Thursday, November 22, 2018

What's a Pittsburgher?

Nothing edible but plenty lovable this proud citizen of southwestern Pennsylvania's comeback city.
So proud that if  a visitor dares say jokingly he's 'in the pitts,' he might get hit with a rebar. Metaphorically, that is. Steel made the place, remember. NFL Steelers seem to own it, so plentiful and prolific the black and yellow brand. Yellow is the color of one of the more prominent bridges that pop up everywhere. Hundreds of them.Twelve so-called downtown bridges alone. Nothing to sneer at when coursing up down and across three rivers (Ohio, Allegheny, Monongahela) and  the innumerable hills and valleys that dominate the terrain
"People don't leave Pittsburgh." (I.e. We're loyal. We don't often move.)
"People here pretty much take care of themselves." (On why there is no public transportation to and from the city's 'international' airport an hour from downtown.)
A 60-hour visit reveals much to love in this quirky city full of colorful  local neighborhoods.  Pie For Breakfast  ( vinegar pie, custard based, a tribute to the Depression era when fancier versions weren't available) is a perfectly plausible name for an eatery as is the existence of a distillery (bourbon, gin, what have you) called Wigle. The riverfront area  known as the Strip has ethnic options  galore: Italian coffee and pastry; Polish sausages made on site.  The 'ultimate' P-burgh  food offering is a sandwich from Primanti Brothers -a layered  mix of meat, fries and coleslaw, just right for people on the go.
"Pittsburgh Is Everyone," a t-shirt boasts.
A  city of some 300,000 people - an amazingly low number relative to its offerings - seemingly lacks nothing.(Especially not rain.) First rate educational and cultural institutions.  Famous, often infamous,  citizens of renown.  Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, Andy Warhol, Billy Eckstine,  the Heinz family,  to name a few. Some left to live elsewhere but came back home to be buried.
 An advertisers pamphlet called the Urbanist bills itself as "Authentic Pittsburgh." Tough word to live up to. I'd point to  'Lincoln's P&G Diner' in Millvale - cash, no cards (no advert in the Urbanist either) - also known as 'Pamela's.' Featured photo displays of beloved neighbors, past and present.  Hot cakes  that are thin-like crepes so good the Obamas brought the owners to cook a meal for them in the White House.


All this from a grim history of industrial warfare and pollution before environmental controls came along: foul air, treacherous working conditions, labor strikes. A capitalist roller coaster writ large.
The borough of Braddock, a suburban backwater on the 'Mon,' is an example of ongoing change over time. Braddock's population of nearly 21,000 in 1920  is down to some 2,000 today - 900 of them employees of the U.S. Steel Corporation mill that  throbs day and night with a low-key hum, its giant electrical grid resembling a sonic fairyland on some faraway moon. Progress and dissolution and now, slowly, fresh hope. The plant's predecessor, built by Andrew Carnegie way back in 1873, was one of the first mills to use the Bessemer process that refined cost and quality of  steel production. Braddock was home to the first of Carnegie's public libraries; it included a tunnel entrance for millworkers that lead to a bathhouse in the basement. The site also had a swimming pool, billiards tables, indoor basketball court, and music hall. The building was rescued from near-death  in the late 1970s and remains in operation (without the recreational facilities).
 Braddock's  burly mayor, John Fetterman, became something of a national TV star based on his good works and ambition. He was recently elected  the state's  Lt. Governor after a long career in the nonprofit sector spent helping the local community. He keeps house across from the plant and next door to the trendy Superior Motors restaurant that he created out of the premises of a  former Chevrolet dealership.
 He's a Pittsburgher, what else.


Friday, November 2, 2018

Who Would Have Thought: Darwin in the City

Mosquitoes are proving more adaptable than humans, at least in some quarters.
Note a piece by science writer David Quammen in the recent New York Review that the so-called London underground mosquito has evolved to a new form. What's more, the populations that have taken root below are genetically different according to the different tube line where they now live.
The world changes. Grows more urban by the minute. By mid-century,  six billion of the earth's nine billion people will live in cities with consequences too enormous to contemplate.
A few other species shifting their character as a result, Quammen points out in his book review,  are house crows of Singapore, coyotes of Chicago, ring-necked parakeets of Paris and a few others learning to tolerate new environments.
 What changes will the human make, apart from turning (conveniently or not) into a robot?

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Washington Biography Group at 25



A club of sorts without members that welcomes anyone, even without credentials. An interest in biography is enough, The group begun casually by former National Portrait Gallery head Marc Pachter has flourished for 25 years, meeting monthly, except in summer, in a stately wood-panelled  room loaned for the evening by Washington International School, a private high school on Macomb St. NW.
This model could be duplicated in any community where book lovers congregate. All that is required is a firm conviction  that books matter and anyone writing or thinking about memoir, biography or associated genres will profit from friendly group discussion of themes related to such an effort.
A newsletter produced by the titular leader or organizer goes out to as many as 500 people monthly - those who sign on to learn about meetings, celebrations, advice, article links, etc.
The only dues are voluntary and minimal for a token payment annually to the school for its use of a room. Parking is free.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Public Transportation Protocol: Update Required!

