Friday, March 27, 2009

A trip to Pittsburgh

I am headed toward downtown Pittsburgh in a cab, getting a crash course on traffic patterns. I learn that it took the cabbie 30 minutes to get to the airport early in the morning. I learn about the roads you ought not to take when rush hour threatens, the number of rides you can expect in a 16 hour day, and received options for three routes to the Convention Center from my hotel. I hear that Pittsburgh holds the second largest St. Patrick Day’s parade in the US (after New York, but “actually a lot better”). And then, in-between this navigational discourse: “you’re here for the American Physical Society Meeting, right? What are you folks anyways—physical therapists? Some of the guys wus wonderin’.” Pittsurgh is not quite in the mid-west but it feels like i. I ease into the familiarity that I had with Minnesota. Large beefy men and women, more American cars on the roads, Steelers and Pirates apparel on the streets. It is early in the morning and the taxi drops me off by the Hilton, a soviet style highrise beautifully located and overlooking the three rivers stadium. I walk through downtown in the early morning rush of office goers. It is a maze of construction, undergoing what is called a “downtown revival”. Not quite completed, it is a mix of toney establishments and down to earth deli joints sharing frontage with rundown buildings. The American Physical Society meeting is being held at the Convention Center and everywhere around me, supplementing the stereotypical urban American headed to work with Starbucks in hand, are gaggles of physicists with convention badges hanging from their necks.

I turn into Sixth Street and then head along Duquesne, hugging the waterfront. The great buildings of the industrial belt jut out from the waterside, the river sides embanked in sections, like so many of the rivers are in the urban areas of India. This was the great steel city—at one time producing almost half of the nation’s steel. Described once as "hell with the lid off" in 1868 (James Parton), Pittsburgh remains near the bottom of the list among cities for atmospheric particulate pollution. Said Anthony Trollope, a 19th-century visitor, "….. I was never more in love with smoke and dirt than when I stood there and watched the darkness of night close in upon the floating soot which hovered over the house tops of the city." Lesser known is Pittsburgh’s contribution to metallurgical science and technology--from the Bessemer process of steelmaking, to the book by Barrett and Massalski that no doubt influenced countless engineers in rolling mills and steel plants from Indonesia to Kazakhstan.

Near my hotel is a spot--the Three Rivers Park-- where the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers meet. Surrounded by bridges and enveloped by downtown traffic, it is nevertheless an oasis of tranquility, as though cocooned by the cancellations within the gallery of encircling sounds. Embankments on the water border the park, park benches scatter along the walkway. A couple sits with a book, teenaged skateboarders behind them. Two funiculars move up and down a nearby hillside giving a rhythm to the lapping waters around. Facing the confluence, on the right rises the great Three Rivers Stadium, home of the Pittsburgh Steelers, one side opening up to the rivers. At night I stand and watch this same park from my hotel room window high above, lights turned off, drapes drawn. I view the funiculars still pushing up and down like piston heads, overseeing a festival of criss-crossing automotive lights across the bridges. It is a calm stillnesss, and a magical moment as nighttime Pittsburgh unfolds outside, soon punctuated by the need to prepare for an early flight the next morning.

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