Man of Steel: One Reporterâ€™s Weekend in Pittsburgh
By Lauren Barth June 14,2010
By BRAD BARTH
Well the joke’s on her, because what she doesn’t know is that Pittsburgh is a surprisingly underrated tourist destination, and an excellent example of a blue-collar, industrial city reinventing itself as a modern metropolis. The attractions and entertainment this City of Bridges has to offer are easily enough to span a long weekend, and if you happen to take the trip with me, you’ll inevitably run into a few comic misadventures along the way.
FRIDAY – Pirates of the Allegheny
Despite a dreary weather forecast, I decided to spend my first night in the Steel City under the lights of PNC Park. Home to the Pittsburgh Pirates since 2001, the 38,362-seat facility is widely considered among the best baseball stadiums in the country.
Making like a local, I walked from downtown Pittsburgh to the stadium by crossing over the Allegheny River via the Roberto Clemente Bridge, a shiny golden-yellow span named after the late Hall of Famer and humanitarian. The bridge closes to traffic on game days, and as I made my approach in a pesky rain, I could already hear the game’s broadcast booming over the stadium speakers.
After stopping to admire a larger-than-life statue of Clemente, I walked to the ticket window and bought a $27 ticket for a field-level seat directly behind home plate. A similar seat at Citi Field, where my beloved New York Mets play, costs over $100 on the cheapest of game days. Sure, the Pirates are a lousy ball club, but at least in this stadium, Bucco fans can lose on the cheap.
As I entered the gate, I realized that the tarp was on the field and we were actually in an extended rain delay. The broadcast I had heard turned out to be the 2006 All-Star Game playing on the jumbo screen. Oops. Suddenly that $27 didn’t seem like such a bargain, as there was a good chance I just paid to basically watch TV and nothing else. I was just about to abandon ship on the Pirates when, after nearly three hours of waiting, the game finally started just after 10 p.m. I took my seat and dug myself in for a loooong night.
At least the interminable wait allowed me to fully explore the confines. I was pleased to find a great view of the field from just about every vantage point, and the city skyline backdrop made the ballpark’s atmosphere perfectly picturesque.
Arguably, the park’s nicest side attraction is the Riverwalk, a scenic concourse surrounding the stadium that offers beautiful views of downtown and its many bridges. Unique local food options include Primanti Bros. sandwiches (more on them later), Quaker Steak & Lube chicken wings and Mrs. T’s Pierogies. Pierogies, by the way, are stuffed dumplings made from unleavened dough.
The game itself was an entertaining one, even if it was well beyond midnight before the visiting San Francisco Giants triumphed 6-4. That’s right — I stayed until the very last out, due to an irrational fear that I would miss something spectacular if I left.
And, in fact, I would have, because late in the contest, I was lucky enough to bump into one of baseball’s best mascots, the Pirate Parrot. As we passed by each other like two ships in the night, I told him my team’s mascot Mr. Met said “Hi.” — a remark that made me feel sort of proud, sort of stupid. It seemed to provoke a response from him, possibly a vulgar one, although I’m thinking it was more of a friendly wave. But since the parrot is relegated to pantomime, I guess we’ll never know for sure.
SATURDAY MORNING – Strip Searches and Broken Records
Saturday morning was full of detours and distractions. First at my hotel breakfast, my bleach-blond waiter, a self-described artist, ambassador to Pittsburgh and “flower child” by the name of Randy Gilson, recommended that I tour the Strip District today. Apparently Saturday is the big day for this 22-block span just off the Allegheny River, particularly the farmer’s market section where local vendors set up shop on the street.
But before I could take his advice, he handed me a giant pile of pictures featuring his prized estate Randyland, a whimsical wonderland of recycled junk art, which I totally would have visited if only I had more time. Then he kind of lost me as he started talking about how he believes everyone in the universe is perfect or something like that — but hey, at least he has a good attitude.
