Pittsburgh: An Expert’s Guide
I’ve written at least once on this blog about The Next Page, which is the anything-goes department published every Sunday on the back page of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette‘s Op-Ed section. I’ve written about how I consider it to be the P-G’s most intriguingly creative feature, hands down. And I’m very proud to write that on Sunday, August 26 (yesterday), an article of my very own appeared on The Next Page.
The piece is called Pittsburgh: An Expert’s Guide, and it’s essentially meant to be something of an ultra-insider’s guide for locals. I managed to sell the Op-Ed section’s editor on the idea because I recently wrote a Pittsburgh guidebook for Moon Handbooks/Avalon Publishing Group.
He was particularly interested in the idea that during the book’s research and reporting phases, I picked up a fairly decent amount of odd and unusual Pittsburgh-specific knowledge which, for one reason or another, never ended up in the guide. As I’ve already explained to quite a few disgruntled small-business owners (or small-business boosters, in some cases), Moon Handbooks Pittsburgh was never meant to be a telephone book. On the contrary, it’s a very carefully detailed collection of recommendations. But still, there were certainly a number of people, places and things I would have enjoyed recommending that nevertheless ended up on the cutting room floor, so to speak. Those were the recommendations the Post-Gazette hoped I would share with its readers.
The article has only been in print since Saturday morning, and I’ve only gotten feedback from two P-G readers thus far. But I’d love to know what The Labor Party community has to say, so do leave a comment at the end of this post if there’s anything you’d like to share.
Before posting, however, please take a minute to read the note directly following the article; it attempts to explain why the P-G’s website — including the online version of my article — looks so embarrassingly amateurish. On that note, if you happen to live within the P-G’s distribution range, please pick up the paper and take a look at the article in its printed version — it is beautifully designed and incredibly well illustrated.
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PITTSBURGH: AN EXPERT’S GUIDE
For nearly a year, I researched, wrote about and photographed our city in order to produce a Pittsburgh guidebook for Moon Handbooks. I thought I knew this town: I’ve spent more than a decade here as a high schooler, a curious college student and an inquisitive journalist. But creating the book took me to scores of places that caught me by surprise.
Pittsburgh is famously a self-conscious and defensive city. But if I learned anything during the often arduous process of digging for and discovering rare and unknown facts about this small corner of the Keystone State, it is this: Pittsburgh is perfect just the way it is.
I couldn’t possibly fit everything into the book. So here are some highlights of the outtakes — places I think might surprise fellow Pittsburghers:
YOU CAN GO FISHING ON YOUR LUNCH BREAK
The local outdoor enthusiast club Venture Outdoors has organized many unusual activities, but their weekly “urban fishing” endeavor has got to be the most offbeat. If you work in the Golden Triangle, check out the Downtown TriAnglers.
The TriAnglers previously met at the fountain in Point State Park, although you’ll now find them gathering in Riverfront Park on the North Shore. Fishing takes place every Wednesday from 11:30 a.m. until 1:30 p.m., from May until the end of October. The seasonal per-person charge is $5.
CONTEMPLATE WORLD-FAMOUS CROATIAN MURALS WHILE GHOST HUNTING
True, visiting a church is not everyone’s idea of a good time. But consider this: St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church (24 Maryland Ave., Millvale, 412-821-3438), which you’ll find smack-dab in the heart of Millvale, is famous for its art and its resident poltergeist. That’s right — this place is haunted. Or so they say. But first, a word or two about the murals.
There are 20 of them in all, although you shouldn’t arrive expecting to spot Jesus or the Mother Mary. The paintings, created by the legendary Croatian artist Max Vanka in 1937 and 1941, are distinctly political in nature. They depict Croatian immigrants suffering from harsh conditions, for instance, or mothers weeping over their war dead. Most critics consider these to be Vanka’s masterpiece works, which surely helped the church win its National Historic Landmark status.
So, what about the ghost? Some believe the frightful figure to be the apparition of a former parish priest. The alleged ghost, which is usually seen inside the chapel draped in some sort of black cloak, has been around so long that even Vanka himself claims to have had a sighting. He says it happened during the middle of the night, while he was cranking away on one of the murals. (Then again, it might have been the paint thinner.)
One other (alleged) haunted house in the Pittsburgh area is The Harmony Inn, located in the Harmony/Zelienople area (230 Mercer St., Harmony, 724-329-5512). It is said to host supernatural guests. Possibly stranger still is the fact that management is rather proud of it: You’ll find newspaper accounts of the haunting legend right in the restaurant’s lobby.
BORROW A FREE BEACH CRUISER
Organized by Friends of the Riverfront, the corporate-sponsored Dasani Blue Bikes Program offers the use of an absolutely free bike — a sky-blue beach cruiser — for anyone wishing to explore the length of the city’s Three Rivers Heritage Trail. The bikes are stored in a locker at the start of the trail near Terminal Way on the South Side, but it’s necessary to first visit the Friends of the Riverfront office (33 Terminal Way, off E. Carson Street, 412-488-0212), where riders will be issued a swipe card after presenting a state-issued driver’s license or passport. The cards are then validated for one year, and only two rules apply: Bikes must be returned before dark, and they’re to be used on the Heritage Trail only.
