Looking down at Pittsburgh

The title of this post is deliberately misleading simply because whenever I go to a city I look down to see what the city offers — whether it be garbage bins, sidewalk etchings, or fire hydrants.

As any long-time Spacing reader will know, I have a bit of an obsession with streetscapes and the elements that are peppered along roads and sidewalks. Whenever I visit another city I tend to spend a day wandering around, looking down and photographing the details. That was no different when I visited Pittsburgh this past weekend.

When I told friends and colleagues I was off to Pittsburgh for four days the most often response was, “Pittsburgh?”

Yes, Pittsburgh. While I’ve been to Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo, Pittsburgh has always been off my radar. The city has always had a reputation as being down-in-the-dumps since it lost hundreds of thousands of jobs from the 1960s into the 1980s when steel mills and factories closed shop. While the population of the city has dwindled from 675,000 in 1950 to 311,000 in 2009, the city has reinvented itself as a bio-medical and education hub (luckily, the city has six universities all within walking distance of each other).

And I found that Pittsburgh shares a few similarities with Toronto, most notably the tile mosaics found at the steps of many stores. In Toronto, you can find similar works of craftsmanship along Queen, King, College, and Bloor streets (Spacing writer Dave LeBlanc wrote about the Toronto designs in our Fall 2007 issue). The designs I highlight from Pittsburgh can be found in the Southside Flats neighbourhood (which reminded very much of Bloor St. W. in the Annex).

. Below are some of the better mosaics I found on my Southside travels (also note that the stores with names embedded in their entrance — such as the “Goldenson’s” photo above — are no longer that store).

I hope to write a few more posts about the city in the coming weeks — including the incline trolley cars, street furniture, and bike racks — as I sort through my photos.


  1. Pittsburgh gets a bum rap, but the main avenues downtown are just as grand in spots as any northeastern city. Another similarity shared with Toronto–the Allegheny County Courthouse is our proto Old City Hall.

  2. Pittsburgh is a cool city but nobody knows it.

  3. I would never have visited Pittsburgh if a friend from Toronto hadn’t married an American woman and moved there 10 years ago.  I too was surprised how relatively vital it was – compared to my mental image of what I thought it was like.  Over several years, I also noted that it was becoming more interesting in the older parts as urban pioneers moved back in from the burbs. Two  years ago I was amazed to be in the downtown core at midnight with a significant number of people out for a walk.

    Pittsburgh has its troubles – including poverty and violence at a scale we wouldn’t tolerate in Toronto.  I attended a community meeting in the area where my friend lived and was surprised that no one from City Hall, the Councillor’s office or Police – attended – and this meeting was about shots being made in a local playground.

    But, it seems to be slowly emerging from the sleep that the exodus of the steel mills  set upon the city.  My favourite photo, displayed at the top of the funicular is a shot taken at noon in the downtown.  The shot appears to have been taken late at night – as there is no sun and the shop lights and street lights are fully on.  The reason for the daytime night was because of the air pollution cause by the steel mills – and I am quite sure that the prosperity brought upon the City by the mills overshadowed the effects of the pollution (remember that all of the Carnegie Libraries in Toronto were financed via Pittsburgh)

  4. Given all the surrounding pocket boroughs with populations in terminal decline for decades, the surviving-entrance-mosaic quotient (and at a much less advanced stage of gentrification, yet) must be astronomical…

  5. I’ve heard that Pittsburgh as some pretty cool things going on and that in a lot of ways it’s decline has been halted. Which can’t be said about Detroit or Cleveland which are still bleeding jobs and citizens.

    I’d love to visit the city some day.

  6. haha, well, we did defeat the tax on students! I can tell you that the universities are a big component of the city’s financial and cultural revitalization, and, obviously, they were quite opposed to it.
    So glad to read this! I’ve always loved Toronto, and I’m thrilled that our northern neighbors are starting to notice that we’ve moved beyond rust belt doom-and-gloom into a glistening, vibrant center of education and culture.

Comments are closed.