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Pittsburgh -- blue collar, but more

Sunday, February 5, 2006

PITTSBURGH -- It can get kind of annoying, you know, this constant characterization of Pittsburgh as a blue-collar town. Someone always says it on broadcasts of Steelers football. But the image is too easy. It trivializes the meaning of blue-collar life. And it leaves out the rest of what we are.

Pittsburghers love to take visitors to Mount Washington, the 400-foot bluff that rises on the far side of the Monongahela River from downtown. Once barren because of smoke from the mills, the hillside is lush with vegetation now and provides a perfect vantage point for understanding the physical shape of the city.

Pittsburgh is here because of the rivers, the Allegheny flowing from the north, the Monongahela from the south, joining in this spot to form the Ohio. Sparkling downtown towers rise from the triangle of land formed by the rivers' confluence. Houses and commercial buildings spill over tree-covered hillsides, linked to downtown by the leaping arcs of bridges. The city is San Francisco-like in the steepness of its hills, its soaring, plunging, often narrow streets. More than 400 bridges span its rivers, hollows and runs.

Winning this point of land, the "forks of the Ohio," and its environs was one of the critical objectives of the French and Indian War. A re-created bastion of Fort Pitt, the fort begun by the British in 1759, stands at the tip of the triangle, a signal of their defeat of the French. Pittsburgh was the gateway to the West.

The Pittsburgh of today is a city of distinguished universities and medical centers, museums and libraries, with an increasing high-tech presence and a vibrant arts community. It is also a city of neighborhoods, 90 in all, with names like Squirrel Hill, Morningside, Homewood, Point Breeze. The spires and onion domes of ethnic churches still dot the landscape, a legacy of the thousands of immigrants who once flowed into Pittsburgh to work in the mills. The city has largely recovered now from the decline of Big Steel and other major manufacturers in the 1970s and 1980s, but still struggles to completely replace them in its economy.

Pittsburgh holds onto its history. Apart from some boneheaded urban renewal in the 1960s, it has succeeded in adapting the old with the new. The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust has transformed an area of downtown, once more vice-filled than family friendly, into a "cultural district" with 14 cultural facilities -- theaters, public parks and plazas.

Two of those facilities were built as movie theaters in the day when movie theaters could be called "palaces." The Loew's Penn Theater, now Heinz Hall, is home to the Pittsburgh Symphony, founded in 1896, and one of the country's major orchestras. The Stanley Theater, once billed as "Pittsburgh's Palace of Amusement," is now the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts, home to the Pittsburgh Opera and the Pittsburgh Ballet, as well as to touring Broadway shows. Both theaters have been dazzlingly restored, largely by local artisans and craftsmen.

Minutes from downtown, the Mattress Factory (built in 1900 as, in fact, a macaroni factory, but later transformed into a mattress warehouse) features installation art. The Pittsburgh Regional History Center occupies the former Chautauqua Ice Co. The Pittsburgh Glass Center, an art studio and gallery, is said by some to be second only to -- dare I say it in the context of Super Bowl XL? -- the Pilchuk Glass School near Seattle. Once home to an automobile showroom, a mattress distributor, and a food co-op, its renovated structure is now one of Pittsburgh's growing number of green buildings.

Older houses, too, stand tall among the new. Many interiors, even in less-affluent neighborhoods, feature fireplaces, enviable woodwork, and, in transoms and ventilating windows, stained glass.

One house wears its embellishment on its exterior. Pittsburgh is one of five American cities participating in the Cities of Asylum project, which offers refuge to writers persecuted in their own countries. Huang Xiang, a pre-eminent poet of post-cultural revolution China now living near The Mattress Factory, has created a House Poem, poems in Chinese calligraphy covering the faćade, side walls, and side gate of his house. Writer Roger Garside has called him "a poet on fire, a human torch who burns as a lamp of freedom and enlightenment."

But, of course, as with all clichés, the characterization of Pittsburgh as blue-collar contains more than a grain of truth, and the blue-collar community accounts for a good deal of the passion Pittsburghers feel for their football team.

Much of the work here has been hard. Imagine working deep in the implacable blackness of a coal mine, hunched at times under a ceiling so low that you are unable to stand upright, ever aware of the possibility of explosion or ceiling collapse. Think of working with buckets, or ladles, of molten iron or steel, 18 feet tall, the blinding light, the annihilating heat, the possibility of death by steel's errant fire. Pittsburghers died helping to build the modern world.

Joe Gordon, former director of public relations for the Steelers, points to the mental and physical toughness required by the blue-collar work of Pittsburgh. "It's natural," he says, "that people who did that work would identify with the physicality of football."

And that identification carries over to the white-collar workers and professionals who lived in its presence. "In blue-collar communities, the popularity of football began in high school," Gordon says. "People saw it as a way to escape a life in the mills, however unlikely a career in professional football might be."

Even so, playing football in high school can intensify an attachment to a professional team. "It's a way to relive the glory," says David Redlinger, a postal worker. And some local high school players have made it -- Mike Ditka, Joe Namath and Dan Marino, among them.

The Steelers of the 1970s, who won four Super Bowls in six years, and the Pirates, who won the World Series in 1971 and 1979, were a source of pride for a city that would face even harder economic times in the 1980s.

That pride has carried over since then, has become a part of family life. "In my family it was always the Steelers," says condominium manager R.J. Gray. "It makes us remember the steel mills. It's part of our roots, of family tradition. We became the 'City of Champions' at the right time, and we've never let it go."

Family is important in Pittsburgh. Even today, multiple generations of families can be found living in the same neighborhood, gathering at Grandma's for Sunday lunch. And in that heartfelt, self-deluding identification of fan with team, the Steelers players become part of our families.

Who could resist the stories?

Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, with the cloud of black hair billowing from his helmet, taking off his gloves, pointing to his wedding ring, then touching his heart as a tribute to his wife after he makes a great play.

Wide receiver Hines Ward, after the loss to the Patriots in last year's AFC Championship game, tearfully begging future Hall of Fame running back Jerome Bettis to play for another year, so badly did he want to give Bettis the one thing he had missed in his career -- a chance to play in the Super Bowl.

Or Bettis himself, whose parents have never missed one of his regular or postseason games, going home to Detroit, capping his storied career with a shot at a ring.

Steelers signs, banners, sweat shirts, jackets, shirts, caps, neckties, stickers are everywhere now. Steelers flags flap on cars. Thirty-thousand fans showed up for a pep rally more than a week before the game. "No one believes in us, but us," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger says, using the oddsmakers' doubts as a goad for his team.

But his statement could apply to the city. Throughout history we have been the butt of jokes. We still can't shed our sooty image, even though it's more than 50 years out of date. We don't like those jokes.

It's a mistake, you know, to underestimate Pittsburgh. There is nothing we cannot do. It's a mistake to take Pittsburgh for granted. If you look for the run, we'll come out passing, just as Roethlisberger did in the playoff game against the Colts.

We believe in us.


EDITOR'S NOTE -- Laurie Graham is the author of "Singing the City," a 1998 book that celebrates Pittsburgh's industrial landscape.


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