Friday, February 18, 2011

A Small Book about a Great City: Pittsburgh

Recently I heard somebody comment on the radio that "we wouldn't like to be like Pittsburgh." I forget the context--I was just too aggravated to listen to the rest. I have only been able to visit the place once, and that was after the steel mills that for decades had made it famous had already shut down. I found it a pleasant, attractive place, with one of the more spectacular settings of any U.S. city. With what part of this did the radio commentator have a problem? I'll never know, I suppose.
Pittsburgh also happens to be one of Pennsylvania's greatest historical sites. Empires clashed here, and shaped the destiny not only of our nation, but of an entire continent.
It was all because of its location. The future city grew up where two great rivers, the Allegheny and the Monongahela, came together to form a still greater one: the Ohio. Anyone who wanted to control access to the territory west and south of here would need to control this spot, today known by residents as The Point.
In the 18th century two great European powers--Great Britain and France-- were waging a series of what amounted to world wars, hoping to attain land, power, and wealth around the globe. The best-known of these wars, and the one that affected Pennsylvania the most, was the last, which ended in 1763. In Europe it was known as the Seven Years' War, and here as the French and Indian War. During it the entire future Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was a battlefield--and no place more than the western region, around Pittsburgh.
Initial European settlements at The Point were military, as both sides battled for control of the vast territories to the west. First the French established Fort Duquesne. After the British drove them out, Fort Pitt succeeded on the site. It was named after William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, who was the British Prime Minister at the time.
The British, of course, won that war; and the United States later had to tussle with its former mother country to win its own access to the west.
Much of this history has almost been forgotten. But not by Len Barcousky and his employer, the "Post-Gazette" newspaper. And it is not surprising that they have long memories. The newspaper and its antecedents have been around Pittsburgh since 1786, Barcousky in its newsrooms for at least 20 years. For both the institution and the man who works for it these are newspaper careers of unusual length. Especially given the way things are going these days.
Now, for the sake of full disclosure, I'd like to say that Len Barcousky and I have been friends for close to forever, and he has been instrumental in helping me accomplish some of my own work. I am about to plug his recently published book on Pittsburgh, but I am not profiting from it in financial terms. All I have is the satisfaction of helping a friend's good work--which is plenty for me.
"Remembering Pittsburgh" is the name of the book, and it is subtitled "An 'Eyewitness' History of the Steel City". It was made possible by the long-lived and farsighted "Post- Gazette", and seems to have originated as a column. Its pieces, which are based largely on stories in the "Post- Gazette" and its rivals, thus are short. and can be read on an individual basis in just a few minutes. (Probably an asset in our fast-moving times.)
"Remembering Pittsburgh" recalls both the great (Washington, Lafayette, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt), and the famous of their time, such as brilliant singer Jenny Lind and triumphant woman journalist Nellie Bly. (Bly, originally Elizabeth Cochrane of Armstrong County, had set out on a challenge to beat the hero of Jules Verne's "Around the World in 80 Days" at his own fictional game. She did just that. Her own journey was completed in a mere 72 days.)
The book also chronicles fires, explosions, hangings, and other matters of civic interest and concern. And it does not forget to commemorate the founding of the "Post-Gazette" itself.
This is a wonderful introduction to an American--and Pennsylvania-- city it is too easy to sell short. (As the man on the radio did.) If you are in the Pittsburgh area, it is most easily acquired--so I assume--at an office of the "Post-Gazette". If not, you will find it on, although I had a little trouble locating it there. Look it up under "Len Barcousky".

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