57 varieties of Pittsburgh history


I came to Pittsburgh with a single goal: To visit the Andy Warhol Museum. Beyond that, I wasn't sure what my time here would be like or if I'd even enjoy it. Almost a week in, I've grown quite fond of it here.

I can't remember where, but somewhere in my research about Pittsburgh I read that the original set of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was on display at the Senator John Heinz History Center. Being that I grew up on a steady diet of Fred Rogers alongside Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, and Eureka's Castle, I knew I wasn't going to be able to leave Pittsburgh without paying respect to such an icon of children's entertainment and education.

I spent the morning writing at the lovely cafe on Butler Street that's slowly become my second home during my stay here. The locals murmered about how it was unseasonably cold outside. I felt a sense of gratitude for that fact, as I sauntered around the neighborhood in a black shirt-jacket and jeans, feeling more like myself in a full ensemble of clothing than I had in months in the sweltering and unending Florida heat.

I left the cafe and boarded the 91 bus toward downtown. The heat had started to pick up at the bus stop and an older man with a cane stood beside the trashcan on the street corner flicking his cigarette.

I pulled the cord and got off at 12th and Liberty. At first I wasn't sure where I'd find the museum, but the giant ketchup sign revealed itself soon enough. I walked around the building and found the entrance:

Senator John Heinz History Center

I walked in, paid my admission, and made my way up the stairs to the first exhibits. First was an exhibit on Pittsburgh sports, which admittedly I skipped since, you know, I love sports.

Then there was an exhibit about innovation in Pittsburgh. A couple reproductions of postwar households caught my eye, since they attempted to portray the rise of consumerism in America after the Second World War:

Heinz History Center - Postwar

Heinz History Center - WQED and Early

When I reached the fourth floor, I finally found the Mister Rogers television set in all its glory:

Heinz History Center - Mister Rogers

Heinz History Center - Mister Rogers
set - Castle

My favorite thing about travel is finding myself immersed in the unexpected. I had no intention of coming to Pittsburgh before I decided that was the path I'd take from Asheville. And out of that one decision, I was thrust into a whole new place and time that I'll always remember fondly. Before last week, Pittsburgh existed only in my imagination. Now I've experienced, bit by bit, its culture, its landscape, and its people. I'm grateful to be a guest here and have met so many wonderful folks along the way.

Now I'm curious where my journey will take me next. I'm planning on visiting my aunt and uncle in Upstate New York on Friday, after which I'll have a few days to kill before my apartment in Montreal is ready for me. Vermont might be calling me, or perhaps I'll drive all the way to Quebec City for a few days before I head settle in Montreal. Travel without a plan is both intensely stressful, as well as immeasurably rewarding. Had I planned my entire trip I probably wouldn't have stopped here at all, and instead booked it all the way up Interstate 95 as fast as I could to Montreal. My meandering has granted the trip a sense of spotanaeity, and to me, that's beautiful.

Accepting you're a dirty mess

Vincent, with fruit

I woke up in the middle of the night on Saturday to the chaotic pitter-patter of rain drops on Vincent's back. In the evening I'd had the thought that perhaps I ought to pack away my camp furniture since it might rain, but paid it no mind and snoozed away. When I emerged from slumber, I squarely regretted my neglect and found my yoga mat waterlogged like a sponge.

The rain stopped for a few hours, during which I managed to drive Vincent out of the mud to a dead suburban mall several miles north to seek refuge and do my daily writing. I find a strange sense of solace in the bowels of suburban shopping malls—relics of what felt to me like a simpler time. This mall, nestled in the middle of Applachia, was particularly dead; I think there were more mall walkers circumscribing the mall's dark tiles than there were stores open for business.

I sat in the food court for a few hours writing and watching the people walk by. I made small talk with the security guard and asked him if there was wifi. And I took a break to make a cup of coffee on my camp stove in the parking lot, since the mall was so dead there wasn't even a place to get a cup of coffee.

It's funny, but sometimes the most benign and uneventful days are the most memorable. I'll never forget stumbling upon that shopping mall in the middle of suburban Pittsburgh and seeing it not as a blight on the landscape, but as a brilliant climate controlled oasis.

When I returned to the campground, I noticed it had thinned out considerably. Being that most of the campers were probably local residents, I imagine they decided sitting in the rain wasn't how they wanted to spend their weekend. I, however, was stuck, unless I wanted to get a hotel room, which, I didn't. So I made the best of a muddy situation. I went for a short hike. I made ramen noodles for dinner. I watched online videos about living in vans.

