A Beginner’s Guide to Pittsburgh, Part 1

By Mike Panzitta – Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh

BGtPP1

So you want to learn a little about Pittsburgh before you make your big journey to the first meeting of the Rust Belt Coalition of Young Preservationists in April? I don’t blame you…the City of Steel can be intimidating for a first- (or even fortieth-) time visitor. There are formidable obstacles like rivers, bridges, and tunnels, and more neighborhoods with the word “hill” in them than you can shake a fist at. Let’s start with two of the basics: Rivers and Neighborhoods.

Rivers

Pittsburgh is defined by its rivers. Our rivers are the reason Pittsburgh was able to grow from Fort Pitt in the mid-18th century to an industrial giant in the mid-20th century, and they shape a singular topography that confuses even the most geographically-inclined residents. There are three of them, so repeat after me – Allegheny (“al-uh-GEY-nee”), Monongahela (“muh-non-guh-HEEL-uh”), and Ohio (“Ohio”).

Hydrologically, the Monongahela (colloquially known as “the Mon”) flows into the Allegheny to form the Ohio. If you want to know more about the rivers, ask me (Mike)…I’ll bore you to death with both fun and less-than-fun facts.

Vocab word of the day: “Confluence.” It’s the meeting of two or more bodies of water. In Pittsburgh, we call our confluence “The Point,” and it’s the home of Point State Park. Point State Park was the site of two of Pittsburgh’s original structures – Fort Pitt and Fort Duquesne – and was declared a National Historic Landmark just one year after the Park was built in 1974. It’s also home to a much-loved and recently renovated fountain, the marketing campaign for which is one of our favorites (“If there is no fountain, what’s The Point?”).  Fun fact – one of the alternate plans for the park was designed by some guy who went by the name Frank Lloyd Wright. The plan was rejected by the city…sorry, Frank!

Neighborhoods

This section title is a bit misleading since there are something like 92 neighborhoods in Pittsburgh city-proper, and even some of those are questionable (I’m looking at you, Hays). But I’ll run you through a few of the areas you’d expect to encounter on this visit so you can act as cool as an old pro.

The Golden Triangle is what we call Downtown (pronounced “Dahn-tahn”). It’s sandwiched between the Allegheny and the Mon, which determined the original triangular street grid of the city. It’s home to incredible architecture, and is currently experiencing a boom in residential occupancy like many downtown areas across the country. The tip of the Golden Triangle is the Point!

The North Side is what we call pretty much all the neighborhoods north of the Allegheny. Formerly a separate entity known as Allegheny City, it was annexed by the City of Pittsburgh in 1907 (think: Brooklyn). The North Side has an abundance of historic buildings and neighborhoods. It’s where most of you will be staying, so you’ll get to know it really well!

Mount Washington, formerly “Coal Hill,” is technically not a mountain. It’s at the elevation the land was at before the rivers came through and made it really tough to bike around, probably on purpose. If you look at a photo of Downtown Pittsburgh, there’s like an 86% chance it was taken from Mount Washington. The riverside slopes of Mount Washington are also home to these funky things called “inclines” that take you directly from the waterfront to the top of the mountain, which will afford you one of the best-known views of Pittsburgh and surrounding areas (more on what inclines are and why they exist in future posts).

The South Side is sandwiched between Mount Washington and the Monongahela and is known for a crazy high concentration of bars and restaurants. It’s a pretty common place for newly-minted 21-year-olds to go out, but there’s a lot of great less-frequented places, and the residential section is full of beautiful intact sets of historic row houses. Our row houses are one of our pride and joys! The South Side Slopes, though they sound like a ski resort, also have some of the best views of the city.

The East End lies…wait for it…east of downtown and is home to probably the greatest variety of neighborhoods. Oakland, the Hill District, Lawrenceville, and East Liberty are all prominent neighborhoods in the East End, some of which are experiencing a lot of gentrification. YPA has advocated to preserve more and more sites in the East End in recent years, and we have also seen some great examples of adaptive reuse (such as the Union Project) and some disappointing demolitions (like 6012-6018 Penn Ave).

Well, that’s enough to digest for now. See you next time, when I cover the Inclines and City Steps!

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