Words by Evans Harms
It’s been apparent that I’m a lot of talk and no walk for purposes of Rust Belt solidarity. For fun, and for the purpose of fulfilling the “walk,” my girlfriend, Maggie, and I took a day trip to the Steel City over spring break, taking in some good eats, shops, arts and sights.
We leave from Cleveland around 9, fully charged on a couple cups of tea and some eggs. The drive is more or less a straight shot after hopping on the turnpike, though we stop at one of the many identical rest stops that adorn that particular highway, an essential component of any true trip through Ohio. After gathering some maps and anti-trafficking pamphlets, we shoot back on the road on this particularly foggy and gray morning.
It is still rainy as we cross the border into Pennsylvania, something that contrasts with our diligently gathered forecast, but the mood lightens as we drive past signs indicating absurd towns like Big Beaver and Cranberry Township.
The pastoral valley landscape opens up to the conjuncted highways and bridges that knot Pittsburgh together. Many of the bridges are layered and uniquely colored (obviously yellow), and one was given the impression that this was a city that just kind of happened, rather than being planned out by clairvoyant urban planners.
This fact is only highlighted by our struggle to find parking downtown and the subsequent questionable passageways that lead to Point State Park, our first stop on the trip.
Point State Park is the peninsula where the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers converge, home to the first settlements of European invaders, and later Fort Pitt and Fort Duquesne were built on the point. Thanks to a very informed historian in the the Fort Pitt Blockhouse, we learn that this park became an industrial slum as Pittsburgh’s notorious industrialization began in the latter part of the 19th century.
It is still cold, gray and drizzling, but we walk around the promenade nonetheless, weaving our way up a tiny sidewalk up the side of one of the yellow iron bridges stuffed with crazy, bleating weekend traffic. I do have to remark that this is one of the most unusual state parks I’ve been to, and I enjoy the way it inorganically blends right into the heart of downtown.
Pittsburgh traffic is hell. No, I don’t want to talk about it. Roads and bridges converge at the most obscure angles, it’s truly fantastically bad.
We arrive at our lunch destination in the Polish Hill neighborhood in the western part of the city. The joint is called Lili Cafe, offering a number of vegan and vegetarian meals and drinks. It’s filled with lovely people and decor, including a big old box of cassettes that the workers play as a combination of youthful punks and neighborhood elders stop in for their coffee or punk toast or whatever.
Maggie gets an apple, cheese and spinach sandwich on a cinnamon-raisin bagel, which she claims to be delicious. I get two fried eggs and toast on this amazing buttered-up sourdough bread, with a couple tomatoes. It is heavenly, and really, really cheap. I also have a vicious fetish for breakfast food, so that may play into it. We both get this phenomenal blood orange black iced tea, which may be the best thing I’ve ever drank. I absolutely demand that every person visiting Pittsburgh stop in to Lili for a bite or a drink and read a book about Pittsburgh’s history from it’s little library.
Afterward, we ascend up a lovely little set of powder-blue spiral stairs to visit Cruel Noise Records on the second floor of the corner building. It’s selection of punk, hardcore, metal, indie, jazz and all things weird was mindblowing. I consider myself a huge fan of physical media, and Cruel Noise fulfilled my longing.
I ended up picking up Big Black’s cover of “Das Model” originally by Kraftwerk, a tape by femme powerviolence outfit Curmudgeon, a live Danzig tape and a weird little cassette called “Wrestling Songs” that featured some old-school WWF banter and theme songs.
Cruel Noise also has a beautiful, quiet little pup that walks around and gently sniffs customers, so even if you’re not into weirdo music, go for the dog.
We originally had some other record stores and shops planned to stop at, but we decided to nix those because we had spent more time (read: enjoyed) at the couple of places we went in the morning.
So, we traversed to the North Shore for the amazing contemporary art museum, Mattress Factory. The wait was legitimately out the door, which, according to the clamorings of patrons, was highly unusual.
We eventually got in though, and it was pretty cool, although the $15 ($20 if you don’t have a student I.D.) price was a bit steep for about an hour and a half maximum of art. Still, the pieces were fascinating, from large sculpture and multimedia pieces on the fourth floor, reflective rooms and weirdo houses on the third, amazing installations that played with the viewer’s perceptions of light and dark on the second, and phenomenal installation of video that made the viewer feel as if they were speeding along the NYC subway in the basement.
