Tuesday, May 23, 2017

To the City of Bridges and Back - Chapter 2: Rain, Art, and Soccer in Pittsburgh




Look, I like sports. In fact, sports are what brought me back to Pittsburgh for the first time in seven years. And I get it: Pittsburgh's MLB and NFL teams are rivals of the Reds and Bengals. I understand the rivalry. I really do. I watched the Reds fall to the Pirates during that 2013 “play-in” game, and I watched the Bengals give up their chance at a modern playoff win in January 2016 to the Steelers. You don’t have to be a fan of those rival teams. I’m certainly not. But just because Cincinnati sports teams haven’t been able to get results in the last few years against their geographic foes doesn't mean you can say (as so many already have) that Pittsburgh’s a "shit hole" or that you can question why I would want to go there. Pittsburgh’s a wonderful city. The Bengals' poor coaching, lack of player discipline, utter failures, or the fact that you got into it with a Pittsburgh fan over a bucket of Miller Lites at your local dime-a-dozen suburban sports bar aren’t reasons to hate a geographic location or place. I remembered this city fondly from my last trip here in 2010, and there was still plenty I wanted to see seven years later—so much so that I had taken extra time off my day job to spend the day wandering before all of my friends arrived.


- Suburban Pittsburgh beneath a rainy sky.

I woke up at the Red Roof Inn to find that the rain had followed me from Ohio and West Virginia the day before; it was consistently pouring. I grabbed breakfast at a Sheetz. Despite being a gas station, Sheetz has incredible food and service that the corporate folks guiding Speedway and United Dairy Farmers could never comprehend. Although “mac-n-Cheetos” with “Dr. Pepper dipping sauce” isn't a traditional breakfast, it got the job done.

- "Mac-N-Cheetos" with "Dr. Pepper Dipping Sauce" at a Sheetz.

I paged through my notebook, looking over the list of things I wanted to see while in town. Given the torrential rain (and dismal forecast), I was probably going to skip most of them and hope for better weather later in the weekend. I decided to visit the Mattress Factory, a place I had recently read about. In a city filled with renowned art museums such as the Andy Warhol, Frick, and Carnegie, the Mattress Factory seems to get overlooked. Displaying contemporary art, it’s located in the Mexican War Streets neighborhood on the city’s north side.

- Garden and courtyard outside of the Mattress Factory.

The museum was born out of a closed Stearns and Foster mattress factory (hey, we had one of those too). It originally served as a small art gallery for rotating exhibits, co-op space, and artist residence. In 1982, it became a permanent museum and registered nonprofit. The building has been renovated to include an outer stairwell that provides some great views of the downtown skyline and surrounding neighborhood. You start at the top and work your way down, and there's an auxiliary space located in a renovated house about a block away.

- Pittsburgh's skyline and its Mexican War Streets neighborhood as seen from the Mattress Factory stairwell.

- Rooftops in the Mexican War Streets neighborhood as seen from the Mattress Factory's stairwell. 

As I walked through, my wet shoes squeaked on the building’s original wooden floors, interrupting the sounds of multimedia installations. Inside, there were some incredibly interesting pieces. The top floor started out with “The Great Illusion” by Mohammed Musallam, a piece that takes up an entire room with barbed wire, passports, and brush. 


The piece takes its inspiration from the last page of Palestinian passports, which read “this passport is of great value.” The installation is a reflection of the artist’s personal experience as a Palestinian, someone who is “being prevented from free mobility, despite what a passport is supposed to provide." It does this "by connecting scattered passport pages, free from any travel stamps, on a barbed wire.” Regardless of your political leaning or opinion on the situation in Palestine, the piece is stirring, and its details are worthy of attention.


Another highlight was James Turrel’s installations on the third floor. These pieces have you walk down dark hallways to rooms with light sources positioned in a way that challenges your sense of space. In one room, the form and piece become visible only after you sit in the dark long enough for your eyes to adjust—a surreal experience.

- Walking through one of the Mattress Factory's installations by Stephen Bram.

