Grittsburgh: Searching for Soul in the Steel City

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At PNC Park, next a statue of Pittsburgh Pirates legend Roberto Clemente. Yes, I saw another Cubs baseball game in an opponent’s stadium. I won’t bore you with the details this time, but my team won, 1-0.

When I first planned the Ghost on the Highway Tour, I hadn’t even though to include Pittsburgh in my itinerary. It came about late in the game, as I decided to take it slow driving back West from Baltimore. But stopping there was one of the best decisions I’ve made on the trip. I thoroughly enjoyed the ‘burgh, it’s interesting on almost every level; architecturally, culturally, edibly, even linguistically (how on earth did the word “yinz” come to replace “you all” or “y’all”? What twisted cauldron of foreign tongues produced such a monstrosity?).

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know that gentrification is something of a recurring theme. Like most other big cities I’ve toured, Pittsburgh is dealing with this in a major way. This is a town that grew up on heavy industry, indeed formed its identity around it, until the decline of American manufacturing sent it into a spiral of decline. The city responded by encouraging the growth of medical and tech business, which have brought new money into the city and begun to transform the culture.

Pittsburgh is kind of a microcosm of postindustrial America, struggling to maintain a unique identity as it transitions from this…

…to this:

One of the first people I talked to in Pittsburgh was a young man who worked in Robotics (I’ll call him Robot Man because I forgot his real name). He’d moved out to Pittsburgh for his job and seemed to love everything about the city except it’s rapidly-escalating rents. Robot Man didn’t tell me where he’d moved from but his South Asian accent betrayed some sort of extra-American origin. He happened to live in the Strip, the upscale district where I happened to be staying, and when he found out I was lodging there he proceeded to rattle off various microbreweries and trendy restaurants I had to try.

Later that evening, as I was meandering through Lawrenceville I stopped at Hambone’s, the diviest bar I could find in that hipster neighborhood. Nursing a Yuengling and a steak taco, I struck up a conversation with a woman who works for local circus collective (I do remember her name, but I’ll call her Circus Girl because that just sounds so much more fun). Circus Girl was a longtime Pittsburgh resident who was every bit as enthusiastic about the city. After regaling me with tips for various city attractions we began to talk about the character of Pittsburgh, what makes it different.

“I call it The Grit,” she said between sips of her own Yuengling, “this city is scrappy, blue-collar and proud of it. There’s always been a roughness, an edge to Pittsburgh’s character.”

But what about the burgeoning tech sector, the influx of out-of-town yuppies? She began demurred a bit, and it became clear that she has mixed feelings about Pittsburgh’s gentrification. On the one hand it seems to raise the specter of homogenization, of displacement for the poor and a dull and expensive world for everybody else. And yet she acknowledged that the city needed the money, and certain sectors of the creative class wouldn’t survive without wealthy patrons. She herself was a dog walker (working for a renegade circus apparently doesn’t pay the bills by itself) and most of her clients came from Pittsburgh’s middle class tech sector.

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Coming from the world of specialty coffee, I had to agree with this. I and the company I worked for were entirely dependent on people with more disposable income than I’d ever have; no real person is going to spend $70 a week on lattes.

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(unlike me, who spent $7.50 on this bowl of fancy hand-rolled ice cream)

The challenge, then, is to find some way to manage gentrification so that it doesn’t destroy a city’s character. This is a tough thing to do these days given the ubiquity of the internet and the knee-jerk meme regurgitation that passes for public discourse. Have you ever seen the same image or video shared by 4 or 5 different people in your Facebook feed? Have you ever gone to a bar to meet up with friends and find everyone talking about the same story you read two hours ago on your phone? How many people can you name that aren’t like anyone else you know? Why is it that, even though there are more people on this planet than ever, originality is such a precious commodity?

(Heck, there are probably two dozen blogs out there with the exact same premise as this one. I’m too scared to check and find out.)

A city needs singularity, vagaries, incongruous elements. It needs weirdness. It needs the kind of things that can’t be planned, that spring up organically and defy market logic. Fortunately Pittsburgh is not without these elements.  There are the fabled basement toilets (which I heard about but didn’t get a chance to see). There are also the city steps, entire streets that consist of nothing but a staircase (unbeknownst, in many cases, to Google Maps and other navigation systems).

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A set of City Steps in Polish Hill.

But perhaps the most singular thing about Pittsburgh, and one of the most inspiring things I’ve seen to date on this tour, has to be Randyland.

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Randyland feels like the set of a hippie-conceived children’s TV show from the 70s. It is a trash Wonderland, a punk Garden of Eden. And unique and stimulating and 100% free.

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Randyland is the brainchild of Randy Gilson, “a master in the art of making something worthwhile out of what is seen as worthless” (according to the biographical flyers available at Randyland’s entrance). Indeed. All over Randyland are discarded toys, mannequin heads, lawn chairs, and whimsical bric-a-brac that’s been painted over or otherwise arranged into art. Art that’s vibrant, colorful, brimming with vitality. Positive messages abound; you are told you are welcome, that you belong, that your dreams are worth realizing.

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The bio sheet talks about how Randy grew up poor and alienated by society, how he used that as motivation to flood the world with positivity, how he became involved in beautifying his community through public gardens and developed Randyland as a project of passion, gathering bricks from nearby homes that had been knocked down.

The whole thing is just magical. This man rolls with his creative spirit on a level that I can’t even imagine. It’s the perfect antidote to the toxicity of the modern world.

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If I had any desire to grow up, I’d want to grow up to be Randy.

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