Every few years my siblings and I take a trip we creatively call “Sibling Trip.” Previous trips include Prague and Vienna and Asheville, North Carolina. This time around, we chose Pittsburgh. Not exactly a destination that comes to mind when you think “vacation,” but my brother is an urban planner and apparently, Pittsburgh is “America’s Most Livable City.” Or, in other words, an urban planner’s dream come true. So off to Pittsburgh we went excited for three days in one of the most all-American of American cities.
I want to preface this entry by stating 1.) I loved Pittsburgh and 2.) all trips have their share of lows. For example, it turns out the Prague Train Station is not a very nice place to spend an evening. The whole thing has a hellish-circus-like red tint to it and some very unpleasant memories were made there. What did we see, you ask? Things we wish we could forget. For example, a long-haired dude passed out in a photo booth. With blood coming out one side of his mouth. Used syringes on the ground (be careful where you step if you ever plan to spend time at the Prague Train Station), and, my favorite, a guy with a Mohawk playing with his pet rat. These are just some of the highlights from our time at the Prague Train Station. And in Asheville there was the Econo Lodge. I’m not saying all Econo Lodges are places you should stay away from, but the Asheville Econo Lodge doesn’t exactly do the brand any favors. Sure, it’s cheap, but this is probably because it’s never been cleaned and, if you have our luck, you might even find putrid smelling decades-old Indian food in your mini-fridge. Anyway, the point of this little story is that all trips have their highs and lows. So in the first of this two-part series on the Great American City of Pittsburgh, I will focus on the lows.
Everything was great until we actually got close to the city. We had our snacks, the landscapes were great and we were in that pre-trip excitement frame of mind. At least I was. My sister fell asleep and my brother complained of car sickness most of the ride. But I was feeling pretty good because I’d found this great hotel deal online …less than $100 for a 3 star hotel 1.2 miles from downtown! So there we were, excited for our mini-vacation when the GPS started taking us through a very weird, abandoned-feeling factory town that looked, to say it nicely, a little post-apocalyptic. Or maybe a little radioactive. Whatever the case, it seemed like the kind of place drug addicts might enjoy hanging out in. We inferred this after we saw a guy walking a lawnmower over a median and a woman walking down a busy road with a hardcore zombie stare, looking as if she’d just bought out the entire local Salvation Army.
We knew we weren’t in Pittsburgh, but the GPS said we were less than a mile away from our hotel, eventually leading us to what looked like the dump yard of an old factory. Supposedly, this is where our hotel was located. Feeling a little confused, we regrouped and put the hotel address in the GPS again and, it turns out, our hotel was not 1.2 miles from downtown Pittsburgh, but 1.2 miles from downtown Carnegie, which, at least at first glance, isn’t really the kind of place you want to spend a night in. But oh well. I’d already paid for the hotel and we were only seven miles outside the city. The GPS finally lead us to our hotel (just a few blocks from the factory), where we were greeted by Janet, the receptionist. Greeted might not be the right word. Janet seemed mad at us when we first walked in. I don’t know why. But she eventually warmed up to us and started cracking jokes. But the joke was really on us because in addition to accidentally booking a hotel 1.2 miles from downtown Carnegie rather than 1.2 miles from downtown Pittsburgh, I accidentally booked a room with ONE queen size bed.
My siblings and I are pretty close and we aren’t exactly known for our towering height, but one queen size bed for three adults — one (me) less than svelte — isn’t exactly ideal. So now that we were on good terms with Janet, we asked if there was any way we could switch to a two-bed hotel room. Janet looked at us with great pity and said, “Oh, I don’t know. We’re fully booked this weekend. I don’t even know if I have a hotel room ready for you.” You can imagine my shock at being told that the Extended Stay Carnegie was booked, but it turns out there was a Ravens-Steelers game on Sunday and all these unlucky fans were probably also tricked by the “1.2 miles from downtown” marketing ploy. Anyway, Janet thankfully made things happen. She “upgraded” us to a two-bed hotel room and even let us check-in a little early.
So we dropped our bags off and happily left Carnegie behind, at least for the time being. The first stop on our list was the Mount Washington incline, known for its great views of the city, according to many an Internet guide. We put my brother in charge of the GPS but the GPS was being a complete jerk and took us down dozens of extremely hilly, sad-looking mountain roads rather than on the highway, until we finally arrived in what looked like a residential neighborhood. Except we kind of felt like we’d arrived in the twilight zone. Every other house was boarded up and those that looked occupied looked a little bit different from the houses I’m used to seeing in my neighborhood: Appliances in front yards, unmowed lawns, broken windows and slightly off-kilter shutters and doors. I couldn’t help wondering how structurally sound some of these properties were. The only people we saw walking around looked like 1.) They’d spent all night drinking and were just now coming out of a deep, dark hole 2.) They’d been on a meth binge all week. It was scary. It’s also very possible that I’m taking creative liberties for a (higher) literary purposes but sometimes you have to exaggerate a little to really get at the truth of situation/feeling. So there we were, surrounded by dilapidation and uneven sidewalks, but the truly starting thing, the thing that really blew my mind? Cars were parked on the side walk…in every direction, some facing forwards, others backwards, others diagonal! It was like I was in the developing world all over again! All this time I thought all American’s strongly believed in orderly parking but Pittsburgh introduced me to whole new America!
Every street we tried to go down had some kind of obstacle. Dead-ends, streets so narrow I didn’t think my car would fit, cars being towed…so we decided to abandon Mount Washington all together and headed to downtown. And that’s when things got better. But I’ll save that for “Sibling Trip to Pittsburgh Part II.” For now, I will only say that growing up in Northern Virginia, one is not used to seeing old things. Well there are plenty of nicely preserved colonial-era plantations and historic homes and the such, places whose triumphant claim to fame is that George Washington or some other colonial-era “hero” passed through for two minutes, but these are well-maintained and preserved. I am used to pretty. I am used to buildings that meet stringent building codes, places free of dirt and grit. When you grow up in the comfortably middle class suburbs you tend to be surrounded by new things. New houses, new condos, new roads, new strip malls, new town centers, new cars and tons of new people (some might call them children) running around playing with new toys. . And while there’s plenty of Old in D.C, it’s aesthetically pleasing and well-maintained, at least in the touristy parts.
Pittsburgh is grittier. It’s more mixed, more layered, and in its own way, infinitely more interesting. To be very politically incorrect and simplistic, D.C is pretty much made up of two types of neighborhoods: Well-maintained, tree-lined attractive places full of educated, over-achieving yuppies with a penchant for farmer’s markets, (mostly) liberal politics, half-marathons and craft beer… and dilapidated, treeless, unattractive places full of under-educated, disenfranchised minorities who are lucky if they even have a grocery store within walking distance of their homes. In many ways, D.C is a city of the powerful and successful and the powerless and marginalized, as most American cities are. In Pittsburgh, the grandeur, wealth, beauty, poverty, dilapidation and decay is more intermixed, more a part of the everyday experience. You can spend an entire day in D.C without seeing poverty, save for the occasional homeless person sitting in front of museum; in Pittsburgh, hundreds of years of wealth, poverty, rise and decline are more immediately visible, which in a way reminded me of Bogotá; it’s not uncommon to see a building that is literally crumbling next to a lovingly maintained 19th century home. It was kind of cool to see a type of American city I hadn’t experienced before. Sometime this week I’ll post more pictures of the highlights of our trip!