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I moved to Boston after I graduated from college.

Partly this was because the economy in Pittsburgh had begun to collapse.  The steel plants were aging, the short-sighted owners had decided against upgrading in favor of squeezing as much profit out of the industry as they could while they could, and unemployment rates ranged from 12% in Pittsburgh proper to a hideous 25% in nearby McKeesport.  My uncle Oscar could have almost certainly gotten me a job, but I wasn't willing to do that when so many people needed those jobs more than I did; the steelworkers might not have qualified for an office job, but their wives and children were a different story, and I wasn't going to take a position away from someone who had a mortgage to pay and mouths to feed.

That I'd fallen in love with a boy from Boston, where the economy was booming thanks to the “Massachusetts Miracle,” made my decision easy.  

Boston was a wonderful place to be young and in love in the 1980's.  Jobs were plentiful, there was a thriving folk music scene, there were concerts and libraries and bookstores enough to slake even my thirst for knowledge and entertainment, and before I knew it I was working in a downtown office, appearing in the chorus of a holiday show, and having the time of my life.  By the time my then-husband and I moved back out to the Pioneer Valley a few years later, I had little desire to return to Pleasant Hills.

That the man I loved didn't want to live more than a couple of hours from the seacoast made my decision easy.

The subsequent twenty-five years haven't necessarily been easy; there were some very, very lean times in the early 90s, when my ex couldn't find a job and my uncles died one after another, and again a decade later when my marriage collapsed and Betty lost her battle with breast cancer.   That I now have the Last Homely Shack, the Triple Felinoid, and a minor writing career is as much a tribute to me being too mulishly stubborn to give up as anything else.

It helps that I love the Pioneer Valley to the point of distraction, from the sugar maples that bring the tourists flocking from New York each fall to the magnificent libraries at Smith and UMass, the quiet elegance of Wistariahurst to the artsy little shops of Northampton.  It's my home now, and as I see retirement over the horizon, I've already started to look into finding a small house or condo in one of the nearby towns where I can eventually settle in with my books, my fabric, and enough cat hair embedded in the carpets to card, spin, and knit into a sweater.

That doesn't mean I don't miss my hometown.  I may not live in Pittsburgh, but that doesn't mean I'm not a a product of the Renaissance City down to my mitochondria.   I talk like a Pittsburgher (especially those harsh terminal r's and my tendency to “redd up the house” when company's coming), I eat like a Pittsburgher (Klondikes!), I root for the Penguins and will root for the Steelers after they finally get rid of that meathead Roethlisberger, I defend the Golden Triangle against any and all stereotypes about “hell with the lid off”...

All of which means that you can take the girl out of Steel Town, but you will never, ever take Steel Town out of the girl.

Tonight I bring you ten places I love about my home city, two books set there, and a whole heap of memories of the days when I called the Steel City home.  I haven't been there in years and almost certainly will never live there again, but come with this Steel Town Girl on a Saturday night on a mini-tour of the city that shaped my life and my soul:

South Hills Village– this was the very first mall I ever visited, and the first fully enclosed mall in the South Hills.  The parking lots formerly were named after circus animals (I particularly liked the one with the little camel on the light post), there was a miniature aviary with a macaw and Andean cocks-of-the-rock, and a lunch counter called “Pup-a-go-go,” a name I didn't understand then and still don't understand now.  I used to shop at the National Record Mart and the Waldenbooks, and I'm very glad the place is still around, even if the stores have changed to reflect the new retail landscape of America.

Grandview Avenue – the iconic view from Pittsburgh is of course the magnificent long-range panorama of the business district, the fountain at Point State Park, and the breastworks of Fort Pitt.  Few realize that this isn't an aerial shot, but was taken on the viewing platforms on Grandview Avenue at the top of Mount Washington, the bluffs rising from the south bank of the Ohio River to overlook the peninsula that gives Pittsburgh its unique geography.  It's a glorious sight regardless of the weather, but it's particularly beautiful at night, when the Gulf Building glows orange, PPG Place glitters like a tower of ice, and the barges on the rivers move slowly up and downstream like tiny rows of jewels in the dark.  

Duquesne Incline – Mount Washington is so steep that the best way to get from Grandview Avenue down to the river bank is and always has been by funicular.  There were over a dozen of these little railways a century ago, and despite the expansion of bus service and the addition of a subway to the Port Authority's transit options, there are still two little inclines trundling slowly up and down the bluffs.  One is owned by the Port Authority, but the little red one that features in many of the postcards showing the view from Mount Washington is the Duquesne Incline.  This National Historic Landmark is owned by a private foundation and has been restored to its early 20th century glory, making it a tourist attraction as well as a way to get from Grandview Avenue down to Station Square and across to the city.

Kaufmann's  – the Kaufmann family were the leading department store clan in Pittsburgh for nearly a century.  Best known today for their patronage of Frank Lloyd Wright, who constructed their vacation home in Bear Run and decorated Edgar Kaufmann Sr.'s office, the Kaufmanns also graced Pittsburgh with an ornate clock on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Smithfield Street.  “Meet me under the clock”became a standard local catchphrase, and despite Kaufmann's being bought out by Macy's nearly a decade ago, the clock is still there, still a landmark, and still says “Kaufmann's.”  Anyone who tried to remove or rename it would almost certainly be found floating face down in the Mon.  Mum, Betty, and I shopped here regularly, with frequent visits to the Vendome shops on the top floor, lunch at the restaurant, and of course a stop at the pet department so Betty could say hello to Pedro, the scarlet macaw that was the only domestic animal she ever  much liked.

