167 Pittsburgh, PA: Pittsburgh?

Sightseeing, I found a city different than the one advertised. The city's Web site touts Pittsburgh as the only city to consistently rank as one of the top 10 Most Livable Cities in North America. But the local alternative newspaper Pittsburgh City Paper confessed, "…we're loath to change, unfriendly to newcomers, resistant to new initiatives, convinced we're cursed." The Web site also said that Pittsburgh's violent crime rate was considerably below the national average; however, the newspaper headline screamed, "Forty-fourth city homicide pushes total past all of last year's."

Maybe that's one reason that the architectural highlight downtown was H.H. Richardson's Allegheny County Courthouse and Jail, whose 325-foot tower dominated the skyline for years. Built with Pittsburgh iron and glass, Richardson's fanciful design included a Bridge of Sighs, modeled on the Venice prison's sixteenth-century bridge by that name. The stairways and arches inside made it look like an Escher painting. Richardson's health was failing during construction, and he asked, "If they honor me for the pygmy things I have already done, what will they say when they see Pittsburgh finished?"

Another highlight was the library, which, as expected, was a Carnegie library. The orchestra hall was Carnegie Music Hall, like the more famous one in Hopper's hometown.

Another downtown theater had on its Art Deco backside a sign that showed Pittsburgh's past not only because it was studded with white filament light bulbs but also because it didn't advertise "movies" but instead "photoplays." Or maybe this was just another Pittsburgh phrase of speech. The local accent sounded to my ear like a cross between Boston and Southern. They pronounced Downtown and South Side as "Dahntahn" and "Sahside," and the Steelers are "Stillers." And they had a whole different language in which nosy neighbors were called "nebby," and to clean house was to "redd up."

An usher with a nametag that read "Annie" snuck me in and told me about the place. She had a puffy face with a birthmark under her eye, and her short hair was irregularly cut. I told her that I saw a sign that said it was called the Gaiety.

"I didn't know it was called that at all," she said. "When you go out this side on Fort Duquesne, you can see the Ritz. That was built in 1906. They had live theater; there was live people. You used to have a lot of theaters down here, then. We had the Duquesne Theater and the Lyceum Theater; those were both torn down. This is a beautiful theater. There used to be a mural on that wall right there. But nobody can remember what it was."

At the Prima Espresso deli, the counterman John had a large face with olive skin and dark, thick eyebrows above half-lidded green-brown eyes. I asked him if people in Pittsburgh were isolated. He answered with an accent like a Brooklyn tough, but was soft-spoken and thoughtful.

"Yeah. Pittsburgh, for as many people that are trying to drive the city forward, there are that many people still holding it back. There are people still complaining about why do we need a new ballpark. I came from a small town in Northwest Pennsylvania, and I find that there's a small-town mentality here holding it back. They're trying to separate themselves from the rest of the country by saying, 'Oh, don't leave Pittsburgh; we have such good things here.' If we're so good, why do we need a new baseball stadium?"

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