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Author's essay collection seeks 'The Soul of Pittsburgh'

White man in a blue T-shirt
Courtesy of the author
Author Ed Simon is a Pittsburgh native and editor-in-chief of Belt Magazine.

Most city-dwellers love to talk about what defines their towns, Pittsburghers included.

But thoughtful, comprehensive explorations that last longer than a barstool chat are pretty rare. Ed Simon’s new book, “The Soul of Pittsburgh: Essays on Life, Community and History” (The History Press), might be good prep for your next such discussion.

In 13 essays, the Pittsburgh native ponders how the world looks at Pittsburgh and how Pittsburgh views itself through the lenses of everything from architecture, food culture and neighborhood identities to the Steelers, the Pittsburgh accent, and even films shot here. And yes, Adrian Lyne’s 1983 Hollywood hit “Flashdance” is evaluated in depth.

Soul of Pittsburgh book cover

Simon even detours into locals-only esoterica such as the discreet charm of the Baum Boulevard-Centre Avenue corridor.

Simon, author of more than a dozen books, comes by his obsessions honestly. He grew up in East Liberty and Point Breeze, graduated from Taylor Allderdice High School, and moved back to town a few years ago after sojourns in Boston, New York City, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. The Squirrel Hill resident is editor-in-chief at Belt Magazine, which covers the Rust Belt and greater Midwest, and he has writing credits in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Jacobin, Salon and The New York Times.

In his 2021 book “An Alternative History of Pittsburgh,” Simon took a fresh look at the region from the Paleolithic to the present, with stops for the Whiskey Rebellion, Andrew Carnegie, Joe Magarac, and more.

“The Soul of Pittsburgh,” while full of history and incident, also incorporates Simon’s personal experiences.

He writes about hearing the word “yinz” spoken on the street in Glasgow, Scotland, in an essay that ranges from Pittsburgh’s overseas roots to the online video series “Pittsburgh Dad” and beyond. In “Ninety Neighborhoods,” he draws on his experience living on Centre to discuss the oddly film noir feeling one can get traversing the seam between the multiple East End neighborhoods that back up on it. And he interrogates local food and restaurant culture, not with just the inevitable “fries on everything,” but with a nuanced look at the history of the once-iconic, now nearly forgotten dish called the Turkey Devonshire.

Of “Flashdance,” Simon said: “It preserves on film a slice of Pittsburgh right as the [industrial] decline was happening and before our resurgence. You know, you have this kind of unlikely story of this kind of PG-13 stripper-slash-welder who wants to be a ballet dancer, right? … And you couldn't set a movie like that anywhere other than Pittsburgh.”

On today’s widespread local use of the terms “yinz” and “yinzer,” he said: “There's a certain irony, I think, in that you have this really full-throated embrace of the term 'yinzer' as a marker of regional identity right at the moment that the accent, at least within the city, has declined in some ways. And I think that there's something interesting about reinventing what the term ‘yinzer’ means and maybe appropriating it and using it in a different way that can be fun, that can be an homage to things, that can be kind of ironic or tongue-in-cheek but also proud of the region.”

And if Simon covers all the touchstones you’d expect — from the Terrible Towel and “Night of the Living Dead” to Teenie Harris and Anthrocon — Simon often arrives at surprising conclusions. For instance, in one chapter he makes a strong case that the best symbol of Pittsburgh is not its bridges or inclines, but rather “the Pittsburgh home” — that cozy, century-plus-old brick edifice with its unlikely stained-glass ornamentation that itself defines so many neighborhoods here.

While Simon clearly loves Pittsburgh, as in “An Alternative History” he remains candid about its shortcomings. And so “Soul of Pittsburgh” also delves into such things as the injustices faced by the city’s Black residents. Simon gives due attention to the 1950s demolition of the Lower Hill District, the neighborhood that was once a stage and incubator for so much of the jazz, arts, and sporting talent that Pittsburgh gave to the world — even as Black people are still so often left out of the discussion of what it means to be “Pittsburgh.”

When we say ‘yinzer,’ oftentimes people have in mind a very particular type of person,” Simon said. “It has working-class associations, obviously, but it also has white associations, oftentimes ethnic white, like very much so, obviously.”

“But when people think of, like, a Black or Hispanic 'yinzer' or an Asian 'yinzer,' examples kind of fall short. And I think obviously there's something troubling about that in that Pittsburgh's Black history has been so integral to the history of the city,” he said. “Those inequities aren't just addressed by kind of plumbing what's problematic about a term like ‘yinzer.’ But it is something that I think we can do, to think a little bit more about how we talk about these things can have a material effect as well.”

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: