Paul Harris visits Pittsburgh and finds a city united by tragedy and a Jewish community insisting it’s the safest place in America
IMAGINE the scene... your 16th birthday is approaching and you anticipate a special gift from your favourite Uncle Andy.
The big day arrives and there’s not a parcel in sight. But Uncle Andy turns up with an artist’s easel and announces that he’s going to paint your portrait to mark the occasion.
Cue silent groans for most in that position . . . but not for young Donald Warhola, when your maverick uncle is none other than Andy Warhol.
Today, that portrait could be worth anything up to $200,000 and is in the vaults of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.
Donald works there in a liaison role, showing visitors round and describing life with the man he refers to simply as “Uncle Andy”, his father John’s brother.
Donald told me: “The whole experience when I walk through the museum is surreal, because he was just Uncle Andy.”
The artist, born in Pittsburgh to Carpatho-Rusyn parents in 1924, who dropped the final ‘a’ in the family name, also drew doodles in the front of many of Donald’s childhood books, which he naturally still treasures.
Andy’s family was poor, arriving in America during the Great Depression and he suffered from bouts of chorea, more commonly known as St Vitus’ Dance, which constantly interrupted his schooling.
Donald said: “As a youngster, he went around the area with a sketchpad.
“He asked for a camera and his parents recognised that there was something special about him. Although they could scarcely afford it, they bought it for him.”
His father died when Andy was young, but had the foresight to put aside $1,500 for his education, which he entrusted to Donald’s father, knowing that his days were numbered.
Andy’s career scarcely needs documenting here, but after graduating from the Carnegie Institute of Technology, he left for New York City to seek employment as a commercial artist, accompanied by a Jewish fellow student Philip Pearlstein, now 94, an artist himself world famous for his modernist realist nudes.
Donald constantly references “repurposing” by Warhol who, he says, never threw anything away.
A vast collection of his personal possessions, some quite trivial items, are housed at the museum.
That repurposing is reflected in much of his work and can be traced back to his childhood.
“Andrej, his father, saved a lot of money by repurposing,” said Donald, who was 24 when his uncle died in 1987.
Could that have something to do with his penchant for featuring Campbell’s soup cans and other discarded household items? And did Andy actually have a love of those soups?
Possibly because the family was poor and needed to economise on food, canned soups may have been a staple, thought Donald, adding: “We’ve all had our experiences, good, bad and ugly, with Campbell’s soup. I know when I was in college, I ate a lot of soup, so it’s artwork that people can create their own narrative to.
“It’s almost like he presents the object and you complete it with your personal experience.”
I was in Pittsburgh just six months after last October’s infamous shootings at the Tree of Life (Or L’Simcha) Congregation in Squirrel Hill.
The Jewish community and locals generally are still in denial that this could have happened in Pittsburgh, a quiet and peaceful city, so far removed, say, from the bustle of Philadelphia just over 300 miles away.
That fateful day saw 11 people lose their lives and seven injured.
Adam Hertzman, director of marketing for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, said that following the tragedy, the community had been grateful for “the level of support just from everyday Americans.
“If this had been 50 or 100 years ago, because of the level of antisemitism in the world, you would never have seen this level of support”.
He said that the synagogue remained closed for such a long period because there were “hundreds if not thousands” of bullet holes, causing considerable damage to the interior.
He added: “Jewish Pittsburgh is one of the safest communities in America and so safe for tourists to visit.
“Pittsburgh is a very safe city, more so than anywhere else I’ve lived.
“It’s great to have visitors from abroad to show their support.”
Throughout the city, t-shirts bearing the legend “Stronger than hate” are sported by people of all faiths and none, with proceeds benefiting the local Jewish community.
Alongside those words are a Magen David and the logo of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the American football team which has partnered the campaign.
Pittsburgh Jewry numbers 49,000 and there are about 26 synagogues, including four Chabad congregations, but only two kosher restaurants and a single kosher butcher.
There are three Jewish day schools and a small Jewish museum in the Jewish Community Centre.
Between 1838 and 1844 a small number of Jews, mostly from Baden, Bavaria, and Württemberg, settled in and around Pittsburgh.
One famous German Jewish son of the city, Barney Dreyfuss, arrived in 1881 and was to become one of the major influences on baseball, America’s national sport.
He organised the first World Series in 1903 that saw Pittsburgh Pirates, which he owned, meet the Boston Americans.
Six years later, he purchased land in Oakland and built Forbes Field which is still the Pirates’ home.
‘Why would tourists want to visit Pittsburgh?’ was the incredulous reaction I encountered from friends? Surely its only claim to fame is its steel industry?
