Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Pittsburgh, ye glorious!

Pittsburgh is Philadelphia's cleaner, hillier, more industrial, more bridge bedazzled cousin, unfortunately located in western Pennsylvania, hours away from, some may say, anything desirable. It's closer to Ohio than it is to the ocean, and to me, that's not geographically admirable in any way. But Places Rated Almanac rated it the #1 most livable city in 2007; the same year, it rated Philadelphia #5, so honestly I don't know if it's much to go on. While I love Philadelphia dearly, much like I love my mephitic mutt, I sincerely hope our nation can do better.

Anyway, I went west and here is what I saw:

The first night we camped an hour outside of Pittsburgh, in Laurel Hill State Park. Upon arrival, we discovered that our borrowed, gargantuan tent came with an alarm clock and a room-separator-fly, but no rain fly. We also discovered that it had rained earlier and ended up sitting by a waning, sizzling fire. It was awfully pretty that night.

We awoke to a soft, gray morning and a drizzle that was quickly turning into rain. We packed and fled to The Quiet Storm Cafe , where I had the incredible Magic Snake (cheesy) sandwich and checked out locals' bike legs. The hills and staircases of Pittsburgh remind me of those of Valparaiso, only considerably better paved, so I resolved to bring my bike next time. But driving around, we got to see how green it is, neighborhoods poking out of vast and climbing vegetation-covered slopes.

We went to Braddock, right outside of Pittsburgh, on the Monongahela River. It's a depressed town that rises onto crooked hills from Braddock Ave and creeps with broken houses - porches and windows and slanting walls lying in dejected and somnolent heaps, weighed down with stinking furniture and scattered pasts. It's also home to the still functioning Monongahela Valley Works, Edgar Thomson Plant Steel Mill - Carnegie's first, in 1873. Lately, Braddock's bad ass mayor has been trying to gentrify the town to the best of his abilities and to bring in new folks who can appreciate the cheap land and houses and perhaps even revel in the industrial wonderland that surrounds that town. It's not surprising, of course, that the punks are biting then. But so are others, leading to phantasmagorical scenery, like, say, an organic farm with the mill towering in the background.

At some point we made it to The Church Brew Works. This is not just a brewery installed in a defunct church - this is a brewery that put the brew kettles on the altar, and painted angels with pint glasses in the stations of the cross. This is a brewery that made the most amazing beer I've ever had, a coconut stout that was so light and silky and so perfectly tinged with coconut that I might have prayed a little on the way out.

And then Gooski's (3117 Brereton St).

And then there was Zenith. Color-coded, well-dusted antique shop, tucked yet spacious dining room in back, plant-protected windows, goblet-set tables, vegetarian and vegan delights, an entire table set with pies and cakes. Too bad the food wasn't too exciting (although I hear it's not always bad, perhaps we came on bad day?) because otherwise I may have grannynapped the little old lady who must, inevitably, be responsible for this extravagant buffet. She must have been sitting in a back room, where servers took unpriced items to be blessed and valued. Their website says, "Eat where your seat could literally be sold out from under you," but it so happened that the one thing I wanted to purchase was not for sale. The bestest part of this best place was it's bathroom. Its walls are painted a super-saturated cobalt blue and lined with hundreds of owls. They're there to watch and make sure you're not doing anything naughty in the john.

Afterwards, we did some fancy sneaking around and went to the Carrie Furnace, closed in 1982. It's incredibly rusted but also incredibly intact. There are swinging doors, and stream stoppers, and oil still wheezing and bubbling through minuscule holes in the piping. They're planning to build a museum on the grounds, I think?

So, Pittsburgh. If it wasn't so miserably isolated out there I'd be moving there in a minute. But alas, #5 will have to do for now.

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