26 August 2010

First week in Pittsburgh – some impressions

I wouldn’t say that I’m very much acclimated at all yet to the city – I’m sure I shall be eventually, but I’m still in my honeymoon stage of culture shock yet with the cliff of the distress-disorientation phase looming on the horizon. I exaggerate here somewhat – the culture here actually is refreshingly similar to my farther-Midwestern roots; but unlike the Midwest or Rhode Island, there’s terrain in Pittsburgh. Terrain which does not accommodate itself easily to city planning, that is. There are hills and valleys which require overpasses and sharp climbs (the busways and train tracks all require bridges of some sort – in this sense it reminds me almost of Beijing, except the necessity of such bridges is natural rather than synthetic, and the oppressive all-pervading road traffic is missing here), the roads seem to change names, disappear, bend in excess of 180 degrees while crossing themselves, &c. to appease the landscape. My own neighbourhood is in a rhombus-shaped ‘grid’ of roads, the vertex at which my daily bus ride arrives being home to a six-way intersection (only four of which have usable pedestrian crossings). That said, much of the city is still very accessible thanks to the extensive public transport system. So getting around is tricky but inexpensive; the same cannot be said of buying groceries (the local Giant Eagle is very nearby, but prices are a bit higher than I imagined they would be).

The air here is supposedly some of the most polluted in the country, but the only evidence of this that I have experienced in any depth is in the black patina of coal-soot that coats a certain number of the city’s edifices. (My gold-standards for air pollution are still Beijing and the major cities of Shaanxi Province in China.) That said, I have been exposed to some aspects of the city’s culture: I have gone to a game in PNC Park to watch the Bucs go up against the Marlins (the park was beautiful; the game was… less than inspiring), and I have gone to numerous restaurants and pubs in the area and tried the Yuengling (the local lager, which is quite good) and the German-inspired fares at the Hofbräuhaus (where I met some of my fellow GSPIAns – they seem like a good group, all told). As far as local history goes, the (not-so-)little Anglophile in me fell head-over-heels in love with Pittsburgh when he learned that it was among the only cities to resist the Americanisation of place-names at the turn of the century by the US Board on Geographic Names, restoring the name from ‘Pittsburg’ to the more correct (Scots-)English ‘Pittsburgh’ in 1911. I still have yet to visit old Fort Pitt, the redoubt from the Seven Years’ War, but that’s certainly on my list of things-to-do here.

As readers of my blog and other Episcopal blogs may be aware, the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh was pretty much Ground Zero for the late unpleasantness regarding the controversy over inclusion of homosexuals in Church life, and the schism which followed. The Church I am currently attending – Calvary Episcopal Church on Shady and Walnut – came down fairly firmly on the side of the established Episcopal Church, though in spite of such a catholic leaning the liturgy was a bit Lower than I would have hoped. All the same, I enjoyed the sermon immensely (on the countercultural aspects of keeping the discipline of the Sabbath as a day of rest); more to the point, though, I was welcomed with open arms and promptly invited to join choir practices by three separate parishioners. I think I’m going to greatly enjoy worshipping and singing there.

Started doing some readings for classes, and I’ve cracked open a few of my ridiculously-expensive textbooks, but mostly I’ve been doing fun-reading while I still have the opportunity: Athens and Jerusalem, a collection of essays by and about the Canadian political philosopher and theologian George Grant. I certainly appreciate many of his views on the shortcomings of modernity, technology and capitalism, particularly in their relation to education and the national character of Canada. It’s also interesting to see different authors paint very different views of the man: some see him as a socialist or a social democrat making common cause with the CCF / early NDP over the welfare state, economic egalitarianism and opposition to militarism, while others see him as an arch-conservative attempting to reclaim the nomenclature of ‘conservatism’ for the interrupted tradition of political philosophy which includes Jonathan Swift, Dr Samuel Johnson and the High Romantics, and away from the progeny of John Locke, Adam Smith and Edmund Burke. The interesting thing is that they both appear to be true.

… So, that’s what I’ve been up to the past few days. Orientation tomorrow; classes start Monday.


  1. Hi - Glad you like it, prerna!

  2. My father grew up in Pittsburgh in the 30s and 40s and recalls days when from Mount Washington you couldn't see downtown, so heavy was the smog. Things have definitely improved.

  3. Hi Mackensen! Yeah, that would certainly have been worse - I'm not sure even Beijing would have been that bad...