The City Revisited
After a year-long anniversary celebration in 2008 and two national championships and a global summit in 2009, one might think that the city’s appetite for tributes would be pretty well sated. But there is always room for a little something more, particularly when the fare is as lovingly prepared and tastefully presented as Franklin Toker’s “Pittsburgh: A New Portrait.”
This engrossing and comprehensive treatment of architecture and urbanism is an update of the author’s earlier work, “Pittsburgh: An Urban Portrait,” issued in 1986, when the post-industrial city was reclaimed from the metaphorical slag heap of history and first recognized as “livable.” In the ensuing years, literal slag heaps have become upscale housing sites (as in the example of the Summerset complex on Squirrel Hill), and the city has continued to evolve in numerous other ways that are reflected in its built environment. To underscore these changes, many of the book’s original monochromes have been replaced by vivid color photos, featuring aggressively green grass and blazing blue skies, as if all the old preconceptions about Pittsburgh had been silkscreened in a Warholian palette. Toker has revised a few of his perceptions as well. Whereas the ’80s version decried medical centers and pornography as “twin urban blights,” the massive UPMC complex in Oakland that is the basis of the city’s new “eds and meds” economy is now discussed with more respectful restraint.
The essence of the book, however, remains the same: an in-depth examination and whole-hearted celebration of our region—and I mean ALL of it—including its history, its presumptive future, its sprawling suburbs and discrete neighborhoods, and even the surrounding industrial river towns and exurbs that arose along with the city “in the medieval way, as partners in a development of mutual benefit.”
There is literally something for everyone on the menu: factories, churches, clubs, schools, shops, libraries, parks, skyscrapers, cemeteries, mansions, housing projects, farms, follies, bridges, bathhouses and bars. It’s a lot to digest, but well worth the effort, particularly for those whose experience in urban appreciation may be limited to the city’s showplaces. After all, it’s easy to be impressed by the imposing structures found in the Golden Triangle, Oakland, or the new North Shore, but expert guidance is required in less scenic areas, where architectural treasures are often camouflaged and lore lost amid shifting populations.
Best of all is Chapter Five, which transports readers along the old Greensburg Pike, following an ancient Indian trail on a geological plain created in the last ice age. Known in the present day as Penn Avenue, this route, from the Strip to Wilkinsburg, cuts a swath through the East End, touching Polish Hill, Lawrenceville, Garfield, Friendship, East Liberty, Highland Park, Homewood and Point Breeze, with each progression providing a real sense of the city’s rolling expansion. Along the way, the author explains the interrelations of early landowners that account for the patterns of development and the sources of many street names. At the same time, he reveals a plethora of historical and architectural tidbits delectable to the connoisseur of Pittsburghiana. These include an Art Deco auto dealership by Albert Kahn; a hidden fragment of the Blarney Stone; the aptly-named Cinderella Apartments, constructed of coal ashes mixed with cement during a bricklayers’ strike; the proto-modern units of Frederick Scheibler’s Vilsack Row; the Islamic and Aztec details of Lemington Elementary; the colorful cherubic façade of the Lackzoom Acidophilus store (a forerunner of Activia in spirit and mission); an amateur Victorian crescent; and the idealistic origins of East Hills, constructed on old dairy lands and the dream of racial integration.
The armchair experience is so exhilarating that readers may find themselves inspired to get out and view every landmark, rather as one leaves the film “Julie and Julia” inspired to master the Art of French Cooking. (There are roughly the same number of sites in Toker’s tome as recipes in Child’s immense cookbook, so whether or not one follows through is another issue…) If so, the results are most rewarding. For instance, when descending Penn Avenue from the brand-new and much-touted Fairmont Place Apartments toward the lacy Presbyterian church affectionately known as “the Mellon fire escape,” one can now see (since the recent demolition of a highrise housing block) the clear outline of the village of East Liberty, re-emerging from the ravages of misguided mid-century “urban renewal.” There one perceives at a glance—as clearly as from atop Mount Washington—the vision Toker hopes to convey to the world: Pittsburgh as an organic entity, constantly re-inventing itself; embracing its intriguing past while focused optimistically on the future.
Toker, a professor of art and architecture at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of 2003’s excellent “Fallingwater Rising,” uses his extensive knowledge to breathe life into the locations he so keenly describes, but his ponderous Richardsonian Romanesque Allegheny County Courthouse, citing it as “the most distinguished American building of the nineteenth century” in the opinion of “a great many scholars.” (One hastens to note that a great many gourmets consider cold quail eggs a delicacy, but they don’t speak for all of us.) Given the 19th-century mania for monumental building, this is an audacious degree of expertise is sometimes problematic for the lay reader. Those lacking a background in architectural history may find themselves scratching their heads when informed that Claude-Nicolas Ledoux and Benjamin Latrobe influenced the design of Carnegie Tech, and Karl Friedrich Schinkel and Robert Mills the Mellon Institute. Because the historical antecedents to which he refers are not pictured, one must take the author’s pronouncements on faith. Indeed, since there are no footnotes, readers are expected to take ALL of Toker’s pronouncements on faith, Toker’s pronouncements on faith, even some that are highly debatable. For instance, while residents of the South Side may be honored to find their neighborhood hailed as “real Pittsburgh,” the thousands of people whose lives revolve around the intersection of Forbes and Murray avenues may take exception to seeing Squirrel Hill referred to as a “stereotypical bedroom community.”
Similarly, Toker makes much of the ponderous Richardsonian Romanesque Allegheny County Courthouse, citing it as “the most distinguished American building of the nineteenth century” in the opinion of “a great many scholars.” (One hastens to note that a great many gourmets consider cold quail eggs a delicacy, but they don’t speak for all of us.) Given the 19th-century mania for monumental building, this is an audacious claim, but chacun a son gôut. This is, after all, Toker’s personal portrait of the city. In one respect at least, his analysis of the massive public structure is irrefutable: “the courthouse does not merely stand in Pittsburgh; it is Pittsburgh.” While the city and structure alike might strike some as dreary, oppressive, and retardataire, to the eyes of love they are “near-perfect.” The author’s assertions, therefore, should be taken with a grain of salt— and then savored accordingly. Toker’s achievement is praiseworthy, celebratory and revelatory; a gift to Pittsburghers worthy of second helpings. Enjoy!