Writers Bring Intimate Takes On Pittsburgh To A New 'Guidebook'
Maybe more than most towns, Pittsburgh is a city of neighborhoods – even if those neighborhoods continue to change over time.
But don’t come to “The Pittsburgh Neighborhood Guidebook” expecting a handy compendium of maps, lists and rundowns of favorite restaurants and watering holes. As the book’s editor, Ben Gwin, acknowledges, Cleveland-based Belt Publishing’s series of “guidebooks” to Rust Belt cities are named with tongue firmly in cheek. The three dozen essays and poems by 25 writers in the new Pittsburgh edition together constitute a gritty, street-level, and highly personal take on life in Pittsburgh.
Gwin, a New Jersey native, has lived in Pittsburgh about 15 years, most of it in Bloomfield. But he said he learned a lot from the writing he solicited and edited for the anthology, especially about how Pittsburgh “history” is more than the epic tale of industrial triumph, decline, and rebirth that civic fathers usually tell.
“I learned just how wide of a range it is, and how it’s hard to have one narrative for the whole region, which I think there’s a tendency to do, a lot. Just to make it easy to talk about the Rust Belt, or Pittsburgh,” he said.
Still, he added, the book is also not not a guidebook. “It does give a real description of the city and surrounding area, right? Like, what it feels like to live or to be in the city for a certain period of time, you know? I think that’s kind of a neat play on the guidebook idea.”
The collection is organized geographically into three broad regions, but the experiences and perspectives it relates are just as broad, with contributors ranging in age from their 20s into their 60s.
Contributors include East Hills resident Brian Broome, whose recent memoir, “Punch Me Up to the Gods,” is making a national literary splash, and others with widespread reputations, including poet Jim Daniels (who writes about Oakland), memoirist Lori Jakiela (Trafford), short-fiction-writer Sherrie Flick (South Side Slopes) and New Yorker contributor Shannon Reed, whose essay “Can a Sports-Crazed City Turn a Theater Person Into A Baseball Person?” centers on PNC Park.
Award-winning poet Cameron Barnett contributes two poems, including “Swisshelm Park,” which celebrates the leafy, isolated, “semi-suburb” where he grew up. Matthew Wallenstein recalls a pickup truck of his that kept getting stolen in Braddock. Dave Newman contributes three poems including the 15-page narrative “I Was Heading to the O on Forbes Avenue in Oakland,” which recounts a student getting in a sidewalk fist-fight around the time he was awakening to poetry. Former newspaper reporter Vince Guerrieri recalls a bar crawl he did in Dormont after covering a mass shooting some years ago. Brittany Hailer tells the story of two brothers surviving drug addiction, incarceration, and redemption in Beltzhoover.
Several pieces address gentrification. Rich Gegick ponders the changes Downtown, where he worked for years as a server and bartender at a steakhouse. Jason Vrabel’s “Lawrenceville’s Doo-Dah Days Are Over” takes a self-critical look at the racial and socio-economic vagaries of life in that rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.
Not all writers address neighborhoods where they live or work. Mike Good, for instance, sets two of his poems in Millvale, but one recalls visiting his grandmother there as a child, and the other a sort of quarter-life-crisis moment while bitterly drinking beers with friends at a brewpub.
Many of the writers, though, have deep and abiding roots in the neighborhoods they consider. Alona Williams has lived all her 24 years in Garfield. Her poem “The Bride of Penn Ave,” was inspired by Judy Penzer’s landmark three-story 1995 mural of a Black bride ascending the front steps of her home:
“She the prettiest thing in this neighborhood anymore," the poem reads. "The Bride of Penn Ave. Coming home after her wedding to find her friends and family waiting with eye-watering food she can’t eat until she has changed out of her dress.”
“She is me. Before I was,” the piece concludes. “Her fulfilled prophecy. Place is the narrator here.”
Garfield has been a majority-Black neighborhood for decades, and Williams said that growing up, she saw herself reflected in not only her neighbors, but also “The Bride” and other murals along Penn. Nowadays, with gentrification taking hold, that’s less true, she said. But it’s made her appreciate “The Bride” anew.
“I don’t believe that you can just erase people from a place. I’m glad this mural has stood the test of time and will continue to be here,” Williams said. “And hopefully we can have more work start to pop back up that has Black people, Black children and Black women, and is representative of this entire city and not just transplants and what makes people feel comfortable.”
Even so, she said, much of her work recapitulates local writers’ tendency to focus on neighborhoods.
“I feel like a lot of writers who are from Pittsburgh, or who come to Pittsburgh, understand how interesting this place is to write about,” she said. “I’m a sucker for place. … For me, environment is everything.”
“We’re just gonna keep telling the story as this place continues to change, but also stay the same in a lot of ways,” she added.