ATTAIN SPIRITUAL ENLIGHTENMENT AT THE MYSTERIOUS FOURTH RIVER
You may have already heard of the existence of Pittsburgh’s fourth river, but if not, it’s a perfectly convenient bit of trivia to share with out-of-town guests. Why’s that? Well, it happens to be located right beneath the fountain at the tip of Point State Park, where you’ve probably made plans to take them already (though you’ll have to wait until the park, now under renovation, reopens next year).
Contrary to popular belief, the Wisconsin Glacial Flow, as the so-called fourth river is properly known, is not technically underneath the earth and hidden from human sight. In fact, if you’ve ever visited the Point when the fountain was spouting, you’ve seen it, shooting 6,000 gallons of water per minute in the form of a 30-foot-tall plume. The Flow (as I like to call it) gets airborne only during the spring, summer and fall seasons, and only between the hours of 7:30 a.m. and 10 p.m.
Perhaps even more interesting is the fact that many Native American tribes consider the site where the fountain sits to be sacred.
This has something to do with the fact that three separate rivers converge at that specific site. According to the ancient Maya tribe, in fact, Pittsburgh is one of only 12 locations on the planet that will soon play a major role in fulfilling a spiritual prophecy. If you’ve ever considered taking up Zazen meditation, in other words, the fountain at the Point might not be a bad place to start.
PAY A VISIT TO THE HOLY LAND, ACROSS THE STREET FROM MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD
With a collection of more than 100 temperate and tropical plants, a small waterfall, a stream representing the River Jordan and a desert scene depicting the biblical lands from Lake Galilee to the Dead Sea, the Biblical Botanical Garden at Rodef Shalom Temple (4905 Fifth Ave., Oakland, 412-621-6566, www.biblicalgardenpittsburgh.org, Sun.-Thu. 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Sat. noon to 1 p.m., closed during winter) is meant to symbolize the universal love of the Bible.
Many of the plants here have biblical names (Moses in a Basket, Biblical Coat), and during each season, the garden focuses on a differing theme of Near Eastern horticulture.
The experience of wandering the garden is meant to be something akin to a stroll through the Holy Land of ancient Israel, but even nonbelievers will enjoy relaxing among the beauty of nature here. The Temple is within walking distance of both the Carnegie Mellon and Pitt campuses and sits across the street from WQED studios.
OUR POSTCARD VIEW HAS A LOT OF COMPETITION
The Grandview Avenue strip on Mount Washington is far from being Pittsburgh’s solitary locale for spotting spectacular city views — it just happens to be the most well-known.
The next time you’re tooling around town, see if you can’t track down some of Pittsburgh’s lesser-known Grand Views.
Fineview Hill. Given the name, it should come as no surprise to learn that certain hilltop vistas from this North Side neighborhood are simply breathtaking. Located behind Allegheny General Hospital, you can’t miss the main attraction — get up there and then look toward the Downtown skyline. The viewing platform is at Catoma and Meadville; it’s essentially a smaller version of those located along Grandview.
The West End-Elliott Overlook. The various city views that can be seen from the former coal-mining communities of West End and Elliott have always been beyond spectacular. But thanks to a $2.1 million renovation to the overlook itself, which boasts an enclosed pavillion, indoor restrooms, a designated picnic area and a rooftop observation deck, it’s no wonder half the city seems to show up whenever fireworks are scheduled to explode. You’ll also find a busy crowd here on Light Up Night. It’s appropriately on Rue Grande Vue (at Lorenz Avenue).
South Side Slopes. Although it lacks the tourist facilities of the West End Overlook, the city view atop the Slopes certainly scores high when it comes to convenience; neither a car nor public transportation are necessary to explore the area. And exploring is exactly what you’ll need to do if you aim to find your own secret vista. For a head start, wander up South 18th Street and keep your eyes open for any of the city’s famous steps, which is where you’ll find quite a few views at their most powerful.
GET FREE INTERNET ACCESS DOWNTOWN
It happens even to the best of us: You’re wandering the streets of Downtown, when suddenly an urge strikes, telling you to check your Gmail account. But what to do?
There’s always the Downtown & Business branch of the Carnegie Library (612 Smithfield St., 412-281-7141, www.clpgh.org, Mon.-Thu. 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m., Fri. 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m., Sat.-Sun. closed), where high-speed access is free to anyone with a valid library card. But the waiting list for a terminal can often be, uh, terminally long. And there’s always a good chance your neighbor may be emanating a certain eau de garbage. So you can skip the stacks, and wander around the corner to the Regional Enterprise Tower (425 Sixth Ave.), where all-access Internet terminals can be found scattered about the lobby.
The terminals, along with a bank of flat-screen TVs broadcasting world news at all hours, are part of the Xplorion project (412-392-1020, www.xplorion.org), an exhibition space intended to encourage investment in the region. Technically, only the Xplorion Web site itself is meant to be accessed on the terminals, and because the site is such a wonderfully organized collection of local info, I highly recommend checking it out. But it is possible to type in the Web site address of any site (including that of your favorite Web-based e-mail provider).
