The city lost steam as industry declined in the 1970s, but newfound interest from the tech world is reinvigorating it at every level.
By Stephen Heyman
Photos by Adam Milliron
September 16, 2016
This summer, Uber selected one American city to introduce its ultramodern black car, a self-driving Volvo SUV tricked out with cameras, lasers, radar systems, and GPS receivers. It wasn’t San Francisco, where the company is headquartered, or New York, its largest American market. Instead, Uber chose to unveil its latest breakthrough in Pittsburgh, America’s once and future capital of industrial innovation.
Over the last two decades, a peculiar kind of urban alchemy has transformed Pittsburgh from a postindustrial ghost town into one of the most vibrant cities in America. How “The Burgh” pulled that off is a complicated and evolving story. The collapse of Big Steel in the late 1970s led to a steep, generation-defining decline. More than 130,000 jobs were lost. Pittsburgh’s population plummeted to half its midcentury peak. As recently as 2000, the city was still just hanging on, its unemployment rate worse than Detroit’s.
But now, other Rust Belt cities send envoys to figure out how Pittsburgh reinvented itself so successfully. What they see, exiting the Fort Pitt Tunnel into the city’s historic downtown, is not a stygian tableau of factories billowing toxic fumes—the long-obsolete stereotype of Pittsburgh as “hell with the lid off”—but a clean, green, hilly city laced together by 446 bridges (more bridges, in fact, than there are in Venice). No other American metropolis, save San Francisco, works as much water and topographical intrigue into its urban plan. But unlike the City by the Bay, where real estate prices verge on the criminally insane, housing in Pittsburgh is a relative bargain. Fixer-uppers loaded with midcentury details routinely sell for under $100,000 in emerging neighborhoods like Troy Hill and Garfield, while $1,600 per month can rent a cavernous three-bedroom in Squirrel Hill, a serene and leafy neighborhood that’s home to some of the country’s best Szechuan restaurants.
Millennials have taken notice of these charms, and so have their employers. Google and Apple have growing offices here. Facebook recently opened up a research center for its Oculus virtual reality platform. Uber basically kidnapped most of Carnegie Mellon University’s world-class robotics department to build a major lab that’s developing its driverless technology. Breakout CMU spinoffs include the hit language-learning app Duolingo and Astrobotic, a space travel company developing robots that one day may prospect for natural resources on the moon. Flush with venture capital, the startup scene is humming.
Pittsburgh’s so-called “Silicon Strip” may not employ nearly as many people as the steel mills once did, but there is a kind of synergistic fusion happening between the tech scene and the city’s slimmed-down industrial sector. Projects like the CMU-based Next Manufacturing Center—where industry players like General Electric and U.S. Steel partner with researchers to pioneer new ways of production—give hope that the city may eventually recapture its reputation as the world’s workshop.
In the meantime, well-paid software engineers and scrappy entrepreneurs are forming a new creative class, known as “high bohemians” in the easy-to-mock parlance of the urban theorist (and former CMU professor) Richard Florida. As these folks arrive, serious restaurants and even an Ace Hotel have sprouted up to cater to them. Cue the vegan pierogies and upmarket twists on sturdy local culinary staples like “the Pittsburgh salad” (a yummy mound of iceberg lettuce, cheese, and fries).
The city is changing so fast, in fact, that some dyed-in-the-wool Pittsburghers (or yinzers, in the local argot) hardly recognize it. Among this group, a new ironic slogan, riffing on Portland’s “Keep Portland Weird,” has gained traction: “Keep Pittsburgh Shitty.” Yes, you can find this phrase printed on a few bumper stickers here, but the sentiment, while humorous, is not widely shared. Most residents are truly excited to see what’s become of their hometown, and to contribute to its flowering.
One of them is Matthew Ciccone, a real estate developer who established a successful co-working center called the Beauty Shoppe (it has since expanded to Cleveland) and went on to help convert an abandoned Y.M.C.A. into the Ace Hotel.
