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Pittsburgh: Model for Recovery

5 June 2009 No Comment

It’s shaping up to be a good year for Pittsburgh, with its Steelers winning the Super Bowl, its Penguins winning the Stanley Cup finals, and the G20 economic summit being held there in September. It doesn’t get much better than that for a city many considered to be past its glory days.

The City of Pittsburgh

The City of Pittsburgh

It just goes to show, as sports fans know, you can never count Pittsburgh out.

You’ve heard the story: Pittsburgh, smoky city behind the steel that built a nation, lost its industry to “progress.” Between 1950 and 1990, 61% of its steel jobs and half of its population left. Then over the course of the next two decades Pittsburgh reinvented itself as a 21st-century city of higher education, medicine, and technology.

Today Pittsburgh enjoys an unemployment rate far below the national average and in recent years has been named by various national publications “America’s Most Livable City,” the 10th cleanest city, and the 13th best city for young professionals to live—truly a model for what’s possible when people actively embrace change.

Which of course is why the city was chosen for the summit.

But who knows anything about Pittsburgh?

Like most early American cities, Pittsburgh grew up along navigable trade routes, in its case the point where the Allegheny and the Monongahela rivers meet to form the Ohio. (You can actually see the differently colored rivers meeting in the waters off the city’s point.) Although there are lots of other ways to ship things today, Pittsburgh is still the second busiest inland port in the United States, moving more tonnage than Philadelphia or St. Louis. Because it spans three rivers, Pittsburgh has more bridges than anywhere else in the world—three more than Venice, Italy, the so-called “City of Bridges.”

Pittsburgh was settled and built by immigrants and, like many American cities, ethnic heritage is a source of great pride. The University of Pittsburgh’s vaunted Cathedral of Learning has 27 nationality rooms to celebrate the immigrant groups that contributed to the city’s growth, and many nationalities have their own local radio programs and their own nationality day at the local amusement park.

You can hear Pittsburgh’s unique assortment of immigrants — Scots-Irish, German, Italians, Croats, Poles, Slovaks, and other Eastern Europeans — in the local dialect. In Pittsburghese, “yinz” is the plural of “you,” you take the bus “dahntahn” instead of “downtown,” you “redd up the haas” instead of “tidying up the house,” and you definitely wave your “Terrible Tahl for the Stillers.”

Steeler Nation

Pittsburgh fans wave their Terrible Towels in support of the Steelers

Pittsburgh fans wave their Terrible Towels in support of the Steelers

The Terrible Towel is a sort of household pompom fans wave to cheer the Steelers on. Pittsburghers love their sports teams. They’ll tell you everything you want to know about the 1909 Pirates, who went to the first World Series, or Bill Mazeroski’s Series-ending homer to beat the Yankees in 1960. When a Penguins game is sold out, they’ll set up their lawn chairs outside the arena to watch the game on the giant screens. But with the Steelers, it’s like a religion.

During Pittsburgh’s heyday, when its steel built the skyscrapers and battleships that made America great, its Steelers were absurdly awful. But during the city’s long decline the team became ascendant, becoming a unifying point of pride that lasts to this present day. In this ethnically, religiously, and politically diverse city, you’ll see Catholics, Presbyterians, and Greek Orthodox rushing out of church to watch the games; CFOs and cashiers wearing Polamalu jerseys to work; men and women debating whether Swann’s or Holmes’ was the better catch; Obama buttons and McCain buttons squeezed together in a touchdown hug.

Today, because of the long post-war exodus of its citizens, there are Pittsburghers in every state of the union. And they all hold a special place in their hearts for the city of their youth — or of their parents’ youth — ecstatically waving their Terrible Towels when the Steelers come to their far-away towns to play. America has become “Steeler Nation.”

If you visit

Isaly’s Klondike bars are local favorites, now available nationwide, but Primanti Brothers sandwiches and Mineo’s Pizza are still strictly local delights you’ll have to get while you’re there. Sandwiches and salads frequently have French fries inside them, and if you get no response ordering soda, try asking for pop instead. Or see if you can score a home-cooked delicacy: “barbeque” made with ultra-thin-sliced (“chipped”) ham in a slow-cooker.

Shopping and eating

  • The Strip District – a neighborhood with farmers’ markets, wholesale vendors, bars, and restaurants
  • Shadyside – nice shops and restaurants
  • Squirrel Hill – where you’ll find that Mineo’s Pizza
  • South Side – bars, events, historic churches, restaurants, and entertainment



  • Driving out of the Ft. Pitt Tunnels, the skyline is breathtaking
  • Atop Mt. Washington, looking down on the Golden Triangle and all of downtown — that’s the view at the top of this page, with the incline you should ride to the top

Finally, if you’re going to Pittsburgh for the G20 in September, and you somehow missed Super Bowl XLIII, do some homework. Here’s a five-minute summary of the game:

CREDITS: Thanks go to Karen Schmidt, Nina Jurewicz, Andrea McElroy, Julie McElroy, Jennifer Stumpp, Bonnie Wenk, Ellie Winkleman, and Teresa Woodland for their contributions to this post. Photos courtesy of Wikipedia.

(This post originally appeared June 5, 2009 on g20VOICE.)

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