June 2003: Pittsburgh

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Mayor Tom Murphy at the new convention centre in Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh has never quite decided for itself whether it is a mid West town. But if it isn’t, it would like to be. The three rivers that served the world’s largest inland port, the steel mills, the air of blue collar unpredictability and the heritage of its fabulously wealthy industrialists, all make this the sort of place where everyone should come to see what the phrase “melting pot of cultures’ might mean.

Anthony Trollope described it as the blackest place he had ever seen. Oscar Wilde saw Pennsylvania as a blotting paper. He could have been right.

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Mayor Tom Murphy at the new convention centre in Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh was strong blue collar steel worker country, and the legends of pit battles lost hangs as formidably in the air as in does in the village s of post-Thatcher England.

There was little in the miners’ existence to do with the American dream. It was tough, grueling and accident prone existence. The little houses where Greek Catholics and Hungarian migrants lived have been recreated in a well-ordered exhibition in Pittsburgh’s city museum.

Post Civil War America gathered here, and now that the industrial center is no more, all their obsessions got left behind. Pittsburgh had the first movie theatre and public TV station in America. Art, dinosaur bones, early crank wheel motor vehicles, the ecclesiastical architecture of religious rivalry, you will find it all here where the three rivers meet.

Now all clean and post industrial, Pittsburgh has settled down to bask in its new riches. They include a new airport voted among the top five in the world, and as spectacular a collection of museums as you will come across. The art collections of the industrialists fill the city’s galleries, paid for by the barons. Carnegie’s Science Centre is a day’s entertainment in itself. The terms and conditions placed on the Frick museum would make up their own guided tour (they once specified no Germans be employed).

The names which adorn most of the public buildings in Pittsburgh are reminders of that bygone age: Carnegie is the most famous, he accumulated wealth, put twelve year olds working on furnaces, cheated rival steel barons out of their manufactories, and ordered the striking workers in a town called Homestead to be shot.

Then he tried to buy his place in heaven by giving away 95pc of his fortune. The reputation of Carnegie is attached, like his name, to libraries.

His close friend Frick also tried to dispose of wealth in a near manic fashion, and the Frick buildings are a short trolley ride from the city centre.

The Mellon family have left a legacy of their own on this side of the Atlantic. Without the Mellons there would not have been an Ulster American folk park back in the 1960s, and the childhood home is the center-piece of the exhibition near Omagh.

The upshot of all this is that a young painter in post war America had lots of fine art to study and copy in his childhood, and Andy Warhol now has a gallery which outshines them all. The Warhol collection is a brilliant half-day tour for those who admire and those who scoff alike, even the skeptical can only admire the roomful of floating balloons he called clouds.

 

But Pittsburgh’s Convention Centre is what has heads turning these days. With an aplomb that must make Bertie Ahern jealous, Mayor Tom Murphy (third generation) lost a referendum on his major infrastructural projects, and went ahead and built them anyway: €1bn worth including two stadiums, (for the Fliers baseball team and the Steelers grid iron football team) and the convention centre which can comfortably handle 12,000. Like Vancouver, Tama bay and Amsterdam, it is superbly located on the river front, and Murphy is visibly proud as he shows visitors around. The best view in town is from the riverside box during the baseball, across the river to the Skyline. Or perhaps from the spectacular

 

The status of having Pennsylvania appended to your name in North America cannot be under-estimated. Pittsburgh Idaho or Pittsburgh Alabama would conjure up a certain image which wouldn’t quite mean the same thing as Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, and you know what it means even before that little ditty about the pawnshop comes to mind.

But just like Philadelphia seems to spend quite a lot of time demonstrating its superiority to New Jersey (just across the bridge) so Pittsburgh spends at least half as much time again demonstrating its superiority to the cattle states to the west.

Superior mid west, you might say.

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