Yes a bad title, and, sadly, an outdated one. Who can imagine such a thing -  'rules' relating to behavior aboard all forms of public conveyances? In public life in general. Of course, there are guidelines - rules - published and ignored by paying customers about handicapped and seniors and no-food-or-drink, so on and on. Usually ignored under pressure and seldom  punished - when only  authorities feel it necessary to make an example.
I'm talking etiquette.  Old fashioned stuff relating to encounters between strangers in a close space. City space -  where a person's civic sense is key to helping a community survive. (Note: uptick in murders this year in D.C. How many are caused or instigated by paranoia often found in crowded conditions, public and private. I.E. road rage, domestic spats, etc.)
Take a moment in that rush hour Metro to bond rather than bite....strike up conversation, maybe 'small talk' rather than sneak looks at the infernal phone.
This sounds like something out of David Brooks' columns. He seems on the bandwagon of civility lately. It's not just the business of being stuck underground rump to rump with strangers during rush hour but behavior in all quarters of public life.
Civic sense a duty not a privilege....what hope otherwise in an increasingly dismaying world.
Some levity helps, too. In a recent Washington Post column by John Kelly he writes about people's favorite Washington experiences, a so-called bucket list.  Best of all is the woman in Virginia noting how she counts spending a free day at home while her house guests track frantically over the city trying to see every monument and museum in one day.
Kudos for common sense all around.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Walkable Or Not

One of the latest missions of the New York Times seems to be keeping readers - well, why not say the entire US population? - healthy by whatever means. To that end, it sponsors a web site called Walkscore.com listing 'most walkable' US cities as well as those to avoid if you are intent on footing it.
No surprise that New York City leads. Then San Francisco and Boston but fourth is - unusually tagged this way in my mind - Miami. Surely not the entire urban area of that spread out city?
Washington DC comes in at number 7, just ahead of Seattle.
 The criteria hangs on how easily a person can accomplish basic errands without access to wheels and a motor - bikes presumably are ok to use -  in American cities with a population of more than 300,000.

Too bad for Fort Worth, Raleigh, Nashville and Charlotte (which is at the bottom of the list), among  others dismissed as 'least walkable' and 'in need of a car.'

Sunday, September 30, 2018

City Notes: DC and elsewhere

Who knew?

***That baobab trees grow in the middle of Dakar, capital of Senegal, according to today's (9/30/18) New York Times. Tall mighty specimens standing up against the urbanizing tide, threatened by climate change - how will they hold out, these beloved symbols of national pride?  They are going fast - half of them gone in the past 50 years because of drought and development. There is a modest effort to protect them, but, according to the report, no major government program in place.

***That Washington's Metro system is so overwhelmed with 'lost and found' objects, mainly the inadvertently misplaced kind, that it is no longer possible to call to find out if a certain pair of black-rimmed prescription glasses has been turned in  by a conscientious citizen or an overnight cleaning crew. Just after getting off a train and discovering my favorite spectacles  missing, I called headquarters where a spokesperson told me I must come in person to their suburban Hyattsville, Md., offices and search through the mountain of possibilities. If I had lost a cell/smart phone, however, I might be able to reclaim it with some (digital?) identification.

***That mayors in many cities across the land are the new hope for  enlightened civic engagement. Regard the number of books being published with this view. The latest is from the mayor of Oklahoma City, and he is even making the rounds of bookstores like a celebrity hawking his wisdom.

*** New in Seoul, Korea, via the October's Atlantic magazine: "Rapidly expanding" stress cafes to ease the urban soul. Offerings there include oxygen generators, apparently since air quality in that nation's capital is so bad. Like having a home in the city, reports one client. And a side benefit: social encounters of a low-key variety especially prized in a nation with a marked competitive edge.

*** And from the Smithsonian this month, a gorgeously illustrated spread on the ancient city of Petra in Jordan, resurrecting the reputation of a formerly grand capital  for the Nabateans, a very cosmopolitan people. All brought to life with the help of modern technology. You don't have to pay much to get there, at least not as much as the team doing 3-D images for a virtual reality tour.