Ciccone, a native Pittsburgher, is one of many “boomerangs”—people who fled the city in their twenties only to come back later in life to play a part in its revival. Along with a clutch of idealistic young developers, city planners, and non-profit types, Ciccone homed in on East Liberty, a historic area that was once the heart of Pittsburgh’s East End, the place where some of the country’s biggest industrialists, like Henry Clay Frick, built their homes. A vibrant, multicultural neighborhood at midcentury, it fell into decline in the 1960s and ’70s.
Today, after a process of wrenching, politically fractious gentrification, East Liberty is one of the city’s most rapidly growing districts, and the Ace has become something like its village green, a place where New Pittsburgh mixes and mingles amid trappings of Old Pittsburgh. The Y’s original gym has been preserved and serves as an event space, hosting everything from vintage markets to dance parties in support of local needle exchanges to hysterically competitive games of dodgeball. The restaurant, Whitfield, is by another yinzer, Brent Young, who made his name at Brooklyn’s nose-to-tail butchery the Meat Hook, and sources meat from Pennsylvania’s best purveyors, including the Jubilee Hilltop Ranch.
Other big projects are planned for East Liberty, some of which were actually stimulated by the Ace’s arrival. That’s certainly true for Schoolhouse Electric, the midcentury-inspired lighting company based in Portland, Oregon, which after working with Ace on the design of the hotel decided to locate its new East Coast manufacturing facility in the same neighborhood. The company has hired a local architecture firm, Moss, to rehab the Detective, a long-vacant Formalist-style government building. The plan is to turn the ground floor into a swank retail storefront (the first of its shops outside of New York and Portland), a design library, and requisite coffee bar.
While several interesting projects like this are afoot, they now compete for space in East Liberty with chain stores and overpriced cookie-cutter condos. This summer, Whole Foods announced its second East Liberty location. Ciccone says the jury’s still out about whether the neighborhood will continue to be a laboratory for urban invention or devolve into a constellation of big box shops.
“When we started working in East Liberty, we wanted Pittsburgh to be an open slate, a place of opportunity. We opened this hotel, but we didn’t know what was going to happen,” says Ciccone. “That was kind of the idea. East Liberty is a different neighborhood from what it was a year ago.” He thinks that in the next five years, the neighborhood will be unrecognizable, adding, “I just hope it doesn’t lose its optimism as a place to think boldly about the city.”
Despite all this new energy, it’s impossible to visit Pittsburgh and escape the legacy of the Gilded Age tycoons who built some of this city’s most magnificent structures and most enduring cultural attractions. Standing in the heart of Oakland—the neighborhood that’s home to both Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh—is the architectural equivalent of a pissing contest between Pittsburgh’s robber baron families. A neo-Gothic memorial chapel built by the Heinzes sits next to the skyscraper-Gothic Cathedral of Learning built by the Mellons. Down the street is Andrew Carnegie’s nameless monument to high culture, which now houses the main branch of Pittsburgh’s public library, as well as the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History.
The forward-looking Mr. Carnegie charged his art museum with collecting the “Old Masters of the Future.” Shortly after the museum’s founding in 1895, it began hosting a large regular exhibition of modern art, which later became known as the Carnegie International. Through these events, the museum acquired some of its most important Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings. Today, the Carnegie Museum of Art is famous not only for its masterpieces, but also for its modern design department, which has some unexpectedly rare pieces—from the Dutch designer Tejo Remy’s hilarious chest of loose drawers fastened with a belt to Marc Newson’s Lockheed Lounge. The museum’s programming can be frisky: Recently, it held a trance party in its Hall of Architecture, a rare chance to groove around century-old, full-scale plaster casts of Greek and Egyptian ruins.
The Carnegie’s appetite for the modern notwithstanding, Pittsburgh is still shaking off a reputation for provincialism when it comes to contemporary art. When the Andy Warhol Museum opened on the North Side in 1994, “It was like a strange alien spaceship landed,” says Eric Shiner, the museum’s outgoing director. (He was just hired away by Sotheby’s.) One of Shiner’s predecessors confessed to The New York Times that Warhol’s pop art was initially lost on locals. “It’s a sober city, very Presbyterian,” he said of Pittsburgh in 1999. But now that Warhol’s art is canonical and the city is cool, visitors mob the museum daily. They come not just to see Warhol’s soup cans and screen tests but also major exhibitions by other artists he inspired—including, most recently, Ai Weiwei.
