When Pittsburgh even passes through most Americans’ minds, it tends to be as a cloud of smog shielding the tops of skyscrapers from the dirty streets below.
Indeed, the country was built on Pittsburgh’s labors over the last century. The steel for the western railroads, later Detroit’s cars and then towers for every city in the country, it was largely crafted here. Coal dug by the hands of thousands of Pennsylvanians in neighboring small towns was fired into the electricity that powered a nation. The Pirates, the Steelers, and later the Penguins, built sports dynasties on the backs of die hard fans, Pittsburghers who understood that celebrating their victories was the small joy of a life spent breaking backs, coughing up lungs and sacrificing for a nation in times of both war and peace.
No better a defiance, no clearer tale of how loyal Pittsburghers are to their heritage can be found than through the tale of a national act to drop the “h” from all “burghs” in the nation. Around 1890, the story goes, a national committee to standardize the spelling of names across the United States deemed all “burghs” should from thereon be known as simply “burgs”. Loyal historians, perhaps everyone, rallied together against the grammatical oppression. The city’s residents pledged their allegiance to the traditional spelling, an army of German, Polish and Irish coming together to guard their home from outside dictation. Pittsburghers are, if at times incredibly rough around the edges, fiercely loyal for nearly any citywide cause.
But the days of gray skies and pollution, big industry and dirty water, they have gone. A now shining buckle on the Rust Belt, the city rose above the plight of the times to sparkle like reclaimed steel and set an example of how it’s done to neighboring Ohio and Western New York cities like Cleveland, Cincinnati and Buffalo. No other Rust Belt metropolis has managed to regain its stature of a true American gem, though, quite like this city.
Today hipsters and scientists, punk rockers and engineers, students and nurses, bicyclists and families, they all flock to the former Steel City, newly crowned as the City of Bridges (Pittsburgh has three more bridges than Venice, Italy, the original “City of Bridges”), to build a new life, to rise their city’s trees and mountains above the plight of antiquated ideas about what these neighborhoods living on three Indian-named rivers are today. The Ohio, which in Iroquois means “Great River” is fed by the Monongahela (falling banks) and Allegheny (which means “beautiful stream” or “best flowing river of the hills”), to form a Golden Triangle the city lives within and falls all around.
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is the upstart. It’s the unknown. Living in the city in the 2000s, I knew I was part of something. Where typically the young and adventurous migrate to places like Portland or Austin or San Francisco, they are joining something already created, a dynasty realized decades or even generations ago. Pittsburgh, for the moment anyway, offers a chance to be a factor in the change, not just a reaper of the inevitable rewards.