*** Never say the bard wasn't up to date, or that Washington's Folger Theatre doesn't know  how to connect with audiences. Coming on top of a splendidly energetic (i.e. visceral and voluble) production of 'King John,' one of Shakespeare's lesser known history plays, the landmark event space has commissioned an 'immersive' performance piece deliciously (invitingly) called 'Confection,' for a limited run in March 2019 from New York-based Third Rail Projects. Advance word says the short experiential work was inspired by the Folger Shakespeare Library's collection, plus the upcoming Restoration comedy Nell Gwynn. What's that again? Bits and bites, oral and sensual, on offer in the  semi-sacred Reading Rooms throughout a 45-minute show.  Staying Modern in Style, I'd say.
Does the banner phrase ( press release material) "A rollicking rumination on opulence"  entice you? It ought to also pierce you with thought as well about the role of sweets in everyday life.
Also  note that the work is being done in association with Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures, a Mellon initiative in collaborative research, convened by the Folger Institute.


Monday, September 24, 2018

'Magic' City (?)

What to make of a place that dubs itself in promotional literature a 'magic city'? Is such a boast hiding a worry that ordinary accolades don't measure up?


I read from local promotion material how Billings was named for Vermont native Frederick Billings, who made a fortune as an attorney and real estate developer during the California gold rush. Billings used some of that fortune to invest in the Northern Pacific Railroad, and acted as the company president for a few years. It was during that period that the railroad was stretched across Montana. A new town was created between the Yellowstone River and the rimrocks to the north. The town, which soon overtook nearby Coulson, was named Billings to honor the railroad president. Frederick Billings never lived in the town, though he donated large amounts of money to support it. His eldest son, Parmly Billings, was the only member of the family to live here.

So the man who gave his name to the city (or is it town - with only 110,000 people?) never lived there. The magic was his money. The way was paved with gold, and the good fortune of the historic river along which Lewis and Clark tree on their very meaningful way west.  There's a perverse admiration for the built-in respect for commerce as the boon to life. A major boulevard - to give the street the grandest possible distinctive name - called Grand is lined with casinos, or seems that way so numerous are the signs. The lure of the deal, the mirage of riches. Dark rooms and plenty of neon. 

Downtown: A fledgling independent cinema showing feature films; an outdated theater with touring shows and occasional performances by a local symphony. An excellent secondhand book store. A respectable art museum. A modern looking library.  But mostly  large scale truck and auto and horse or bull riding in a stadium arena east of town as well as the annual fair. In  the western end an extravagant sporting goods store featuring a Ferris wheel, an aquarium and a taxidermy exhibit of animals great and small, not to mention an extensive selection of firearms and ammunition for sale.(The miniature bowling alley especially popular with families on an outing when  snow moves in.) No happy-go-lucky electric scooters on downtown streets and sidewalks - not yet. No rental bikes. Intercity buses exist but have only limited schedules. A Frenchman married to a Billings native has started an authentic (i.e. he does all the work himself using starter dough he brought with him from Singapore, of all places ) bakery that produces  real baguettes on a daily basis.
 Proof at left of the kind of enterprising spirit that is alive in offbeat areas (i.e. neglected, or otherwise underutilized and abandoned): a former grocery on Minnesota Ave. 'south of the railroad tracks ' - yes, literally, with all that implies - where low income housing prevails.  The wall sign proclaims Kirks Grocery, now reconstituted as an art gallery space recently taken over by musician/artist Shane deLeon. The early 1900s red brick building operated by two brothers, one of them named Richard Kirk, between 1907 and 1936. In addition to offering contemporary art, the owner - a Billings' native who only recently returned home to promote art and music events in a brand new space.  DeLeon's faith and optimism is contagious. Think lower East Side New York or London's Shoreditch before developers moved in - and similar infusions of fresh energy in smaller cities elsewhere (I.e. Lancaster, Pa.,,arch conservative by reputation now touted as 'the new Brooklyn').  It's a quirky town, the kind that inspires ambivalent loyalty but seldom outright bragging and statement of magnificence that Missoula and Bozeman produce from  visitors and denizens alike. Why, then, did Outside magazine in 2016 call Billings a  "Best Town" ?  Doubtless two well established rival medical clinics (one with a connection to Mayo) helps in the counting but they weren't mentioned. The focus was on outdoor living and affordability, pointing out comparisons with "already discovered Montana adventure hubs like Missoula and Bozeman" - on the fact the town is, quoting one resident, is 'in a renaissance stage."  Yes, the river is impressive, and so is the town's natural setting nestled beneath a 300-foot high sandstone rim called the High Line (as far from the New York site of the same name as you can get) bordering in uneven formation across nearly the entire northern boundary.  Seen here from a car window...the looming barrier under the fabled big sky, like a wave about to topple onto the inhabitants below. 

 Contrasts are constant, both in views and weather. And conflicts are common in territory built in myth upon man's rights as opposed to those the government sometimes claims. Witness the sign posted this summer by a downtown coffee shop owner objecting to a published report of an altercation that had taken place on the premises.