Elevation In Steel Town


Pittsburgh looks like a giant playset. Its skyscraping downtown is surrounded by the bluffs of the Allegheny Plateau, into, out of, through, and astride which you will see all manner of transportation. Auto viaducts are embedded in these bluffs, with bridges connecting their massive gaps. Tunnels burrow through them. Long, gut-busting staircases are built into them. Light rails zip about the foot of their walls en route to downtown, crossing locomotive tracks still in use. The mighty rivers that cut these ridges, the Allegheny and Monongahela, still see plenty of boats in their docks as they rush to form the Ohio. Bridge after bridge connects the downtown peninsula (?) with its outlying communities.

And then there are the funiculars. These two inclined railroads were built in the 1870s for commuting laborers from the Mount Washington neighborhood at the top of the hill to their jobs in the industrial areas below. Today they are curiosities from another era, when its mills and furnaces made Pittsburgh synonymous with the steel it produced. For $5 round trip, you can ride the Monongahela or Duquesne Incline up to Mount Washington, take in the views, get food at a bar like Redbeard’s (as I did), and climb in the car to get cranked back down all of its 635 feet. Try not to think about how it was built in 1870 when you’re in the car.


My one-night stay in Pittsburgh marked one of those times I stayed in a city without entering its downtown. But the neighborhood in which my brother and I booked our hotel, called South Side, was more than a consolation prize. I loved it. This once-industrial part of town looked to me like it never missed a beat between coal-infused urban blight and raging gentrification. Clearly the end where our Hyatt House lay had been cleared out and was rebuilt in less-than-charming style with your typical chains like Urban Outfitters and Cheesecake Factory, as well as a pioneering American Eagle corporate office. But walking westward down Carson Street revealed a quaint, well-preserved main drag you might see in a Hollywood movie, lined with plenty of bars, restaurants, churches, bars, dry cleaners, florists, and more bars. (Seriously, Pittsburgh has a lot of taverns. And this is coming from someone who grew up in a Shangri-la of bars.) Rowhouses dotted cobbled side streets, broken up by retrofitted warehouses and factories turned into things like organic bike wholesalers and artisanal graphic design firms and pickled kale distributors.

I found Pittsburgh to be one of the most beautiful and unique-looking cities in North America that I had seen. Unfortunately my brother and I stayed less than 24 hours, otherwise we’d have explored more. But I liked what I saw.

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2 Responses to Elevation In Steel Town

  1. Sally Underhill says:

    I’ve heard that Mt. Washington has the worst weather of any mountaintop with winds up to 212 mph. How was it atop the mountain?

  2. Mild weather that day – nary a breeze. This week I imagine it’s colder.

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