David Conrad: The Blue-Eyed Wonder of Pittsburgh

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Dispatch: Anytown, Anywhere, can breed talent and imagination
The John Updike factor 

By David Conrad 


I hid under John Updike's dining room table one afternoon.

The house he grew up in Shillington, Pa., is occupied now by a small design firm, or it was 10 years ago. It's not a museum, there's no plaque on the wall, there isn't a sign that leads you there, but the people who work in the mostly unaltered home are used to the occasional enthusiast. They let me in with a smile and went about their suburban business. As the printers churned and the computers pinged, I wandered through the tiny house.

About the size of a two-and-a-half-story unit in Bloomfield. A little narrower as farm town places can be. Low ceilings. A staircase that doubled down into the kitchen in the rear. The cherry tree he used to stare at from his bedroom still growing outside the parlor window. The cheap stained glass that for him had made molten dreams on the far wall below, remained.

From this place was born one of the great imaginations of American literature. Harnessed to a powerful work ethic, that imagination brought forth an enormous body of work, which has been widely celebrated since Mr. Updike's death last week at the age of 76.

But that house in Eastern Pennsylvania: It was the most unimpressive shack I'd ever been in. It was cramped, awkward, ungainly. It was poor. If you asked someone, make me a literary giant's house, this would not be the result.

And then I thought to myself: God, do we still buy into that garbage? That the muse only visits those born with a vista, that art needs to come out of a garden. As if comfort helps makes beauty or truth.

I thought of the stoops August Wilson sat on as child, the diner and the barber shop he started putting down his dreams in. I thought of Thomas Bell scribbling out his epic of the Mon Valley in rooms we'd hesitate to enter. I thought of Lewis Hine and Gene Smith swimming through squalor and dirt to tell us these people too have a story to tell, to hear.

And here was John Updike, the high prince of American Letters, the stylish voice of middle-class America, born out of about the most undistinguished corner of Anywhere, USA one could call forth.

If I could take every student I've ever taught and place them in his home, put them on Wilson's stoop, walk them through Bell's Braddock, if I could do that and say again and again: "Where you come from doesn't matter. It doesn't have to be a pretty picture. It's what you do with what you see that is everything."

It's the grist of your self that makes a good novel, not the subject. You can write garbage about the Kennedy assassination and poetry about a skating rink. You can take a bad picture of Yosemite and you can make a masterpiece out of a bell pepper, or a steelworker covered in dirt.

I think that's Pittsburgh's curse. We're always looking to make someone else's idea of a masterpiece when the sometimes ugly truth of what we are is where the gold lies.

I crouched down when no one was looking and fit myself under John Updike's childhood table.

I'd read that this was the place he first remembered thinking, I want to talk about this, I want to put this down, this feeling of being small, of being young, of the shape of my parents' home and the light dancing on the far wall.

I sat down there trying to feel it, what was it like to see what a great writer had seen, to be like him, wondering where his dreams had gone, and when I closed my eyes, where I ended up was Pittsburgh.

Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/09034/946478-294.stm#ixzz0TCdgMQLi



It's not stealing

Good thing no Associated Press photographers were present when I and a couple New Yorkers, one of whom wore a uniform, broke into a shopping market four blocks away from the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 and dragged out 20 cases of water. We had entered and left with goods, the definition of looting.

All of us should be damn careful next time we use the L-word about some poor washed-out guy from New Orleans. If I had been down there, I would've taken a hell of a lot more than water -- and smiled when they took the picture.

Why did I only take water from the store in Manhattan? It's what the firemen asked for, that and cloth napkins to clean their eyes. When we offered food, they said they weren't hungry.

Strip District

Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/05251/567470-110.stm#ixzz0THe7qNQv


Sunday, November 28, 2004

Pittsburgh: It's all here
Undeterred by fiscal funk, artists and activists are blazing new paths, says David Conrad, under the radar

I hosted an evening of performance art recently, funded by a variety of good agencies on the front line of the battle to keep Pittsburgh's art scene healthy. Native son made good (or maybe only so-so this season), I was supposed to grease the wheels of the show. But they fell off. I mean, I knocked them off.


  David Conrad, an actor in Los Angeles, grew up in Edgewood and lives in the Strip District. 

