is a five-story former YMCA building on South Whitfield Street, across from the Cathedral of Hope, that in December of 2015 became home to the Ace Hotel Pittsburgh. Bringing the Ace to the neighborhood was a labor of love for Ciccone and other East Liberty community-development players who, after convincing the company to take a chance on the neighborhood, spent several years securing financing for the project. Many of the building’s period details remain: terrazzo floors, wrought-iron banisters, a 1920s ballroom, and, on the ground floor, a large gymnasium with a balconied running track. The lobby has signature Ace touches, like a vintage turntable enthroned next to the reception desk, and an excellent tavern, the Whitfield. It is the work of the restaurateur Brent Young, a Pittsburgh native who made his name in Brooklyn.
What distinguishes the Ace Pittsburgh from its sister hotels in London, New York City, and elsewhere is its casually egalitarian vibe, the way it splits the difference between community hall, hipster rec center, and soigné nightspot. The old gym is an all-purpose event space, playing host to dodgeball games, literary readings, dance parties, birthday celebrations, and showings of Steelers and Penguins games. The Ace’s staff is friendly and plugged in to Pittsburgh, offering visitors the kind of tips that don’t make the guidebooks. (“Have you heard about the after-hours speakeasy on Penn Avenue, in Garfield?” “Did you know that herds of deer wander through Allegheny Cemetery, in Lawrenceville?”) Storefronts on Penn Avenue. Christopher Testani
The Ace doesn’t appeal solely to the youthful and groovy. It draws blue-hairs at both ends of the generational spectrum: punky college-age kids grab drinks there before heading to the clubs; octogenarians drift in for Sunday brunch after church. When I ate lunch at the Whitfield one afternoon—a delicious smoked-chicken sandwich garnished with barrel-cured pickles—I was flanked by kibitzing couples of a certain age. Eight hours later, I wandered into the lobby bar, where a pre–Gay Pride Weekend party was in full swing: the largely black and lesbian crowd was dancing to a mix of Beyoncé and Jamaican dancehall.
The next morning I was sipping coffee in the Whitfield when a striking woman slid into my booth, wearing burgundy eyeglasses and a stylishly cut Afro. She was Kilolo Luckett, 43, an art historian, cultural producer, and writer who is a prime mover in both Pittsburgh’s arts scene and its black community. For its launch, the Ace recruited her to serve briefly as its “cultural attaché.” Luckett is an incisive surveyor of the city’s social politics, attuned to the complexities of its racial divides and the tensions raised by new development. She is skeptical of the utopian rhetoric that surrounds the changes in East Liberty, which has been a black neighborhood for decades. But she gives the Ace good marks nonetheless.
“Pittsburgh is still very segregated,” Luckett said. “It’s rare that you can step into a place and see black people, Asian people, white people, in the same restaurant. I can see a reflection of myself when I walk into the Ace.” She chuckled. “Of course, the Ace is still, you know, hipsterville. They’re known for that.”
Others might place the epicenter of Pittsburgh hipsterville a couple of miles to the northwest, in Lawrenceville, the old industrial stronghold that rambles along the Allegheny riverfront. Back when the sky over Lawrenceville glowed red at night, lit by the flames that leaped from steel-mill smokestacks, the neighborhood was arranged according to a familiar Pittsburgh hierarchy: the better off you were, the higher uphill you lived. Today, the pattern has been reversed. The blocks near the river are some of the most coveted in town, thanks to their fixer-upper housing stock and proximity to Butler Street, Lawrenceville’s boutique- and bar-crammed main drag. A mural on Butler Street. Christopher Testani
If East Liberty is the city’s up-and-coming area, Lawrenceville is Cool Pittsburgh in full flower, a see-and-be-seen zone for creative twenty- and thirtysomethings. Its buoyant real estate market, postindustrial ambience, and concentration of young men with Old Testament beards have earned it a moniker that some relish and others resent: “Pittsburgh’s Williamsburg.” It’s true that Butler Street holds an agglomeration of cafés and farm-to-table restaurants reminiscent of Brooklyn’s hipster mecca. Lawrenceville is also the center of Pittsburgh’s emerging rock scene. In venues like Spirit, a cavernous converted Loyal Order of Moose lodge on 51st Street, you can take in ferocious, noisy local bands while eating some of the best pizza in town.
