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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Better In Black And White

In February this year, our office invited the experts from Project for Public Spaces (you should check out the website - it's got a lot of interesting information on what makes a great place and why some places - cities, parks, waterfronts, public squares, etc. - are much nicer to be in than others), which is based in New York City, to train the staff on place management concepts and tools.

When I mentioned that I would be visiting Pittsburgh on this trip, one of the trainers said that I would like the city for its "grittiness". I wasn't sure exactly what "gritty" meant in relation to cities, but I didn't exactly like the sound of it.
Pittsburgh is celebrating its 250th anniversary this year. That sounds old to me. The city used to thrive on the steel and heavy manufacturing industry. This probably accounts for the fact that Pittsburgh has more bridges than any other city in the world - 446 to be exact. More than Venice - the historic "City of Bridges". With the decline of the steel industry, Pittsburgh and its neighbouring Mid-Atlantic states were given the moniker the "Rust Belt". Well, many years on, Pittsburgh is thriving, bursting with universities and colleges, museums, galleries and small shops. It is also haphazard, messy, confusing, narrow and disorderly, with charming mansions living side by side with empty lots, abandoned shops, peeling walls, faded advertisements and pot-holed streets. I guess you could call it "shabby chic". Maybe this is what grittiness is.

I have my own way of portraying Pittsburgh: "better in black and white". Better in shadow and light. In the monochromatic wold, messiness provides content. Potholes provide texture. The clash between new and shiny, and old and faded, is less stark, less painful. An eyesore is transformed into something with character.
So most of the photos in this series of blog entries on Pittsburgh were shot in black and white, which I don't usually do. I love colour too much to totally obliterate it from my photos. But my hate for discord outstrips my love for colour. And erasing the clashing hues tends to add some structure and a sense of calm to the scene (or maybe it just calms my frazzled nerves.)

I never practise black and white photography, so I think there's room for improvement in capturing light and shadow. But this is how I prefer to show the understated charm of Pittsburgh.

View of 'The Point' - downtown Pittsburgh. We chanced upon this view when we got lost trying to get into town.

Why Pittsburgh is the "City of Bridges"

Oh alright. Not everything in Pittsburgh looks better in black and white. I broke the rule for this one cos the I prefer the husband in full colour, and not as Monochromatic Man.

He colours my world.

The reason why we're in Pittsburgh is because Dan's cousin, Fadzuli, is graduating from Carnegie Mellon University this Sunday (congrats Fadz!) Together with Fadz and Hannah, we toured the main campus from head to toe - watching students bat cricket, peeping into recording studios and craning our necks at towering art installations, but we spent a leetle more time at the students' Happy Place - the recreation room.

Shuffle Ball board. Aim of the game? To make your (ahem) balls slide and halt to get the most number of points.

Fadzuli at foosball

Dan and his foosball team

We headed downtown the next day, wanting to check out the CBD and Point State Park. After getting incredibly lost in traffic, we ended up at the Strip, a 6-block strip mall, on Penn Avenue. Hah. This is nothing like the Strip on Sunset Boulevard. Nor the Las Vegas Strip. This strip literally looks stripped of all things attractive. No wonder Fadz and Hannah had these baffled "What is there to see downtown?!" expressions when we told them we wanted to spend the afternoon there.

The most decent-looking building was this church. Or what we thought was a church. The name on the entrance says "Altar", with a cruxifix in place of the 't'. There was a scrolling electronic board that announced that "Wednesday is Latin music night". I thought it referred to Latin worship. Upon closer scrutiny, we realised a tiny "Bar" word right underneath "Altar". This place was a club!! And obviously Latin night does not refer to Latin worship.
Seeking comfort? Come to the Altar (Bar).

The Strip looks tired. Tired of holding up abandoned falling-apart buildings. Tired of making excuses for its disused empty lots by turning them into cramped unkempt parking lots - as if giving them a purpose for existing. The narrow sidewalk is overrun with vendors, their cheap wares spilling over onto the road. Asian supermarkets with their bare-bone decor bathed in stark florescent lighting. The stale oily smell from carbon-coated roadside grills burning up dubious-looking meat skewers. For those at home, it's like a perpetual, yet aging pasar malam (night market) dying a slow sad death. I hated it.

Squat brick buildings. The one on the right houses the only decent-looking restaurant on the strip.

There are no flashing neon advertisement lights here or spiffy changing boards by JCDecaux. Just glue-on bills, posters and graffiti.

Cheap wares

Ivy vines taking over the world.

Would you want to get your teeth done here?

We finally found something we sorta liked. Well, something Dan liked. And I just accepted as part of my life for the next twenty minutes. It turned out that we had parked our car next to a building with a comic shop in its basement.

Down into the dungeons we go

It had thousands and thousands of comic books. All neatly arranged in alphabetical order. I wonder how much this store is insured for against fire and theft. And termites maybe.

Read your way through these boxes

Then it was off to dinner at Waterfront - basically an ubiquitous suburban shopping complex with familiar American outlets (Target, Best Buy, Petco) and eateries (TGI Fridays), located along a thin strip of river (and I was looking out for the equivalent of Clark Quay and Boat Quay!) Dinner at Red Robin was good. The generous portions of hearty (read: sinful, tasty, fattening, heart-killing) American fare called out to our consciousness, asking to be shared. All entrees came with unlimited servings of fries. Even after sharing, we couldn't finish our standard portion of fries. Who in the world can have a second helping of fries?! Maybe just Jabba the Hutt?

Here's a pic of the Tower of Onion Rings! The onion rings in the US are really good, with juicy strips of onion. Not like the puny fried flour rings you get from Burger King back at home. Pffft. Good food deserves to be photographe. In full colour.

Looking at it up close

That's how tall it is

I forgot to take pictures of the entrees - basically a Red Robin gourmet cheeseburger (rollover and die, Maccers!) for Fadz and Hannah, and a prime rib sandwich for Dan and me. Shared. With fries.

We headed for nearby Rockbottom for dessert. Doing things the American way, we drove to Rockbottom. In fact, we drove from Petco to Target to Red Robin to Rockbottom - all within the same gianormous parking lot. Gluttony and Sloth go well together. To make up for the lack of walking (yeah right), we shared a slice of super-moist carrot cake. The picture doesn't do justice to the size of the cake. It's much bigger than it looks. And we evilly gawked and gossiped about the 2 women in another booth who ordered a slice each.

Tiny Hannah & Big Carrot Cake

Pittsburgh: Better In Black And White
. Now wouldn't that make an interesting marketing tagline?


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