A Jersey's Boy's Appreciation For the Steel City

    As transplanted New Jerseyans, I and my family have spent the last 12 years becoming familiar with an area of the country that had captivated us via several Pittsburgh vacation visits in the 1990s and early 2000s. What we fell in love with in southwestern Pennsylvania impelled us to choose to permanently live here (perhaps in part due to Rick Sebak’s very effective videos). Pittsburgh became our adopted hometown, loved and appreciated even more than the mid-Atlantic region of our births.

    Almost everything wonderful about Pittsburgh is encapsulated in the magnificent riverside skyline view from perhaps the nation’s best baseball stadium, PNC Park.

    Almost everything wonderful about Pittsburgh is encapsulated in the magnificent riverside skyline view from perhaps the nation’s best baseball stadium, PNC Park.

    What was the lure? Traditional neighborhoods; ethnic and religious diversity; a feeling of relative safety; the appearance everywhere that may be described as “conscientious upkeep”; the striking renaissance that has made Pittsburgh America’s “most livable city”; the city’s small-town feel, suburb-style neighborhoods, and accessibility and affordability. Most importantly for us, it’s a place that replicates the nostalgically recalled municipal/residential areas of our youth, while also being a showcase for new businesses and public buildings, first-class and plentiful entertainment, and renowned medical, educational, and sports facilities. Hockey was adopted as a passion by our family even though we had never once watched a game before; baseball was followed and pursued into PNC Park, a visit to which is an affordable pleasure compared to accessing NY-NJ stadiums.

    The Pittsburgh area has a wealth of neighborhoods with well-maintained century-old residential architecture, among them Aspinwall, Sewickley, Osborne, Mt. Lebanon, Beaver, Squirrel Hill, Shadyside, Ben Avon, Point Breeze, Allegheny West (top), and Crafton (bottom).

    The Pittsburgh area has a wealth of neighborhoods with well-maintained century-old residential architecture, among them Aspinwall, Sewickley, Osborne, Mt. Lebanon, Beaver, Squirrel Hill, Shadyside, Ben Avon, Point Breeze, Allegheny West (top), and Crafton (below).

    Pittsburgh is the friendly America of the 1940s and ’50s, with down-to-earth people, a myriad of individual comfortable neighborhoods, respect for its own history, a spirit of architectural preservation and excellence, constant commercial development, and a dynamic building tradition (in an impossible but captivating terrain). This land of bridges and rivers—and inclines and daunting hillside stairways—certainly offers one of the nation’s most unique cityscapes. The tracks of the “T” trolley (let’s call it that, for nostalgia’s sake) wind through South Hills places such as Beechview, Mt. Lebanon, Dormont, Castle Shannon, Library—often with the rails still coating the surfaces of car-trafficked streets. Quaint, pleasant, and shopper-friendly towns are filled with well-maintained, impressive Victorian and 1920s homes.

    What makes the area so wonderful to live in is the evolving juxtaposition of the new and the old: Restored historic buildings and “vintage” shopping districts in every area of the city are continually being joined by brand new development along the rivers’ edges and newly opened-up land, such as the riverside parallel to Smallman Street. One can delight in the historic sections but also feel one is living where almost everything is brand new—just drive the length of Route 19 from the far North Hills to the lower South Hills, for miles and miles of spanking new commercial and residential development. Yet, what other city can boast of 90 distinct long-established neighborhoods and 446 architecturally classic bridges?

    The Harmony Inn is the appealing focal point of the historic district of  Harmony, one of the area’s most most charming “olden-days” locales,  apparently related in some manner to Zelienople. Similar quaint villages  easily reached from Pittsburgh are Volant, New Wilmington, and Ligonier.

    The Harmony Inn is the appealing focal point of the historic district of
    Harmony, one of the area’s most most charming “olden-days” locales,
    apparently related in some manner to Zelienople. Similar quaint villages
    easily reached from Pittsburgh are Volant, New Wilmington, and Ligonier.

    We have grown to love and continually visit many of these locales in western Pennsylvania. Among our favorites, for both the charming, traditional town centers and the historic residential neighborhoods are: Sewickley (with its bookends, Osborne and Edgeworth), Ben Avon, Bellevue, Mt. Lebanon, Dormont, Brookline, Bethel Park, Bridgeville, Carnegie, Crafton, Brentwood, Oakmont, Verona, Beaver, Millvale, Aspinwall, Wexford, Oakdale, Volant, New Wilmington, and Zelienople/Harmony. These places demand a leisurely stroll or ride through their venerable residential streets and time-honored, yet updated, shopping districts. If you’re from the city, or east, west, or south of it, don’t let anyone tell you—as they are wont to do—that a trip to walk the elevated streets of downtown Oakmont and to drool over its insanely extravagant bakery is out of the way, or that enjoying a day in one of the area’s best towns, Beaver, entails much too long a ride.

    Among the casual food offerings that Pittsburghers are missing by being seven hours away from northern New Jersey are Italian hot dogs, Taylor Ham sandwiches, Texas weiners, and White Castle hamburgers. Of course, Pittsburgh’s world-famous Strip District is home to the original Primanti Bros. eatery with its equally famous sandwich.

    Among the casual food offerings that Pittsburghers are missing by being seven hours away from northern New Jersey are Italian hot dogs, Taylor Ham sandwiches, Texas weiners, and White Castle hamburgers. Of course, Pittsburgh’s world-famous Strip District is home to the original Primanti Bros. eatery with its equally famous sandwich (right).

    Primanti's Sandwich

    Yes, there are plenty of sometimes maddening and quirky things about Pittsburgh, making it both charming and somewhat annoying, even compared to New Jersey’s own irksome qualities. For example, locations of businesses in ads and even via phone directions seem obscure, no thought having been given to identifying by name the neighborhood or town. This geographical vagueness extends to the identities of municipalities—orphan boroughs whose zip codes place them among adjacent communities; or unique “towns” that are bizarrely linked to the city of Pittsburgh by address and zip code (Mt. Lebanon, Carrick, Brookline, Crafton, Green Tree, Sharpsburg, Whitehall, Baldwin, et al.). Then there are the places where names overlap: Is the address you seek in McMurray or Peters Township, or both? Is it the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Banksville or is your home in “Greentree City”? Are you driving through Osborne or Glen Osborne? When you’re visiting the historic district of Harmony are you also in Zelienople? How about a Route 50 Lowe’s store that’s in two separate towns? Or a borough (McDonald) in two counties?

    The Church Brew Works is one of the many Pittsburgh-metro establishments that pair dining with a brewery—also representing the spirit of a city that cherishes, restores, and continues to enjoy its historic buildings.

    The Church Brew Works is one of the many Pittsburgh-metro establishments that pair dining with a brewery—also representing the spirit of a city that cherishes, restores, and continues to enjoy its historic buildings.

    Pittsburgh claims locales as neighborhoods that are smack-between independent towns; boroughs like Mt. Oliver are surrounded by city neighborhoods, and the Brentwood zip code is hemmed in by the city zip codes of Whitehall and Baldwin. Of the sister boroughs of Edgewood and Forest Hills, one has a Pittsburgh zip code and one doesn’t. Along Route 65 (Ohio River Boulevard) are Emsworth, Ben Avon, Avalon, and Bellevue, with every other one having a Pittsburgh zip code—in no particular geographical order in relation to the big city. Most intriguing (or infuriating) is the neighborhood of Regent Square, which is officially described as including “portions of the municipalities of Pittsburgh, Edgewood, Swissvale and Wilkinsburg.” There may be authoritative answers to all this confusion, but that doesn’t help general travelers understand where exactly they are going around here.

    That leads us to the roads, to just getting around. Everyone will agree about the annoyance of endless roadwork almost everywhere; we don’t mind if the usual hillside collapse is forcing an emergency, but it baffles the commuter when all the routes leading from a single neighborhood—or to a single tunnel/bridge—are being worked on at the same time. Additionally annoying is the way most parking lots are cunningly designed to prevent exiting from more than one driveway.
    Greg-D1

    Anyone tempted to complain about traffic in Pittsburgh should visit New Jersey on a summer weekend and try to access the shore destinations via the Garden State Parkway. Nevertheless, the many close-by and beautiful shore towns—with their boardwalks, beaches, mansion-like hotels, amusements, sausage-and-peppers sandwiches, and seafood restaurants—make a weekday trip one of the joys of eastern New Jersey.

    Anyone tempted to complain about traffic in Pittsburgh should visit New Jersey on a summer weekend and try to access the shore destinations via the Garden State Parkway. Nevertheless, the many close-by and beautiful shore towns—with their boardwalks, beaches, mansion-like hotels, amusements, sausage-and-peppers sandwiches, and seafood restaurants—make a weekday trip one of the joys of eastern New Jersey.

    Yet traffic-wise, Pittsburgh has New Jersey beat by light years. Although here we don’t have the luxury of being able at a whim to hop in a car and go “down the shore,” we also don’t have to endure a main highway that is hellish to use, maddeningly clogged, and full of tolls. Crossing bridges and tunnels into our city is a breeze, compared with braving inevitably backed-up Jersey-to-New York crossings with their ever-escalating toll charges. And instead of fighting rude drivers racing to find a lane after a Garden State Parkway toll plaza, in Pittsburgh we usually merge patiently and courteously wave along other drivers.

    Like the twin local-radio announcements where traffic is followed by weather, a word about Pittsburgh’s climate is now in order. Don’t let anyone characterize our area as gloomy or cloudy or rainy. The small modicum of truth in this description is more than made up for by the irrefutable fact that our weather patterns may be the best in America—unless you enjoy the threat of tornados, hurricanes, nor’easters, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, high humidity, droughts, frequent and heavy snowstorms, and the like. Combinations of these meteorological ills beset most areas of the U.S., but not here. In fact, the oddity that is Pittsburgh weather—if you don’t like the day’s start, just wait a few hours for everything to change—is actually an optimism-producing blessing. As far as New Jersey goes, settle there if you enjoy weeks of nonstop hazy/cloudy skies and high humidity, or East Coast storms. My family has happily traded home visits by stink bugs in order to leave behind mosquito-infested summer days of our former state.

    Sorely missed bakery items often found in New Jersey are lobster tails (above), Portuguese custard tarts, St. Joseph’s zeppole, and crumb buns. Pittsburgh, of course, offers its iconic Burnt Almond Torte (left). And while we don’t have great Portuguese and Italian bakeries as found in Jersey, on a par here is the huge and dazzling Oakmont Bakery.

    Sorely missed bakery items often found in New Jersey are lobster tails (above), Portuguese custard tarts, St. Joseph’s zeppole, and crumb buns. Pittsburgh, of course, offers its iconic Burnt Almond Torte (below-left). And while we don’t have great Portuguese and Italian bakeries as found in Jersey, on a par here is the huge and dazzling Oakmont Bakery.

    Moving from New Jersey, we have missed the usual neighborhood sidewalks, especially the kind where the curbside part has many feet of grass and the trees are planted there and not just on a homeowner’s property. Regent Square provides the antidote for this aesthetic (and pet-friendly) loss—its residential areas are perfect approximations of that old-fashioned mid-Atlantic sidewalk arrangement. The pervasiveness of Pennsylvania’s brick and stone homes has taken some getting used to, having relished the East’s traditional Victorian/craftsman/colonial wood-shingled homes. But perhaps that’s the price to pay for being able to enjoy mini-forests and large trees everywhere (even in the most building-clogged city sections) and intermittent farmland—all amidst a daunting hilly topography that enthralls us by its beauty and navigational challenges.

    greg-B2

    My wife and I are neighborhood-exploration junkies, for in addition to the towns mentioned above, we have tried over the years to return time and again to the most interesting city neighborhoods in the nation. Not only do these places each have a wonderful specific history (sometimes ethnically related), but their architecture/residences/commercial sections have a nostalgic charm combined with a vibrant “scene” and a feeling of warmth, safety, and neighborliness (despite their sometimes dilapidated appearances) that surely must be unique among American cities. Individual virtues abound in familiar metropolitan places such as Shadyside, Squirrel Hill, the Strip, Lawrenceville, the North Side (with its blocks and blocks of restored Victorian townhouses in the Allegheny West and Mexican War Streets neighborhoods), Bloomfield, East Liberty, Oakland, the North Shore (with its leading-edge sports, cultural/entertainment, and hotel venues), Station Square and Market Square, Highland Park, Polish Hill, Point Breeze, the South Side (its “Slopes” has 68 public stairways, representative of a unique Pittsburgh attribute), the Cultural District, and Mt. Washington.

    In this comparison chart of deficits and virtues, I’ve saved a delectable aspect for the finale: the two states’ food cultures. But this is not a gastronomic survey of great city restaurants (especially since there are no longer great cities in New Jersey, only decrepit ones), and it is certainty not fair to compare New York City to Pittsburgh in this regard. Plus, as a couple we don’t patronize expensive restaurants/establishments with reputations for incredible steaks and imported chefs who pile slivers of vegetables and foam onto a one-ounce piece of salmon. We are, however, appreciative of the Primanti Bros. reputation that has made Pittsburgh food famous, and of our many fine Chinese, Sushi, Thai, and Vietnamese restaurants; and we are happy with the varieties of Italian restaurants.

    But it is still a sad affair here in the realm of traditional ethnic “fast food,” sandwiches, and baked goods. Where can we find, in western Pennsylvania, such New Jersey fare as an Italian hot dog … a peppers-and-egg sandwich …  authentic deli-restaurants serving piled-high pastrami sandwiches on rye with hot mustard and bowls of pickles and health salad … a Portuguese restaurant or bakery … Easter rice pies … a hot-dog-cart Sabrett dog with sauced onions … Carvel ice cream stores … a real Italian-bakery rum baba, sfogliatelle, cannoli, zeppole, or lobster tail … White Castle hamburger “restaurants” and Stewart’s Root Beer drive-ins … a Texas Weiner … scungilli salad and steamers … crumb buns … and most importantly, the notorious New Jersey Pork Roll (aka Taylor Ham) sandwich.

    In lieu of the unlikely possibility that some inspired restaurateur creates a theme eatery spotlighting the above delicacies, my family will have to be content in our adopted region with the ubiquitous church fish frys during Lent, fairly decent pizza choices and good Italian and Asian restaurants, chipped ham, Strawberry Pretzel Salad, Perry’s ice cream, Burnt Almond Tortes, fries piled high on “sammiches” and other dishes, great craft beer/brewery dining, seasonal Paczki and New Year’s Pretzels, and comforting pierogi and Haluski.

    But I’m afraid I’ll have to pass on the ham barbecue.

    Strip! magazine editor Greg Suriano teaches Humanities at Robert Morris University, writes books, and loves places where the past comes alive.

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