The show was great: Three very talented, very challenging artists got up there and arted all they had. But me, I had a story to tell and I failed to tell it. I am here today to make amends.

You know how when you drive around here, you go a certain way? In New York, there are 65 ways to get from Avenue B to Lincoln Center, but in Pittsburgh there are usually only two ways to get from Swissvale to Bloomfield, or Whitehall to Oakland, and really to most people there's only one. We've made trails here, paths, like the deer that populated the place before we took it; hat's the way we understand the landscape.

An amazing thing has been happening around here recently: While the city is sliding into an economic quagmire, all sorts of people have been running around the place cutting new paths through the region. Artists, activists, organizers -- they've shown folks that there are new ways and reasons to get from one part of the city to another that they normally never would have gone.

The cultural stations of Pittsburgh's cross have been long clear. You go to Oakland. You go through the Strip, then hesitate near some Downtown galleries, so you can then be alternative on the North Side and finally end up on East Carson where it's too late to see anything so you shop a little and then get a meal.

But now in this supposedly downtrodden and depressed place, there are newly beaten paths to Etna and Millvale, Wilkinsburg and Homestead (the real one, not the mall), Lawrenceville and even, yes, Wilmerding.

There's more going on artistically than I've seen in years and people are running all over the place from borough to borough to take it all in.

What's happened is regionalism has turned inward. Instead of exploring outer space, we've begun to look at all the locales we always drove by on the way to the Carnegie and we've realized that they, too, are places where "culture happens." Instead of going out into the forests for fuel, we're tearing down our old fences and lighting the place from within.

This could serve as a lesson or a metaphor for the committee-research mania about which city Pittsburgh should try to be like. Are we Seattle-esque? Are we Austinish? Are we Louisvilian?

Enough. Just be the 'Burgh (a term only a snob could call derogative). Because the real question is: How do we revive our own heritage? How do we take the magic that still rises out of the ground here and feed it through a different furnace?

We're a wounded civilization. We lost our myth. We once made steel, the superstructure of the modern world. Now we don't. But before that even, we lost our self-respect for the agencies that enabled the myth to live.

People will often cite stories about the great Pittsburghers of the past. Billy Strayhorn, Gene Kelly, Andy Warhol and on and on: How did they all come out of this little town? The condescension is laughable. Sure, it's impressive to study the list of Pittsburgh's finest expatriates, but ultimately they are anomalies. The names I wonder about are the ones scattered across the graveyards and the fire houses, the schools and VFWs around the county. Names and stories nobody ever wrote much about. People who lived and died in this city as it reached its industrial zenith, who received few accolades, left few records and probably wished they'd run off like the odd Warhola kid down the street.

But they were the blood and the bones of the place. . They're the names in the obits column that tick by. There must be somewhere in the karmic order some accumulation of these peoples' spirit. We must somehow still learn from them.

I wonder if the slag heaps couldn't tell us something? The flamed-out cinders of the steel business, now the well-drained foundations of many a housing plan or mall. I've always imagined the stuff had some greater significance. It looks like type when you pick it up. My fantasy is that if you could sort through all the piles, read which letter was which and arrange them as they were once set down, you'd get the unprinted, unfiled stories of all the people who toiled here and passed on.

The record of those who through the valleys and hollows made this place a legend of work, a byword for industry and craftsmanship. You'd hear language and accents recently forgotten. Learn histories untaught in schools. See pathways light up across the region that folks have lost the faith to use.

And isn't that what these artist types are doing? Aren't they following old trails, committing to "dead" or "troubled" neighborhoods, scratching at the varnish in some old house to see if there isn't some trace of the people, their people, who went before, kind of like the grooves cut onto the wax of an album.

It is out there. I see these many young and not-so young artists trying to invoke the Pittsburgh that lives within them -- rather than trying to act like the Seattle without.

Lighting small fires around the city to remind us the roads are still open.



I watched "The Deer Hunter" recently, the Michael Cimino film made in the late 1970s with Robert DeNiro, Meryl Streep and a host of other giants. It's set in the Mon Valley, Clairton mostly, with some South Side highlights (and an unforgivable interior that turned out to be a bar in Cleveland, but we'll forgive them that one).

