It's not the more famous entrée into the city; that would be the dizzying burst out of the Fort Pitt Tunnel following the lull of the Parkway West, slinking in between unseen office parks and shopping centers, then suddenly finding yourself face-to-face with a sparkling array of skyscrapers, like stumbling upon a modern day El Dorado hidden amongst the hills. With unique panache it greets the unsuspecting visitor arriving from the airport and it winks knowingly at the old hand who doesn't need to waste so much as a glance at the green aluminum welcome mats offering a four-second crash course on the jumble of lane configurations.
In some ways, though, the less-heralded procession through the Liberty Tubes is just as grand. For one thing, there's no overhead truss to contend with, allowing for a more unobstructed view of the skyline. There are also no fewer than five other bridges immediately visible spanning the Monongahela to the left and right, each of a different style and vintage - this is the City of Bridges, after all. We've got more of them than Venice, so it is said.
There's also simply an eminently analgesic effect after the protracted slog up Route 51's torturous rack of traffic lights, skimming the likes of Baldwin, Whitehall, Brentwood, faceless entities that owe practically their entire tax base to white flight, noteworthy only for giving the region its own civil rights disgrace over two decades ago. Long before Fruitvale Station and Ferguson, before "I can't breathe" and Freddie Gray, we had Johnny Gammage. Thirty-one and black, he was pulled over for "driving erratically" (applying his brakes on a portion of road with an appreciable downgrade) and subsequently beaten to death by representatives from all three boroughs' police departments, none of whom ended up receiving any legal repercussions.
After trawling through such oppressive generica, emerging from the tunnel will forever feel like home. While it may seem contrary to the sentiment espoused so far in this space, that's not a bad thing by any means. My aversion to going home is, in fairness, not owed to the flaws of my home.
Over the past century, Pittsburgh has had to endure a transformation from flourishing but filthy ("hell with the lid off"), to broken and rudderless in the wake of fleeing industry, to well-kept secret as a pioneer of how to escape the Rust Belt quagmire, to today's wider renown for gaining a reputation as something of an "It" city, where the best and brightest actually want to be.
I grew up right on the inflection point between those second and third stages. By the time I hit high school, it still wasn't hip to appreciate Pittsburgh. "There's nothing going on here. I can't wait to get out," were common refrains in the cafeteria or study hall or gym class. I saw through this myopia all along. For me, it was a good place long before the outside world started to sit up and take notice, so much so that I had no major qualms about returning home after college, not in any rush to scurry away, satisfied enough to drift through my twenties in familiar surroundings.
Many others have joined me, even a number of those who cast the most aspersions as teenagers. Stage four now perilously teeters on the brink of what comes next, an overload of desirability, sickly sweet, the insidious tentacles of the dangerously whispered "g" word taking root and refusing to let go. The housing market. The tech bubble. The demographic shift. Buzzwords carelessly flung about to measure a city's success in modern terms, but no one is comfortable dealing with the eternal dilemma of where to draw the line when it comes to how much soul is worth it to part with and who gets left behind.
All told, it’s less than a five-hour drive to get here from Washington via the National Road, Cumberland, Pennsylvania Route 160, Berlin, the Glades Pike, and Century III Mall. Yet somehow it feels like it’s taken me years. I choose to believe that’s largely because, regardless of how much truth buttresses Thomas Wolfe’s adage that you can’t go home again, I certainly buy that it’s at least difficult to cogently and poignantly talk about it.
In my experience, virtually no one has a neutral opinion of the places in which they’ve spent the most years, especially earlier in life. People tend to come down strongly on their hometown at one end of the spectrum or the other and it’s only normal for that bias to creep into any attempt to ascribe meaning. My own forays into transcribing ruminations about Pittsburgh onto paper have frequently veered, albeit unintentionally, into the realm of advertisement, and I’ve found myself unable, or perhaps unwilling, to turn off that spigot. I’ve had too much of a personal stake in the subject I was trying to document.
It's far too easy to get caught up in the hype machine, too easy to unearth and sink your hands into the superficial reasons for Pittsburgh's ascendency. I could spend hours waxing eulogistic about all of the factors that make it so - the walkable neighborhoods, the universities that foster the curious breed of person that helps to keep a place interesting, the thousands of acres of urban parkland, the cost of living relative to other hot metros, the burgeoning foodie scene, the natural beauty afforded by the rippled terrain that is almost unrivaled among American cities.
