Downtown: Where it all starts ... and starts over | City Neighborhoods | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Downtown: Where it all starts ... and starts over

A city's downtown often symbolizes the self-image of the people who live there. Pittsburgh's Downtown -- known to locals as the Golden Triangle -- suggests the triumph and despair of a place that has undergone repeated makeovers ... some more successful than others.

We'll start by getting to the Point -- Point State Park -- where the Allegheny and the Monongahela rivers converge to form the Ohio. Once this was the site of a key military stronghold; later it became an industrial district, then a slum. Today, it's a park that serves as the city's front lawn. (It is, however, undergoing major renovations through 2008, and much of it is currently inaccessible.)

At one end of the park a trace still remains of the 1760s-era Fort Pitt: a blockhouse that stands alongside the Fort Pitt Museum (412-281-9284) and connects the city to its roots in the French and Indian War. (History buffs may also want to visit the cemetery next door to First Presbyterian Church at 320 Sixth Ave.; some of Pittsburgh's earliest European settlers are buried there.) At the park's other end is its fountain, an icon of Pittsburgh's famed postwar "Renaissance." The fountain is fed by an aquifer -- a layer of water-retaining porous stone often called the city's "Fourth River" -- and shoots up more than 150 feet high.

Just outside the park, you'll find another artifact of the city's Renaissance: Gateway Center. The office complex may seem sterile, but for three weeks every June, Gateway Center and Point State Park host the Three Rivers Art Festival, which draws artists, performers and craftspeople from across the nation.

As you walk down Liberty Avenue, you'll note the darkly mirrored spires of PPG Place, a postmodern six-building complex designed by Philip Johnson. Its stark courtyard has recently been animated by a tiny ice rink in the winter, and a fountain for kids to play in during the summer. Nearby are the low-slung historical buildings making up the city's original town square, as laid out in 1784. Today, Market Square is the site of political rallies and other events, though it remains scruffy much of the time. Notable businesses include the Original Oyster House (412-566-7925), a historic bar/restaurant dating back to the 19th century, and that inevitable fries-on-your-sandwich Pittsburgh eatery, Primanti Brothers (412-261-1559).

Art-lovers should delve farther into town, toward the heart of the city's Cultural District. This stretch of Penn and Liberty was once the city's red-light district; today it offers more refined entertainments, though not necessarily to a different class of people.  Most of the venues here are identified in this guide's gallery and venue directories; for now, we'll just suggest that while in the area, you take a breather at the Agnes Katz Plaza at the corner of Penn Avenue and Seventh Street. A creation of famous artists and landscape architects, such as Michael Graves, the plaza is among the newest of Downtown's public-art installations. It's complemented by a riverside park along the Allegheny River a couple blocks to the north -- an ideal place for a lunchtime stroll.

Not every Downtown renewal effort has been so successful. An abortive Lazarus department store is being reborn as a retail/residential project called Piatt Place. (Residents are rare here, although condos and upscale housing are springing up throughout the district.) But much of the surrounding area -- centered on Fifth and Forbes avenues -- is still recovering from a failed attempt to turn the area into a shopping district. One area survivor has been J.R. Weldin's (413 Wood St., 412-281-0123), a beloved stationery store.

Elsewhere, though, Downtown has held onto a Saks Fifth Avenue (513 Smithfield St., 412-297-5388), and a Macy's (400 Fifth Ave., 412-232-2000) that everyone still calls Kaufmann's. (The "Kaufmann's Clock" at the corner of Smithfield and Fifth is a famed landmark and meeting place.) The city does have a couple snow-globe versions of its upscale mall. The glassed-in shopping district in the lobby of One Oxford Centre at the corner of Grant and Forbes, for example, features retailers like Ann Taylor (412-261-4772), Kountz and Rider (412-642-6600) and Four Winds Gallery (412-355-0998), which features Southwestern-themed pottery and other work. Fifth Avenue Place, at the corner of Fifth and Liberty sports a similar, though less tony, mix of retail and food-court options.

And just about every soon-to-be-married Pittsburgh couple stops at the Clark Building (717 Liberty Ave.), a sort of one-building diamond district.

As you might expect, Downtown is dotted with high-end eateries, ranging from the old-school steakhouse vibe of the 1902 Tavern (24 Market Sq., 412-471-1902) to fresh-faced newcomers like Palomino (444 Liberty Ave., 412-642-7711) in Gateway Center. Others can be found in this guide's dining section.

But there are cheaper eats to be had here. Bike messengers, office workers on a budget, and underpaid City Paper staffers can be found partaking of the cheap, MSG-free Indian fare at Sree's (7th Ave. and Smithfield, 412-288-9992). Authentic Cantonese food can be found at Golden Palace Buffet (647 Smithfield St., 412-338-1888): Our advice: Skip the buffet but peruse the menu.

The Golden Triangle is compact, but if you tire of walking, make use of one of Downtown's three underground "T" stops. Riding between these stops is free (at least as of this writing). Still, seeing the city's architectural marvels requires staying topside. Along Grant Street alone, you'll see Art Deco masterpieces like the Koppers Building and the Gulf Tower, not to mention the US Steel Tower, a modernist monolith that, like the local steel industry itself, had the rust built in. A few blocks away, the Allegheny County Courthouse, an imposing 19th-century masterpiece by H.H. Richardson, is a mustn't-miss.

Even if you're not one of the conventioneers that flock to the area year-round, consider checking out the David L. Lawrence Convention Center regardless. The dramatic design by Rafael Vinoly stands out, as does its status as the largest certified green building at its 2003 opening. The center suggests the hope that Pittsburgh's next transformation will be -- unlike so many others -- both sustainable and sustained.

click to enlarge The view along Grant Street, where the city's business and political leadership is gathered. - PHOTO: HEATHER MULL
The view along Grant Street, where the city's business and political leadership is gathered.

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