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Neighbourhood Watch: Pittsburgh's Cultural District

Forget the old lunchpails-and-steel image of Pittsburgh: The industry is gone – and it paid for the culture that remains

People still call Pittsburgh the Steel City, and much of the legacy of that industry remains: An affable, blue-collar spirit prevails and the iconic Steelers continue to practise hard-nosed, gritty play on the gridiron.

The city remains vibrant, so it may be a surprise to learn that steel production itself has departed. “We’re still in the business of steel,” says Craig Davis, the president and CEO of Visit Pittsburgh. “We’re just not producing it. Alcoa and US Steel are still in the picture. But we’ve gone high-tech. Google and Uber have their second headquarters here. Bayer is here. Our medical system is world-renowned. The population is far more educated. Still, it’s accessible, and outsiders immediately are made to feel at home. It’s safe, clean and relatively inexpensive. But what Pittsburgh really has is a rich history financially because of the steel business.”

Pittsburgh’s transition from industrial-age giant to a hub for education, medicine, small manufacturing and research has also included the fruits of another legacy: Thanks to the philanthropy of steel giants such as Andrew Carnegie and Henry Frick, who left foundations and trusts supporting the arts and the theatres, the city’s cultural institutions enjoy a solid underpinning.

Davis points to the Cultural District as a good example of what has been established relatively recently. An expat Canadian, he has witnessed and enjoyed the city’s transformation during his 23 years here. “Not long ago [the area] was an eyesore, a red-light zone. Foundations including the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust bought up the properties and renovated them, thus triggering, for instance, a rebirth of the food scene. Last year Pittsburgh was named Zagat’s top food city in the USA.”

The Cultural District has become the vibrant new heart of the new Pittsburgh, buzzing each evening with theatregoers, diners, local residents and of course sports fans. Bordered by the Allegheny River on the north, Tenth Street on the east, Stanwix Street on the west and Liberty Avenue on the south, it lives up to its moniker, encompassing seven theatres, 50 dining establishments, eight public parks and art installations, a dozen art galleries, and a host of funky shops and boutiques.

Pittsburgh has come a long way from its lunch-bucket and meatball sandwich days. The Cultural District stands as a shining example of what art and clever urban planning can achieve, together with carefully administered endowments and trusts, and the co-operation and courage of commercial interests. The sheer variety, excellence and depth of Pittsburgh’s Cultural District makes it a necessary destination for anyone who loves architecture, music, theatre, dance, art, and world-class food and drink. Here are some of Billy’s picks for diversions and delights to check out in the area.

Performing arts/theatre

Courtesy Visit Pittsburgh

Byham Theater

Theatre and live performance dominate the stages of the Cultural District, so check listings before you travel. A terrific place to start is the beautifully restored focal point, the Benedum Center, which regularly features travelling Broadway plays, popular musicians and performances by the Pittsburgh Ballet. For orchestral music and opera, the equally grand Heinz Hall is home to the acclaimed Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and offers fabulous acoustics as well as opulent optics. The Cabaret at Theater Square provides a lighter bill of comedies, musical theatre and craft beer powwows. Or catch an art-house flick at the Harris Theater.

The Pittsburgh Public Theater puts on a mixed program of contemporary and repertory works; it makes its home in the O’Reilly Theater, designed by Michael Graves (one of the New York Five). Or chuckle through some improv at the 75-seat Arcade Comedy Theater, where you can bring your own drinks thanks to the venue’s BYOB licence – provided you follow some serious-sounding rules. (Attention flipper fanatics: Bring your own quarters, too, and play pinball in the lobby.)

If you’re a devotee of dance, check listings for the landmark Byham Theater, or the beautiful August Wilson Center/African American Cultural Center. At the latter, also make sure to visit the intriguing exhibition galleries.

Courtesy Pittsburgh Cultural Trust

The August Wilson Center

Visual arts and museums

Art is never far away in the Cultural District, and it’s often to be found at street level. Take, for example, the Cell Phone Disco, a sparkling interactive outdoor exhibition that “visualizes the electromagnetic field of an active mobile phone” to put on a little light show. Look for it behind Crazy Mocha Coffee at 801 Liberty Ave.

There’s also the ghostly Sign of Light atop Penn Avenue Place, a plain billboard by day that shines with a brightly illuminated, animated image of a triangle at night. Artist Richard Haas’s sly mural, painted on the Fort Duquesne Boulevard façade of the Byham Theater, evokes the city’s industrial past. For a real eye-opener, the Agnes R. Katz Plaza is home to famed American sculptor Louise Bourgeois’ largest public commission, an eight-metre-high (25-foot) bronze fountain.

