There are a few places on earth where I feel like my soul is at home. Where the psychic roots run deep, my DNA is buzzing contentedly, and I always feel a welcome familiarity no matter how long I have been gone. One of those places is the Texas Hill Country, land of my mother’s clan and a rocky, rolling landscape of cedar, winding creeks and limestone bungalows.
The other, oddly, is Pittsburgh – a city I have not lived in since 1966. The domestic memories are not good ones; my father cheated and was cruel to my sister and me. When I lived there, my mother would drive downtown on the Parkway, through the Squirrel Hill Tunnel and past the dreary Jones and Laughlin steel plant where I was always fascinated by the near-vertical conveyer belt hauling iron ore. All dressed up, we went shopping at Kaufman’s, Horne’s and Gimbel’s. None of them, nor the steel plant, exists today.
Return to Kennywood
I have been back a few times, even revisiting my second-grade classroom in Wilkinsburg and having beers after school with Miss O’Nan, a strict disciplinarian whose creative punishments were branded in my memory. Teachers were larger than life in the 60s, the smartest people I knew, terrifying, and very mysterious.
Sue and I returned recently to visit the one place in Pittsburgh with perfect memories – the historic Kennywood amusement park. Sue and I billed it as a “Kennywood and Brewpub Tour,” because we were meeting a high school friend, Diana, and her husband, and they both love craft brews as much as I. They also humored my desire to return to Kennywood and served as amazing tour guides for the four days we were there.
You might think I was setting myself up for a major disappointment. After all, 52 years had passed since I visited the park during an annual school picnic. But Kennywood values its heritage, and many of the iconic rides of my childhood were still there – the Kangaroo, Noah’s Ark, the Jack Rabbit, the Racer, the Whip, the Auto Race.
What wasn’t part of my perfect Kennywood memory was the fact that almost all rides go ’round and ’round, up and down, over and under, and churn your insides at speeds I am no longer used to. At the end of the afternoon, I staggered off the Racer, a wooden dual roller coaster built in 1927, and discreetly threw up.
A beery blur
The land-use planner in me is fascinated by the distinctive communities within Pittsburgh, in various stages of vibrancy, hopeful renewal, or still depressing blight. We visited them on our brewpub tour – Homestead, Lawrenceville, South Hills, Troy Hill, Sharpsburg. Only when we drove out to Mount Lebanon for a Greek Festival did I see the first shopping mall. Most of these communities had their own bustling shopping districts with neighborhood pubs and restaurants.
Even the neighborhoods that were struggling, such as Homewood, had a distinct community identity. After visiting Frick Park and its museums, Yelp took us to The Everyday Cafe, a sandwich shop on Homewood Avenue operated as a ministry by a church. The folks who worked there were genuinely friendly, even though we looked a bit out of place. I thought I just wanted a sandwich, but my Inner Planner (along with Social Justice Jesus) whispered that I should stay and help rebuild the community. For the record, Sue does not have an Inner Planner voice.
We stayed in an Air BnB, a renovated duplex in Squirrel Hill. Besides the five craft breweries, we had matzo ball soup and a hot pastrami at a Jewish deli in Squirrel Hill, and pierogies and thick mushroom soup at a Polish deli in the Strip District. The assortment of IPAs, sample flights, and brewpub food are a happy buzzy blur.
Even if Pittsburgh weren’t my hometown and etched on my soul, it is still an exciting city with a lot of ethnic character, stunning topography, colorful neighborhoods, and endless places to eat and drink. I would probably forego the roller coasters next time, but I would return. It was good to be home.