And then, the rains came again. This time, worse than the night before. I checked the weather report and there was an advisory that there could be 55-mile-per-hour winds and nickel-sized hail. Luckily, neither of these came to fruition, but I weighed my options and decided I could always seek shelter in the lavatory building if things got dicey.

I called my brother and we talked at length about life and my trip and his upcoming trip and I was at a bit more peace. As I went to sleep, the rains started again and I knew when I woke up I would be greeted by more mud puddles and damp clothes.

There comes a point when you're on the road where you stop trying to keep yourself up and just accept that you're a filthy mess. As I sit here awaiting my next rented room in Pittsburgh, my skin is oily, my head unshaven, my feet filthy, my clothes dirty, and my body aching. But it is what it is. Tomorrow I'll undoubtedly be elated to have woken up in a real bed in a room with ceilings suitable for standing. But now, I'm the dirty vagabond, going here, there, and nowhere in particular.

It's moments like this that make me wonder why I'm so persistent in my pursuit of adventure when I could very well have the kind of stable, secure life that many people forced into a life of nomadism would kill for. Is this sort of pursuit merely one of selfish indulgence?

I left on this trip, like all my road trips before it, to find America. It's hiding here somewhere, whether in the row houses of Lawrenceville or the steel mills of Appalachia. Maybe it's in the grateful spirit of an immigrant for whom Walmart does not represent a sort of American overindulgence, but instead represents their newfound land of plenty in a world of poverty. I am constantly in awe at the wonder and glory of this land in spite of its horrors, its inequities, and its wastefulness.

America, I love you, but it's not easy.

Camping diversion in western Pennsylvania

Vincent in the woods

Unfortunately the loft I rented for a couple nights was booked for the weekend, so I had to leave Pittsburgh for a few days. I found a state park forty minutes west of town and reserved a site through Monday.

Here in the woods of Pennsylvania, I'm again confronted by a profound sense of having returned home. The flora here reminds me of my childhood in Upstate New York and the disposition of the people here is familiar as well. So far I've spent the day writing, working out, cooking, and catching up with my parents on the phone.

The weather forecast calls for rain tomorrow, so I'm a bit apprehensive about being couped up inside Vincent's belly all day with nowhere to go. Hopefully the forecast is inaccurate and we'll have some dry hours, but I probably ought to pack up my camp gear so it's not a soaked mess.

It's been wonderful to have a bit of respite from the city before I return on Monday. Pittsburgh's suburban landscape doesn't seem nearly as horrid as St Petersburg's—I was able to get from the middle of the city to a rural community in a half hour's drive. I'll always miss Oregon's urban growth boundary keeping a lid on suburban sprawl; it felt magical to be in the center of a cosmopolitan city and thirty minutes later feel like you're in the middle of nowhere.

Tomorrow I'm planning on finding a challenging hike, since I'm starved for inclines after having been in Florida so long. There are a number of trails that connect to the campground here, so hopefully I can find my way to them on foot.

The leaves here are just barely starting to show their colors; the tips of some of them are yellow, but it'll be a few weeks before they really start to turn. I'm eager to see the fall colors this year, since I haven't seen them in the northeast in over a decade.

Here's to hoping I befriend a camper or two tomorrow, since I'm about at my limit for solitude after a full day alone. We shall see.

Why did we pave paradise?

Row houses in Lawrenceville

I came to the northeast principally to escape the oppressive Florida heat. But my other, more consequential reason for coming to the northeast was to immerse myself in prewar, old-world cities that predated the ubiquity of the automobile.

Florida (and most of the Sun Belt) is a congested mess of wide-laned suburban arterial highways, strip malls, parking lots, high urban speed limits, car culture, trucks the size of tanks, and a general lack of urban planning. Its infrastructure matured after the Second World War, when the general consensus (read: propagandized consensus) was that every American should own a single-family detached house and an automobile.

As a result, southern cities, excepting their prewar urban cores, are a car-infested nightmare. They're hostile to anyone who isn't driving a car, and most people in these places see pedestrians and cyclists as a nuissance. Which is an irony, since I can't think of a bigger nuissance than loud, polluting automobiles bisecting every single facet of civic life.