The wedding scene in the film is what everyone remembers: a huge, operatic sequence of these Ukrainian kids tying the knot just before the men are about to ship out for Vietnam. By the end of it, everybody's drunk, dancing, laughing or crying. And then for some reason, the guy DeNiro plays decides to take off running through the streets of his hometown. His buddies trail him in their beat-up Caddy and watch as he starts inexplicably tearing off all of his clothes. What do you do with your drunk, naked best man sitting in the middle of the neighborhood basketball court at 3 in the morning? If he's also your best friend and you are Christopher Walken, you join him.

I say all this for one reason. These men, on the edge of the rest of their lives, with a ticket out through the war and through their own hopes for the future, sit on this dinky court and one of them says to the other, "It's all here, you know ... It's all here."

A nod.




Whenever anyone asks me, "Why Pittsburgh?" or "What's there?" or "Aren't you glad you got out?", I shake my head. I tell them: "It's all here."

I've never found a better way to put it. I think -- no, I'm sure -- there are right now within a few miles of you as you read this, a hundred artists of all shapes and sizes working out a better way.

Find them. They may even remind you why you stayed.

Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/04333/417959-109.stm#ixzz0THfdu6Rj



Other Side of the Strip

contributed by: David Conrad


There are clubs in the strip. Big ones. People dance there and make a lot of noise. The streets are clogged come weekend nights. Some years ago I went to the biggest one of all. I was drunk, it was late, and I felt as if this temporal evening with it's now forgotten music, it's passing fashions, and it's raving children in the center of a damaged city was the center of the universe.

I felt for a few moments as I hung from the banister like a ship's angel over the dance floor that this was a way to touch eternity--\that people had always done this and always would, that they would gather in groups around the beat of a fire and roar at the world, "I was here, I lived, I am right now, forever real." And then it passed. The lights came up as they always do.

I wandered out in the cold, dodged some cars, listened to the failing voices, got a donut from the guy who sold them out of the back of his car and had to my brothers when they were in high school, and walked back to my apartment. On the way I stopped at a light, a busy intersection off Liberty to wait for the 2am rush (home) hour to pass. There's a plaque there. In 1877, employees of the Pennsylvania Railroad went on strike, the government called in troops to stop them stopping trains. 177 people died, or that's the number they settled on. Right there, they died. I touched the raised letters on the monument. The next morning I mentioned this to the guy who runs a cheese shop on Penn. "Yeah, bigger than Homestead. Crazy, huh? Where were you last night?" I said the name of the club, closed now 6 years, a block from his store. "Never been."



Hole of Thunder, South Side

contributed by: David Conrad


When you drive down Carson towards the Mon Valley, away from the city, when you pass the last and latest mall complex turn left for the Hot Metal bridge. Park just before you hit the bridge, there's an access road to the Pitt Sports complex on the right that you're not supposed to use but can.


Get out, walk about twenty yards away from the river, just on the other side of the lot, and you'll be standing in a tattered field of grass that seems to be hiding the foundations of some cauldron of industry rusted down to its roots. There's a hole there. A two story drop in the earth, girded up by old railroad ties and iron. Stand there some night for while and you'll hear them. The sound comes out of the earth. The ground shakes. And then the train goes by underneath you. Feet away. An entire train past this little window into the past and when it's gone you realize you're standing inside a steelmill. What was. The trains still come and go, delivering regardless, running in an underground trestle the length of the Southside, which is why sometimes at night, when you're out late enjoying the bustle and flow of Pittsburgh's hippest neighborhood, you can hear one right on top of you and still have no idea where it is or for that matter, where you are.



Slipping into Oakland

contributed by: David Conrad


We used to just walk into the buildings at Pitt, CMU, Carlow, and Point Park. Into the Carnegie, Frick Arts, Soldiers and Sailors, the PAA. We'd use the gym, read in their libraries, lounge in the student centers, wander through their offices, and labs, and galleries. This was high school. Now this might seem like a problem. What if we were thieves, what if we were vandals, what if we were out to hurt someone? But we weren't. Most people aren't. So who do you design your world for? The vandals or the masses? Pittsburgh, I feel, chose the latter. Might not have been a conscious decision, probably no committee sat down and said, "Keep the doors open!" but they were and to some extent still are. Granted you need an ID and a key to get in to a dorm, but everything else is accessible. Be polite, act like you belong, know the dress codes, study the floorplan, and you're in. If the American University town is socialism's last stand and if the idea of the University as a public service remains, Oakland's the standard bearer. Oakland is the place to go if you don't have a cent. There isn't a gallery, museum, play, library, rehearsal or gym that with a little ingenuity you can't walk into for nothing down. Probably the reason why, when the Pirates won the National League East in '91, and the Pitt kids flew out of their dorms and closed down the streets with pure joy. I felt like, at 25, I was one of them.