As for the city’s own art scene, it is small and closely knit, a fact illustrated nicely by a recent exhibition at the Space Gallery, for which the curator Brett Yasko mobilized practically everyone in the community to address the subject of mental illness and the toll it has taken on local artist John Reigart. “I sent out 400 invitations,” Yasko said. “I thought maybe I’d get 20 or 30 people to say yes.” In the end, 252 artists contributed work.
Pittsburgh’s most iconic architectural treasure is located not in Oakland but 90 minutes outside the city, in a slice of untouched Appalachian backwoods called Bear Run. This is where Frank Lloyd Wright built the weekend villa Fallingwater for the department store tycoon E.J. Kauffmann. Last year, the house was nominated to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Fallingwater—or “Rising Mildew,” as a Kaufmann scion nicknamed it for the issues that have plagued the house since its construction—is an obligatory stop for visiting architecture pilgrims, but the city itself contains a number of other important sites. Downtown, in the so-called Golden Triangle, you’ll find buildings by Mies Van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, as well as H.H. Richardson’s romanesque revival-style Allegheny County Courthouse, which the American Institute of Architects once rated as the most significant judicial building in the United States after the Supreme Court.
Not as well-known, but interesting nonetheless, are the dream houses built by successive generations of local millionaires along Woodland Road. Here is Andrew Mellon’s mansion (the grounds, now part of Chatham University’s idyllic campus, were designed by the Olmsted brothers and feature in the film Wonder Boys). This road also contains a largely unknown international style masterpiece—the Alan I.W. Frank House, designed by Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. Built in 1939 for a steel industry executive, it was Gropius’s largest commission (17,000 square feet) after the Bauhaus school, and shocked straight-laced Pittsburgh with its geometric design, which combines chunky, pink-buff natural stone and a curved glass facade. The house is now being restored and converted into a museum. A short walk away are other architecturally significant homes by the likes of Richard Meier and Robert Venturi.
Pittsburgh continues to enhance its reputation as an architectural innovator. This summer, the city’s majestic 644-acre Frick Park welcomed a new building designed by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, the Pennsylvania firm known for building Apple stores, including the glass-boxed one on Fifth Avenue in New York. The Frick Environmental Center is the first municipal building to be designed and engineered for the Living Building Challenge, which means that it has a “net-zero” consumption of energy and water through a clever use of ground-source heat pumps, radiant floors, and a reclaimed water system.
Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh’s Downtown, a $38 million luxury hotel project is underway that could further ratchet up the city’s international reputation. Its developer, Holly Brubach, is another boomerang, although her arc took her even farther afield: first to New York, where she served as the style editor of The New York Times Magazine, and then to Milan, where she worked as a design consultant for luxury fashion houses, including Prada. About a decade ago, Brubach moved back to Pittsburgh, eventually hatching a plan to convert the historic Granite Building into an elegant, 104-room boutique property called the Forbes. It’s scheduled to open in 2018.
The Forbes’s design is inspired by local culture. Some of the artifacts in the cocktail bar will come from the Pittsburgh boarding house that Brubach’s grandmother ran for coal miners during the Great Depression. Local artists will fill the walls, including the work of the celebrated photographer Duane Michals, a friend of Brubach’s. But, in terms of luxury, the hotel will represent a level Pittsburgh is not exactly accustomed to. Brubach says its look will have something in common with the Greenwich Hotel in New York, while its service will be inspired by the Plaza Athenée in Paris.
A project this ambitious would have been unthinkable even a decade ago, but Brubach—just like Uber—believes the city is ready. “We’re at this moment in the culture where what Pittsburgh stands for is valued. When I was growing up, it wasn’t valued,” she says. “I couldn’t wait to leave and go someplace beautiful. Now I look around and say, ‘This is beautiful.’”