What's The Point?--
Meet Me Under Kaufmann's Clock & I'll Explain.
Remarks by Barry Chad, Assistant Head, Pennsylvania Department, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, delivered at the opening session of the North American Serials Interest Group (NASIG) National Conference in Pittsburgh, 10 June 1999.
[When I am introduced, I get up from my seat at the table on stage where I am seated with the other speakers. I am wearing an $85 black tuxedo from Tuxedo Junction in Squirrel Hill. I am also wearing a Pirates baseball cap.]
First of all, how many of you here in the audience have read "Paul's Case" by Willa Cather?
Well, this beautiful hall, Carnegie Music Hall, is where Paul ushered.
Now. Most people when they come to Pittsburgh for the first time have a pre-conception, the pre-conception of this place as the smoky city. Invariably, their reaction is identical, "WOW, this isn't like I imagined Pittsburgh!"
Brendan Gill, writing in The New Yorker, said that if Pittsburgh were in Europe, people would go miles out of their way to see it. If you take time, after the conference or between sessions of the conference, you'll see exactly what I mean.
Now. Just where are you?!
Well, you are in Pittsburgh, and why is Pittsburgh here? Pittsburgh is the place where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers meet and form the Ohio. George Washington himself said that this place was a great site for a fort.
In my right hand I have a plastic jug filled with water from the Allegheny River--see, it's marked Allegheny River. And in my left hand, also marked in magic marker, I have a plastic milk jug filled with water from the Monongahela River. Now, I am going to pour both of them at the same time into this bucket that I have marked Ohio River. My question to you is this: If I pour the Allegheny and the Monongahela into each other, will I have the Ohio??
[As I am pouring I am inviting responses from the
Careful: it's a trick question.
[A few responses are shouted back at me, all favoring a "yes" answer. I stop pouring and look out at the audience:]
No. It's not a matter of substance, it's a matter of location! The Allegheny and the Mon can only form the Ohio at The Point. The Allegheny and the Mon form the Ohio, the Ohio flows into the Mississippi, the Mississippi flows into the Gulf of Mexico, the Gulf of Mexico into the Atlantic. You are already in the heart of America. And, when you sit at The Point and get lost in looking down the Ohio, it's easy for the buildings and bridges and all the artifacts of civilization to disappear and you are looking out into wilderness and adventure and the great world. It happens so easily at The Point, The Point that was returned to the people by Mayor David Lawrence and Richard King Mellon.
Pittsburgh breeeeeeds local historians: there's my neighbor, Mary
Wohleber, on the North Side; and Mary Jane Schmalsteig, on the South Side. Between the two of them they've just about got the city covered. There's David Lloyd, a retired architect and local historian, who knows all about all the buildings on the South Side. Walter Worthington, who recently passed away, he was the memory of the Hill District. And George Swetnam, who also just recently passed away at the age of 95, who worked for over 20 years as a feature writer
for The Pittsburgh Press and who loved this city and wrote a dozen or more books about Western Pennsylvania and the "Pittsburgh District."
I've learned: never argue with a Pittsburgher about Pittsburgh. There's no use. Every Pittsburgher's an expert.
Why am I speaking to you?
Well, I'm not with the Chamber of Commerce, but this is my opportunity to boost the city.
- Because it's possible to walk from the North Side, where I live, to the South Side.
- Because of the landscape, the hills, the rivers, The Point--The Point is a natural amphitheater shaped by Mount Washington on the South and Monument Hill on the North.
- Because the city seen emerging from the Fort Pitt Tunnel is always the city seen for the first time in all its glory.
- Because the city seen from Mount Washington, especially at night, beggars description. Even Nikita Khruschev was impressed.
- Because I can go to all kinds of events and there's Mayor Murphy walking around as casual as can be.
- Because (and this really happened) I saw Fred Rogers buying styrofoam cups at the Giant Eagle on Centre Avenue.
- Because I saw wild turkeys strolling around Oakland and hanging out in the West End.
That's why I'm boosting this city.
In the words of Frances Warner, writing in 1925, Pittsburgh is a "most masculine place." This masculinity has its origins in its frontier and industrial past. And though the steel mills are virtually gone and the frontier moved west, that masculinity is still perceptible.
As a young workingboy Andrew Carnegie had been free to use the personal library of Col. James Anderson until a change in policy restricted the library free only to apprentices. Mr. Carnegie took pen to paper and took the issue to the Letters to the Editor pages of the Pittsburg Dispatch. He won the fight. And, it was there in Colonel Anderson's library, that Carnegie's devotion to libraries was born. The statue of "The Reading Blacksmith," also known as "Labor," is the work of Daniel Chester French, who did the statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial.
The image is very Romantic, but the truth of the matter is that work in the mills was back-breaking and spirit-breaking work. Is Pittsburgh better off without it, without the source of its great wealth and great reputation, but also the source of incredible drabness and pollution? Certainly the software industry is hardly a replacement as dramatic and picturesque as what was lost.
When my boss, Marilyn Holt, and I went to dinner at the fancy French restaurant, Le Pommier, on the South Side, I told her that I could see the ghosts of old J & L (Jones and Laughlin) steelworkers peering in at us through the restaurant's windows. She didn't believe me; she said I always lie. What can I say...they were there....
The results of those mills' belching smokestacks is still visible on the outside of this building [The Carnegie]. It was cleaned a few years ago, but they left one patch of soot-covered wall as a reminder of when the city was The Smoky City.
