Pros: A small city with a small-town feel; be sure to visit Fallingwater
Cons: Poor quality services get old fast; drab look and feel; unhappy people
Pittsburgh has some interesting advantages and disadvantages as a place to live. I'm going to run through a few of them and speculate, hopefully helpfully, on why things are the way they are.
Because I'm not sure where it should be, and because someone else reviewed it in this section, I have included a review of the tour of Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater house here as well.
I was happy in my $428,000 house in Woodland Hills, California. It was only 1,000 square feet but it was a very cool place to live. Among other things there were large windows that overlooked a very nice pastoral view. I would sit there, working on my computer and watching the world go by in my view.
Unfortunately, I lost my job. Bye bye house. I sold it at a modest profit and moved to Pittsburgh, because my business partner had a job for me there.
A $428,000 house in California is quite similar to a $100,000 house in Pittsburgh. However, strangely enough, the taxes on the $100,000 house are higher. Don't forget to bear that in mind when considering the cost of living difference.
That being said, you can buy a $30,000 house in Pittsburgh. This means that owned housing is open to just about anyone who breathes in Pittsburgh, and is a very refreshing change from Los Angeles, where you have to be in the top 10% of incomes to have even a fighting chance at home ownership.
From the perspective of a Los Angeles resident, who is used to hillside homes that are designed to take advantage of gorgeous hillside views, Pittsburgh is a strange and horrible place. Instead of taking advantage of views, the tiny narrow windows of a typical Pittsburgh home are closed tightly and views blocked with blinds. This is true whether the view is of a stunning river valley or of the house next door; Pittsburgh architects appear to have been allergic to views and determined to make the world outside the house as invisible as humanly possible.
When I courageously opened my blinds and looked out into the world, I faced my next door neighbor's house, instead of the perfectly stunning view that should have been there. My neighbor subsequently complained that I had dared to open the blinds, even though they were in the living room.
Even though Pittsburgh is very dense and looks remarkably similar to the New Urbanist's dream of a "livable city", public transportation is extremely expensive ($2.75 base bus fare) and essentially unusable. The narrow streets make navigation by car very difficult, but at least you won't be out there at the whims of the Port Authority, which runs public transport.
Even "major" numbered streets in Pittsburgh are often two laners (one lane in each direction). They often twist and turn erratically, with a easy to miss directional sign the only guide you have to where to go next. Frank Lloyd Wright famously said that the only way to fix Pittsburgh's tiny lot housing and baffling road system was to "abandon it." He's right.
There is no significant freeway network. Streets like Route 51 are confusing melds of limited access roads and regular surface streets. The road network is horribly unforgiving of mistakes; when you zip through the baffling malestrom of Downtown, you are likely as not to take a wrong turn and then search for half an hour or more before you can get back on the proper route.
Pittsburgh restaurants are very bizarre compared to Los Angeles. Much to its apparent credit, Pittsburgh has not embraced the world of the chain as Los Angeles has. There are some chains, but there are also plenty of independently owned places where you can get to know the owner and his staff as though they are members of your family.
The problem with this is that the food is bad. Instead of concentrating on the food, the Pittsburgh restaurant owner concentrates on personal relationships with the customers. There is then no reason to make the food good or even decent, or to maintain the restaurant or clean the bathrooms. In Pittsburgh, relationships are everything, and they completely trump food quality for most people.
Well, not me. I found myself visiting Bravo, a slick chain owned by the Bravo Development Company of Columbus, Ohio, instead of the native places. I really wanted to like the native places, but they were, practically to a one, vile.
Pittsburgh has only one grocery market chain, called Giant Eagle. The hokey name disguises mediocre quality merchandise and for the most part lousy service.
Giant Eagle, feeling the breath of Whole Foods and other places down their neck, created Giant Eagle Market District, where they make an effort to provide better food, better service and a higher quality overall shopping experience. Although their service is a bit uneven, this is certainly a far better shopping experience than other Giant Eagles, and is definitely wroth the trip for anyone interested in better quality food and service. Prices are the same as other Giant Eagles.
As a result, I no longer shop at Wal*Mart for my groceries (see below), but I still recommend Wal*Mart for groceries if you don't want to go all the way to Market District. (There are only two and you may not be near one).
If you happen to be reading this from Los Angeles, you probably don't like Wal-Mart. Here, Wal-Mart is a great place because most of the stores, such as Giant Eagle, are so poor, shoddy and overpriced. In Los Angeles, I'll go to Gelson's because I love the experience, and I don't care that it costs about a third more than a Wal-Mart, because Wal-Mart is just not a pleasant or fun place to shop. Here, for all the service you get at Giant Eagle, you'd might as well buy your groceries at Wal-Mart. For frozen stuff, their selection is actually better and their store brand is surprisingly good. If you ever wondered why Wal-Mart made a whole family wealthy beyond their wildest dreams, that's why. Competition here - and in many other small cities or towns - is just plain lousy, and Wal-Mart, fun as it is to bash from LA, looks like our savior.
Pittsburgh's shopping centers are run by a company called Simon. The malls are drab compared to those of other cities.
