At 8am, downtown Pittsburgh is vacated, a dead-zone inhabited by slowly-plodding drunks. In the middle of a broad city street, devoid of passing cars, I swerve to avoid their lurching gestures. They come again, not saying anything, but only to fall into the background of deserted parking lots, tall alleyways, and derelict blocks. Later in the evening: the same desertion, only cast in a different light. This is a great joy to encounter unmapped destitution, unregulated by the ordering of the city. To feel a city in its quietness press down in this way is a rare pleasure too often effaced by over-vigilance and heavy-surveillance.
In contrast to New York’s claustrophobically gentrified streets (at least those found in Manhattan), the streets of Pittsburgh feel as though they’re being lived-in, rather than presented-to. True, there are pockets of post-industrial “revival,” such as Station Square, that have been manufactured as tourist sites (the relation between tourism and “site” is surely not coincidental, given the emphasis on interchangeability), but such sites are often countered by the untouched remains of old industry. The remains of the past are not dependent on them being “experienced.” They exist in a state of hibernated immanence. Tourist cities, on the other hand, such as the space of Manhattan, depend upon them being experienced as pre-fabricated sites. In a word, Manhattan is an expectation: Pittsburgh is an emergence.
Many ruins, then. Many factories left undeveloped. Many warehouses in a state of “disrepair.” Many blocks of houses boarded up. All of which, obviously, generates a city dynamic in its temporal vibrancy. But the ruins of Pittsburgh are not circumscribed on the margins, nor are they bordered by the construction of a grid system. Instead, they (de)-form the integrity of the city layout itself. A city of mild curves and irregularities, rather than a city of right-angles, markers, and straight-lines. Perhaps it is still possible to become—rather than “get”—lost in an American city. If it is possible to become lost, then it is thanks to a certain amorphous and organic uninhabitability which pushes the city to an end-point. Concerning the relation between dwelling and process, the Viennese painter Hundertwasser has the following to say: “When mould forms on a wall, when moss grows in the corner of the room and rounds off the geometric angle, we ought to be pleased that with the microbes and fungi life is moving into the house, and more consciously than ever before we become witnesses of architectonic changes from which we have a great deal to learn.” (Cited in Harries, 2000).
Later on: Holiday Inn Express. A concrete terrace, held-in by a steel fence. To my left, the 10th Street Bridge, ahead the Allegheny Millwork Lumber Co., and to my right a vacated factory. Frank Sinatra’s assortment of muzak blares onto the Millwork. This hotel on the side of a bridge marks a crossing from Pittsburgh’s downtown to the South Side. The crossing also marks Pittsburgh duality. Not only are the two areas divided spatially, they also occupy different timescales. Whereas the northern downtown is uninhabited, except when it’s populated as a business district, the South Side, bustling and heady, has the feel of a place which exists prior to any cautious revival. Only, the return is incomplete, producing a stalled place seized in its primacy, yet continuing to endure through time. The result is somewhat like a dreamscape, whereby fragments of an unassimilated cultural memory—excessive neon, gangs of bikers, Aerosmith— collide with the present.
I am not staying in ruins nor in the Holiday Inn, however, but in the “penthouse” of Duquesne University, which my host has kindly provided. Here, too, another liminal place, somewhere between apartment and hotel. A panoramic, spacious, and unnervingly clean retreat, with its own exit signs (as though it is possible to forget where the entrance was), I am the only inhabitant. There are more rooms than I need, less even occupy. But I am not complaining: far from it. There is a depth to be had in knowing that an occupied room is enclosed by empty space. The emptiness is fortifying: it enables the traffic from down below—cars on the highway, cargo trains passing slowly beneath the 10th Street Bridge, and boats crossing the Monongahela River—to feed up into the apartment, breaking the insulation of space and establishing a place receptive to the city in its totality.