The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

Posted on September 8, 2011 by

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I’m a foreigner in Pittsburgh. When I first learned that I was moving to Pittsburgh, the only thing I knew about it was that it was the setting of the campy North American remake of the British show Queer As Folk. The title is nonsensical in America, but makes perfect sense in Manchester, the setting of the UK version.

What I dimly knew from Queer As Folk was that Pittsburgh was the American analogue of Manchester, and what I knew about Manchester was that it was a grim, former industrial powerhouse.

A thorough reading of the Wikipedia entry for Pittsburgh then told me that Pittsburgh was indeed a former industrial powerhouse of the American rust belt, but that it had ceased to become grim in the ’80s, after the collapse of the steel industry and the subsequent revival of the city as a medical, education and technology hub. In fact, it was now consistently voted one of the most ‘liveable’ cities in the US.

But Wikipedia didn’t really prepare me for the strangeness that is Pittsburgh. It’s a city full of sumptuous reminders of the industrial wealth that flooded the city in the past, lovingly preserved and heartbreakingly abandoned in equal measure. On my bus ride in the morning, some of the smartest computer science students from around the world stand awkwardly in the aisles, getting in the way of tired doctors and nurses in their scrubs and locals in their ever-present Steelers/Penguins/Pirates jerseys. Downtown is an eclectic architectural rollercoaster, but an eerie ghost-town once the office workers go home for the night. It’s the city that never had a housing bubble; it’s the city that never had a housing crash. It’s Gotham City in the latest Batman; it’s the mall in Dawn of the Dead. It’s the third-most polluted city; it’s the tenth-cleanest city.

Nearly three years later, I still don’t understand the strangeness, but I’ve come to appreciate it. Welcome to the Steel City.

Yes, that's a dinosaur dressed as Mr Rogers during the Snowmageddon of 2010

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