Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is the place I grew up. My memories of Pittsburgh get softer and warmer as the years go by. I remember my neighborhood as tree-lined, intensely green in summer, dappled in red, green and gold in autumn, pristine white snow covering the landscape in winter, and a riot of pastels in spring with the scent of lilacs everywhere. The houses were old, for the most part. Many were covered in stone, many in brick, often partially or fully engulfed in ivy. The churches dated back to the 19th century and many were gothic in design. Although I was Jewish, once I attended midnight mass on Christmas eve with some friends just so that I could experience one of those beautiful churches from the inside, getting the full effect of the incense wafting through the air, the shafts of colored light emanating from the stained glass windows, and the old English carols being played on a massive pipe organ.
I remember the schools I attended – Linden Elementary School, Taylor-Allderdice High School. Nowadays when I remember them, it is with fondness, as much for the traditional architecture and the smell of chalk as for the superior education these schools afforded me.
I now remember the people of my childhood as kind, civilized, friendly, welcoming and inclusive. Strangers would nod and greet you in the street. Grown-ups would stop whatever they were doing to help a child who was lost. There were block parties in our neighborhood.
Isn’t that the way it was?
Well, somewhere in the back vault of my memory bank I have tucked away the other memories.
Pittsburgh was gray most of the year. Showers were not confined to April. Au contraire, it could rain at any time of year and was much more the norm than clear and sunny days. The dull dark cloud that hung over Pittsburgh, not because of the weather, but because of industry, compounded the dreary effect of the rain. We were a steel town back then – I beg your pardon, not “a” steel town – “The” steel town. Driving past downtown you could see the stacks lining the river spewing orange and black smoke. The rivers themselves were brown and opaque.
All of the venerable old buildings in Pittsburgh when I was growing up were black. Regardless of what color they had originally been intended to be, they were black. Of course, there were various shades of black – you could have grayish-black, brownish-black, or midnight black. Streets were constantly littered with trash, especially brown Iron City beer bottles.
The schools were hopelessly old-fashioned and run by spinster women who were not averse to a good swift paddling for any perceived infraction of the rules. The hallways were hollow, cavernous and forbidding with their high ceilings and cold marbled floors. The “good education” I received was largely a matter of rote learning. Independent thinking was hardly acknowledged, let alone encouraged. And people like me, who were a little bit “different”, were ridiculed and socially marginalized. Not only in school, either.
The city was rather “Balkanized”. Geographic barriers insulated neighborhoods from one another. There were mountains in Pittsburgh separating the Poles from the Jews, the Italians from the Irish, the Blacks from the Whites. Cultural divides and racial tension were the norm.
Isn’t that the way it was?
Looking back at your childhood is kind of like looking at a Rorschach test. You can look at it one minute and it represents all the best that life has to offer. The next minute the same picture can look like a living hell. I suppose the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
Of course, I ran as far as I could get from Pittsburgh at the tender age of 17. (But that’s typical of 17 year-olds, regardless of where they grow up. Art did the same thing, and he grew up in rural Connecticut).
One thing I can say for sure about the Pittsburgh of my childhood – The trees were green. A beautiful, deep shade of green.
© 2004, Robin Munson