If you spend any time on Butler Street, you’re bound to run into Brian Mendelssohn, 39, an influential developer described by some as Lawrenceville’s unofficial mayor. I met him at one of his buildings on Butler Street, whose ground floor holds two of his businesses: Bierport, a craft-beer shop, and the Row House Cinema, a single-screen movie theater that favors art films and cult classics. A tasting flight at Bierport. Christopher Testani
Bierport is one of those impeccably curated stores that could pass as an art installation. An eye-popping variety of exotic brews are displayed in phalanxes; more are on tap in a basement boîte. Mendelssohn hopes to have all of the bartenders eventually become Cicerone-credentialed, the beer equivalent of a sommelier’s certification. He told me that he wanted to honor Pittsburgh’s tradition as a beer town while adding an element of connoisseurship. The Row House Cinema recently screened Troop Beverly Hills, the cheesy 1980s comedy about a crew of coddled Girl Scouts. To get in the mood, the audience gathered beforehand at Bierport to sample a menu of Girl Scout cookies paired with beers. “The pairings were amazing,” Mendelssohn said. “Certain really heavy stouts make a great match with Girl Scout cookies.”
At such moments, Mendelssohn can sound like a parody of a hipster entrepreneur. But his devotion to Lawrenceville is profound. He is the vice president of the Lawrenceville Historical Society and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the neighborhood’s byways and folklore. He can launch into disquisitions on Lawrenceville’s manufacturing history or its most illustrious son, songwriter Stephen Foster. He is a developer with the soul of a preservationist.
“I consider myself a neighborhood developer,” he told me. “New people are moving in, but fifty to sixty percent of the population are families that have lived here for generations. I want Lawrenceville to evolve, but I don’t want to change what it is fundamentally.”
For the moment, Lawrenceville has arrived at an evolutionary sweet spot, infused with energy and novelty but still idiosyncratic, authentic, a touch gritty. One afternoon, I took a meandering stroll along the streets that run north from Butler to the Allegheny. On 43rd Street, not far from Concrete Beach, I passed the Ice House, a converted 1907 ice warehouse that now houses artists’ ateliers and small businesses. Outside, a bald, bearded man was unloading a red 1948 Ford F-1 pickup truck. His left arm was sleeved in tattooed images of corncobs. Why corn? “It’s a good phallic shape, and it’s got good texture,” he told me. “And I like yellow. It’s a nice happy color.”Left: Curiosity Shop, inside the Ice House. Right: Nied’s Hotel Bar & Restaurant, a classic lunch spot. Christopher Testani
He was Scott White, 49, a tattoo artist whose wife, Hannah Aitchison, owns and operates Curiosity Shop, a combination tattoo parlor and emporium of vintage ephemera on the Ice House’s ground floor. Curiosity Shop is worthy of its name: a wonder cabinet crammed with antique toys and figurines, vintage cheesecake magazines, a taxidermied bear wearing a Shriner’s fez, a painting of Princess Leia in the style of a Renaissance Madonna.
In a studio adjacent to the shop, White introduced me to his wife, who was bent over the biceps of a client. Aitchison is famous in tattoo circles, having worked in Chicago, Los Angeles, and London, and from the reality shows L.A. Ink and Best Ink. When she and White moved to town, three years ago, Aitchison worried that Pittsburgh would “feel really provincial and small.” Today, though, the couple are Pittsburgh evangelists. The city is a place where they can run their dream business at a fraction of what it would cost elsewhere. Best of all, they say, is the “vibe”—the sense of comradeship among those who’ve put down roots in the hard-scrabble old steel town. “A big problem we have is that we meet so many cool people so often, and there’s so many things to do,” White said. “It’s a good problem to have. A first-world problem.”
