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Pittsburgh: A New Portrait

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By Franklin Toker
University of Pittsburgh Press, 512 pp., $34.95

Neighborly: Franklin Toker takes a street-level approach to local architectural history.
  • Neighborly: Franklin Toker takes a street-level approach to local architectural history.

I'm not sure whether G-20 dignitaries get goody-bags, like they hand out at other conventions. But if they do, one thing I'd slip inside -- along with a copy of Anti-Flag's 2006 album For Blood and Empire -- is Franklin Toker's Pittsburgh: A New Portrait

Toker, a University of Pittsburgh architectural historian, is a smooth-tongued diplomat himself. Due out Sept. 20, just days before the summit, his book takes pains to assert that "globalization has brought ... much to Pittsburgh that is positive." But more importantly, he comes across as a garrulous, cheery guide -- one of those Pittsburghers who, when asked for directions, might climb into the visitors' car and narrate an impromptu tour. 

As the title suggests, this is an update of a 1986 work, Pittsburgh: An Urban Portrait.  In both books, Toker seeks to provide a human dimension to architecture, showing how buildings shape, and are shaped by, their surroundings. No surprise, then, that he asserts from the outset that "Pittsburgh's strength lies in its neighborhoods," and focuses on the North Side and South Side as much as on Downtown and Oakland. (The West End is largely ignored, but what else is new?)

The result is something between popular history and scholarly text: You may have to go elsewhere to be sure how many stories high the Frick Building is, but Toker will tell you all about the almost-Freudian story of its creation. 

The city has changed a lot since 1986. As Toker writes, "This new portrait reflects the contemporary Pittsburgh: larger, more colorful, less serious." The emphasis is on "more colorful": Unlike the black-and-white original, the new edition is copiously illustrated.

Toker is breezily optimistic about most of the changes he's seen: "The city has been in transition for the past thirty or forty years," he writes, but "the transition is over: the Pittsburgh of the future is already here." 

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He is rapturous, meanwhile, about Garfield's Fairmount Apartments on Penn Avenue, calling them "the most imaginative apartment construction of early 21st-century Pittsburgh." He's thrilled to see a vibrant brunch scene emerging along Lawrenceville's Butler Avenue. And he credits the new Nine Mile Run development for "generally good judgment" in terms of design. (Though he concedes that in many of the city's recent housing developments, "there is something a bit bizarre in the forced old-fashionedness of all the lawns and porches.") 

Toker does tip some sacred cows. Downtown's much-ballyhooed convention center is nice enough, he allows, but because its original design was scaled back, "the city basically blew its chance to build something truly great." And while Toker lauds East Liberty's renewal, he cautions that residents "have reason to fear that developers will chip away at their community until it becomes just an appendage to Shadyside."

As befits a neighborhood advocate, Toker takes a street-level approach to research. In addition to conventional techniques like studying old street maps, he told me in an interview, "I really closely observe the city -- often by bicycle." And when studying local landmarks, he often talks to the locals themselves. 

It doesn't always work: "When I asked my plumber for the 10 leading buildings of Greenfield, he told me, 'You are out of your mind.'" But even then, Toker sees what natives sometimes overlook. He gives Greenfield a double-page photo and notes such landmarks as St. John Chrysostom church and Big Jim's restaurant, a cultural landmark even if its architecture is unexceptional.

Fittingly, Toker's tastes may strike some as idiosyncratic. For example, he's a fan of WQED's bunker-like Oakland headquarters, which Toker contends "is cavernous but does not lose sight of human scale or human delight."

I'd disagree, but tastes differ. (Toker told me that Brutalist buildings like WQED's have "a Pittsburgh authenticity -- no frills.") My larger gripe with the book is that it's sometimes hard to know where he gets this stuff, because there are no footnotes or endnotes. That keeps the book breezy and accessible, but may frustrate those who wish to know more. 

And a bit of wariness is sometimes called for, since Toker can be a little too glib. For example, in noting the disappearance of the South Side's J&L works, he contends that "[t]he only Steelers visible here are the ones televised in the ... bars on East Carson Street." But as any fan knows, the Steelers' own practice facility is located on the old mill site itself.

After all, even less scholarly works, like Barringer Fifield's Seeing Pittsburgh, provide some annotation. And everyone can use some fact-checking: Toker acknowledges, for instance, that the new edition had to excise a metaphorically suggestive, yet sadly erroneous, claim made in the original: that Schenley Park's Flagstaff Hill was landscaped with soil taken from the removal of Downtown's once-famous "Hump." 

But all in all, Portrait is an engaging city ambassador. Which is a good thing: I'm guessing the G-20 folks, at least, won't be asking many of us for directions.

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