Outside, there was a torn up foundation of an old rowhouse that one could climb in, which was pretty neat. We had time to kill before we could go into the secondary part of the museum down the street, so we wound up walking around the neighborhood.
Ahead of time, we had planned on stopping at Randyland, so this was an opportune chance to go there, as it was only one residential block away from Mattress Factory.
Randyland is a massive outdoor collection of folk art and murals, emphasizing the creator’s wild taste in energetic colors, odd decor, mirrors, and world languages. Randy himself was out and about in his paint-splattered clothes taking pictures and selfies with visitors, and there was even a cat (!!!) that looked exactly like Maggie’s.
Randyland was a phenomenal exclamation of Pittsburgh’s artistic boldness despite the gloomy weather, and it really provided a nice balance to the tautness of Mattress factory.
In the neighborhood, Old Allegheny City, there were a couple other painted houses and public artworks, so we continued to walk around, eventually finding a hidden bodega / deli type place. The owner, a clever-looking bespectacled man, probably in his 50s, commented on our selections, a small quart of Turner’s chocolate milk.
“Here in the North Shore, we take our chocolate milk very seriously,” he said. After we informed him that we were from Cleveland, he went on to expound his knowledge of Pittsburgh’s chocolate milk traditions.
“The really good kind- oh we’re out of it,” he continued.
After paying, we meandered down Sampsonia Way, chugging the truly amazing chocolate milk and crunching on this horribly delicious wafer cookies. There were a series of houses covered with murals, with quotes and stories on them. They were cool, but I didn’t really understand the significance of them until a woman came out and gave us a pamphlet.
The three or four homes were residences of writers in exile, banned from their countries for political or social reasons, and were given places to conduct their craft in an artsy, historic neighborhood in one of the Rust Belt’s most promising cities.
At this point in time, we went to the Mattress Factory’s other building for an exclusive exhibit they do in an crusty old rowhouse a few houses down from main building. Without spoiling it, it was a little underwhelming, but still cool to be intimate with art in a semi-solitary experience in a space largely cut-off from outside goings-on.
We walked back to my car, and set a course for Spak Brothers Pizza.
Spak had been confirmed as a must-have by three different friends, independently, when I was planning the trip. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, but people had indicated it was a cool, punky little spot for good pizza. I think mentally I envisioned a place like Cleveland’s Melt, a restaurant that uses a lot of punk imagery but is very popular among many types of people.
I think I was happily surprised when we pulled up to the building, a tiny, rather dinky building on a street that appeared to be partially under revitalization (perhaps gentrification). But we went in, ordered a large cheese pizza, grabbed some birch beer and root beer, and waited for our pizza.
We went on a little walk down the street – directly parallel to Spak is Roboto, one of Pittsburgh’s DIY venues – mostly shops dominated the scene, though some were boarded up. It was definitely a hard neighborhood to get a read on, maybe similar to Gordon Square 5 or 10 years ago.
We got back to Spak and played some pinball while waiting (they also had tabletop Pac-Man) and eventually chowed down on 8 red-hot slices. The pizza was amazing, probably in part due to its actual quality and in part due to the fact that we were in need of substantial food after traversing the city on foot. It was amazing though, and we ate on some torn up barstools in the front end of the shop.
Our final destination was Grandview Park, a pretty common tourist spot. It offers sweeping views of downtown and downriver. It felt really cathartic to look at the city in this way after traipsing about its alleys and hills for hours. It was too cloudy for a picturesque sunset or anything, and it was cold as hell up on the clifftop, but it was still a special moment and brought a bit of clarity.
Though it was cold, we had a hankering for ice cream. After a series of decisions based on least stress, we wound up getting slurpees in a 7-11 in a newer suburb absolutely bursting with developments. I found this kind of unusual, I’m really not used to see Cleveland growing in this kind of way. But, Pittsburgh has seen more growth than its fellow city-states, so I suppose it makes sense.
We finally got on the road a little later, and the two-and-a-half hour drive home seemed a kind of a blur. I chuckled internally, driving past the same signs as we went in past. We chased the sunset and it grew dark, heading west and thinking about chocolate milk.