By Debi Lander
All my family were born in Pittsburgh, but my parents, brothers, and I moved to Virginia when I was two. We continued to make road trips to visit my grandparents until the late 1960s when they died. What I remember most vividly is my grandmother sweeping the soot that settled on her front porch every morning and evening. It looked like someone shook black pepper over everything.
During the 1940s – ‘50s, Pittsburgh produced half of the national steel output, an industrial hub for coal mining and steel manufacturing. But the region suffered from air pollution. A renaissance to clean up the city began in the 1960s. Today there are no operating steel mills, except for a few smaller plants in the suburbs. The economy now thrives on education, health care, and small manufacturing.
To explore my past, I spent the first night in a hotel directly across from Magee Hospital — my birthplace. I didn’t feel I needed to go inside but was happy to see the hospital was still around.
The area, known as Oakland, features the University of Pittsburgh and its highlight, the Cathedral of Learning. The Neo-Gothic structure is not a church but a 42-story skyscraper. Construction began in 1926 and took about 10 years to complete the classrooms and offices. The main floor contains 31 National Rooms, created to celebrate the ethnic diversity of the local communities. These fascinating classrooms include intricately carved woodwork and cultural symbols.
Take the elevator to the 36th floor, near the top, to gain some campus panoramic views. I couldn’t leave without stopping by what used to be Forbes Field, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ former stadium. Sports fans will remember the miracle-winning home run hit by Bill Mazeroski to end the 1960 World Series. The stadium no longer exists, but the historic left field brick wall, where Mazeroski’s ball flew, remains. Nearby, stop into Posvar Hall to see the glass-encased location of home plate.
I then made a detour to the suburbs to see my grandparents’ home in North Braddock. I understood the town had deteriorated, but it felt bittersweet to see many structures abandoned or in ruins; however, life continues in my grandparents’ place, and I viewed it much as I remembered.
Enough nostalgia, I continued my adventures in the very walkable downtown, entering native son Andy Warhol’s art museum. The museum tells his life story and the progression of his creative talents. Of course, the famous soup can paintings and Marilyn Monroe pop-art prints caught my eye.
I found the Senator Heinz History Center, contrary to what you might expect, a light-hearted and fun place. It graphically shows the Heinz company’s development, famous for their pickles and ketchup and other Pittsburgh notables and landmarks: Carnegie and Mellon. One room is devoted to Fred Rogers, who filmed “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood” shows in Pittsburgh.
The ‘burgh remains a city with strong ties to sports teams, and the history museum gives fans their respect. Watch video footage, see priceless memorabilia, and enjoy interactive displays. I took a selfie and placed it on a replica Honus Wagner baseball card.
To understand Pittsburgh’s part in colonial history, head to the Point or Point State Park, the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers at the Ohio River’s head. Fort Duquesne was built there by the French in 1754, but they destroyed it in 1758 when the English approached. Fort Pitt replaced it between 1759 and 1761.
Across from the Point lie the current sports venues: Heinz Field where the Pittsburgh Steelers play, PNC Park, the Pirates baseball stadium, and nearby the National Hockey League Pittsburgh Penguins see action in PPG Paints Arena.
I loved finding my roots and discovering the now vibrant and clean Pittsburgh.
Visit www.bylandersea.com to read more of local travel writer Debi Lander’s stories and travel tips.
Photo courtesy Debi Lander
Looking down on the Point.