People's History Tour of Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

People's History Tour of Pittsburgh

Works of art -- and the art of work

You may have heard that Pittsburgh is celebrating its 250th birthday this year. There's plenty of talk about the city's innovative scientists and business leaders, its artists and actors, its foundations and benefactors.

But what about the unsung millions upon whose shoulders those leaders stood?

This is a town defined by, and proud of, the independence and tenacity of its people. But we've always had a love-hate relationship with the agitators, organizers and other malcontents who make trouble while making progress possible. So if you're interested in learning about the city's heritage, by all means visit the Heinz History Center (1212 Smallman St., 412-454-6000), and enjoy the various Pittsburgh 250 events. But don't be afraid to get out from under the shadows of Downtown's office towers either.

The most natural place to start is the Pump House (East Waterfront Drive), which broods over its past and the stretch of the Monongahela River flowing past Homestead. Incongruously located at the periphery of a strip mall, this modest brick structure is just about all that remains of US Steel's once-mighty Homestead Works. And it was here that 1892's famous Homestead Steel Strike kicked off, when striking workers fought off an attempt by Pinkertons to land barges here and seize control of the mill.

Nearby is the Bost Building (623 E. 8th Ave., 412-464-4020), which in 1892 served as headquarters for the striking workers. Today, it houses the offices, archives and exhibition space of the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, an organization devoted to documenting the region's industrial heritage from the perspective of those who actually put their sweat, blood and muscle into it. While here, try to pick up a copy of Routes to Roots, an especially handy guidebook to the region's cultural and historical landmarks.

Across the river, and slightly upstream, is the town of Braddock. Braddock has seen better days, but it still boasts the first Carnegie Library (419 Library St., 412-351-5356) steel titan Andrew Carnegie built in America for his employees. The building retains some 19th-century grandeur, and remains a community touchstone. Not far away, on Braddock Avenue, is a roadside observation deck that allows you to take in the sprawling Edgar Thomson Works -- the last fully integrated, iron-ore-to-finished-steel facility still running in the state.

If you want to see how the other half lived, head into Pittsburgh and visit the Frick Art and Historical Center (7227 Reynolds St., Point Breeze, 412-371-0606). This is the site of Clayton, the mansion of strikebreaking industrialist Henry Clay Frick. Touring the grounds is free, but a guided tour is worth the price of admission. Find out whether the Frick family's pet cemetery, or the untimely death of Frick's own child, makes you more sympathetic to the old miser.

Pittsburgh's black community has made contributions that resonate not just across town, but across the country. Among other things, Pittsburgh has been home to jazz greats, gifted writers and pioneering black newspapers. But although construction is underway on an African-American museum Downtown, many black history landmarks have been swept away. Even the Hill District's Freedom Corner (Centre Avenue at Crawford Street), a site that has birthed countless marches and demonstrations, has been neglected. It may be worth a stop anyway, and St. Benedict the Moor church (91 Crawford St., 412-281-3141), with its striking statue atop the steeple, and distinctive blend of Catholic and African-American traditions, is nearby.

Heading up the Allegheny River valley, stop at the St. Nicholas Croatian Church (24 Maryland Ave., Millvale, 412-821-3438). A yellow-brick building visible from a hillside overlooking Millvale and Route 28, St. Nicholas is notable for the stunning 1930s murals of Croatian artist Maxo Vanka. Vanka fused the techniques of Mexican muralism with the Eastern European immigrant experience, creating a church interior that offers a scathing indictment of industrialism, and a blazing vision of social justice. Angels wearing gas masks, dead miners posed in Pietas ... had Karl Marx visited here, he might never have decried religion as the opiate of the masses.

Further upriver, in the town of Springdale, is the homestead of environmentalist Rachel Carson (613 Marion Ave., 724-274-5459). The birthplace of the author of Silent Spring -- which helped launch the modern environmental movement -- also features walking trails.

Even further up the Allegheny is the Tour-Ed Mine & Museum (748 Bull Creek Road, Tarentum, 724-224-4720). At this homespun museum, tours are guided by active and retired miners, who conduct visitors through a former coal mine. You'll ride a "man trip" -- the conveyance used for subterranean transit -- learn a bit about coal, and a lot about just how dark "pitch-black" really is.

Finally, hardcore history buffs should set aside a rainy afternoon to visit the University of Pittsburgh's Archives Service Center (7500 Thomas Blvd, North Point Breeze, 412-244-7091). Tucked away in a nondescript office building is a dizzying archive documenting the struggle for economic justice: anti-McCarthyist pamphlets; records from union-organizing campaigns; sermons by "labor priests." Call in advance ... and be prepared to return. As with the city itself, it will take more than one visit to explore the memories stored here.