But that's everyone's Pittsburgh. At the risk of falling into a deep well of solipsism, my Pittsburgh, three decades' worth, is not so much in the magazine rankings and puff pieces published for the benefit of nationwide audiences. It's in the age-old question of what it is to be from a place. It's in all that which has been earned and discovered, not merely taught or read about and then swooped upon.
It's in the alleyways, shortcuts, lost worlds . . .
. . . in the tangled paths through forested glens . . .
. . . in the overgrown basketball courts that have claimed and kept the blood from the sacrificial ritual of countless scraped knees and elbows . . .
. . . and in the rusted, sagging bridges that will be reconstructed in a year or two to be slick and anesthetized and the derelict towers that will soon house luxuries the likes of which have never graced their neighborhood before, catering to the people who would never have been caught dead in that neighborhood before.
It's in the innumerable views, even the endlessly photocopied, infinitely Instagrammed ones I'll still never take for granted, such as the crown jewel cathedral of the Chuch of Baseball at its most photogenic hour of the day . . .
. . . the secret views you can't get to without knowing how, through gaps in the branches of a wooded hilltop or perched in a crumbling, mostly forgotten cemetery . . .
. . . and the views that unexpectedly leap out from behind the corner of a tilted, crooked street to steal the air from your lungs.
It's in my thoughtful spots, a sycamore's shade on the tiny hillside college campus in the thick of the city’s frenetic swirl, but at the same time tucked quietly away from it all . . .
. . . on the woefully underused benches in front of the flagship library, flanked by architectural wonders at the city's intellectual core . . .
. . . or posted at the end of the bar in one of the city's many quintessential dives, masked by neon beer logos, watching life pass outside the window in that quirky double-time manner of an early film reel.
It's in things as routine as the cycling of the days and the churning of the seasons, in the cool serenity of Sunday morning's slanted shadows before high noon arrives and erupts into a midsummer broiler . . .
. . . in the nostalgic snare of a crisp autumn afternoon on a leafy lane lined with brick rowhouses, where the entire world has taken on the earthy palette . . .
. . . in the delicate stillness after snowfall on a one-way, one-block streetlet, when it seems like so much as a deep breath might disturb the whole tableau . . .
. . . and in the titanic battle of a frosty spring dawn, the sun's exhalations hovering over the ground in their quest to defeat the previous night's chill.
It's present when vibrancy drains from the urban canyons of Downtown in the wee hours, leaving the glittering towers frozen in dormancy above the deserted streets, like exquisitely carved gargoyles waiting to reanimate again.
It's present in the energy of a watercolor neighborhood scene on an Indian summer evening so idyllic not a citizen is spared from the inspiration to be out and about.
It's present in the electric excitement of an impeding storm, the ominous shelf cloud staring you down, daring you to blink, but the prospect of conceding and finding a place to hole up and watch its fury in safety and comfort is a noble one.
And it's present in the rarely spectacular sunset preceding a crystal clear winter's nightfall, compelling you to wrap it up and stash it in your pocket for gray times, where it will join all of these snapshots of the city that raised me, reminders that it will always be my city, no matter what upheavals the future holds.
I don't think it's a coincidence that it's only now, after having spent the last few months living nearly full-time in our nation's capital, that words about Pittsburgh are suddenly spewing forth from my keyboard unencumbered. The buffer of time and distance that is gradually accumulating hardens as it does so into another dimension of perspective. My hope is that this new layer will one day be able to look eye-to-eye with the ground level view that is all I'd previously known and shake hands - not necessarily as an equal, for thirty years is a mighty head start - but at the minimum as a respected peer.
In the mean time, I'll be navigating that alien realm where home isn't exactly home anymore and new home isn't quite home yet, either. It's a different sort of adventure than I'm used to, the adventure of the mundane, cracking open a new habitat like a book fresh off the shelf, the everyday intricacies and nuances of each street, each block waiting to waft off the pages, all the more frissive for being shared with someone you love.
There is one constant, though.
I know there will still be days when I'll wake up early to a tantalizingly azure sky, coaxing me outside to get behind the wheel of my car and set off, whether for destinations heretofore unknown or for those I keep coming back to, time and time again.
I know that at the end of those days it will still be hard to go home.