In Pittsburgh, a first-class Chinese restaurant
It took me only a year in Pittsburgh to find it, but I finally did. The Pan Asia [http://www.mypanasia.com/] Chinese & Japanese restaurant has absolutely first-rate, no excuses perfect food and service. From the egg rolls to the General Tsos and Tangerine chicken, everything's done with high-quality ingredients and a superb flair in the kitchen. They also have a number of dishes that I've never seen before. So far, everything I have tried, without exception, has been world-class.
Service is excellent and the people are exceptionally friendly while not being crowding.
Unfortunately, they are not doing a good business, but don't let that scare you off. They're a top-quality place in an area where unfortunately top quality is not appreciated. Apparently the previous tenant in the building had an evil reputation, and it's important to note that these folks bought the location without being aware of what it was before. They're exceptionally hardworking and good people, and deserve your business.
They are located at 5321 Clairton Blvd (Route 51) in Pittsburgh, fairly close to the Century III Mall.
Pleasant Pittsburgh Places
The South Side is an attempt to emulate the stylish Melrose Avenue district of Los Angeles. It doesn't always succeed, but there's a very nice used bookstore and a few coffee shops. There is also Thai Me Up a basic but very good Thai eatery. I highly recommend it but the very small menu is only enough for a trip or two. Unfortunately, the South Side has managed to emulate Melrose Avenue's parking problems perfectly. Way to go!
Mt Lebanon and Upper St Clair are two of Pittsburgh's best neighborhoods. In Mt Lebanon can be found the Galleria, Pittsburgh's closest thing to a truly luxurious shopping mall. Sadly, it's about the size of one major department store in LA. China Den, the Chinese restaurant in the mall, has wildly variable quality but good service. The almond chicken is very good, but the breaded almond chicken is poor. Make sure you pick the right one!
The South Hills Village shopping mall has one of the most important artifacts of civilized life, an Apple Store.
There is also one in Squirrel Hill. A few doors up from the one on Squirrel Hill is Thai Place, 5528 Walnut St. It claims to be one of the top 10 Thai resturants in the country, and I'll be darned if the food doesn't live up to it. The curry puff appetizers ($6.95) are the best I've ever had, maybe even the best appetizer I've ever had, anywhere. Entree portions are a bit small and I have yet to find an entree I love as much as the curry puffs. but I think that's more my fault for not choosing the right thing yet more than theirs. (I am much more familiar with Chinese food than Thai). Maybe I should make a meal consisting only of curry puffs :-).
The view from Mt Washington off the well-named Grandview Road, is stunning. The ancient houses that used to be unable to take advantage of that view have been slowly replaced with ones that do. They are some of the few really expensive homes in Pittsburgh, going for prices from $300k or so up. But remember taxes of about $15k a year on those prices.
Many Pittsburgh residents have moved to adjascent Washington County, particularly Peters Township, to experience at least somewhat sane taxes. Unfortunately, Peters consists primarily of drab and boring Ryan tract homes. You won't want one, but at least if you buy it anyway, your tax treatment will be a little less horrid.
For about $400-500k you can get a very nice custom home in a stylish, hilly part of Peters. This housing is just about as nice as my $428,000 house in Woodland Hills, but it's a lot bigger so the value's way better. I recommend that option if you can afford it and if you have reason to stay in the Pittsburgh area.
Rural Pittsburgh Life
Because of our Demon House haunted attraction project [www.demonhouse.com], I wound up living in a grandiose house in a very nice, dramatic setting. This house is near Monongahela and Charleroi, so I have some reviews of rural places as well as the above commentary on urban sites.
Salatino's Pizza (Charleroi) is the best, friendliest pizza place in town. Don't miss their Italian hoagie. If you're not watching your weight, the calzones are fantastic.
Little Bamboo, in Rostraver near the Staples and Ollie's, sells top-grade food. It also has a downright upscale-urban atmosphere, with halogen lights and nice furniture. Too bad about the service; despite coming here nearly every day and dropping $15-20 every time, they refused to give me a third refill on my Diet Pepsi. So come here for the best quality food, but don't come when you're thirsty. Seriously.
Great Wall, in Monongahela, has super-friendly service but unfortunately food that's wildly variable in quality and not nearly as good as Little Bamboo's. Pity.
Excursion to Fallingwater
There lives an architectural gem about an hour or so away from Pittsburgh, which makes a vivid contrast with most residential architecture there, which is just horrible.
Fallingwater rests among acres of lovely grounds. But there is no doubt that the house itself is the real star. It is filled with windows that beautifully capture a stunning view of the woods. The sound of falling water - thus the name - is a continuous cheerful presence within the house. Since it is built on top of the waterfall, you don't actually see it, but you hear its music for every second of the tour.
If you go out on one of the many balconies and crane your neck down to the area immediately under, you can see the waterfall, and it is a wonderful sight indeed. If I owned the house I could picture myself coming there and enjoying it many times.
