The Paris of Appalachia: Pittsburgh in the Twenty-first Century
By Brian O'Neill
Carnegie Mellon University Press, 151 pages, $16.95
Brian O'Neill started work on The Paris of Appalachia four years ago. But actually, it reflects two decades of work at the Pittsburgh Press and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where O'Neill has been writing stories that are often too small -- and too big -- to get into the paper any other way. Now those stories have a chance to take center stage.
A native of Long Island, O'Neill has always written about Pittsburgh with the fervor of the converted. But he isn't blind to the city's problems: An alternate title for the book, we're told, was "I Love Pittsburgh Like a Brother ... And My Brother Drives Me Nuts."
Longtime fans will find some familiar characters, like the Pirates fan who drives around town playing a tape of the 1960 World Series, or the octogenarian who slaps O'Neill, hard, when he asks her age. Much of O'Neill's argument will be familiar, as well.
O'Neill contends that Pittsburgh is literally tied down by its borders: Other cities have grown in population in part because they've also been allowed to expand geographically. Pittsburgh's boundaries, meanwhile, are hemmed in by locals who fear change ... and state legislators who can't deliver it anyway. Fragmented governments don't just cost you Census bragging rights, O'Neill argues: They can complicate everything from building sustainable communities to reporting a stolen wallet.
"Pittsburgh's current boundaries won't survive the 21st century," O'Neill says in an interview. But "all the politics are against resolving that," he admits, "and I have no answer for that in the book. But I guess what I'm saying is this is a city worth caring about."
As befits a Pittsburgh chronicler, O'Neill demonstrates the most interest in his own neighborhood: the North Side's Allegheny West. He depicts it as a vision out of Rockwell: a place of doorstep conversations, kids playing in the street, and Gus Kalaris, the Italian ice guy. That focus keeps the book's emphasis on Pittsburgh's potential, even if it gives short shrift to many of the city's problems -- some of which are readily apparent just blocks from O'Neill's backyard.
After decades of writing in 750-word increments, O'Neill admits, it wasn't easy to write a full-fledged book. (His first impulse, he says, was to write "the book that every columnist does -- take 30 columns and slap a cover around them.") And the pacing of the material can be uneven: Some chapters run to 20 pages; others are no longer than a Sunday op-ed.
Even so, reading Paris is like talking with the funny, knowledgeable guy on the next barstool. The conversation might wander a bit, but if you're like me (or like O'Neill, judging from his book), that's a great way spend an afternoon.
Paris is on sale at Bradley's Books, and O'Neill hopes to handle orders through his Web site (www.parisofappalachia.com) soon. For now, he says, he's using an unusual distribution system: "I'm pretty confident this will be the only book available both on Amazon and at Gus' ice-ball stand."