Pleasant Hills Public Library -  I volunteeredhere almost every summer during my high school and college years, usually in the children's section downstairs.  Originally a gasworks, the library had a small but decent selection of fiction and non-fiction, friendly staff, and an unusually extensive periodical section.  This is where I first read about the Tudors and the Norman Conquest, where my father found the Asimov and Bradbury collections that succored me when I convalesced from a serious operation, and where I encountered most of the children's and young adult literature I'd skipped over when I went straight from Eleanor Estes to JRR Tolkien.   Most important, it was where I first encountered that curious thing called "feminism" in the form of back issues of Ms. magazine.   I read every single copy, and when I tell people that I've been spyhopping the Christian Right since the 1970s, this is how and where I first realized that religion could be something dark and repressive instead of the joy and light I learned from my parents.

Pittsburgh International Airport - the former headquarters of what became US Airways started out as a small terminal in the 1950s with a compass rose in the terrazzo of the main concourse and an Alexander Calder mobile floating above the passengers eager to experience this wonderful new form of transportation.  The old concourse isn't used any more, but the mobile is still in the passenger terminal.  Nearby is a T-Rex skeleton on loan from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (why, I couldn't tell you), and on the nearby concourse near the food court are two mannequins depicting “great victories near Pittsburgh.”  One of these shows George Washington, young and dark-haired and possessing his own teeth, as he prepared to lead the retreat from Fort Necessity back to civilization.  The other shows Franco Harris making the “Immaculate Reception” that turned the Steelers from a joke into a dynasty.  What these two gentlemen have to do with each other is not clear to me or anyone else, but the fact that they're neighbors with a huge piece of modern art and a dinosaur skeleton says a lot about my hometown.

Fallingwater -  Frank Lloyd Wright's domestic masterpiece was built by and for Edgar Kaufmann, Sr., on the family vacation property in Bear Run, around an hour from Pittsburgh.   Kaufmann's namesake son was one of Wright's students at Taliesin West, his atelier in the Southwest, and it was only natural for the mogul to ask the greatest architect in the country to design his summer house in the mid-1930s.    And design it he did, turning  three concrete trays anchored to a glacial boulder  into one of the greatest achievements of mid-century architecture.   Best of all, unlike so many houses owned by the rich, Fallingwater feels like a home, from the simple earth-toned furniture (also designed by Wright) to the books left by Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., in his bedroom when he donated the house to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.  

Eat 'n Park - this is now a regional chain of casual family restaurants, with the usual mix of mediocre grilled items, iceberg  lettuce in the salad bar, and hearty, carb-laden brunch on the weekends.   When I was a child, though, the local branch on Route 51 between Pleasant Hills and Baldwin had carhop service, complete with roller-skating waitresses, baskets of crinkle-cut fries, and Big Boy coloring books and crayons for me to use while Dad rolled down the windows on our little green Rambler and helped the waitress position the trays of hamburgers, milkshakes, and fries on steamy summer nights when it was too hot for Mum to cook and too much bother to dress up and go to a sit-down restaurant.  

Bill Green Shopping Center- this small, nondescript mini-mall and the commercial strip on Old Clairton Road by the Route 51 cloverleaf was a place of wonders to me when I was young.  Minnesota Fabrics was where I bought my craft supplies and fabric, Heyl's Florist provided poinsettias and wreaths for the holidays, and DiStefano's Pharmacy was the source of my comic books, pulp novels, and fan magazines.   The only stores left from my childhood are the state liquor store (where Mum bought medicinal blackberry brandy whenever one of us would come down with bronchitis) and Kribel's  Bakery, but it's still a retail center and the closest Pleasant Hills has to a commercial district.  

The Nationality Rooms at Pitt -  Mum briefly attended graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh.  This fine public university has some of the most distinctive university architecture in the world, from the gorgeous Heinz Memorial Chapel to the three cylindrical dorms students nicknamed Ajax, Babo, and Comet back in the day.  The real standout, though, is the Cathedral of Learning, a huge Gothic-themed skyscraper that houses most of the classroom and administrative buildings.   Built in the 1930's it boasts a dramatic vaulted Commons Room on the first floor ringed by the legendary Nationality Rooms.  These seminar rooms, each decorated in the style of one of the numerous ethnic groups that flocked to Pittsburgh's mills a century ago, range from the silk-cushioned decadence of the Syria-Lebanon Room to the austere stone of the Scottish Room, the bright folk art of the Lithuanian Room to the gemütlich coziness of the German Room, and so on and so on.    It's a wonderful reminder that Pittsburgh is what it is because of its people, one of the greatest ethnic mixes outside of the great ports like New York and Chicago.

And two books:

An American Childhood, by Annie Dillard - I first encountered this wondrous memoir the morning I had my gallbladder removed about a month ago.   Beautifully written, it's as much a portrait of Pittsburgh during her glory days, when Pittsburgh was rich and proud and the third-largest corporate headquarters in America, as an account of its author's childhood.   If you want to know what the Steel City was like in the halcyon days between the Renaissance and the collapse of the steel industry, this is the book to read.

Out of This Furnace, by Thomas Bell -  this gritty novel about a union organizer in the early 20th century is so vivid one can all but smell the soot of the coke works, feel the ruddy heat of the blast furnaces, taste the slag and the poured steel that so dominated the city and the surrounding river valleys before David Lawrence had the smokestacks capped to give the city breathable air.  The story of the Slovakian immigrants who worked in the mills the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this book is also a metaphor for those of us who were born and bred in Western Pennsylvania:  we may leave the city, but the steel and the rivers will be in our hearts until the day we die.

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What books and places remind you of your childhood, my friends?   What foods are your madelines?  What vistas bring your past to vivid life, if only in your hearts?   Join this Steel Town Girl on a Saturday night and share…

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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Sat Aug 10, 2013 at 06:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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