The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust Gallery Crawls, held each quarter, guide art-lovers and the culturally curious through the District’s many galleries and art spaces. The galleries run the gamut from conservative to pretty far-out. Meanwhile, a prime example of urban renewal through art: The last standing adult bookstore on Liberty Avenue, which also served as an arcade and accordion school, was transformed by the Trust into the 943 Gallery, a dedicated art space.

There’s a fun option next door: The ToonSeum is a museum dedicated to the art of cartooning. A couple of blocks away, above the Wood Street subway station, the Wood Street Galleries offer two floors of exhibition and performance space, dedicated to contemporary works and shows with titles like “Installations, Experiences and Explorations Inspired by Bugs.” The Space art centre nearby at 812 Liberty Ave. presents five to six shows a year, with a special focus on multidisciplinary work by emerging artists.

Finally, one would be remiss not to mention the Andy Warhol Museum, the largest in the country dedicated to a single artist; it’s just over on the north shore of the Allegheny River, opposite the Cultural District.

If that’s too much art for you, remember that while Pittsburghers have shed their hard hats and work boots, they remain passionate fans of their Steelers, Penguins and Pirates, each team calling downtown home. A short trip from the Cultural District proper and you’re at the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum at the Heinz History Center. Its hundreds of artifacts, 70 hands-on interactive exhibits, and 20 audio-visual programs will further slake any thirst for Pittsburgh sports. And while you’re there, you might take advantage of the History Center’s status as Pennsylvania’s largest history museum.

Finally, it’s more of an amenity than art, but: Allegheny Riverfront Park, another inspired conception of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, is a kilometre-and-a-half-long, narrow boardwalk punctuated by greenery; what makes it artsy is the fact that was designed by artist Ann Hamilton in collaboration with landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh.

Shopping

If shopping is your thing, the Cultural District’s 90 stores, not surprisingly, traffic an eclectic mix. Standout shops sell books (Amazing Books & Records), sports paraphernalia (The Pittsburgh Fan), dress-up costumes (Costume World), gourmet popcorn (Pittsburgh Popcorn Company) and custom-crafted stringed instruments (Phillip Injeian Violin Shop).  

Food and drink

By now, the eyes, ears and feet cry surrender, and what one requires is a pause and nourishment. As mentioned, Zagat named Pittsburgh America’s top food city. And with more than 50 restaurants of every stripe, eating options abound in the Cultural District.

Chef Richard DeShantz impressed Pittsburgh diners with Butcher and the Rye, a Cultural District destination renowned for its extensive whisky collection and a whisky-infused menu. His next venture, Meat and Potatoes is an innovative gastropub, and it impressed us with simple but elevated and delicious comfort-food, true to the name. DeShantz blew away the Zagat folks with täkō, his 6th St. shrine to toothsome Mexican and Asian street food. All three joints rule. Take your pick.

täkō

It’s easy to find more options for comforting Americana done well. Braddock’s American Brasserie also occupies the comfort zone, with revamped old familiars and “hand-crafted” cocktails. [As opposed to robot-crafted? – ed.] Ten Penny  features a large central bar, lots of brews and American eats while Sharp Edge Bistro also serves up many species of beer and plies the comfort-food trade.

For a more relaxed neighbourhood bistro experience, Six Penn Kitchen (146 6th St.), in the heart of the Cultural District, offers daily prix fixe features – some American dishes (burgers and the like), some Italian – that won’t blow the per diem, and no one will chase you out if you linger. The Sonoma Grille (947 Penn Ave.) also calls itself a bistro, with a jazz brunch and a long wine list jazzed up with many California wines.

For smaller plates: Cocktail lounge Olive or Twist serves fabulous appetizers during happy hour, while Seviche’s drinks and snacks speak Spanish, with fusion tapas, mojitos and Cuban vibes.

Finally, for casual meals, Cherries Diner is a place to go for no-frills breakfasts and diner lunches; it’s a favourite with the locals. Cafe Milano is a good bet for a casual sit-down pizza and beverage, and 21st Street Coffee and Tea offers the standard trio of industrial chic, carefully sourced coffee, and WiFi. If you don’t have work to do, get one to go and check out the art installations at 7th and Penn Parklet (once home to Doc Johnson’s International House of Love Potions and Marital Aids) for a final blast of aesthetic rapture.

Published Friday, July 15th 2016

Header image credit: The Benedum Center/Courtesy Visit Pittsburgh

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