The 981 Project
The 981 Project Podcast
Pittsburgh from the Bluff

Pittsburgh from the Bluff

Is Pittsburgh the Paris of Appalachia?

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” ~Mark Twain

Any good river trip begins at its headwaters. For the Ohio, that’s in Pittsburgh at the Golden Triangle formed by the Allegheny River to the north and the Monongahela to the south. They merge at Point Park, then continue flowing 981 miles to the Mississippi.

Headwaters fountain at Point Park taken by yours truly
Headwaters fountain at Point Park taken by yours truly

It’s one thing to see the headwaters from the ground and quite another to see it from above, so when my Airbnb host Jack asked if I wanted a tour of the city from Mt. Washington at night, I cleared my schedule. A word about Jack: he’s a historic preservationist with a passion for the city, and I thank the Fates for guiding me to choose his place on the North Shore as home base.

West End-Elliott Overlook Park

The trip from his Allegheny West neighborhood to Elliott Bluff requires a bridge crossing (no surprise, as Pittsburgh has 426 of them), and from there, we motor up 450 feet via narrow streets never intended to carry cars, much less two SUVs going in opposite directions. I know these two-story houses built into the hillsides. They are the houses of my grandparents’ age; my great-grandparents’ age. The front porches where adults (kind of) watched children play on the sidewalks and streets while they decompressed from long days in the mines, railroad yards, gardens, and canning kitchens.

I spy the occasional window air conditioner bulging from upstairs windows and recall how, when we got our first unit, Mom and Dad let us three kids sleep on the floor in their bedroom. Sometimes a night of uninterrupted sleep holds more allure than anything else marital life offers.

We reach the parking lot, where there are plenty of empty spaces on a Thursday night, then climb the steps to the observation area. At the top, we come upon a small group milling about—multi-ethnic couples, singles, and a family with a baby stroller. Someone had arranged votive candles on the sidewalk, long extinguished, their waxen pools stuck hard to the concrete. Someone’s birthday? No, maybe a dreadful gender reveal party, including fireworks. Ugh.

As Jack and I head to the far end of the 100-foot observation path to view the Ohio River below, a burst of wind ruffles my oversized Bass Pro Shops rain jacket that I only wear over my motorcycle gear in foul weather (unless of course, I’m in Pittsburgh at night). Grateful for the extra layer, I rub my arms to stimulate circulation as we approach the rail.

“Oh Jack, this is so lovely!”

I’m not sure if he noticed the surprise in my voice.

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Video of my view from Elliott Bluff

Before starting my visit two days earlier, the only Pittsburgh scenes that stuck with me were from TV: the yellow sea of Terrible Towels in Heinz Field, historical newsreels of the city shrouded by industrial dust and teeming with blue-collar energy, and the 2018 mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagog in Squirrel Hill. Whew.

Past the yellow West End Bridge, the fountain at Point Park surges 150 feet to the skies. Behind Point Park, the city skyline glitters with the changing purple-pink-orange light. The tallest buildings are glass-clad, likely sourced from hometown Pittsburg Plate Glass (PPG), which built a gorgeous corporate plaza there. I’m a sucker for spires—and PPG built 231 in the castle-like complex.

Jack points to Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning on the Allegheny side of the city. At 535 feet, the Late Gothic Revival Cathedral made of limestone is the tallest educational building in the Western Hemisphere.

A collective gasp from the group pulls me out of my reverie as the group releases sky lanterns into the purpling skies of twilight. One lantern snags in a tree overhead, and when a man comes over to retrieve it, he confirms that they’re celebrating the life of a deceased friend gone to a better place.

A celebration of life

Pittsburgh is having a “better place” moment too. Accolades for 2022 include:

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Paris of the Appalachians

I turn my attention back to the beauty of the hills and valley below and remember someone saying Pittsburgh is the Paris of the Appalachians. For those who hear that as a slam, I’d love to get your comments on why. Would it be any different if someone said (a certain city) is the Paris of the Rockies? Look, we all have our unfounded stereotypes.

Whether you accept the comparison of Pittsburgh to the City of Lights, it’s true that Pittsburgh is in Appalachia, and it’s the largest city. It has an abundance of cultural resources unheard of in cities of a similar size.

This is the Appalachian Regional Commission’s map of Appalachia
This is the Appalachian Regional Commission’s map of Appalachia

Like much of the mountainous region, the city owes its existence to abundant natural resources, which have been exploited, along with her people, in service to America’s unbridled appetites.

Examining my own prejudices and preconceived notions about Pittsburgh, I realized they were inherited Ohio chauvinism (which is crazy because we had an actual river go up in flames at least a dozen times). To my callow mind however, Pittsburgh wasn’t nearly as bad as West Virginia. I parroted West Virginia jokes with the rest of my clan, even those that defied common sense like this one:

Q: Why do ducks fly over West Virginia upside down?

A: There’s nothing worth crapping on!

Maybe everyone feels the need for someone to look down on, a sorry statement if ever there was one. Usually we look down on the poor and immigrants. Friends from the Upper Midwest told Ole and Lena jokes like this one:

The judge had just awarded a divorce to Lena, who had charged non-support. He said to Ole, “I have decided to give your wife $800 a month for support.”

“Vell, dat’s fine, Judge,” said Ole. “And vunce in a vile I’ll try ta chip in a few bucks myself.”

Standing there on Elliott Bluff, I reflected with gratitude that travel, as Mark Twain noted, had broadened my horizons beyond my otherwise unexamined life. When I hear media reports of red and blue states I now have my own experience in 49 of them. I know and love people everywhere that both defy and conform to stereotypes, and I consider it my responsibility to approach everyone who isn’t waving a gun in my face or deflating my tires with an open mind and heart.

Please, tell me YOUR best memories of a time when travel made you rethink something you thought you knew about a place or people. 

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I’ll see you next time here on The 981 Project.

The 981 Project
The 981 Project Podcast
Join Tamela Rich for dispatches from all 981 miles of the Ohio River: people, places, history, culture, and more.