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From Duquesne To Jumonville, Pittsburgh Has Rich History Of French Influence

Kevin Bowman
At the Point, a marker indicates the former site of Fort Duquesne.

Bonne Fête Nationale!  July 14th marks the celebration of the French National Day, commonly known as Bastille Day, to commemorate the storming of the Bastille fortress during the French Revolution in 1789.  

Benedicte Barlat, director of Centre Francophone de Pittsburgh/Pittsburgh French Culture Center, joined Essential Pittsburgh to talk Bastille Day celebrations and the French influence in the region.

The Bastille fortress and prison, formerly located in the center of Paris, stood as a symbol of the King’s absolute and arbitrary power.  

Barlat says the storming of the Bastille was a symbolic endeavor, as the people of France rebelled against the monarchy.

“It was really the symbol that they wanted to get rid of and show that they had the power to do it,” Barlat said.

Celebration as a yearly national holiday began only a century later after the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War.  To restore national morale, symbols of the revolution were resurrected, such as the national motto “Liberté Egalité Fraternité,” the national anthem La Marseillaise and the celebration of Bastille Day.

Nowadays, the French celebrate the national holiday with parades, fireworks and free dances.  

With familiar names like Duquesne and Jumonville, French influence is apparent in the Pittsburgh region.  From original settlements in 1750, to the building of Fort Duquesne and beyond, Barlat says this influence can still be found in present day, whether it be in architecture, beer or authentic sidewalk cafes.

“It’s a very nice thing to do, to be able to sit outside and enjoy good coffee,” Barlat laughed.

According to Barlat, the Francophone, or French-speaking community, has grown substantially in Pittsburgh over the years.  The Pittsburgh French Culture Center now has nearly 500 members.

Each year, the center tries to mimic authentic French Bastille Day celebrations.  This year, they will host a picnic in Aspinwall, where all are welcome to bring food and drink. Barlat assures that all are welcome--no speaking French required.

“You have to have patience because you might hear a lot of French around you, but everyone speaks English and is willing to welcome everybody.”

More EP Archives can be heard here