White’s ties to Lawrenceville run deep. His grandfather worked as caretaker at Allegheny Cemetery. His father, a retired TV cameraman, grew up in a 17-foot-wide house in a Lawrenceville alleyway. Like many natives, White finds himself pleasantly confounded by 21st-century Pittsburgh—startled that there is so much more to the city than he’d realized. For him, the biggest change is the way the psychic maps that have divided neighborhoods for decades are being redrawn. “What we always say in Pittsburgh is: ‘You don’t cross bridges,’ ” White told me.Left: Vintage miscellanea for sale at the Curiosity Shop. Right: Blueberry pancakes at the Whitfield. Christopher Testani
I was reminded of a comment by Matthew Ciccone, the East Liberty developer. “I live in Lawrenceville,” he’d told me. “A couple weeks ago, my girlfriend and I followed a crowd of people over the 40th Street Bridge into Millvale. There are cool little places to go to drink there. There are little art galleries popping up in Troy Hill. This is all a ten-minute walk from my apartment. But the idea that someone would actually walk across the bridge and go into Millvale—it’s so foreign to me that I didn’t even see it. It’s like, suddenly, the city is expanding. It’s....”
Ciccone paused, searching for the right word. “It’s just weird,” he said.
The Details: What to Do in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Restaurants & Cafés
Cure Order the salumi platter at this temple to local and seasonal cooking that employs a variety of on-site curing, smoking, and other preservation methods to create its rich dishes. Lawrenceville; curepittsburgh.com; entrées $29–$36.
Dinette Vegetables grown in a rooftop garden are front and center at this enticing neighborhood pizzeria. Shadyside; dinette-pgh.com; pizzas $14–$17.
Kelly’s Bar & Lounge Follow the glowing neon sign to this legendary beer-and-burger destination for young scene-makers, old timers, and everyone in between. East Liberty; 6012 Centre Ave.; 412-363-6012.
The Livermore A gorgeous, airy bar serving exquisite drinks. Your bartender will likely be bearded. East Liberty; thelivermorepgh.com.
Morcilla Small plates and Pittsburgh’s finest oysters rule the day at chef Justin Severino’s Basque-style pintxos restaurant. Lawrenceville; morcillapittsburgh.com; small plates $7–$14.
Muddy Waters Oyster Bar Don’t miss the char-grilled oysters with Parmesan and chili flakes at this Cajun-tinged seafood spot. East Liberty; muddywaterspgh.com; entrées $22–$29.
Nied’s Hotel Bar & Restaurant Enjoy a cold Iron City beer while indulging in one of the gigantic fish sandwiches at this classic Lawrenceville tavern. niedshotel.myfastsite.com; entrées $4–$14.
Piccolo Forno This rustic Tuscan-style trattoria serves wood-fired pizzas and house-made pastas in an intimate space. Lawrenceville; piccolo-forno.com; entrées $12–$19.
Spirit Lounge A multilevel converted Moose Lodge with incredible pizza and regular live-music performances. Lawrenceville; spiritpgh.com.
Tender Bar & Kitchen Located in a former bank building, this three-year-old haunt draws a crowd for its inventive craft cocktails and small plates. Lawrenceville; tenderpgh.com; entrées $15–$22.
The Vandal A sleek restaurant and café with flavorful locavore dishes, like rack of lamb with piquillo pepper and mint gremolata. Lawrenceville; thevandalpgh.com; entrées $12–$28.
The Whitfield The cheerful restaurant at the Ace Hotel transforms the local agricultural bounty into dishes like braised rabbit leg with semolina gnocchi. East Liberty; whitfieldpgh.com; entrées $15–$32.
Zeke’s Coffee Pittsburghers swear by this beloved family-owned small-batch roastery on Penn Avenue, which also has a drive-through down the block. East Liberty; zekescoffeepgh.com.
Andy Warhol Museum A must for any visitor. Its permanent exhibition is the world’s finest trove of Warholiana. North Shore; warhol.org.
Curiosity Shop Tucked into the labyrinthine corridors of the Ice House, a renovated 19th-century warehouse, this is a place to get inked and browse for kitschy ephemera, from antique chemistry sets to 1950s pinup magazines. Lawrenceville; curiosityshoptattoo.com.
Row House Cinema A single-screen theater presenting cult classics like The Big Lebowski and Jaws. Lawrenceville; rowhousecinema.com.