Contemporary Pittsburgh is still mostly missing a writer who distills its emerging, collective voice, meaning a forward-looking imagineer to complement the marvelous visual nostalgia of Rick Sebak. The expressive identity of the city and region are probably the things that I’ve wrestled with the most since moving here and writing about the place myself, on and off, for close to 15 years. And when I come back to the topic from time to time — what defines Pittsburgh, in various ways, and what anchors its evolution? — this is the theme that pulls me in. How does Pittsburgh talk about itself to itself, and how does Pittsburgh talk about itself to others?
I’m partly interested in the here and now, descriptions and promotions that emanate from folks whose job it is to promote the region to investors and businesses and conventioneers and tourists. I’m partly interested in historical accounts, among the most famous of which is James Parton’s famous “hell with the lid taken off” review. And I’m partly interested in less self-aware, less obviously constructed “reportage,” particularly daily journalism, because of how writers on deadlines adopt and reflect various biases and narratives about the place.
Anyway, that’s all stage setting and throat clearing for the following, which is really what brings me back. Juxtaposing two recent items:
Here’s a version of a fictionalized Pittsburgh past, building the set for the Broadway staging of August Wilson’s play Jitney, set in 1977. Just before the wheels of steel came off, as it were. Imaginary the place may be, but the details intentionally evoke a very specific and very memorable place as well as time. The Pirates. Iron City. The Pittsburgh Press. Life and conversations in one particularly interesting neighborhood.
And compare that to this breezy summary of one version of Pittsburgh’s now-possible future, headlined “High-tech investments keep coming for Pittsburgh area.” It’s not the same Pittsburgh and not the same part of Pittsburgh that August Wilson wrote about, but it’s also a very different imagination that’s representing the character of the place. It’s not just future-oriented; it’s future-oriented with a very futuristic, non-place specific sensibility. “Sexy robots” — my occasional metaphor for the technology developments coming out of Oakland and settling into East Liberty, Larimer, and the Strip District — are purposely abstracted from and not linked to the patterns of daily life anywhere in Pittsburgh in particular. They are, in many ways quite, the opposite of the grounded Pittsburgh of the past.