But here in Pittsburgh, founded in the decades before the Revolutionary War, the city wasn't designed with cars in mind. Cars didn't even exist. As a result, blocks are smaller and denser, streets are narrower, and communities are more integrated.

Just take a look at this photo I took of the back patios of the rowhouses here in Lawrenceville:

Lawrenceville back patios

One cannot help but know their neighbors if they're right beside them every time they go outside. And this might be subjective, but to me this is more beautiful and inviting than a big suburban backyard with a fence. It has a sense of place, character, charm. Stuff happened here.

And that's not to say there aren't cars in Pittsburgh. Actually, as a result of higher density and a transit system that's evidently underused, there's actually a ton of car traffic on these tiny streets. But because of the fact the streets are so narrow, cars have no choice but to drive slowly, lest they side-swipe parked cars in the parking lanes. To me this is representative of the pervasive nature of car culture in America. The idea that you'd drive a private automobile living in Lawrenceville, to me, is insane. Everything you need is within walking distance, and there's reliable bus service on Butler Street. But I imagine many people have car-brain and cannot imagine not driving their F-150 down a tiny eighteenth century alleyway and trying to find parking.

This is in contrast to cities in the Sun Belt, where not owning a car is almost impossible unless you happen to live in the small prewar urban cores. I happen to live in a prewar area of St Petersburg, and can accomplish most things by foot. But the sheer lack of density precludes say, a small corner grocery store ever emerging in my neighborhood. There just aren't enough people within walking distance to make it economically viable.

To me, Lawrenceville is an example we could follow if we want to start building more environmentally sustainable and economically equitable communities in the United States. Like most prewar neighborhoods, the rents in Lawrenceville have ballooned in recent years. People want to live in walkable neighborhoods, yet we continue to build unsustainable suburban hellscapes. This is a result of terrible policy, since it would be illegal to build another Lawrenceville in most places in America due to single-family zoning.

When considering how to mitigate climate change, how to provide equitable transportation options, and how to build more integrated communities, let's look toward the past to get to the future.

Also, isn't this just so much more beautiful than the bland suburban housing that gets built today?

Beautiful Lawrenceville row

A leisurely hourslong walk to the Warhol

The Andy Warhol Bridge

I returned to the loft after my morning coffee and writing to shed the clothes I'd donned in the chilly, overcast morning and prepare for my journey down the river to the Warhol Museum.

I began walking toward downtown on Butler Street and my stomach rumbled. I came across a homegrown breakfast place several blocks into the walk and so I popped in for a bite.

The thing that strikes me most about Pittsburgh is its colonial influence in the architecture. Pittsburgh was founded before the Revolutionary War, and so it's a wonderland of diverse architectural styles reaching all the way back to the time of British rule. It's wild stuff to spend time in a place with so much history.

I walked through the Strip District, which felt like a strange combination of tourist junk shops and warehouses. There I asked a couple locals for directions, and they told me I could walk down to the river where there was a multi-use path.

The banks of the Alleghany are lush with greenery and the infrastructure is haunting and historic. Again, you get the sense here that real stuff happened.

Eventually, I reached the Three Sisters, of which one is named after Andy Warhol. I walked up the stairs from the river path and found myself suspended above the river. And suddenly, the museum's signage could be seen in the distance on the north banks.

Here are some shots from inside the museum:

Warhol balloons

Warhol sculpture

I walked back over the bridge into downtown, and caught the 91 bus back to Lawrenceville.

Reconnecting with the old world in Pittsburgh

Lawrenceville loft apartment exterior

I left Asheville early yesterday morning, stopping off at Izzy's cafe for an early morning cup of coffee on my way out of town. I knew it was time to say goodbye to the South for awhile, so I soaked up my last bit of southern culture before heading north.

The mountains of Tennessee were as grandiose as I remember from my travels last summer, and granted me hope that there were still parts of America left untouched by endless strip malls and subdivisions.

As I crossed into Virginia, and then, West Virginia, I got a taste of the desperation of Appalachia. The atmosphere through most of West Virginia was one of a place left behind and forgotten. At traffic light after traffic light on U.S. Route 19 lay fast food restaurants, Wal-Marts, and gas stations, and no unique sense of place to speak of.

And then, after exiting West Virginia and emerging into Pennsylvania, I felt a sudden sense of being home again. Not because I have any real connection to southwestern Pennsylvania specifically, but because I grew up on the outskirts of the Rust Belt and could feel its ominous presence in the architecture and landscapes. Rusted rail bridges cut through the mountains and there was a sense that here, real stuff had happened.

