In a year where Pittsburgh has already seen two of its three professional sports teams win national championships and played host to the year’s key international political summit, it seems apt that ‘Burghers would be especially excited about, maybe even proud of, the city’s potential.
A love song to Pittsburgh if there ever was one, Brian O’Neill’s The Paris of Appalachia doesn’t fight this revived hope for the future, but it leavens it with an idea foreign to many longtime residents: Pittsburgh is already a great city.
Whether O’Neill, a Post-Gazette columnist and Allegheny West resident, champions the DIY ethic of Troy Hill residents who move abandoned vehicles into the middle of roads so Public Works will tow them away quicker or Deutschtown denizens caroling at the homes of known drug dealers, his appreciation for Pittsburghers’ hardscrabble attitude is apparent in each of the book’s 16 short essays.
Each essay, which averages an easy eight pages in length, deals with one positive attribute or experience O’Neill has encountered over his two decades here. Recurring themes are his feelings of superiority over suburbanites who can’t walk to work, unusual and sometimes astute barroom banter, his brother (the penile enhancement specialist) and navigating the Pittsburgh Public School system for his two daughters, Curran and Clare.
If there’s one thing the author could change about the city, it would be what he considers the natives’ low self-esteem. Pittsburghers are always impressed that transplants and outsiders appreciate the city, O’Neil writes, because they don’t notice the cultural and geographical curiosities that lend Pittsburgh its originality in the first place.
Due to his perch over on Beech Avenue, the Northside is the setting for much of O’Neill’s book. He writes glowingly of Brighton Heights’ Wilksboro Avenue footbridge (now closed), Allegheny Commons’ immaculate collection of tree varieties, the Fineview Step-A-Thon and the opening of Hoi Polloi on Galveston Avenue.
The last line of the chapter “Saving the Best” sums up O’Neil’s often wistful view of the city’s reservoir of decaying infrastructure: “[I]t’s a shame that previous generations left Pittsburgh with all this cool stuff, and here we are, saving up just to blow treasures away.”
But The Paris of Appalachia doesn’t just concern itself with the city’s value and the individuals that people it. The last 40 pages take a turn into light wonky fare.
O’Neil explains that the population loss over the last half century isn’t as dire as some might say. In fact, if Pittsburgh played by the rules of growing younger cities like Austen and Phoenix that routinely annex nearby suburbs, it would have a similar population, and competitive tax base, to larger cities.
For instance, if Pittsburgh covered the same area as San Diego, the 7th largest U.S. city, it would have 900,000 people, rather than 300,000. As it is, playing by the old rules of rigid political boundaries, Pittsburgh is still more than twice as dense as the nation’s 5th largest city, Phoenix.
It’s unexpected then that O’Neill throws his hat in with those who would merge Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, arguing that the wealthier suburbanites who use the city’s aging infrastructure should have to pay their fair share of upkeep.
Knowing that suburbanites are fearful of taking on the city’s debt, O’Neil points out county residents’ incredibly fractured and inefficient municipalities. Flat city and county taxes would allow the city to draw in more residents, which would benefit all parties involved.
But whether you agree with O’Neil’s policy prescriptions, the book is worth reading if only for the retelling of Northside lore and the vast assembly of neighborhood characters that happen upon each page.
And if your name is Linda Ianotta, Tiffany McCary, Tim Bartens, Sean Cannon, Kristin Kovacic, John Canning, Robin Troy, Damia Smith, Gus Kalaris, Mark Fatla, Ruth Thomas, Brian Jensen, John McCarthy, Chad Garber, John DeSantis, Fred Tait, Bob and Loretta Barone, Dave Teece or Tom Barbush, it might be fun to find yourself among O’Neil’s many stories.