UNLEASH YOUR INNER ARTIST
It’s no secret that the North Side’s Andy Warhol Museum (117 Sandusky St., 412-237-8300, www.warhol.org) is one of Pittsburgh’s most creative spaces. But even many locals who’ve visited countless times aren’t aware of the museum’s comprehensive education programs. The Weekend Factory is one of the most unusual. Participants in this hands-on studio program learn how to create any number of Warholian-like consumer creations. The projects themselves change from time to time, but currently include buttons, screen-printed T-shirts and greeting cards. The Weekend Factory is open on Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m.
Speaking of T-shirts and greeting cards (not to mention posters and tote bags), a North Side arts organization known as Artists Image Resource (518 Foreland St., 412-321-8664, www.artistsimageresource.org) hosts an Open Studio session in its own screen-printing factory each Tuesday evening. The roomy and well-stocked upstairs studio is open to the public from 7-11 p.m., and all necessary screen-printing supplies, such as inks and rollers, can be used for a small fee — usually $5.
Unleashing the creativity of your newborn or toddler, as we all know, is often easier with toys. But unfortunately for parents attempting to survive on a budget, children’s toys are anything but affordable. And that’s where the Pittsburgh Toy Lending Library comes in (5401 Centre Ave., Shadyside, 412-682-4430, www.pghtoys.com, Mon. & Thur., 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m.; Tue., Wed. & Fri. 9:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., closed on first Saturday of the month, remaining Saturdays 10 a.m.- noon. Closed remainder of August).
This volunteer-run organization owns more than 300 toys (and books) available for members to take home and beat the heck out of. Membership is a maximum of $75 per year, per family; anyone willing to volunteer can get that fee significantly lowered. Nonmembers can choose to pay a $5 per-child fee when visiting the indoor play space, which includes an infant play area.
A former music editor of Pittsburgh City Paper, Dan Eldridge (email@example.com) is a Lonely Planet guidebook writer whose work has appeared in Seattle Magazine, Punk Planet and AOL’s Cityguide. “Moon Handbooks: Pittsburgh” was released this summer (www.moon.com). He is also the founding editor of Young Pioneers, an independent travel publication that will soon be relaunched as a magazine about creative entrepreneurs.
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A note about this article’s online version:
The Post-Gazette had its website completely redesigned a few days ago, and while I don’t mean to poke holes in what appears to be something of a sinking ship, it’s not a good look. To be fair, the online versions of P-G articles have (more or less) always looked worse than their print counterparts. (That’s assuming that the print version came complete with a fair amount of art.)
During the summer of 2005, I wrote an article about the week I spent living and working at a Hare Krishna compound in West Virginia, for instance, and although the web version isn’t necessarily horrible, I can absolutely assure you that the print copy I have displayed in my portfolio is far superior.
Why? For one thing, the titles indicating paragraph breaks were never set in bold type in the online version. They weren’t even capitalized! But why not? How hard would it possibly have been for an editor to match both my manuscript and the print version of the story to the piece posted online? Answer: It wouldn’t have been hard at all. It might have taken a little extra time and effort, but it certainly wouldn’t have been difficult.
That tells me one of three things: Either the P-G’s web department was populated with lazy employees at that time, or the editors who should have been checking the web department’s work weren’t doing their jobs, or the company’s software was garbage. My guess? Probably a little bit of each.
As for the paper’s recent redesign, let me first assure you that I’m not the only reader (nor the only blogger) who has soundly turned up his nose. Local poker obsessive Gene Bromberg has an August 22 post worth reading. Among other well-placed insults, he had this to say:
“The Post-Gazette site was outdated and needed an upgrade. Making it WORSE took some doing. Congrats, P-G. On the heels of Steely McBeam, what is happening to my fair city?”
The first reader to comment on Bromberg’s post had this to say about the redesign: “It’s totally hideous. I may need to end my camping trip in Alberta, Canada early and come home to burn down the PG.”
The next poster managed to hit it even more squarely on head by writing this:
“It pains me to know that some morons are getting paid BIG money to do major media outlets’ websites without [the] understanding of how people actually use the internet. But then again, these internet “consultants” — the ones charging a lot to say “blogs are big! you gotta get blogs!” — are the ones getting the gigs, so maybe they aren’t the dumbest internet people after all.”
And while the P-G’s new site is quite obviously not a blog, it does appear to have been built with blogging software. I didn’t even realize this at first myself, but when I showed the site to my girlfriend, a CMU-educated graphic designer who builds web sites for a living, she guessed that not only did the P-G purchase simple blogging software, but that they probably got ripped off as well. Why did she suppose that? Probably because I was pointing to the date at the top of the site’s page, which for some reason had been set exactly seven days into the future.
But enough bitching. As long as daily newspapers continue to give away their entire content for free to anyone with an internet connection, can we really be justified in laughing loudly at their all-too-public gaffs?
To send your own comments about the P-G’s new site to the P-G themselves, click here and fill out the online form.