Living in Florida, it's rare to feel that way. Sure, there's history in Florida. The confederacy reigned there. One can go to see the sites of former slave markets. There's a rich indigenous history. I won't deny there's a past there. But I cannot identify with it, because it wasn't in my family's lineage. My great grandparents immigrated here hoping to secure a better life. My grandparents lived in the Rust Belt when they had my mother. My parents grew up immersed in this environment. And I was born into the remnants of the industrial era, having not known its pain or glory, but certainly knowing its environment. Nostalgia is a powerful force and it forges our identity whether we like it or not.

Florida often doesn't feel like a place because, for the most part, it's make-believe. Most of the built environment was designed as a resort, an escape, a retreat from the realities of productive life. One can drive a hundred miles along coastal Florida highways and not actually go anywhere, because there's another strip mall with a Publix and parking lots and subdivisions full of retirees for miles in every direction.

That's not to say I haven't loved my time there. I've met some of the most incredible people in my life in Florida. There's a charm there that's unlike anywhere I've ever been. But it doesn't feel like home. The northeast feels more like home, even if its climate is less forgiving and its are people less friendly.

So far, Pittsburgh feels like a working-class town whose rough edges are being sanded down by the pressures of gentrification. A walk down Butler Street in Lawrenceville feels like walking down Bedford Ave in Williamsburg in 2008. There's a chaotic juxtaposition of old and new—the 1938 Arsenal Bowl bowling alley is on the same street as a pour-your-own-candle shop, for instance.

Today I'm planning on walking the length of the Allegheny River and over the bridge to the Andy Warhol Museum. It feels fantastic to be in a prewar city whose urban density is suited to long meandering walks and whose drivers are accommodating to pedestrians.

Charmed at the Moogseum


I sauntered home from Haywood Rd and made a turkey sandwich inside Vincent's belly. I love having the ability to prepare my own food on the go—it's a delight that I haven't been able to enjoy in so long!

Once I ate my "brunch", I packed up my things and headed eastward toward downtown Asheville. My first stop was the Moogseum, a museum chronicling the life and work of Robert Moog.

As I approached the door, a transient woman was stumbling down the sidewalk screaming at the sky. Cursing in every direction, she violently struck down the A board outside the museum. I shrugged it off and went inside.

The clerk appeared, greeted me, and explained she needed to go take care of the A board that had fallen at the hands of the screaming woman. I waited for her at the counter and she came back, explaining how that sort of thing happens all the time. I reassured her that I was used to dealing with that sort of thing as well. We meandered on and on in a lovely conversation about our travels, Asheville, culture, and the like.

To me, the most profound part of travel is meeting new people and sharing meaningful conversation together. I've noticed that southerners are especially open to conversing with strangers and don't have the guardedness that tends to pervade northwesterners. In just a couple days being in Asheville I've had the pleasure of finding myself in several fantastic conversations.

Once I perused the Moogseum and played a theramin (they unfortunately didn't permit photography inside), I wandered to a nearby coffee shop called Rowan:

Rowan Coffee

The interior of Rowan reminded me instantly of Barista, a small chain of cafes in Portland, Oregon. The crown moulding, retro fixtures, and fine woodworking gave me an instant feeling of nostalgia for my time in the northwest. And, unsurprisingly, they served coffee roasted by Heart Roasters in Portland.

After sitting and doing a bit of writing, I decided to try to find Malaprop's Books, a small bookstore cafe I'd read was worth seeing. I headed to Vincent and entered "malaprop" into his GPS, driving away from my parking spot. But then I realized it was walking distance from where I was, and there was hardly any chance of finding another parking spot.

Downtown Asheville, while breathtakingly beautiful and charming, is incredibly stressful, both on foot and by car. It feels like a place that was once modest, but then became gentrified as people discovered it as a mountain refuge. It has to me the same feeling of retrofitted gentrification as Portland. And with that, it seems, comes bands of roving tourists feverishly driving cars with out-of-state plates... myself included.

I retreated back to West Asheville for the afternoon—a place that feels more local, less contrived, less touristy, calmer, more real.