Real places and people of the North Side

contributed by: David Conrad


The North Side has nothing to do with football and baseball. Yes, there are two stadiums within walking distance, and the Rooneys have lived there since they left Colter Hollow, but the North Side you wanna see is on the other side of the tracks. I left Allegheny Observatory late in the afternoon. The clouds and the sky had been that awesome contrast of cotton and cobalt. I came down into the City across Spring Hill and then Troy Hill, switching back through neighborhoods people in Seattle would kill for and most Pittsburghers have never seen. A mile from PPG place and I could have been in Budapest, could have been in Butler County, could have been home. I could have gotten out of my car, sat down on a stoop, starting paying rent, and I'd have been as content as I was growing up in the East End. And that's the thing, wherever you go in Pittsburgh, you know it's somebody's home. You feel it in your bones. Cities have markets, cities have teams, cites have bridges they say are theirs and that define them, as if a city were a backdrop to the performance of our lives, and cities have harbors and beaches and roads. But Pittsburgh has it's homes, above all, and it's people. It's a place built by, for, and of families. They are its greatest industry, not Steel, not Football, not Glass, and when you move through the place you can feel them everywhere.



Niagara Falls, Pittsburgh-style

contributed by: David Conrad


Mount Washington. Pittsburgh's most famous spot that no-one really knows anything about. Our Niagara Falls. Go and look, but know who lives there? Thought so. The best thing about Mt Washington is Mt Oliver behind it. A place where working-class people can live and send their kids to a decent school district. It?s one of the best kept scholastic secrets in the city. Day I graduated from high school, we drove up McArdle Roadway at night, turned right, away from the "viewing platforms," and parked up where the hilltop crests, past the Trimont building. Jumped a fence, walked down the stairs, ducked another security measure, and climbed out onto the flashing Pittsburgh/Bayer sign that hangs off the cliff. Sat there for an hour staring out at a city made mad by the pulsing generators behind us. Could barely hear each other speak over their roar. Kept thinking it is like Niagara, and this sound's the pulse of an entire city right at the vein. Checked later to see if I got a tan. No luck.



Happy Hour Haze

contributed by: David Conrad


Lawrenceville doesn't get a lot of sun. It's on the north slope of the Pittsburgh peninsula, and until 3 or 4 PM, it doesn't get a full dose from our local star. But then, what light does fall is stunning. It's magic hour, as the movie people call it, that quarter of the day when everything's lit at an angle, and even accountants are moved to poetry. The sun sets pretty much over the Point and Lawrencevile's main streets run like fireways right at it. For a couple hours at least, the streets of Havenmeyer's old fiefdom are paved with gold. Maybe that's why the bars there keep their doors open. 5 PM...you're done with work, you go to Sufaks, sit in a cave lit from without by this molten glow---why not stand by the door for a couple minutes, pretend you're looking for someone, catching a smoke 'cause someone's kid's at the bar, make a phone call. Watch. It's Pittsburgh's best happy hour.



Why Bloomfield is so right

contributed by: David Conrad


Bloomfield is the proof that there's a Third Way--not bourgeoise development, not fallen industry town--it's the sustainable neighborhood dream. Find a large stock of affordable, in fact, cheap housing a flat mile from any city core and compare the costs. Living in Bloomfield versus living in .....fill in the blank.


I walk through Bloomfield and it's like walking in a dream--these stores, these restaurants, this bakery, that tiny magazine shop there is NO WAY they haven't been bought out. But it's for real. It's so for real a lot of the Creative Class isn't attracted to it: it's not the gentrified simulcrum of a town, with a remade street façade, quaint yet rebuilt homes, family owned but insanely overpriced eateries...no, this is the real thing. These are working and middle-class people who, through a combination of efforts, have held onto development in their square mile of city. If you want to actually live in Pittsburgh, actually be a Pittsburgher, move to Bloomfield.


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