March 30, 2020
We left early Friday for Pittsburgh, the idea being to drop our daughter Laura off and get out of town again quickly. She had accepted a job offer and found an apartment there. Since this isn’t a good time for a weekend out of town, we drove the 250 miles up in the morning and the same 250 back that afternoon.
The route for us is Interstates 95/495 to 270 to 70 to the PA Turnpike at Breezewood, then a 120-mile straight shot into Pittsburgh’s Shadyside neighborhood. We’ve done it before, she lived there for a while about 10 years ago. The turnpike almost always is choked with traffic. Not this trip. Now it’s lit up every few miles with flashing signs warning drivers to “Keep Your Distance” and “Stay Home.” People are paying attention.
Typically it’s a kind of hypnotic ride, out of the congested D.C. suburbs that run nearly up to Frederick, Md. Beyond that you’re in rural Maryland through Hagerstown and Hancock. A mile past the “Welcome to Pennsylvania” sign I signaled to pull into the state welcome center, then jerked the van back on the road. The entry ramp was blocked, the welcome center closed. No advisory sign. It looked abandoned, dark and deserted, the employees likely sitting at home, furloughed.
Westbound on the PA Turnpike prompts that old joke: “Pennsylvania: Philadelphia in the east, Pittsburgh in the west, Alabama in the middle.” Not really. You pick up the turnpike at the gas-and-junk-food stop at Breezewood. Then you head into rugged country oddly split between farms, pastures, and small well-worn industrial towns laid out in grids of streets of closely packed old two-story homes, often a tall church steeple points skyward. These are places where the local people mostly grew up and stayed, and work with their hands and backs at small plants and machine shops.
Years ago, when three of our kids lived in Pennsylvania, we trekked regularly to Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and to Lewisburg, in the state’s heartland an hour north of Harrisburg. Driving into the midstate you enter a different cosmos, almost a different country, where—I’m reaching here—the locals have no use for the hothouse politics south of the border in Maryland and D.C. They’re engaged in real work—mining coal, building and fixing things, running railroads, and tough, rocky farming. Pennsylvania is one of those places where schools close for the first day of deer season. In fall 2016, when I drove up to Titusville, “Trump” banners hung from barns and fences in the small towns from Bedford to Altoona to Erie. I didn’t see them this trip.
The turnpike is nearly empty of cars, creating the bizarre look of miles of an interstate turned into a country road. The truck drivers no doubt appreciate it, while they work brutal overtime hours to provide resupply lifelines to crippled communities. The overwhelming impression is of the pandemic winning, driving people off the streets, away from their businesses. Past Somerset the turnpike winds through the steep, thickly forested Allegheny Mountains, the trees still brown and bare against the gray sky. It’s late March, but western Pennsylvania still is untouched by spring.
We left the turnpike and cruised easily into the city on normally congested I-376. We found Shadyside, on the east side, and picked up a carryout lunch, since these days in America “carryout” is all that’s available. Although we were near two universities, the streets and sidewalks were almost empty, here and there we spotted a lone jogger. After unloading Laura’s gear at her place, we all got hugs and said goodbye and good luck. Then Sandy and I headed downtown. I had to see it again.
Pittsburgh, at the junction of the massive Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela Rivers, is a pulsating, dynamic city, announcing a vibrant, loud, richly diverse urban life. The Steelers, the Pirates, and the Penguins all share the same team colors, unique among cities that host multiple major sports teams. Forty or so years ago the town started breaking from dependence on the dirty, lung-killing economy of steelmaking and began transforming itself into a health-care research center anchored by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and advanced technology at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University. Mills were torn down or rebuilt as offices, shops, and townhomes. Older homes and rowhouses surrounding the city have been refurbished but remain affordable. The city’s skyline and majestic bridges offer graceful, eye-catching attractions for photographers and tourists.
Parking was no problem. A few pedestrians wandered about, probably doing what I was doing, exploring the heart of a city coping with the daily alarms about covid-19. I was able to stroll down the middle of the Roberto Clemente bridge, which crosses the Allegheny to link downtown and north Pittsburgh. Just to the east you’re looking at the Andy Warhol Bridge, which recognizes the city’s eccentric son, who grew up in Pittsburgh and honed his offbeat talent at Carnegie Mellon. Both spans frame the iconic downtown skyline that showcases headquarters of U.S. Steel, PPG Industries, PNC Financial, and H.J. Heinz.
It was a quick there-and-back-trip. We were proud of our daughter’s achievement. Yet we felt the acute sadness of the moment: we drove past the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill, site of the horrific mass shooting in October 2018 and still displaying the poignant mementos left to honor the 11 victims. Pittsburgh, like the whole country, is wounded, struggling with the continuing tragedy of sickness, its businesses mostly shuttered, its people mostly staying home.
Yet while downtown we took heart at seeing the barge traffic on the Ohio and Monongahela, still steaming, hauling the products of western Pennsylvania’s factories and farms to the mills and markets of West Virginia, Kentucky, and beyond to southern gateways. Life has been forced to take a break for good health’s sake. But neither the city nor the state have quit working. Pittsburgh is looking for the win against this thing, and the next chapter of its rough-hewn, march-forward American story.