The same redoubtable masculinity was embodied in the Eichleay Company--they were house-movers, but they would move anything. Today they are an engineering company, but once upon a time they moved an office building even while the officeworkers went about their jobs; and they moved a church while the service was in progress. They were also involved in the moving of Abu Simbel in Egypt in preparation for the Aswan High Dam. Andy Warhol's father, Andrew Warhola, worked for them.
Gone are the days, for better or for worse, when James Parton--not Charles Dickens, as is often supposed--wrote in the Atlantic Monthly that Pittsburgh was "hell with the lid taken off."
And, apropos of hell--aside from how warm it is in here in the Music Hall--after the sale of the Carnegie Steel Company and its re-emergence as U. S. Steel, Henry Clay Frick bore a grievance against Mr. Carnegie 'cause he thought he'd gotten the short end of the stick in the deal. Years later, when both Carnegie and Frick were living a few blocks from each other in their mansions in New York, Carnegie wanted to make peace and so he sent a messenger to Frick to say that he wanted to meet. The response is apocryphal, but probably also accurate.
"Tell Mr. Carnegie," Frick is supposed to have said, "I'll meet him in hell."
It's a cliche that Pittsburgh is a city of bridges, a city of churches, and a city of neighborhoods, but like most cliches, these titles are valid. In Bloomfield, different streets were settled by people from different villages in Italy.
I live on Troy Hill on the North Side. When my neighbor Mary married and moved the 3 blocks from her parents' home to where she lives now, she says it was like a different world--just in those 3 blocks.
Shortly after I moved to Troy Hill, I was wandering through Voegtley Cemetery, across from my house, and Mary got a phone call from one of her neighbors: "Mary," the neighbor said, "there's a man in Voegtley Cemetery and he's not Troy Hill." Now Jane Jacobs, speaking sociologically, would call that vigilant; but here in Pittsburgh we call that "nebby."
What's Pittsburgh like? Well, when the buses pass in front of Roman Catholic churches, the ladies make the sign of the cross on themselves.
At the outset of my talk I mentioned Willa Cather's Paul. Well, when Paul stole his employer's money, he left for New York. In fact everyone tended to take off for New York. Mr. Carnegie left when he made it big. Andy Warhol left for New York as well, but the ironic thing is they brought him back here and buried him in Castle Shannon.
People leave, but there are Pittsburgh clubs and Steelers clubs throughout the country. I constantly get email from former Pittsburghers who thank me profusely for putting pictures and text of their former hometown online.
Now Pittsburgh, like other cities, has done stupid things. It destroyed the North Side Market House, which was thriving and beloved.
It knocked down Forbes Field and then Pitt put up Forbes Quad, which, as incredibly ugly as it is and as lamented as Forbes Field is, still is a niche for skateboarders--as diligently as Pitt security tries to drive them away. (Life will affirm itself wherever!)
Redevelopment destroyed the Lower Hill, a healthy black business strip along Wylie Avenue; redevelopment destroyed the community of East Street and made it a series of highways feeding into the North Hills.
The North Side Market House was replaced with Allegheny Center which emerged as a monumental failure. No wonder that many North Siders still would like to secede from Pittsburgh after having been "stolen," as they put it, in 1907.
In 1907, the referendum, upheld by the Courts, was a vote whether the city of Allegheny, now the North Side, should be annexed. Well, not only did Allegheny vote on the annexation, but so did Pittsburgh, which greatly outnumbered its cousin across the Allegheny River. Allegheny voted it down, but Pittsburgh's majority held the day.
It's interesting what actually does get Pittsburghers riled. Mayor Murphy has big plans for the downtown "Forbes/Fifth Avenue corridor"--knock down the wigshops and cheap jewelry stores and put up trendy, high-end stores. BUT, when it became clear that he was going to knock down the 2 Candyramas, boy, you should have heard the howls of protest!
Now, I just want to make it clear, that as masculine as this city is, it's also been home to Selma Burke, who sculpted the image of Franklin Roosevelt on the dime; [I hold up a dime, which catches the glint of the spotlight focused on the stage.]; Rachel Carson, the naturalist; Mary Cassatt, the Impressionist painter; Willa Cather, the author; Martha Graham, the dancer and choreographer; Gertrude Stein, midwife to the 20th Century; and Kathryn Kuhlman, the extraordinarily popular TV evangelist. All of these women at one time or another were residents of what is still commonly referred to as the Pittsburgh District.
Because of the size of the city--remember I said it's easy to walk from North Side to South Side--you get to see the dynamics of the city play themselves out. Trying to keep businesses from leaving town, trying to keep sports teams from leaving town--is an emotional rollercoaster for everyone here. When I came to this city in 1989, I had no use for sports, but it's virtually impossible to remain uninvolved in this City of Champions--the Penguins, the Steelers, the Pirates.
The closing of the steel mills in the '70s and '80s did a job on this city and its surroundings. The loss of its sports teams would be simply another psychological blow. After all, the Pirates have been here for over 110 years.
When the Pirates went up for sale, I went around to a number of people at the Library and got a commitment of just a little over $5,000 towards buying the team. I got a very polite letter back from the Pirates general offices, saying the offer was very nice but my friends and I would be better off putting the money into season tickets.
Fred Rogers once remarked on Pittsburgh's being one of America's biggest small towns.
Please allow me to welcome you to the neighborhood.