Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Not Dante's Pittsburgh

LA Times weighs in on the Pittsburgh story: With G-20, Pittsburgh gets its 15 minutes. Sounds a bit incredulous of the memo being given to all the visiting journalists when the arrive which is ok. These folks are being force fed the Pittsburgh story via the proverbial fire hose and I’d honestly take a lot of it with a grain of salt if I were in their place having parachuted into town.

But it reminds me of something I've been thinking of. This article and a lot of the other Pittsburgh transformation stories that are being written harken back to the apocryphal quote that Pittsburgh was once Hell with the lid off. By almost universal belief it describes an image of a dystopian Pittsburgh past. In the LAT article the quote is used explicitly to say Pittsburgh is   "No longer called "hell with the lid off," as an early critic put it". 

Critic?  ........... Old Navy saying:  Never assume....  This being a family friendly blog I won't complete the  phrase.

What I learned once via Sam M. (where is Sam by the way?) who learned from an unnamed reader of his…. The quote was not meant as an insult! It was actually describing how amazing the view was on Mount Washington Cliff Street in what we now call the Hill District(see comments for source of correction) looking down on the urban scene that even back then was urban Pittsburgh. Imagine what they would think of the view today?

Since it is said so well I will now quote a quote whose authorship I do not know, but the actual context for “Hell with the lid off” which was penned by one James Parton in a 1866 travelogue on Pittsburg(h) is not what it may appear.  Again via one of Sam's past readers on Antirust:

In the oft-cited passage, he was talking about the view from what was then Coal Hill, and is now known as Mt. Washington:

"There is one evening scene in Pittsburg which no visitor should miss. Owing to the abruptness of the hill behind the town, there is a street along the edge of the bluff, from which you can look directly down upon the part of the city which lies low, near the level of the rivers. On the evening of this dark day, we were conducted to the edge of the abyss, and looked over the iron railing upon the most striking spectacle we ever beheld ... It is an unprofitable business, view-hunting; but if any one would enjoy a spectacle as striking as Niagara, he may do so by simply walking up a long hill to Cliff Street in Pittsburg, and looking over into -- hell with the lid taken off."

He's describing the view, molten wreaths of fire, as far as the eye can see; not the livability of the city, the cuisine, the people, or anything else. "Here," he wrote, "all is curious and wonderful; site, environs, history, geology, business, aspect, atmosphere, customs, everything ... To know Pittsburg thoroughly is a liberal education in the kind of culture demanded by modern times." It was practically a love letter to the city, yet that damned "hell with the lid taken off" line is all that survives.

So most of the positive press of late is a bit Back to the future-ish?   Ironically not really including this recent piece, but we'll give the author a few more days in town to see if we can win him over a bit more.

and if anyone wants to take public credit for the expostion above just let me know... honor code rules.

6 Comments:

Blogger joe said...

This entire quote below (with other quotes within it) is from Martin Aurand's first chapter of The Spectactor and the Topographical City:

Pittsburgh's topographical and pictorial space is organized into what William Rees Morrish calls "terrestrial rooms." Morrish contends that our concept of the room, and of human occupation generally, is derived from spaces that are enclosed by surrounding landforms. For "within the . . . uncultivated landscape, the landforms contain resources, rooms to contain the heterogeneity of urban growth."

Within the local Appalachian Plateau, "all the hills and stream divides rise to about the same elevation, the sky line as viewed from a hilltop appearing like that of a flat plain." Thus the hills are not really hills; it's the valleys and the hollows that are real, voids in the solid of the overarching plateau. Pittsburgh, notes Horsbrugh, is "a city of spatial volumes, mostly enclosed." When James Parton, writing in the Atlantic Monthly in 1868, famously called industrialized Pittsburgh "Hell with the lid taken off," his prose was shaped not only by the prevailing fire and smoke of the city's ironworks, but also by his specific viewpoint, looking "over into" a valley that he perceived as an abyss. Elsewhere in his essay, Parton writes of the "deep chasm in which Pittsburgh lies," as "at the bottom of an excavation."

Wednesday, September 23, 2009 12:25:00 AM  
Anonymous MH said...

Whoever decided to dump "Coal Hill" in favor of "Mt. Washington" is certainly better at marketing than anybody who has worked for the city since I've been here.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009 9:21:00 AM  
Blogger Sarah said...

A very nice article indeed..you should take come time & read some really interesting articles featured by our experts on the bizymoms Pittsburg community experts page.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009 11:25:00 AM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

cute robocomment. Somebody's algorithm forgot the 'h'. I'm tempted to delete that since the site itself does not even appear legitimate and also forgets the 'h'. I wouldn't open it.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009 11:35:00 AM  
Blogger aothman said...

That's a Pittsburg, California robo-spammer. I guess Pittsburgh doesn't have enough busy moms to merit a bot?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009 2:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Glad to see that other people are aware of the context of that famous quote. Thought I should point out that he was not viewing Pittsburgh from Mt. Washington (Coal Hill), but rather, he was looking down at the Strip from Cliff Street on THE Hill. This was the mid-19th century, when Andrew Carnegie, et al, were just getting started, and the Strip was where all of the really intense industry was concentrated early on. To the average out-of-towner, it would have been on a much grander scale than anything they'd have been used to in the 1860's.

Thursday, September 24, 2009 4:58:00 AM  

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