Make no mistake, the Strip is not an upscale shopping district, nor is it a quaint stretch of mom-and-pop shops. It’s a neighborhood of old industrial warehouses converted for commercial and residential use. And while Pittsburgh is among the cleanest major cities in America, this is not its prettiest stretch, at least not the part I saw. But if you’re shopping for bargains, this is the place. Seafood, cheeses, spices, apparel, knick-knacks, souvenirs and aromatic vendor food and are all up for grabs at this urban market. It’s also home to the Heinz History Center, where you can “ketchup” on your Western Pennsylvanian history.
Since I wasn’t in a spending mood, I quickly made my way to my original destination: the Carnegie Science Center, one of four Pittsburgh museums operated by the Carnegie Institute, which was founded by famed steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. Located along the North Shore on the banks of the Allegheny, the museum is just a stone’s throw from PNC Park and its neighbor Heinz Field, where the Pittsburgh Steelers play football.
However, upon arriving at my destination, I was detoured a second time by a rather curious sight: In conjunction with the opening of Pittsburgh’s annual (and free) Three Rivers Arts Festival, a group was attempting to break a World Record by assembling the largest flotilla of canoes and kayaks in history. And while it’s not official yet, it appears that they succeeded, reportedly recruiting somewhere between 1,700 and 1,800 boats.
The participants congregated along the North Shore as well as across the water at Point State Park, a triangle of downtown parkland where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers converge to form the Ohio (hence the three rivers). The adventurer in me wanted to join in on the fun, but the nerd in me couldn’t wait any longer to get my geek on at the Science Center
SATURDAY AFTERNOON – Nurturing My Inner Nerd
You could easily spend the better part of a day at the Carnegie Science Center and still not experience everything, but one exhibit you can’t miss is roboworld, the world’s largest permanent showcase of robotics and artificial intelligence. It was there that I went one-on-one vs. a mechanical arm in air hockey. And I while I couldn’t score on “The Claw,” he (it?) couldn’t score on me either. I proudly walked away considering it a moral victory for mankind.
On the other hand, if we humans ever do wage war against the machines like in Terminator, I hope the fate of the world doesn’t rely on my foosball skills, because another AI program named StarKick Foosbot walloped me 3-0 in no time flat by relying on cameras and infrared sensors to sense where the tiny ball was at any given time.
The exhibit also houses the Robot Hall of Fame, starring R2D2, HAL 9000, Robbie the Robot and many more of your favorite “magnetic personalities” from the movies and TV. I was also rather partial to the Sketchbot exhibit where guests could draw pictures and then watch a robotic arm quickly recreate their compositions using marbles.
Right next door to roboworld is the enormous (pardon the oxymoron) Miniature Railroad & Village set, depicting early 20th Century Western Pennsylvania. The display, which portrays all four seasons under daytime and nighttime conditions, includes among its set pieces a steel mill, coal mine, amusement park, and the Pirates’ original stadium, Forbes Field.
Look carefully and you can find Punxsutawney Phil looking for his shadow at Gobbler’s Knob, Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous Falling Water house, and Mr. Rogers sitting on his porch as Mr. McFeely arrives with his latest speedy delivery. There’s also a park where a little motorized Dalmatian lifts his leg every five seconds or so. “People come far and wide just to see our mascot Puddles,” one of the staff members told me.
As a former sportswriter, I also had to check out the recently opened Highmark SportsWorks exhibit. Here the interactivity gets more physical as you perform feats of strength, agility and quickness all for the sake of science. A must-try: the You-Yo, a simple but super-fun challenge where you literally become a human yo-yo, launching yourself up and down using the power of kinetic energy.
Nearby, an oversized version of the board game Operation, featuring common sports injuries, drew warm smiles from nostalgic visitors. Now if only there were a life-sized version of Chutes and Ladders, that would be so cool!
Not every exhibit is a champion: there’s a motion-based ride through the human body that sets back simulator technology a good 15 years. Nevertheless, SportsWorks is a fun place to explore and get your hands dirty. (Seriously, you touch everything in this place. Bring Purell!)
Just outside in the river is the USS Requin, a late WWII-era Naval submarine that operated from 1945-1968. I had never been in the inside of a sub before — not unless you count the old 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride in Disney World — but this was the real deal: claustrophobic, cramped, and reeking of diesel fuel.
