Pittsburgh’s culture quandary, or: Where have you gone, Andy Warhol?

Pittsburgh’s culture quest

5 minute read
The cultural district: It looks terrific, but where are the people?
The cultural district: It looks terrific, but where are the people?
Pittsburgh is a 'zombie' city. After 5 p.m., worker bees by the thousands turn off the lights in the Golden Triangle downtown, abandon their high-rise office hives and head home. With few downtown residents and even fewer downtown condos or rentals, the Golden Triangle turns into an urban desert.

Until the next morning, it's a land of out-of-town conventioneers, in-and-out suburban theatergoers and, increasingly (given the local and national economy) out-of-work hookers. A variant of Newark maybe. But with tall, very tall, buildings.

In this ossuary-like setting dwell Pittsburgh's great and good, and long dead. You can hardly not encounter, as you roam the Burgh (as Pennsylvania's second largest city, with about 300,000 living souls, is affectionately monickered), the names of such past historical luminaries as Frick, Carnegie, Schenley, Heinz and Mellon.

The after-five wasteland has not gone unrecognized. City government, led by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, a 32-year-old locally touted wunderkind, has underscored the importance of a downtown resurgence, reaching out to culture vultures far and wide in a "Be Downtown" campaign publicity blitz.

New theater district

One result has been the rebranding of 12 blocks along the Allegheny as a new, improved, and expanded "cultural district." More than a half-dozen theaters there have been renovated, including Heinz Hall, home of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra; the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts; and the August Wilson Center for African American Culture. New restaurants also now dot the district's main drag, Penn Avenue.

(One night during my visit, the district sponsored an evening arts crawl. It's a beginning).

In fact, even without Babbittry, downtown Pittsburgh has a lot going for it. Bold architecture and dense streetscapes, with about 150 high-rise towers, frame a tightly packed urbanized center-city. Many of these buildings are post-modern gems. Others— old, wondrous piles, rusticated stone hulks like the old Penn/Union (now Amtrak) station (1900-1902), designed by Daniel Burnham, and the Allegheny County Courthouse (1888) by Henry Hobson Richardson (Boston's answer to Philadelphia's Frank Furness)— speak to the city's monumental, empire-building past.

Anti-abortion billboards

For the casual observer, though, Pittsburgh is a legacy city, a place that was. Through its early and mid-20th Century heyday, well before the Burgh sobriquet, it was known as the Steel or Iron City. It was then, too, a head-office city of such bedrock symbols of capitalism as Gulf Oil, Alcoa, Westinghouse, and, yes, U.S. Steel, all now departed.

Although the city sits high in the Allegheny Mountain range, close to Midwest cultural currents, it's less Midwestern than Northeastern— more Boston than Akron. Its cultural icons— Frick, Mellon and Carnegie— are all Eastern names, identified with Eastern institutions from libraries and museums to foundations.

(Exceptions: Anti-abortion billboards dot the landscape, orange juice is served at breakfast, and streets are clean).

I visited the city recently to get touch with the roots of another dead Pittsburgher, albeit a more recent one.

Why Warhol left

Such was Andy Warhol (1928-1987), the godfather of America's Pop Art movement, who in the 1950s moved from the Golden Triangle to New York, to create what he mischievously dubbed the "Velvet Underground." Warhol, born Andrew Warhola, was Catholic, ethnic and gay— different by light years from Pittsburgh's blueblood civic leaders. Warhol's memory and art are now showcased in an eponymous museum, housed in a seven-level former factory building on the North Shore.

Warhol's claim on the city is not the only modern one. Native Pittsburghers also include the author Annie Dillard, the conservationist Rachel Carson, the historian David McCullough, the actor/dancer/choreogapher Gene Kelly, and Gertrude Stein, the arts maven to the Parisian Lost Generation.

In addition, the city is still economically better off than most. Its financial (PNC Bank), legal (Reed, Smith) and educational (Carnegie Mellon University, University of Pittsburgh) sectors are alive and well.

Also thriving, at least competing, are two, count 'em, two independent daily newspapers: the Post-Gazette and the Tribune-Review.

Cézanne and Stieglitz

The Andy Warhol Museum, which opened in 1994, is one of the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, a brilliantly executed complex of four institutions, including the Carnegie Science Center, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and the Carnegie Museum of Art. I visited three of these museums (I skipped the Science Center) without charge. You can too, if you have a reciprocal museum membership. (Mine was with the Philadelphia Museum of Art).

The Carnegie Museum of Art is a strong regional institution in a fresh, new building. Its current main stage exhibit, called "Impressionism in a New Light," (through August 26), intertwines the visual dialogue between Impressionism on canvas and in photographs. More than 150 works are represented, including a good smattering by Cassatt, Cézanne, Renoir and Van Gogh from the museum's permanent collection, and photographs, prominently by Stieglitz and Steichen, on loan from the Met.

Unfortunately for the Burgh, nearly all of its first-class institutions are located in the city's Oakland neighborhood, once home to the city's power elite but today a remote place, thanks to the truncation of a light-rail subway that was never extended East from downtown.

Had these venues been sited in the Golden Triangle, of course, the energy that now infuses Pittsburgh's East Side residential neighborhoods with tourists and student-related frolic could have been transfused to that downtown area. To a large extent the much-needed culture vultures the city yearns to attract are already there. But by an accident of urban planning, or a lack of it, they're just downtown at night.♦

To read a follow-up commentary by Dan Rottenberg, click here.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation