Frugal Traveler: Built on Steel, Pittsburgh Now Thrives on Culture
The changes in town are nowhere more apparent than in the East Liberty neighborhood, where development has improved some fortunes but led to claims of gentrification and alienation of other local residents. My $97 room at the Hotel Indigo East Liberty (a quick walk from a recently opened Ace Hotel) was good, and the service was excellent. After I checked in, one of the managers recommended that I head down the street to Kelly’s Bar and Lounge, an old neighborhood bar that has been revamped. It was a good suggestion — the mac and cheese ($5 for a small) was gooey, slightly spicy and with plenty of crunchy crust. The $4 daily special cocktail (it was a daiquiri when I was there) made an ideal pairing.
Pittsburgh’s eating and drinking habits, by reputation at least, aren’t always the most salubrious. According to a 2013 study, it ranked first in the nation in bars per capita, at nearly 12 per 10,000 people (and second in pizza places). As a visitor, though, I had no problem indulging in the heart-stopping French fry-stuffed sandwiches the city is known for. Primanti Brothers, a chain that began in Pittsburgh in the 1930s, was more than able to meet my expectations. An obscenely caloric sandwich stuffed with fresh-cut fries, pastrami, provolone, coleslaw and tomatoes cost $7.39.
I had a considerable amount of walking to do to justify that fatty, delicious sandwich, and I began by diving into the city’s impressive cultural scene downtown, continuing across the Allegheny and stopping at the Andy Warhol Museum on Sandusky Street. For the $20 admission price (half price on Fridays from 5 to 10 p.m.), visitors have access to a considerable trove of Warhol’s art. Many modern art museums have a few Warhols; what they don’t have, however, is the Pittsburgh museum’s interesting collection of his pre-Factory early work, childhood photos and personal effects.
In the ’60s, Warhol made hundreds of silent movies of studio visitors with a Bolex camera and 16-millimeter black-and-white film. At the “Screen Test” exhibition, you can sit for your own, as I did, channeling my best Lou Reed for about five minutes; you can later view it online. In the basement, visitors can engage in silk-screening, a process Warhol practiced extensively. I made a Jean-Michel Basquiat print on some construction paper (that was free, though visitors can silk-screen onto shirts, bags and other items for a fee).
A short walk from the Warhol is the Senator John Heinz History Center ($16 admission for adults, $6.50 for children and students), where large interactive exhibits will be especially entertaining for children — like a current one displaying original artifacts from “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Using the stairway, as opposed to the elevator, to visit all six floors of the museum and collecting a different stamp on each floor will garner visitors a free prize.
The nearby August Wilson Center, named for the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and Pittsburgh native, is also worth a visit. The center contains performance and gallery spaces: I was impressed by an exhibition of Teenie Harris photographs that also focused on the work of the jazz pianist Erroll Garner (who wrote “Misty”), and photographs by Rachel Neville of the Pittsburgher Joy-Marie Thompson, who thrillingly captures the spirit of the renowned African-American performers Josephine Baker and Eartha Kitt by re-enacting their poses in famous portraits.
Mr. Wilson is one of the city’s literary giants, but Pittsburgh serves writers in a different way: granting them a place to work in peace. The nonprofit City of Asylum provides housing and financial assistance for exiled writers. Previous residents have included the Chinese poet Huang Xiang, whose “House Poem” home is painted with Chinese characters. I also visited the City of Asylum bookstore on North Avenue, which opened in January in an old Masonic hall.
The music scene in Steel City is strong as well. I attended performances at sites both traditional (the Rex Theater, a gorgeous 1905 former vaudeville stage, where I saw a free show by the jam band Aqueous) and nontraditional. The most fascinating, hands down, was Banjo Night at Allegheny Elks Lodge No. 339, on Cedar Avenue. A huge American flag adorned the center of the stage, in front of which sat around 15 to 20 banjo players. “Let’s do ‘China Boy’!” the bandleader announced from his chair, and the band started up the 1922 tune.
The musicianship of the group was solid, and the crowd, which mingled in the basement-rec-room atmosphere, was an interesting mix of generations. (I went outside during a break and began chatting with a group of pierced and tattooed smokers who appeared to be in their 20s. An older gentleman stuck his head out the door and scolded us — “Don’t you know you’re scaring people away?” — then shut the door in a huff. We all shrugged.)
A “Cabaret” cover, which featured a guest vocalist, was a hit, as well a rousing performance of “M.T.A.,” made famous by the Kingston Trio. All generations were united by love of the music, and people were dancing and clapping their hands over the good beer (I had a pale ale from the local Yellow Bridge Brewing, $3.50) and food (a surprisingly good muffuletta sandwich, which was loaded with meat, cheese and olive tapenade, cost $6).
My next stop was the Cathedral of Learning, the towering Gothic Revival landmark that began construction in 1926, and its Nationality Rooms, a fascinating collection of themed classrooms. Chinese, German, Lithuanian, Polish — each room is carefully designed and decorated to honor different ethnicities that contributed to Pittsburgh’s development. Across Forbes Avenue is the Conflict Kitchen, a restaurant with a constantly changing menu highlighting cuisines from cultures in conflict with the United States government. When I attended, the focus was the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois. My dish of oshowe ($9), white corn mush with root vegetable hash, was excellent, as was the accompanying hot root tea ($2).
My time was full of great eating and drinking establishments — vegan Polish fare at Apteka; cheap beer and cheaper eats at the bars Gooski’s and the Rock Room, in Polish Hill; fresh Vietnamese sandwiches at Banh Mi & Ti in Lawrenceville — but Pittsburgh’s art scene impressed me the most. Not just standbys like the world-class Mattress Factory, where I saw light-bending shows by James Turrell and Yayoi Kusama, but less conventional exhibitions like the home of Randy Gilson, a local artist. The 60-year-old, who lives with his partner, Mac, turned a dilapidated home he bought in the ’90s (“It was all drugs and gangs back then,” Mr. Gilson said), for $10,000, into Randyland, a personal expression of joy and an extraordinary piece of public art.
Mr. Gilson has the energy and childish curiosity of someone a fraction of his age; my conversation with him was peppered with exclamations of “cool!” and “groovy!” He welcomed everyone who came by his colorful residence. The backyard is filled with mirrors, painted mannequin heads, Tibetan prayer flags, lawn flamingos, bird cages and a Japanese-style gate painted purple and turquoise. Mr. Gilson calls it his “house of junk and joy.”
He said that he grew up poor and that his family didn’t have money for toys at Christmas. As an 8-year-old, he played with toys he found in the garbage. “But then I realized: My eyes are a tool to see,” he said. “Cool! My hands are a tool to take home. Wow! What? My mind is a tool to fix them? My heart is a tool to be happy! What other tools do I have?”
Mr. Gilson has worked as a waiter at a local Westin hotel for the past 30 years to pay his bills. “It’s all about what’s in your heart, the love in your heart,” he said. “I’m a simple guy: I just drink beer and smoke pot.” A visitor walked up to the backyard and Mr. Gilson asked him where he was from; the man said he was from Maine. “Hi, Maine!” Mr. Gilson said, almost knocking the newcomer backward with his enthusiasm. “What are you doing here?”
His energy was infectious. Soon, all of Randyland’s visitors were talking and chatting with one another and about the art. Mr. Gilson himself was holding court in his small corner of Pittsburgh, making sure everyone felt welcome, had what they needed and, of course, got enough pictures.
An earlier version of this column misstated the location of the Akers National Roll company. It is in Avonmore, not Avondale, Pa.
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