Rambling in West Asheville

Turtles in a half-shell

Yesterday I breathed a sigh of relief as I returned to civilization and could finally take a proper shower again. I spent some time at my new digs—a basement apartment a few blocks off Haywood Rd—before venturing up the hill to do some flâneuring along Haywood.

West Asheville reminds me a bit of Seattle and a bit of Portland. It's gritty, derelict, and industrial. There's a unique mix of old-world shops and new-world gentrification.

I stumbled upon another kava bar after having spent the afternoon across town at Sovereign Kava. Elevated Kava Lounge is situated on the upper level of an old brick building on Haywood.

Elevated Kava Lounge

This morning I woke up and originally intended to find a cafe called Izzy's that I had read about the day before, but my desperation for caffeine was too mighty for me to find it. So I settled for a quaint coffee shop called Bean Werks just a couple blocks down from Elevated Kava.

Bean Werks

When I travel, I love to notice subtle differences between the place I came from and the place I am. The thing I notice here compared to in St Pete is that people are a bit more earthy. That's not to say I haven't met my fair share of earthy folk in St Pete, but there's a mountain town feeling here that reminds me a bit of the Pacific Northwest.

Today I'm hoping to make my way to the Moogseum—the Moog synthesizer museum downtown. And there's a bookstore I've heard is worth visiting as well.

I'll always be a mountain man

Working out at a viewpoint near

The past few days have illuminated a truth that I think I've known since I moved to Florida, but that I tried very hard to escape: I'll always be a mountain man at heart.

This morning I awoke at Black Mountain Campground an hour's drive northeast of Asheville. The temperature upon waking was a brisk 58 degrees Fahrenheit and there was a gentle mist lining the treetops. The forest floor was moist from a combination of the rain during the night and the morning dew.

I had yet another glorious night's rest—probably the best I've had in months since the brilliant, dry, cool Florida winter gave way to its horrid, sticky summertime cousin. Which is a bitter irony, considering I sleep in a luxurious king-sized pillow-top bed in my apartment, but on a paltry twin-sized home-made couch conversion in Vincent's belly.

As I made my way through the winding mountain pass back toward Asheville this morning—with its hairpin switchbacks and crisp air, I giggled with a feeling of conviction that this is the environment in which I thrive. Perhaps not Asheville or North Carolina; the south has a political undercurrent to which I still cannot acclimate. But the mountains, generally, will always have my heart.

The next couple days I'll be spending in a rented room in West Asheville so that I can finally take the time to soak up the local culture and perhaps meet some of the locals. I'm eager to take a shower, to shave my head, to make a triumphant return to urbanity, at least for a little while.

Waking up at the Cracker Barrel

Woke up like this

Yesterday I barreled (haha, get it?) through the swamps of Florida and Georgia and into the forests of South Carolina. Last year, I stopped somewhere south of the North-South Carolina border for a night's sleep at a cheap motel. This year, however, I persisted and made it all the way to Asheville.

I pressed the button on Vincent's dashboard until the temperature displayed below his speedometer, and watched it drop precipitously, from 91, to 88, to 83, to 79, to 72. I remember that incredible feeling when I'd traverse the mountains out west and could feel the temperature change after only travelling a hundred miles.

Exhausted from the day's travels, I scoured West Asheville for a reasonably stealthy place to park, but couldn't find anywhere that wasn't either directly in front of a residence or on a busy commercial street. So I searched for the nearest Cracker Barrel and made their parking lot my home for the night.

To be honest, my night's sleep outside that Cracker Barrel was among the best I've had in months. The cool mountain air soothed me with its natural fragrance—so much more inviting than the stale, noxious fumes of recycled and conditioned Florida summer air. Whenever I take trips like this I'm reminded that the simplest changes are often the most profound. We spend so much of our lives chasing status and material goods, not realizing that often our contentment lies on the other side of a simple environmental shift.

So far, my trip has cost me only gas money and a few dollars for coffee on the interstate—my food supply has so far been commandeered from leftovers from my apartment. What bliss to know you're making the most of your earnings and stretching out the amount of leisure you can have by eliminating luxurious spending.

Now I'm sitting in Vincent's belly, enjoying a fresh cup of coffee I brewed in the parking lot of an Ingles grocery store. I somehow had five green propane bottles stored up at home that I thought I'd bring along, so I want to run my stove as much as I can so I can discard them to free more precious space.

I had forgotten, in my past year of domesticity, the thrill of not knowing where you'll sleep.