Wednesday, May 24, 2017

To the City of Bridges and Back - Chapter 3: The Sun Finally Shines on The Steel City

I woke up, packed, and then said goodbye to my friends in the parking lot of a Holiday Inn Express on a bright Sunday morning. I was grateful I got to spend time with those good people. The past year and a half, they've come to mean a lot to me. The hangover from the previous day’s soccer festivities was quite strong, and food sounded good, but most places nearby were crowded with people seeking brunch along outdoor patios on the first nice day in a while. My breakfast was a handful of off-brand Jolly Ranchers from the bowl at the front desk. I decided to start checking things off the list.

- One PPG Place.

I had last been to Pittsburgh in 2010, taking a few hours to wander its downtown between the three Reds/Pirates baseball games I attended. Before that, I had been to the city once as a kid, but I don’t recall much. Like with so many other places these past few years, I wanted to take the time to wander around and truly take it in. During my first day in Pittsburgh, I saw a few sites and enjoyed myself; the day after was spent watching soccer. On this day, I was on my own again. With no obligations, I was free to roam about the “Steel City,” the “City of Bridges.” I had to be home that day, but only “eventually.” After my quick breakfast search turned up no results, I pulled into the Carnegie Science Center. The booth out front features a sign that says parking is only for museum visitors. I had no plans to tour the institution, but I needed to stash my car somewhere for most of the day. I was still a tourist who came to see their city. It counts, right?

I found out that the first thing I planned to see is part of the museum anyway. The minuscule amount of guilt I felt for parking and not patronizing washed away. I walked across the lot to a path by the river which led to my first stop, the USS Requin.

- USS Requin on the Ohio River.

There’s a photographer I really admire named Mike Muder*. His unique images of his home city inspired me to pursue photographing Cincinnati in a similar fashion. Occasionally, his shots would feature the World War II-era submarine docked in the Ohio River. Those shots always reminded me of the plan to feature the retired USS Ohio submarine on the shores of Cincinnati; the plan was discussed often but never realized. Our floating museum still hasn't come to fruition, but Pittsburgh has had one since 1990. Why we don’t is a tad bit more complicated, but more on that down the road on QC/D.

The Requin launched on the first day of 1945 into the cold waters of the Atlantic for its initial shakedown cruises. It was being readied to eventually assist in the invasion of mainland Japan, even being outfitted with rocket launchers to shell the shore and backup landing American troops. By the time the Requin joined the Pacific fleet, two atomic bombs had changed the course of history, ended the war, and kept the submarine from seeing the combat she was intended for.

The Requin spent the rest of her US Naval service life sailing the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Mediterranean, even once crossing the Arctic Circle. One of her most prolific missions was aiding in the search for the USS Scorpion, a nuclear sub that went down with all hands on board; the reasons for the loss of the USS Scorpion are still unknown. After lastly serving as a training vessel, Requin was struck from the Naval Registry in 1971 and released from military service. She was displayed as a museum submarine in Tampa, Florida, until 1986 when the nonprofit operating her museum ran out of money and apparently abandoned her at the end of a pier. In 1990, a political maneuver by Senator Heinz brought the Requin to the Carnegie Science Center and Pittsburgh's Northern Shore.

A few museum guests made their way down the gangplank to take the tour while I snapped photos and listened to the water brush up against the hull. The Requin sits quietly in the river, its bow facing the skyline. The boat is a constant reminder of naval ingenuity. It's still majestic; it looks narrow, sleek, and deadly when viewed straight on, and its broad side implies speed. A capsized fishing boat tumbled in the water a few feet ahead, looking as if it had been torpedoed by the historic submarine.

I walked to the other side of the museum’s parking lot. The lot is surrounded by another parking lot that serves nearby Heinz Field, home of several Bengals losses to the Steelers over the years. To be fair, this sea of parking isn’t really the norm in this area. There’s a lot of development nearby that gives the area more character than Heinz Field’s empty non-gameday lots and porta-potties. On the horizon was a cement bridge akin to a highway overpass. Rather than carry lanes of vehicular traffic, though, these concrete pillars support Pittsburgh’s light rail network, also known as the T. The bridge abruptly ends here, waiting to possibly be extended one day. When I last visited in 2010, the system didn’t reach this side of the river; it ended downtown. As Cincinnati politicians squabbled over a much simpler 3 mile light rail streetcar, Pittsburgh tunneled beneath the Ohio River, strengthening an already robust transit system.

This latest section of the T has been operating since 2012. I bought an all-day fare card at an automated booth. A nearby bum declined my offer of a transit pass in lieu of the cash he asked for. No matter what Midwestern city you’re in, someone’s always coming up to you needing just “a few bucks for the bus," but never interested in an actual bus pass.

I hopped on a waiting train on the platform and it launched past the football stadium, toward a tunnel, and then underground.

- A T train departing the Ohio River tunnel while one enters.

The train passed the next subway station, North Side, and then made the turn toward downtown, traveling beneath the Ohio River. I jumped off at the next station, Gateway, mainly to see its impressive architecture. Despite being underground, its surface entrance design allows natural light to pour down.

A young couple nearby publicly displayed their affection while waiting for a train, and one man sat on a bench tuning his guitar. I snapped photos as passengers came and went. Trains passed in front of the art-decorated walls, and automated messages echoed through the station.

Up top, I figured I should probably finally find some food. The nearby Market Square seemed to feature only national chains that could be found anywhere. The local Primanti Bros. chain is there; but during my last visit to the city, I never came to appreciate their french fry topped sandwiches.

- Market Square.

