Brian O'Neill - The Paris of Appalachia
I ordered this portrait of Pittsburgh by Post-Gazette columnist Brian O'Neill already a while ago, but it appeared to be out of stock at Amazon and I almost forgot about it. Then it magically arrived when I absolutely did not expect but really needed it to cheer me up. And what would do better than mind traveling to Pittsburgh (except a real trip - of course)?
Right the first pages did not dissapoint. The book starts with O'Neill driving through Lawrenceville, crossing the 40th Street Bridge over to Millvale together with painter Ron Donoughe. He already had me at this point about 2 pages in the book, because
- Hipster central or not ... when I was in Pittsburgh in April with my friend Gabrijela we lived in Lawrenceville and we loved it. It's a perfect starting point to explore the city and it has some really nice shops, cafés and restaurants including Espresso A Mano as one of our favorite places in the city.
- The 40th Street Bridge was our standard commute for crossing the river
- Millvale was one of our favorite stops. We were very impressed by the Vanka Murals at St. Nicholas church and we loved the morning we spent with art historian and Millvale native Bill Stout walking the little town listening to all the stories about Millvale.
- I really like the paintings of Ron Donoughe. He manages that his art works do not only look like Pittsburgh, but even more FEEL like Pittsburgh.
Brian O'Neill also describes a couple of more situations that almost sound unrealistic and painting a too nice picture of Pittsburgh, but I can prove true:
The first one is, that if you are standing at a corner in downtown Pittsburgh and look confused somebody totally random will be so nice to stop and ask if you need help and then give you a little Pittsburgh tour. EXACTLY this happened to me on a really nasty cold and wet day in February 2011. I was trying to find the right bus stop and failed. A lady stopped and asked what I was looking for. I told her and she walked me down a couple of blocks to the right bus stop ignoring the ice cold wind. While we were walking she pointed on several buildings telling me what it was and what was special about it. Finally she made sure that the bus driver on my line would tell when to jump off before she said good bye. And this is only one of so many examples of Pittsburghers being friendly and supportive I experienced. Yes, there are also jagoffs, but I do not seem to meet them - lucky me.
The second scene in O'Neill's case is in a random bar, where he gets involved in a high level historical and political discussion. I'm not saying that you find only well educated, open minded people in Pittsburgh, but you meet them much more likely than in many other places. And what I really like is that everybody has his ground on the feet. You can usually dicuss the last art exhibition you've seen and the outcome of the latest Steelers game with the same person and in equal depth - and I love that!
And of course - speaking of sports - there is no writing about Pittsburgh without mentioning sports and so does O'Neill putting his 5 Cent into a little intermission in the middle of the book. It's pretty easy to see his priorities - 1) baseball 2) football 3) hockey. As a hockey girl I forgive him, but the Pens part definitely allows room for improvement although I love the anecodotes of Stanley Cup appearances around town when the Pens won the cup. May new ones will be added soon ...
One critical aspect reviews of the book often point out is, that it is too Northside focussed and too positive about this difficult and often trouble neighborhood. Both is kind of true. As much as I understand how much O'Neill's heart beats for the beautiful Mexican War Streets, where he lives, I would have definitely enjoyed to read more about other parts of Pittsburgh and a little less Northside.
I also spent my first week in town as a Northside resident and I learned to appreciate a lot that downtown is easy to reach walking like O'Neill states so often. There's also not much I enjoy more than the view on the skyline from the Northside - in particular from PNC Park, but it can be also pretty scary - scarier than it sounds in O'Neill's book. When I walked first time accross the Giant Eagle parking lot passing some kind of creepy looking people only to next face a huge freeway - from below - I seriously asked myself what the heck I got myself into traveling to Pittsburgh alone ... in February. But to be honest I have to admit that I got used to it and in the end I did not even care anymore. Fighting the cold with several layers including heavy boots, jeans, long sleeve, Pens hat, Pens hoodie with the hood over the hat, winter coat and that hood on top of the hat and the other hood I looked pretty much like everybody else down there and never had a single incident of people approaching me in an uncomfortable way.
The second part of the book is devoted to the things about Pittsburgh that how O'Neill says "drive [despite all the love for his chosen hometown] him crazy". Those chapters are much harder to read and less entertaining. Even the author himself guesses half way through that we - the dear readers - enjoyed the book much more when beer was still involved in the stories and indeed ... he's right. But of course it is important to also look at the problems Pittsburgh has like the fact that the city despite the vibrant cultural scene and an economy that is less beaten by the crisis like it is in other cities is a shrinking city in population - at least when the book was released in 2009. Only from 2010 to 2011 the numbers were flat for the first time in decades.
It also took some time until I could wrap my brain around the whole downtown vs suburbian life style discussion and what it means for Pittsburgh as a city and its financial situation, because we are significantly different organized in Germany, but never the less it was very interesting and I learned a lot.
All together my impression is that "The Paris of Appalachia" is the book of a newspaper columnist who needed a break from the restrains in topics and word counts working for a newspaper always comes with (and I can relate from my time as a local reporter), because he had so much more to say about the city he really cares about. That makes this book more an opinion piece than a city portrait, but one worth reading.