Guest Notebook: Olive Fellows, Letter from Pittsburgh

Guest Notebook author Olive Fellows, Pittsburgher and creator of the BookTube channel ABookOlive

When the American steel industry tipped downward, the city of Pittsburgh tumbled along with it. The so-called “city of neighborhoods” in Western Pennsylvania was once a bustling center of industry until steel production hit a peak in the seventies. Always a polluted city, even before steel’s heyday there—it was famously called “hell with the lid taken off” by Boston writer James Parton when he saw Pennsylvania’s abundant coal resources coughing out of chimneys in the nineteenth century—now Pittsburgh was dirty and broke. It turns out even if you put a lid on hell, it’s still hell, but now with contents under pressure.

It’s surprising, then, that in the time it took for one generation to come of age, the Detroit of the mid-Atlantic—a city at the center of an identity tug-of-war between the East Coast, the Midwest, and Appalachia—went from a place people were fleeing to a Forbes “Most Livable City” darling. The reasons for the comeback are numerous, but a large part of the new Pittsburgh’s allure is not its moderate cost of living but its vibrant culture, including a robust literary community. But How did a city in the Rust Belt become so well read? The answer likely lies deep in the history of Steel City.

Andrew Carnegie has a complicated legacy in Pittsburgh. He founded the Carnegie Steel Company (later U.S. Steel), bringing tremendous economic growth to Western Pennsylvania. But he also was notorious for brutal business practices, including one of the deadliest worker strikes in the nation’s history. You would think he’d be unpopular, even to this day, but instead his name decorates the area, from a prestigious university to museums—even a borough on the city’s west end was named in his honor. But Possibly the most significant institutions to bear his name, though, are libraries.

It’s possible that Carnegie’s decision to give huge chunks of his wealth to the funding of libraries was could have been a public relations stunt, an attempt to clean up his image in the face of his blatant disregard for his workers, but, regardless, Carnegie “singlehandedly made the free public library an instrument of American democracy,” according to Ed Simon in his new book, An Alternative History of Pittsburgh. Today there are nineteen branches within the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh system, libraries that enrich their local communities and over which Pittsburghers are very protective.

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Libraries laid the groundwork for the literary scene that has grown up around the city, especially in recent years. A number of Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods have their own independent bookstores that have been influential both within and beyond their borders. For example, when the devastating Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in October 2018 drew reporters to Squirrel Hill on Pittsburgh’s East End—“one of the largest urban Jewish neighborhoods outside of the New York metropolitan area,” per The Pittsburgh Neighborhood Guidebookmany found their way to Amazing Books and Records. Owner Eric Ackland left quite an impression on freelance writer and author Mark Oppenheimer when he was in town and, as a result, got his store and its charming and dedicated owner a whole feature in The New York Times, in which Oppenheimer referred to the store as a kind of sanctuary, especially after the tragedy. That sanctuary is still thriving and is better than ever now that it has moved to a much-needed larger space on Forbes Avenue.

And Pittsburgh bookstores’ reach extends beyond the Ohio Valley. West Virginia University Press’s Acquisitions Editor Sarah Munroe recently said during a panel that White Whale bookstore—an independent in the Bloomfield neighborhood—was instrumental in garnering early attention for Pittsburgh-based author Deesha Philyaw’s runaway success The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, a rare small university press novel to win a PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and appear among National Book Award finalists. White Whale even found itself in the midst of competition for space in newly developed warehouse space district The Terminal Strip; Pittsburgh’s readers were outraged when the developers courted the local business (in the midst of the pandemic no less) only to lease the space finally to out-of-town Posman’s, branching out in Pittsburgh from New York and Atlanta. (In the end, White Whale ended up expanding into neighboring space, telling the local TribLive, “In the first couple months of the pandemic, we were completely rethinking our business. We were shipping books out of our home. We were doing everything online. We didn’t even know if our business would survive the year because we were seeing so many other businesses close.” But “people were stuck at home so they were getting back to reading more,” and “the drive to support small and local businesses certainly continued in our community. Our customers have been really loyal and supportive.”)

Pittsburgh’s reputation as the literary powerhouse of the Rust Belt is getting around. Big name authors regularly choose to stop in, holding signings at local stores and headlining events at Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures (this fall’s lineup includes US Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, The Vanishing Half author Brit Bennet, and Plague Year author Lawrence Wright, though virtually). A Little Life author Hanya Yanagihara, ahead of her own appearance in the city in 2016, said in an interview that Pittsburgh was pitched to her as “an essential stop these days.” Todd Doughty, vice president and executive director of publicity for Doubleday, Yanigahara’s publisher, went further, enthusing that “Pittsburgh is a book publicist’s dream city,” citing the large population of engaged readers, events hosted by bookstores as well as Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures, and media committed to covering books (in addition to book sections in print media like the Pittsburgh City Paper, in 2015, a website dedicated to covering bookish news and events in Pittsburgh—fittingly called “Littsburgh”—launched). It’s hard to believe the Steel City would have such resources without the foundation of great libraries.

Libraries were my own window into how much the city of Pittsburgh has to offer. Dazzled Lured by the stories of a city on the rise, the promise of studying at one of its most impressive universities, and, for my soon-to-be husband, an intriguing offer of employment in the area’s burgeoning tech scene, we packed our bags, bound for Allegheny County. But It didn’t take long though for the city’s gloomy weather (Pittsburghers, according to reports, see the sun fewer days per year than the notoriously rainy Seattle) to dim my excitement. Everything changed when a friend dragged me to the beautiful main branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in the Oakland neighborhood and stood by while I officially became a library card holder. CLP reintroduced me, after years of reading exclusively for school, to reading for pleasure, and I started spending weekends learning Pittsburgh’s roads, bridges, and tunnels on the road to book sales at its different branches (I was determined to visit all of them). It was on these prowls—through which I build up an impressive book collection—that I came truly to appreciate why Pittsburgh was once called “the only American city with an entrance,” referring to the glorious moment at the end of the Fort Pitt Tunnel, when, as you approach the city from the west and barrel through Mount Washington, the Pittsburgh skyline explodes into view and holds the stage as you cross one of the city’s many signature yellow bridges. It’s a sight I’ve not grown tired of in the decade I’ve called Pittsburgh home, and I doubt it will ever fail to give me a rush of adrenaline: a quiet confirmation that I’m exactly where I belong. Even Harry Potter actress Emma Watson once told David Letterman, in response to a perhaps-sarcastic inquiry into how she’d enjoyed her time in Pittsburgh shooting a film, that, though immediately before shooting began she had spent “two weeks in Paris shooting this incredibly glamorous Lancôme commercial” and was not much looking forward to Pittsburgh, it had won her over and is now one of her “favorite places in the world.”

Certainly, a lively book community isn’t the root cause of Pittsburgh’s amazing comeback, but it is absolutely a result of it and broadcasts to the world how far a city can come. The literary scene is merely one example of how Pittsburgh has gone from a downcast steel town to a city full of potential, now with the lid off.

See Olive’s companion video to this post, starting at noon today!

Some Pittsburgh books Olive recommends:
An Alternative History of Pittsburgh,
by Ed Simon
Andrew Carnegie, by David Nasaw
Smoketown: The Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance, by Mark Whitaker
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, by Michael Chabon
An American Childhood, by Annie Dillard
The Blues Walked In, by Kathleen George
The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers, by Maxwell King

Olive Fellows is a book reviewer and the host of the BookTube channel ABookOlive.

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