A few local places had their doors locked. Like in many Midwestern cities, they probably cater to the downtown work crowd, so they are open only during lunch hours on weekdays. I settled for McDonald’s—not unique, not local, not interesting, and as mundane and mediocre as every other McDonald's on the planet. Sometimes a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese fulfills your basic needs, though.

I continued my downtown journey, photographing ghost signs, skyscrapers, and the cityscape, and documenting Pittsburgh's transit-only lanes and bike lanes. Pittsburgh has figured out how to make these lanes work, but Cincinnati still treats the concept as a political pariah—as some newfangled leftist sorcery that isn't to be trusted.

- Bike lanes in Pittsburgh complement transit-only lanes as well.

I hopped on a bus to South Shore, which is across one of the many yellow bridges in the city, and I pulled the stop request when I got near the Duquesne Incline's lower station.

- Local Pittsburgh bus.

On my previous trip, and during our soccer march the day before, I had taken only the Monongahela Incline. Both inclines are tourist attractions, but the Monongahela definitely has more of a commuter feel because some passengers are clearly locals going about their day from point A to point B. The Duquesne featured a line similar to an amusement park attraction. I used the bridge to the station to snap photos of the nearby skyline while the parents in line with me wrangled their children.

I jumped into the first available car. After everyone boarded, it began ascending the track. Unlike the other incline, with its staggered seating areas and smaller crowds, everyone is crowded into one large passenger area on the Duquesne. It can be hard to take a decent photograph, but that doesn’t diminish how nice the ride is—a ride more appreciated knowing that Pittsburgh has saved two of its inclines, but Cincinnati has saved none.

At the top, I fumbled around, not sure what to do next. I snapped a few photos from the overlook, and I overheard a version of Pittsburgh's history told by the man next to me as he held hands with his girlfriend. Even as a visitor, I was pretty sure that the original settlers didn’t come to the area in the summer, get surprised by the winter, and then “figure they’d stay here anyways because they didn’t want to move again.” But what the hell do I know?

At the top of the Duquesne, the line was still long, and people slurped ice cream and waited for the return trip down. I opted to walk through the neighborhood and head for the other incline, approximately a mile away. I no longer felt guilty for not exercising or going for a run while on vacation; the rising and falling of hills provided a decent workout between stops to photograph the skyline below.

When I last visited Pittsburgh, its skyline certainly looked unique, but it didn't seem any larger than most other Midwestern cities; however, when viewed from the southern hills, it looks more expansive. Looking into the city’s downtown core, I could see straight through to multiple canyons of architecture. The view felt more indicative of New York than the Midwest, even if you’re being selective with the camera lens.

The neighborhood eastward of my vantage point reminded me of Covington and Newport back home. Comparisons between Cincinnati and Pittsburgh are easy to come by because the cities have a lot in common. I never felt homesick. Pittsburgh often feels like what Cincinnati could be had we “done things right” throughout our history. Maybe “done things differently” is a better way to say that.

At a small park, I stopped to check my notebook and see if there was anything else I had scribbled down—anything else I wanted to see. A man sat across from me, focused on his laptop, atop the same early 90's era benches found in many city parks back home. The sun ducked behind the clouds, making the temperature fluctuate between a spring and winter feel.

During my time in Pittsburgh, I met several people, but I didn't talk to many of them for more than a few minutes. Everyone was friendly enough, but I was hoping to meet someone to share a true conversation with. I'll admit I was in mainly tourist areas, but while traveling, I enjoy meeting people and sharing stories, so it would have been nice to chat with someone for a bit. As I sat there thinking about this, a man approached me. “Hey, how’s it going?” he said with a smile, standing in front of me.

“I’m good; how are you?” I replied.

“I’m doing just great on this beautiful day! Say, can I ask you something?” His smile grew wider.

“Sure,” I answered, nodding.

“Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal lord and savior?”

Internally, I groaned. Externally, I politely smiled and declined the pamphlet in his hand. “I’m good,” I said. “You have a nice day.”

“You too, friend!”

I walked to the other incline, the Monongahela. I tapped my transit card and then hopped on. I snapped some photographs, and I nearly tripped over a commuter in the small cab. She muttered “that’s alright” to my apology, not even looking up, apparently used to distracted tourists not paying attention.

Down below, I skipped past the Hard Rock Cafe and scoped out an abandoned diner I had noticed the day before, one that had apparently been repurposed as offices after the restaurant concept died off in the city's tourist trap area.

I walked to the nearby T station, waited for a train to emerge out of the southern tunnel, and hopped on for my trip back to the northern shore.

As the train entered the tunnels, a man turned to me. “You taking pictures of the train?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“You must not be from here. Go back and tell everyone where you’re from that this is a waste of money and no one rides it,” he replied, pretty unaware of the irony in his statement. The train was fairly packed on a Sunday morning and HE was commuting on it.

We chatted for a bit; most of the time his low voice was drowned out by the sounds of transit. He left one station before me, smiling and waving goodbye. I departed at the next and went back to my car, 0 for 2 on meaningful conversations for the day.

I made my last photo in Pittsburgh at 1:32 p.m., and then I sat in my car’s backseat, a makeshift work station, as I edited a few photographs and looked online, debating if there was anything else I wanted to see.

- End of the line.

In the end, I opted to go ahead and get on the road. The past few days in Pittsburgh had been good. I was glad for the things I saw, but I came away wanting to see more. I’ve been a tourist there, but as I looked for the highway on-ramp, I realized that I still had not been able to get into the details I had desired to explore the past few days. Pittsburgh is a place I need to go back to. A place I still need to truly explore.

Chapter 4: here. Chapter 2: here.

*Apparently the link to Mike's site is broken. Mike, if you're reading this, put your site back up and shoot me an email. Love your work and miss you. 

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