Ed Simon reflects on the weirder side of Pittsburgh's "soul" in new essay collection | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Ed Simon reflects on the weirder side of Pittsburgh's "soul" in new essay collection

click to enlarge Ed Simon reflects on the weirder side of Pittsburgh's "soul" in new essay collection
Ron Donoughe, Spring Hill-City View, 9" X 12" oil on panel, 2014. Courtesy Senator John Heinz History Center, Special Collections Gallery
Cover art for The Soul of Pittsburgh: Essays on Life, Community and History by Ed Simon
While Ed Simon has spent most of his life in Pittsburgh, he also lived for 12 years in New York City; just north of Cambridge, Massachusetts; in suburban Virginia; and on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

The perspective achieved through leaving and returning to Pittsburgh informs Simon’s latest book The Soul of Pittsburgh: Essays on Life, Community and History (Arcadia Publishing).

“I think one of the things going away helps me do is see the changes in Pittsburgh in a starker kind of way than I would have if I’d been here kind of like a frog-in-the-pot style seeing change,” Simon tells Pittsburgh City Paper. "You’d come back a couple times a year and see the development that was coming up or the changes in culture or the changes in the art scene.”

Simon will appear for a reading and book signing on Thu., June 27 at Stay Gold Books in Regent Square.

The thirteen essays in The Soul of Pittsburgh range from the local food scene (“Fries on Everything”) to the literary community (“The Pittsburgh School”) to sports (“Epistle to Steelers Nation”).

Simon — who, in addition to writing books like Relic and An Alternative History of Pittsburgh, serves as an editor for Belt Magazine and an emeritus staff writer for The Millions — finds details that have faded from most local memories. In the essay “Hollywood on the Mon,” an examination of Pittsburgh’s film industry, he writes about Pittsburgh, a forgotten 1942 movie that starred Marlene Dietrich, Randolph Scott, and John Wayne, and the film exchange corridor on the Boulevard of the Allies that began in the early 20th century and lasted until Paramount shuttered its building there in 1970.

The author also celebrates Pittsburgh’s tendency to embrace weirdness, whether it’s the annual gathering of furries for Anthrocon or the confluence of Murray Ave. and Forbes Ave. in Squirrel Hill that “has always had a certain crunchy edge to it,” Simon writes, by way of the neighborhood’s “intellectuals and artists, academics and mystics.”

“Pittsburgh’s weirdness is tremendously unassuming and, in some ways, not fully self-aware in the best possible way, which is why it’s weird,” Simon says. “You take something like Randyland on the North Side. It’s so strange and it’s touted by the arts community and the city fathers, as it should be, because it’s a tremendous kind of outsider art thing. It’s incredible.”

Simon adds that other cities that promote their inherent weirdness, notably Portland, Ore. and Austin, Texas, seem like poseurs. “I feel like there’s an old-school Pittsburgh strangeness, and it wasn’t cooked up by a marketing person.”

While The Soul of Pittsburgh predominantly celebrates the past and present, Simon does cast one glance to the future in the essay “Only Pittsburgh is More than Pittsburgh.” As the weather becomes increasingly hot in southern states due to climate change he predicts that, over the next 50 years, Pittsburgh’s population could double or even triple due to the arrival of climate migrants from overheated regions.

“I think a reverse migration back to places like Pittsburgh is not just likely — I don’t want to say it’s a certainty — but I think it’s what we’re going to see,” Simon says. “And I also think we’re going to see a lot of people moving because of political considerations.”

Because of this, he believes "we need to prepare, thinking about what we’ll need if Pittsburgh becomes bigger again,” adding, “And how do we make sure that Pittsburgh is as neighborly and welcoming as it should be, to live up to the best of its values?"
Ed Simon presents The Soul of Pittsburgh. 7 p.m. Thu., June 27. Stay Good Books. 1104 South Braddock Ave., Regent Square. Free. staygoldbooks.com