Once you make it to the basement, you’ll come across what I found to be my favorite piece: “Stations” by Ezra Masch. Through video screens lined up on dark walls in an industrial basement, cleverly edited footage collected via cell phones gives you a sense that you’re standing in a train as it passes multiple subway stations.

- An extension of the Mattress Factory, built into a row house down the block.

The Mattress Factory also features another gallery, built into a house down the block. There you’ll find an incredibly impressive piece of art that is built into the entire building and described by the museum as this:
"'A Second Home' transforms the Mattress Factory row house at 516 Sampsonia Way into a mysterious wonderland that cleaves, intermingles, and collages a house's physical and metaphysical counterparts. Saturated with construction materials, furnishings, toys, architectural models, video projections, and audio elements, the resulting immersive environment—encompassing all three floors of the building—fosters the emergence of a radically interior world: one that dreams of memories that it has never had, conjures the places that it has always wanted to be, and draws its own magic out of the grains of the woodwork.”
But those words don’t fully do the installation justice. At times, the accompanying music and sound effects are calming; other times, they are jarring as you try to impossibly examine every little bit of intricate detail while watching your step through the maze of recycled materials and old toys. The stairwells to each level give you a brief pause from the visual stimulus, but each floor seems to get a bit darker, the intensity increasing as you climb higher. If you ever had one of those “I Spy” books as a kid, this almost feels like stepping into a real-life version. It’s an incredible experience.

- Inside "A Second Home" by Dennis Maher.

While I’m not sure if this is intended by its creator, the toys all around the exhibit bring up childhood memories of the vast amount of things you can accumulate—toys that seem so important, so coveted at the time, but that were ultimately forgotten and sent away. If Toy Story evokes guilt over not valuing what you have, this installation may elicit a stronger sense of that guilt. It’s something worth experiencing. Your mileage/response may vary. For me, it hit home.

- On the campus of the University of Pittsburgh.

I hopped back in the car after leaving the museum, the rain still coming down nonstop. I followed GPS directions to the city’s university area, its clogged streets and the University of Pittsburgh reminiscent of Clifton and the University of Cincinnati. I parked in a university garage, hopped an elevator up, and found myself in a hallway of classrooms. Students rushed by, giving me flashbacks of college; I felt thankful that I no longer have to worry about assignments and grades, having moved on to other problems. At that moment, my only responsibilities were to wander this Midwestern city and eventually meet some friends at a hotel. While all those around me had agendas, I was free to do whatever I wanted.

- Conflict Kitchen.

I was in search of the Conflict Kitchen, an eatery that “only serves food from countries with which the United States is in conflict.” The eatery is somewhat of a public art piece, challenging those visiting not only to try new foods but also to think about the United States’ current relations with specific nations. The menu rotates varying themes over the months, each one tied to a different nationality. When I visited, the menu was highlighting the Iroquois nation, who lost most of their territory following the American Revolutionary War when their allies, Great Britain, ceded it to the victorious colonists. Since then, there have been several political conflicts between the Iroquois and the governments of the US and Canada, some of which have lasted to this day.

The “conflict kitchen” concept has been replicated in cities all across the nation, and its subject matter isn’t without controversy. I love Cincinnati dearly, but I can’t even imagine the 700 WLW opinions and mouth-breathing Enquirer editorials we’d see if something like this opened up here. My decision to eat at Conflict Kitchen was not based on choosing a side of an issue or declaring a point, but rather out of curiosity. Had I not decided to eat there, I would’ve never spent two hours reading about the history of the Iroquois, I wouldn't have learned something new.

Öshowe to go.

The food from the walk-up window was pretty good. Öshowe is "Iroquois white corn mush topped with root vegetable hash." I ate the warm food and watched the rain come down in a parklet next to a closed carousel, with the campus’s “Cathedral of Learning” looming in the distance. I then found my way back to the car and headed to the next thing.

- Closed carousel in the parklet.