It was once famed for its steel mills which, until the Second World War, lined 30 miles of the Ohio River. Now, the nearest is in Braddock about seven miles away.
Much has changed about the city once dubbed “the Birmingham of America” or “the steamboat city” and where one of every four stainless steel food cans was once supplied to Heinz, which was founded in Pittsburgh in 1869.
The history of the Heinz company is documented at the Senator John Heinz History Center.
Stainless steel was invented in Pittsburgh and Dr Benjamin Spock is famed for his contribution to child welfare, including the polio vaccine, at the Arsenal Family and Children’s Center.
Andrew Carnegie’s arrival on the scene saw the opening of a library and what is now Carnegie Mellon University.
At the Carnegie Natural History Museum, they insist: “Whenever we get something, we get the absolute best.”
And that includes the skeleton of Tyrannosaurus Rex, considered the world’s first specimen of the dinosaur among 22 million objects in the museum’s collection.
Restaurants and bars abound in Pittsburgh these days.
Be sure to try the city’s famous hotcakes at Pamela’s Diner, a favourite haunt of former American president Barack Obama, who invited the chef to the White House to show his own staff how to prepare them.
Enjoy a walking tour of the Strip district, not what it may sound like, but an area packed with old-style grocery, Middle Eastern and gourmet food shops, street sellers, bars, Italian eateries and sandwich shops, all housed in converted warehouses.
Why ‘Strip’? Its name may derive from the topography of an area about 20 blocks long but only three blocks wide. A
As historian Franklin Toker writes in Pittsburgh: An Urban Portrait, the area is “a literal ‘strip, a mile and a half along Penn and Liberty avenues.”
It is also suggested that the Strip was named after the former steel strip mills.
If you experience difficulty with any of the local lingo, you’re not hearing things — the locals use Pittsburghese, a mixture of Scottish, American, Latvian, German and Polish dialects, reflecting the mass immigration at the start of the 20th century.
It is not uncommon to hear fizzy drinks referred to as ‘pop’ or to enjoy Pittsburgh’s adopted dish, pierogi, whose origins are in eastern and central Europe.
Pittsburgh’s version contains sweetened cheese.
In nearby Butler County. I enjoy a smoked salmon and cream cheese crepe at Wunderbar in the appropriately named Harmony where, reputedly, in December 1753, George Washington and Christopher Gist were shot at as they passed through the area.
Harmony was founded by the pietist Johann Georg Rapp and his Harmony Society in 1804.
He had arrived in America from Württemberg, Germany, in search of land for his followers that was free from the religious persecution they had faced in Germany.
Many of the original houses are now museums, reflecting how people lived in the 1800s.
Jack Cohen, president of Butler County Tourism and Convention Bureau, drove me slightly further afield to the Conservative Congregation Bnai Abraham of which he is a member.
Founded in 1903, the present building, which opened in 1960, was severely damaged by flooding four years ago. Its stained glass windows were relocated from the original building.
I was driven in a Ford EPW Jeep in its very home — Butler County.
The American Bantam Car Company invented, developed and produced it after the American army, in 1940, asked 135 tractor and car manufacturers to design a four-wheel drive, 40 horsepower, 1,300lb reconnaissance vehicle that could haul soldiers as well as heavy artillery.
A working prototype had to be produced for a test run within 49 days.
Only two companies responded — The American Bantam Car Company of Butler, and Willys-Overland Motors of Toledo, Ohio. Bantam promised to deliver in 45 days and won the contract.
More than 600,000 Jeeps were built for the army in the Second World War.
One Jeep I saw, from a private Pittsburgh collection, was rescued from an outhouse on the Queen’s Balmoral estate.
British Airways last month launched a direct flight from Heathrow to Pittsburgh, the only airline to do so, and 26 years after it ceased its Gatwick service.
There is some synergy, too. Paint, coatings, adhesives, the unique self-dimming windows and other components for the Dreamliner that flies the route are all produced in Pittsburgh.
It operates four days on Tuesdays, Wednesday, Fridays and Sundays, leaving at 16.10 and landing at 19.25, returning from Pittsburgh at 21.50, arriving into London at 11.25.
Return fares from Manchester start from £629 in World Traveller and £1,053 in World Traveller Plus. Kosher food is available.
* Further information: visitpittsburgh.com
* If you’re flying from Manchester, Vacation Care Manchester Airport Meet and Greet is thoroughly recommended. Enquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org or 07766 537967
* Accommodation at the Distrikt Hotel Pittsburgh start from £145
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