Fallingwater, as well as Wright's other homes, are known as flawed works of genius. The flat roofs, while necessary to carry forth the architectural conception, are leak-prone and you can see evidence of this all over the house. And the ceiling heights varied, creating atmospheres ranging from baronial to cozy. This system actually works extremely well unless you are tall. This is definitely not the house for tall people! The ceiling heights feel like they were designed like a custom suit for the owner and Wright himself.
I asked the tour guide an interesting question: Why is it that most of the homes in Pittsburgh are so poorly designed? She said that they were designed by poor people who bought hillside land because it was cheap, and didn't really care about design issues. It's interesting that the artists and bohemians who built homes in the Hollywood Hills (in Los Angeles) also bought the hilly land because it was cheap, but they constructed charmingly unique homes. I guess it all depends on your artistic sense.
She then asked what I thought of the house and whether I'd be willing to live in it. "This house is normal for me," I told her. She smiled and said "Me too." It was clear from context that a lot of people who went through the house had no clue what to make of it since it was so distant from their own experience. To me, Fallingwater is a big, grandiose example of a quality home that could have been sent over to the Hollywood Hills with barely a change. To them, well, I guess they really would have preferred a boring brick shack with tiny windows blocking the spectacular view, instead of Fallingwater's broad windows taking it in.
The house is a beautiful sight and the tour guides are highly competent and knowledgeable. However, the main dark spot in the tour is the organization that runs it. Pictures are not allowed during the $13 tour. Instead, if you get up really early to get there at 8:30 am sharp, you can take a $50 tour in which they are allowed. The theoretical reason for this is that photographers were tripping and stumbling on hazards in the house while trying to get good angles for pictures, but frankly, I don't believe them. I think they simply want to limit the number of images allowed of the magnificent house. Even the outside pictures you are allowed to take are supposedly controlled and not allowed for anything other than private viewing.
Even the Disney Corporation doesn't say "Don't post your pictures of Disneyland on the web! No photos from the rides!" No; they clean up from sales of film instead. That seems like by far the more enlightened attitude.
At the end of the tour, you are herded in a very nicely designed room and exposed to a video about Fallingwater. When you enter, the guide says goodbye to you, wishes you a nice rest of your trip and sneaks out. After seeing the video, I think I can tell you why.
It's supposed to be about Fallingwater, but it's actually about the Foundation's good work and how you should contribute to it and buy a membership. It's a very hard sell and extremely annoying. It managed to virtually eliminate the goodwill that had accumulated for the Foundation during the actual tour.
Still, as I saw all the small comforts and ideas Wright put in this house, it was clear that Fallingwater has more innovations than every other house in Pittsburgh combined. Not that this is any great challenge, mind, but it is truly an inspirational house in an inspirational setting, and not to be missed.
If you consider a climate with four seasons an advantage, you will have little to complain about here. Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter are all present. It gets hot in the summer and bone-chillingly cold in the winter.
If you are like me and prefer a season-free climate, start plotting your exit from Pittsburgh now. Preferably before you even wind up here.
Model Railroad Town
If you're a model railroad afficianado, ignore everything I've said and visit Pittsburgh. You will see real world rail operations running almost constantly, amid a gritty backdrop that looks almost identical to what you see in Model Railroader magazine. Gritty, falling apart industrial plants, clanking railroad cars, powerful diesel engines; it's all here.
Much of the man-made scenery, in particular the hundreds of bridges spanning the rivers, is spectacular. It is awesome in its decay, with acres of rusty spans to the extent that you wonder how much longer it will last before cracking for one last time and sending you and your car splashing down in the river.
Many of the bridges are two lanes and almost certainly uneconomic to repair. This is going to lead to a world of hurt in the smaller towns near Pittsburgh over the next few decades. If you want to live the rural Pennsylvania lifestyle for some reason, make sure the bridges needed to access your land will stay together for the likely duration of your stay there.
"Pittsburghese" includes numerous strange slang terms, such as yins for "you folks". It can be very disconcerting until you get used to it. For an urban sophisticate, it's positively grating.
People are old. Many of them have pinched looks that make them appear as though they have lost all hope and are just going through the motions. In my experience, service in stores is poor for this reason. This is especially true of the Giant Eagle chain of supermarkets. Prices as high as Gelson's (Los Angeles' upscale market); service worse than Lucky's (Los Angeles' now deceased downscale market).
People are down to earth and unpretentious. This means, though, that there is little appreciation of niceties like good architecture, good food and high-quality service in stores and restaurants. If you happen to appreciate those things, you'll find life here to be one-star horrible, because nobody else cares.
What young people do exist here tend to be here to take care of older relatives who have remained in town. I think this has a lot to do with the overall attitude here.
Still, there are some nice, friendly younger people. Most of them have a major life goal: To leave Pittsburgh.
I would rather not write such a negative review of a city I've been living in for nearly a year.
Pittsburgh does have some redeeming qualities. The hilly areas are as beautiful during the summer as they are drab and depressing during the winter. The cost of living is exceptionally affordable.
But it's just not a fun place to be in. It's confusing, food is of overall poor quality, there are few young people, and the whole place looks and feels like it will fall apart, if not now, someday soon.