Pedestrian Pittsburgh: “This place is crazy right now”

We planned our Super Bowl Sunday around the celebration. We wanted to watch the game in a part of town that would erupt if the Steelers won. So we went to the South Side, where, as Allison noted, the concentration of bars guarantees a concentration of people. We arrived just after three o’clock, and used the extra time before kick off to take a walk, see the sights, grab a bite to eat, explore and record.

The South Side is a geographic quadrant broken into neighborhoods, but when people talk about “the South Side,” they usually mean the South Side Flats, a slug-shaped district that follows a bend in the Monongahela River. The South Side Flats might be the hardest Pittsburgh neighborhood to pin down. It’s really four neighborhoods, each overlapping the others, each staking claim to the area. First: the working class enclave, a remnant of the South Side’s manufacturing days, where simple homes and hidden haunts cluster around neighborhood institutions past and present: churches, a school, a library, all in sturdy old brick. Second: the cultural tour of upscale eateries, quirky shops, galleries, playhouses, bookstores and clubs. Third, the SouthSide Works, a shopping center and mini-neighborhood where national chains occupy the site of a former steel mill. Fourth, the epic bar crawl, symbolized by hot wings and flung Mardi Gras beads and nightly drink specials, that is becoming increasingly notorious for the “best night ever” stories and police reports that rise from the ashes of any given Friday night. On Super Bowl Sunday, those distinctions disappeared (or got swallowed whole by neighborhood four, depending on your point of view).

We crossed the Hot Metal Bridge over the Monongahela and zigzagged through the women-named backstreets looking for a place to park. We passed children in Steelers jerseys, waving Terrible Towels at every passing car, and adults dressed the same way, doing the same thing, until we found a spot deep inside the flats, beyond the rusty railroad overpass, at the Y-shaped intersection of Mary and Mary Jane Streets.

Anticipation is a hum that drowns out other sounds. Walking down Jane and Sarah, we heard car horns hold sustained blasts and crowds cheer in response. We saw exuberant window displays: childish hypocycloids in crayon, a Polish Terrible Towel — Straszny Recznik, a tiny altar of flags, bobble heads and foam fingers. “This place is crazy right now” one woman said into her cell phone as fans crowded a television reporter who held one gloved finger to his ear, waiting for his signal. A city, any city, naturally contains so much black and yellow — caution tape, taxi cabs, school buses, traffic signs, painted bridges, every two-lane road, even the Western Union logo. On a day when everyone outside is dressed to match, the city and its citizens suddenly align.

Unity breeds confidence. Turning down 22nd Street, we finally saw the river of black, yellow and white flowing down East Carson. We walked the length of business district, among the fans. Every so often, some little performance rose above the baseline hum — a toy car full of Steelers-bedecked children, a trumpeter playing “Black and Yellow,” buddies unfurling gaudy banners from their second floor window. Each time, the crowd erupted. It’s comforting to know exactly how to win a crowd — to be certain that if you yell “Woo!” at a stranger, she’ll yell “Woo!” in return. (It must be why the Rolling Stones keep playing live shows.) It’s the greatest desire most people have in life: the guaranteed support of strangers. Getting it makes people ridiculous. One guy held a homemade aluminum foil Lombardo trophy. Another dyed his beard yellow. A couple dressed their dog in a Polamalu jersey. A woman blew a black and yellow vuvuzela.

It’s amazing how cities segment, though. A few hundred feet can separate slums from hip streets, parades from quiet blocks. In the moment, it was easy to overlook the beats of everyday life in the neighborhood: the row houses crammed tighter than doll teeth, the chirp of several dozen birds echoing from one of the many strange low alleys punched between houses, a woman reading outside, friends tossing a football, the general kookiness of a plastic alien butler holding a Coke and a Heineken, or the ghosts of a previous century: a glass factory, a bath house, a brick road. Those oddities existed before game day and after game day, but on game day they hid beneath the hum.

That hum is the sound of one future rattling back to the present. That day, the source of the vibration was obvious: the possibility of a Super Bowl win. Even among the fans, though, a secondary culture emerged. Michael Chabon once wrote that if fiction only consisted of nurse romances, we’d still have William Faulkner. It’s the same with Steelers fans: everyone joins the crowd their own way. One guy wears a shirt and tie, another wears a poncho and sunglasses, two women wear miniskirts. All black and gold.

By 10th Street, the noise died down. We crossed over to the residential blocks north of Carson, where the city appears on a bluff across the river. Allison noted how small Pittsburgh’s skyscrapers look when framed alone, compared to the grand image they present when seen together from the Fort Pitt Bridge, or Mt. Washington, or the West End Overlook. This might be the only city where geography refracts the skyline so dramatically. It adds to the obsession you see in the photographs of W. Eugene Smith, the idea that if you could only find the right place to stand in Pittsburgh, the whole city might suddenly make sense.

For more photographs from the day, check out our Tumblr blog.

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One Response to Pedestrian Pittsburgh: “This place is crazy right now”

  1. Corey W. says:

    One of the strangest days I’ve experienced in the city as a Pittsburgher.

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