Late in the summer of another year in St. Louis we just completed a week-long tour of two midwestern destination cities - Cleveland and Pittsburgh. St. Louis has made a local out of me, but with nearly twenty years of time here, it was time to clear my head and think about the motivations that keep us here in this place.
This was a father-son trip (recommended for those with teen sons that have outgrown the junior amateur athletics and scout aged things). Now we share interests in music, architecture, historic neighborhoods and local/ethnic food. Both Cleveland and Pittsburgh offer much to choose from in those categories.
Our trip started in Cleveland. We made the drive from St. Louis to Cleveland in about ten hours. Not one highway patrolman in sight, so traffic moved at 70+ mph the whole way. Midway through Ohio you enter the Great Lakes watershed and beautiful Amish farm country. Arriving in Cleveland you immediately get the impression that it is much more a smaller version of Chicago than St. Louis ever is. Note to self: We St. Louisans would be well served to stop the STL-Chicago comparisons.
Without a reservation, we got a great deal on the lakefront at the Crown Plaza hotel. Cleveland folks are super friendly and helpful. Our primary destination was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but we arrived early enough to explore some of Cleveland and was directed by locals to the historic Tremont neighborhood. Tremont is a 19th century neighborhood, undergoing significant rehab and gentrification.
Tremont is beautiful, about five minutes from downtown, and full of hip restaurants and galleries. One interesting feature of the neighborhood is the way architects of infill new construction seem to have a lot of freedom of design expression. The new construction has urban scale but modern form. I liked it and recommend a visit to this neighborhood if you're ever in Cleveland.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was worth the visit. But after having made the trip once, I doubt we'd return to Cleveland for another trip the R and R HOF. After you've seen it once, it would probably be kind of boring. Maybe after another ten years or a major remake of the place. We would return sooner to attend a sporting event or tour more of the city's neighborhoods.
Pittsburgh and Cleveland are only about 140 miles apart, so the rivalry between cities is strong. After attending a baseball game at Cleveland's Progressive Field (a new downtown ballpark built in a decidely non-faux historic style), at about 9:00 pm we left Cleveland heading to Pittsburgh. Enter the land of the toll roads. What a strange life it must be for the workers collecting those tolls. I'm wondering, are those patronage positions?
For miles there was nothing but darkness. No street lights, no highway intersections with four corners of fast food and filling stations. Eastern Ohio and western PA are heavy rural. Where were the suburbs and sprawl? Maybe we were on the rural route? We'll have to make the trip again in daylight to see what we were missing, but I'm betting it was all forest and farms.
The lack of familiar settlement patterns continued until we were very near Pittsburgh. Highway signs for the Pittsburgh International Airport appeared before any gas stations or subdivisions. Where were the suburbs? We felt like we were riding in the twilight zone. Good thing we had spare change for the toll plazas and enough gas in the tank!
We finally found an offramp with services (restaurants, hotels, filling stations), about ten miles from downtown Pittsburgh. There was an inn with a room, so we checked in and got a good rest before our visit to Pittsburgh. Having heard lots of good things about Pittsburgh, this would be the main destination of our journey.
The next morning on our drive in to Pittsburgh we were impressed with the geography. What a hilly place. Mountains really. Steep ones. We kept getting closer to Pittsburgh, now there were offramps for the city and stadiums, but still no major developments along the road. Very open mostly. Then we came upon the "Fort Pitt Tunnel". We drove through the tunnel and on the other side the whole skyline of Pittsburgh appeared right in front of us. What a view and how dramatic! It was beautiful. And bridges and water everywhere. Pittsburgh claims over 400 bridges. Our plan was to drive around for an hour or two to get our bearings.
The place reminded me very much of eastern cities. Much older and smaller scale of buildings than St. Louis, and a very dense and impressive big city downtown. Regional attractions in Pittsburgh abound. Other than a quick game of catch at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers and a ballgame at spectacular PNC stadium, we didn't even make a dent in the downtown area. Neighborhood destinations filled our schedule.
We toured the Andy Warhol museum, a closed Catholic parish church which had been coverted to a micro brewery, the Carnegie natural history museum with one of the world's largest collection of dinosaur fossils, took a ride up one of their incline trains (awesome views of downtown from the top), checked out the "Strip" neighborhood (ate a Primanti's sandwich there), the northside and southside neighborhoods, and Heinz Chapel on the University of Pittsburgh campus.
The rivers, steep hills and historic neighborhoods, along with a strong eastern European influence in churches dotting the hillsides, make for very scenic landscapes, defined neighborhoods, and beautiful views. I expected to see more vacant steel mills but there really weren't very many, even though we did hear from the locals how the local economy still feels the sting from the loss of jobs in steel industry.
In both Cleveland and Pittsburgh we asked for recommendations about neighborhoods with nightlife and music, sort of like our Soulard or Loop areas. Recommendations were few and we didn't find much. Any suggestions would be appreciated, especially for Pittsburgh, since we definitely plan a return there.
There was a noticeable lack of cemetaries around Pittsburgh. We only passed one the whole time we were there. Maybe with the scarcity of buildable land, they're all along the periphery? Or maybe they've been relocated outward through the years?
Whetherwise, Pittsburgh was best. The news reported they were getting ready to have their first 90 degree day - in over a YEAR! With the reduction in industrial activities, the years of dust and soot are over and the skies were clear and blue.
It's easy to see how people would love living in both Cleveland and Pittsburgh. We heard from a person at the ballgame at PNC how many Pittsburgh families have over 100 years of local residency.
Given the competition among midwestern regions, there are lessons we can take from both Pittsburgh and Cleveland. All three regions, St. Louis, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, are about the same size (just under 3,000,000). All three suffered from white flight, struggling public school systems, and declines in their industrial jobs base. Yet all three are making turnarounds and getting national attention.
Cities of the midwest enjoy lots of advantages. They are drawing more attention from young people seeking creative, affordable environments. They have history and destination attractions of national significance. They are supported by educational institutions and interesting neighborhoods. Weather is seasonal and with A/C, summers are manageable.
St. Louis has better baseball than Pittsburgh or Cleveland, but I'd submit Cleveland and Pittsburgh have better stadiums. Cleveland has the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but I'd say St. Louis has a far better music scene. Cleveland and Pittsburgh have more the big city feel, but St. Louis's small town atmosphere makes it easy for people to get connected and gain a meaningful role in their communities.
Making lists makes news. But it's easy to find holes in the lists. So does it really matter whether you're first second, or third? I learned on this trip that we can learn a lot from our neighbors, and we need to always be doing more.