Editor’s note: ever since I met Dr. Jonathan Cassie when we worked together in my prior life, I have been impressed with the way he perceives the world. As such, I have been – literally – begging him on at least a quarterly basis to write for us at The Royal Tour. He finally gave in, and this is what I sincerely hope will be the start of a regular column of his. Until then, enjoy his take on one of Pittsburgh’s awesome neighborhoods!
From 2012-2016, I lived in Pittsburgh, one of the most beautiful cities in the entire United States. It has sometimes been called the “Paris of the Appalachians,” and this moniker is well-fitted to the city. For a hundred reasons, it is an unsung American city – not perfect, but punching well above its weight. One of the things that makes Pittsburgh unlike other American cities is its deep commitment to its neighborhoods. When I moved to Pittsburgh, I learned quickly that Pittsburgh’s character as a city of neighborhoods runs very, very deep. It’s one of the many things that makes this such a great city – worthy of its status as one of the finest places to live in the country. How many neighborhoods does this city actually have? Depends on who you ask – surely eighty, perhaps ninety. In my time there, I visited many of these neighborhoods. My thinking was that the better I understood these neighborhoods and their character, the better I would understand the city I was new to, and which was so beloved by its residents.
I started that work in the neighborhood I lived in my entire time in the city, a neighborhood that has had at least four different names in the city’s history.
The official name of the neighborhood is “The Bluff,” but no one I ever spoke to called it that. In the early nineteenth century, it was called “Boyd’s Hill.” In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, it went by the name “Soho” after an estate that was built there by an English immigrant to Pittsburgh. To those of us who lived there, though, it was and remains “Uptown.” When I told long term Pittsburghers where I lived, they thought it was Downtown or the Hill District or, more sadly, they didn’t think it was anything at all. The neighborhood is roughly bordered by Fifth Avenue to the north, the Birmingham Bridge to the east, the Monongahela River bluffs that gives the neighborhood its official name to the south, and Crosstown Boulevard to the west. Duquesne University and PPG Paints Arena are both economic centers in the neighborhood. The Fifth Avenue High School lofts, where I lived, is a conversion of the famous Fifth Avenue High School (where the National Honor Society was founded) to upscale rental residences.
In essence, the neighborhood is a forgotten place between the central business district, the Hill District, and the universities in Oakland. Visitors to the neighborhood will note its well-preserved late nineteenth-century architecture and the amazing public art, murals, and sculptures that capture the neighborhood’s legacy as a bohemian artists colony. With its decades of morphing identities, I am confident that the neighborhood is on its way to another chapter, confidently putting aside the brutal devastation brought on by urban renewal in the 1950s. I hope you visit for a while when you come to the city.
Eight Things to See or Do In Uptown
Duquesne University is a major feature of the Uptown landscape and is worth a walkthrough as it’s an agreeable campus and highly walkable.
PPG Paints Arena can also be found in the Uptown neighborhood. Primarily the home of the much-beloved Pittsburgh Penguins, it is also used for basketball and concerts. It is one of the most agreeable places to see a hockey game in the NHL.
Of particular note is an extraordinary mural that I’ve called “The Spirit of Soho,” that can be found at the intersection of Forbes Avenue and Jumonville Street. Its iconoclastic style and liveliness captures the historical character of the neighborhood and speaks to its future.
Connecting Forbes Street and Boulevard of the Allies is Gist Street. The heart of the reviving artistic community of Uptown is a place to see delightful vernacular murals, sculptures, and other pieces of public art that echo a bit of the style and idiom of some of Pittsburgh-native Andy Warhol’s work.
The Reymer Brothers Candy Factory, which can be found at 1425 Forbes Avenue, is on the National Register of Historic Places because of its architectural legacy. It is one of many buildings in what is called “Richardsonian Romanesque,” a nineteenth century style that can be found throughout Pittsburgh.
Next door to it is another example of Pittsburgh architecture worth seeing. The Kaufmann Department Store Warehouse can be found at 1401 Forbes Avenue.
Fifth Avenue High School, located at 1800 Fifth Avenue, is also on the National Register of Historic Places and is likewise representative of the nineteenth century Romanesque technique that gives Pittsburgh a lot of its architectural character.
No visit to Pittsburgh is complete without a visit to at least one of the more than one hundred city-owned steps dotted all over the place. The stairs connecting 2nd Avenue to Bluff Street are a particularly good example, as they climb steeply over 170 steps to give a real sense of the city’s verticality.
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