I toured the vessel from bow to stern, including the torpedo room, galley, mess hall, radio room, captain’s quarters and engine room, all the while imaging what it must have been like to live in this steel tube for months at a time.
Be forewarned: the signs ask you not to touch anything, but it might take every ounce of your will power not to play with all those cool dials and knobs. (Personally I was hoping for a peek through the periscope, but no such luck.) Throughout the ship guests can also find old documents, playing cards and personal supplies that were recovered from the ship after it was decommissioned.
Unfortunately, throughout my sub tour I was struck with a sinking feeling. No, we weren’t diving into the murky depths of the river. I was simply running out of time, and had to return to my hotel to do some actual work. Oh well. More fun tomorrow.
SUNDAY – FUNICULI, FUNICULA!
I woke up extra early on Sunday to return to the Strip, home to the original Primanti Bros., a popular sandwich joint and hangout. Originally thinking I might visit late Friday, I called the local hotspot to ask when they would close. Without missing a beat, the guy on the phone replied, “Christmas.” That’s right, it’s open 24 hours, so with that in mind, I decided to go have lunch for breakfast (they do serve breakfast sandwiches, BTW, but I didn’t come all this way for breakfast).
Primanti Bros. is famous for its unusual food presentation. Basically, they stuff your french fries and cole slaw inside your oversized sandwich. Legend has it that truckers who used to visit the location in the 1930s wanted a way to eat their meal on the go, so the kitchen devised this all-in-one solution.
The only problem: I hate cole slaw. And from I heard, if you ask them to put your sides on the side, you may be subject to ridicule and/or scorn. Ask them to hold the slaw altogether and… and… well, I don’t know exactly what happens to you, but I wasn’t about to be that kind of investigative journalist. So I just shut up and took a bite. And guess what? I still don’t like cole slaw.
So there I was clandestinely removing the slaw and concealing it, hoping the woman behind the counter didn’t notice, and thankful that I didn’t go on a jam-packed night when I’d surely be caught. Once I removed enough cabbage from my corned beef and cheese sandwich, it was definitely more enjoyable, though the bread was a little too soft for my liking.
Braving the tornado warnings sweeping the area, I next ventured into the South Shore district and reached the foot of Mt. Washington, formerly known as Coal Hill. At the base of the hill is Station Square, an outdoor shopping and entertainment complex popular among locals and tourists, as well as the Monongahela Incline, one of two remaining funiculars, or cable-based railways, that transport people up and down the steep slope overlooking Pittsburgh proper.
Built in 1870 by German immigrants who needed a safer and more efficient way to commute from their hillside homes to the city below, the “Mon” Incline is the oldest continuously operating funicular in the country. It reaches an elevation of nearly 370 feet and covers a span of 635 feet. The station at the top houses a mini-museum, and to the west of the station is a pedestrian walkway that juts out at various points to offer panoramic views of the city. By contrast, the Duquesne Incline, located further west, reaches an elevation of 800 feet and leads to a variety of upscale restaurant offerings.
The pleasant ascent to the top took only a couple of minutes as the tram moved along at a steady six mph. It felt a little like climbing up a roller coaster without the anticipation of a stomach-churning drop.
The descent, on the other hand, was more problematic. I had a feeling there might be some trouble when the tram’s operator told me the incline temporarily lost power the day before, causing one passenger to panic and threaten to pry his way out (And do what? Roll down the hill?). Sure enough, the 140-year-old ride broke down again. At least I wasn’t trapped inside, but I was stranded up top until I could arrange for a cab to rescue me. Nice place to be stranded, though. I guess I’ll just have to come back again sometime to experience the ride down.
You hear that, Ms. GlamNest Editor? You can send me back to Pittsburgh any time you like. Meanwhile, you can take your precious Hawaii and shove it. Reverse psychology on my part? Well… maybe just a little. But I really would come back here, confident that my Pittsburgher friends would welcome me any time. After all, if they didn’t want people to come visit, then why did they build so many bridges?
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