PITTSBURGH — Not that long ago — a few decades at most — if you had told someone you were going to Pittsburgh for vacation, they might have questioned your sanity, or at least your travel smarts.
What did Pittsburgh have to offer besides skies darkened by belching steel mills and factories, polluted rivers, and dingy buildings the color of fireplace ash?
What a difference a few decades, a few high-profile events (you know a city has arrived when the G20 chooses it for its international summit), and many people's determination have made.
Today, the steel mills are gone, and in their place are a bevy of green buildings, including the world's first LEED-certified convention center. Those same rivers — the Allegheny, Ohio and Monongahela — that once were industrial dump sites are now filled with weekend kayakers, and those gray, dingy buildings are in a rainbow of colors, courtesy of public art.
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Pittsburgh is a jewel in the previously tarnished crown of the Rust Belt, a testament to what businesses, government and concerned citizens can do when they put their minds to it. So it seems only fitting, on the Fourth of July, to take a look at an American success story.
Depending on the source, Pittsburgh has 89 or 90 (if you count the downtown area) distinct neighborhoods, each with its own ethos and ethnic mix. On a recent visit, I explored three of them.
Lawrenceville: At the junction of Butler Street and Penn Avenue, under the watchful eyes of the Doughboy — a statue of a World War I soldier — a jumble of streets fans out next to the Allegheny River.
Originally a Delaware Indian settlement, Lawrenceville lumbered into existence in the early 19th century, when it was founded by William Foster, father of composer Stephen Foster (who was born here, and despite longing for his Old Kentucky Home, returned here and is buried in the area's Allegheny Cemetery).
First an industrial area and home to blue-collar workers, Lawrenceville's 19th-century row houses might have been, in a less- enlightened community, victims of bulldozers. Instead, they live on as homes for old hippies and young hipsters who cohabit amicably, and as homes for quirky businesses.
Pittsburgh's famed 16:62 Design Zone runs through Lawrenceville, connecting it with its grittier neighbor, The Strip District. Home to many antique shops, art galleries and specialty boutiques in Victorian-era buildings or repurposed warehouses, it is a great place to enjoy a leisurely morning coffee and pastry (at Dozen), shop for unique gifts (O'Bannon Oriental Carpets, which despite its Gaelic-sounding name specializes in colorful rugs from Afghanistan, Morocco, Iran and Turkey) and book a table for dinner in a restaurant that was once a Catholic church (Church Brew Works.)
The Strip District: Lawrenceville's racier, rowdier cousin, the Strip District, has resisted all efforts at gentrification. Up and down Penn Avenue, vendors sell T-shirts castigating the Steelers' bad-boy quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and street food that, depending on which corner you stop, could be Vietnamese, Middle Eastern or Mexican. Businesses spill onto the sidewalks, overseen by proprietors who, just as in the old country, often live upstairs.
Among the Strip's landmark institutions are Primanti's and Pamela's Diner, a favorite of President Barack Obama, who is said to prefer the plain pancakes over more exotic offerings, such as chocolate chip banana hotcakes.
Primanti's has a huge mural showcasing some of the city's most famous sons and daughters — Mister Rogers in his cardigan, Christina Aguilera in her spangled mini, Gene Kelly with his trademark smile and Andy Warhol with his trademark scowl. Primanti's main claim to fame is its classic cheese-steak sandwich, made with any kind of topping — from sardines to roast beef to eggs — plus tomato, coleslaw and French fries piled high between two slices of Italian bread. Primanti's is the Pittsburgh equivalent of Seinfeld's "soup Nazi," and you don't want to be the patron who asks for fries on the side.
I opted for a lunch spot where I was pretty sure I wouldn't get thrown out. Enrico's Biscotti Co. is a combination restaurant, bakery and winery. The wine is being made in the basement (no kidding), and upstairs, the staff turns out 1,200 pounds of biscotti daily — for the consumption of humans and dogs alike — and oven-fired pizzas, all in an atmosphere best described as bedlam.
Don't leave the Strip without making at least two more stops, one to satisfy your cultural craving (the Society for Contemporary Craft) and one to satisfy your chocolate craving (Mon Aimee Chocolat offers 3,000 kinds, from chocolate with sage infusions to chocolate and bacon).
Oakland: After the hustle and bustle of Lawrenceville and the Strip, you might be ready for a stroll back in time to the early 19th century, when the city's robber barons built fabulous mansions along Millionaires' Row, and an errant heiress redeemed herself by donating the land for Schenley Park.
Oakland is the neighborhood of industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who endowed a university and museums of art and natural history; of Dr. Jonas Salk, who made medical history with the polio vaccine; and of Fred Rogers, who made his "neighborhood" everyone's.
Within its leafy enclaves are two world-class universities, museums and parks galore, and spectacular homes that look like European palaces. For me, two things stand out: Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens; and the Cathedral of Learning, with its world-famous Nationality Rooms.
I was impressed by the conservatory, with its series of linked glass pavilions surrounding the central Palm Court, but I was blown away by the Cathedral of Learning, the huge Gothic edifice on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh.
The cathedral's Nationality Rooms are classrooms decorated by countries that have influenced the city's ethnic heritage. I wandered, mesmerized, from the Italian Room, whose ceiling, with gilded rosettes, was modeled after that of San Domenico Convent; to the English Room, whose stained glass windows are each set with a coat of arms honoring a British city or famous person; to the Chinese Room, whose ceiling features the coiled Imperial Dragon and smaller dragons guarding the pearl of wisdom. This building alone merits a visit to Pittsburgh.
But there is so much more about this rejuvenated city that is worth seeing, including the Andy Warhol Museum and the funicular ride up the side of Mount Washington for a panoramic view of Allegheny Riverfront Park, where the three rivers meet and a great city was born.