After navigating Pittsburgh’s hillsides, the kind of steep roads that make you wonder how the hell anyone gets a car up there in the winter, more art was on the menu. I didn’t intend for the day to be about political awareness and art, but that’s what it was becoming. I first saw “Randyland” on a website about attractions on the American roadside, and it seemed worth a visit. It’s the home of Randy Gilson, a local artist. His website features a caricature of him that’s also for sale on the front of t-shirts, which makes him instantly recognizable. When I walked up, he had just finished giving some folks a tour as the rain grew stronger. Soaking wet, he looked at me and said, “Welcome. Feel free to look around and have fun!”


Randy’s courtyard and the sides of the buildings he owns are covered in random materials, most of them brightly colored. Even on the grayest days with rain pouring down, the place still feels positive. While traveling throughout Pittsburgh that day, I hadn’t really conversed with anyone aside from a few transactional conversations. That’s not an indictment of the people of Pittsburgh or an attack on their hospitality; I just hadn't been in any situation to really chat with someone. The weather seemed to reflect the mood of myself and everyone I passed on the street.


Even while at Randyland, I never really spoke directly with Randy. Instead, I just chose to listen in as he spoke with another group of people who came by. He told them about the history of his work, the neighborhood he lived in, and how people are inherently good.

- Artist Randy Gilson speaks to a group touring his home/studio known as Randyland.

At times, it seemed cheesy, but it was genuine. You could tell Randy really loved the world he created and was grateful that people came by to see it. I snapped a quick photo of him and tried to sneak out. He stopped mid-sentence, turned to me, smiled and said, “Thanks for coming by.”

That made my day.

- Looking towards the Pittsburgh skyline.

With the rain yet to cease, I retreated to the hotel and met up with some friends. We ate bar food from a local eatery that touted its collection of local brew. Yet very few local beers were in stock, the service was poor, and the only other people in the restaurant, some older-aged Penguins fans, were not fans of our jukebox choices. They gave us the finger as we walked out after the conflicting anthems of an ironic playing of “Our God is an Awesome God” and DMX’s “Where the Hood At?”

We joined up with some fellow Cincinnati soccer supporters at a downtown rooftop bar, got warned to quiet down and not start any pro-Cincinnati chants again, then we wandered the streets back to our hotel.

The next day was focused solely on football: watching a German matchup in the morning, some EPL matches, and then finally the one we came to see in person. We shuffled out of the bar we had spent the better part of a day at and led a large group through the Mt. Washington neighborhood to the Monogahela Incline. While our city had removed all of its inclines long ago, we were happy to commandeer Pittsburgh’s, singing “Cincinnati, here we go (no one likes us and that’s ok)” the whole way down.


We swapped beers and stories with friendly Pittsburgh supporters in their team’s parking lot and then marched into the stadium, filling the away supporters section. FC Cincinnati emerged victorious over the worst-named team in all of sports, The Pittsburgh Riverhounds. What’s a Riverhound? No idea, and we never found out; we were too busy lighting off smoke bombs and celebrating our club’s road win.


I'll never understand how in a city that so highly values its pro sports teams in other leagues, the soccer team uses the most blatantly bad and overtly minor league branding I've ever seen. Seems like a huge missed opportunity. Nevertheless, great organization and good people who we enjoyed visiting.

- Leaving our mark in Mt. Washington.

Eventually, we found our way to other bars via the hotel shuttle and did some wandering, celebrating into the night, taking shots and passing out in hotel beds with “Good Burger” playing on the television and plenty of Pittsburgh left to see.

Chapter 3 is here and Chapter 1 is here.

- Highmark Stadium.

1 comment:

  1. I fell in love with Pittsburgh since its the closest place to Ohio that my favorite musician, Jill Sobule, plays to Ohio. Been there 3 times for that. After living in Columbus so long, Pittsburgh with its hills and rivers reminds me of my hometown Cincy. The people I've met there were all cool and the venue, Club Cafe on the south side is about as ideal a place one could wish to see a show at.

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