It is 24 years since I first landed at Pittsburgh International airport to teach English at the University of Pittsburgh. The airport has changed but the city hasn’t. Pittsburgh is built on the confluence of the Monongahela and the Allegheny rivers as they meet to form the Ohio. The downtown rising out of the waters of the three rivers is astonishingly beautiful. You cannot see it from a distance because it is hidden on the airport side by Mt Washington, named after the great George who, then a Major General in the employ of the British Crown took the town from the French in 1758.
As you exit the tunnel under Mt Washington the city suddenly slams into focus, the skyscrapers and the water making one of the most beautiful sights that I know. When you tell other Americans that Pittsburgh is a beautiful city they look at you in disbelief. Of course there’s a lot, despite what Juliet said, in a name. The French called this spot La belle riviere, the beautiful river, The English called it Pittsburgh.
But more important is the subsequent history. Pittsburgh, or La Belle Riviere, was of immense strategic importance in that long period of human history, before those diligent English and Scots engineers gave us steel rails and tarmac roads, when rivers, were the only easy way to traverse long distances. However it was the discovery of steel and coal that made Pittsburgh rich and dirty. The steel mills that belched forth smoke for over a hundred years ensured that no inhabitant ever saw the sky and everything was constantly covered in a fine film of ash. Pittsburgh was the name for a grubby dark city. But the steel mills went.
The newspapers would have us believe that globalization is new but it was Marx who first spelled out that capitalism was globalization and that the growth of wage labour and the European domination of the globe are aspects of the same phenomenon. Pittsburgh was one of the great beneficiaries of the pre World War 1 globalisation boom , arguably of more significance than that of the past generation. If its great barons, the Carnegies, the Mellons and the Fricks made riches beyond the dreams of avarice, the steelworkers of post 1945 American affluence were as highly paid as any manual workers in human history. A steelworker earned enough money to buy a house, a car and to send his children to college; his wife had no need to work.
But the good times went in a few short years in the nineteen seventies. A combination of incompetent management and unions unable to see beyond their own backyard – you can call this the failure of capitalism or the failure of socialism according to taste – meant that the steel mills and over 100,000 highly paid manual jobs went in a global hit the size of which has few if any parallels in modern industrial society, although similar and smaller hits have become the norm for Western industrial cities in the subsequent three decades. The city to which I came as a visitor in 1985 should have been a city on its knees. But in a story, which is both typically American and specific to Pittsburgh, the city reinvented itself – above all as a centre of hospitals and universities.
As the taxi speeds along the Monongahela and I feel that fierce physical sensation of a return to a much-loved city, I am conscious, and pleased to be conscious, of my own small part in this. The University of Pittsburgh that I joined permanently in 1987 has improved its academic standing considerably since then. My own department of English has played a significant part in this improvement. The last national rankings placed us in the first 20 English departments in the country, a full 60 places higher than when I was recruited. But my love of the city is much more basic than this academic calculation, it is a love of the rivers, the bridges and the hills, of the people as friendly as a third world city, of a depressed economic area which managed to escape the global obsession with money of the last 25 years.
Only my wife and children understand, it is too complicated to explain to those who do not live with me, that if my family home is in London, my base is in Pittsburgh. From the frenzied years as a feature film producer, when the department offered an island of calm to reflect theoretically on what I was learning, to the bitter end at the British Film Institute when the university provided the material basis for me to refuse to bow the knee to New Labour, Pittsburgh has been my refuge and my strength, the fuck you money in my back pocket, the easy friendship of my English department.
The taxi turns away from the Monongahela and up the hill to Forbes Avenue. Soon the Cathedral of Learning will loom into view and I will have returned to base. The Cathedral of Learning is perhaps the greatest of Pittsburgh’s glories. A 43 storey high Gothic structure, designed and built as a whole community’s commitment to education – the money coming in part from the nickels and dimes of the city’s schoolchildren, it is, at least in ambition a modern day Chartres. Of course it is not as beautiful or as striking as Chartres as that cathedral rises out of the ground from many kilometers’s distance but it is better to miss Naples than hit Margate. On first view it seemed to me an American folly but I have learned the wisdom of that folly. I am more than proud that for 24 years I have had my office in this genuine pillar of learning with its complicated architecture, its mediieval nooks and crannies and its ground floor where devoted study where students work with the same intensity as medieval monks prayed.
The word safe comes into my mind and I remember those childhood games when “ safe’ was the cry that you had reached the zone where you were no longer at risk. And I remember how surprised I had been when in the nineties the word metamorphosed in my children’s London slang into the ultimate term of approval. This new meaning of safe had its own intonation, clipped and cool it was a marker amongst other things for the satisfactory end to a conversation. And now the taxi breasts the hill of Forbes Avenue and there, always more magnificent than in memory, is the Cathedral.