Tuesday, June 22, 2010

From Parma to Etna

About 135 miles separates them.  For every similarity, both camps will instantly reel off the obvious differences.  The states that encompass them both have similar problems and dilemmas, yet each are quick to point out that which differentiates them.  There is no either/or, no sitting on the fence, though.  The only thing in the middle is Youngstown.  Having lived and worked in both of them, it was our mission to unfurl the quintessence of both Cleveland and Pittsburgh, and we had only 1 day in each city to do it.

Our good friends Pat and Kathy Hedger, who lived next door to us in Illinois, were in town this past weekend.  We've been inundating them with stories of both areas for almost 3 years, everything from what Akron's Stricklands custard tastes like, to what exactly is in a Primanti Brothers sandwich.  So they decided to come see for themselves which city gets the nod.  As un-official trail-boss, I struggled, weeks beforehand, as to how I was going to approach this 48-hour showcase.  Sure, we'd show them some of Akron's highlights (yes, Akron does have highlights!) but the tour 'd force would be that 135 mile trip, and the time spent on both ends of the Ohio and Pennsylvania Turnpikes.

The mutual hatred between the people of these two cities couldn't be more distinct, which is why I think they're so similar.  Both have storied industrial pasts, and both have fallen on hard times.  The main bone of contention is, of course, football.  Sure, the franchise-series is virtually tied between the Browns and Steelers, but Pittsburgh has so dominated in the past decades that it's almost laughable.  The Steelers have won 6 Super Bowls and the Browns have yet to play in one.  But you knew that.  What you may not know is that both cities are a photographer's dream-shoot.  Both cities have residents who speak with an accent. (although Pittsburgh's is much more prevalent, and I'm not sure that's necessarily a good thing. Asking some hot chick for directions and having her say, "When yinz guys get into dahntahn, turn left" is not auditory heaven, by any stretch!)  Both cities have vibrant, long-standing ethnic communities.  Both cities are tough.  Both cities have crappy weather, prompting many people to talk about leaving for Florida or Arizona, but they rarely do.  Maybe that's what makes them so tough.  Both have great beer and awesome pierogies.

But there are differences.  Or, perhaps better put, there are preferences.  Cleveland is a much easier city to drive in because of it's more simplistic grid, but Pittsburgh is much more challenging and therefore more fun.  If you can navigate a trip through the Golden Triangle over to Oakland and make it back in one piece, you can drive in any city in the world.  Cleveland's downtown feels like an east-coast city.  Pittsburgh's feels like Europe.  I told my mother that the first time I made my way through the Squirrel Hill Tunnel, down the Parkway East into downtown while glancing over at the South Side Slopes, I felt like I was in Austria or southern Germany again.  The singular "look" of Pittsburgh makes it much easier to elicit an "Oh, cool!" at first-glance.  In Cleveland, you have to search a bit to find its quirky underbelly.  The college sports scene is better in Pittsburgh, but Cleveland has the edge in restaurants.  Pittsburgh has gorgeous North Park, but Cleveland has the Lake.  Cleveland gets more diverse concerts (c'mon, it is the Rock 'n Roll capital!), has a more vibrant theater district, and a better orchestra (that's right, THE Cleveland Orchestra.)  Pittsburgh has far-better vistas (any view from Observatory Hill is stunning), cooler neighborhoods (roll down the Mexican War Streets on the North Side and you'll see what I mean!), and breathtaking architecture.  Cleveland has LeBron (at least for another month) but Pittsburgh has hockey!          

Our friends arrived on Thursday, and we immediately made a bee-line to Primos Deli.  Not only is Primos an Akron institution, but the sandwiches are first-class and the beer-list is extensive.  After going back to our home and hanging out for awhile, we again worked up an appetite and decided to search for pizza.  Pat and Kathy know our feelings about St. Louis-style pizza.  If you've never had it, take 2 blank sheets of typing paper, smear on some ketchup, melt some swiss cheese, throw it on top, and take a bite.  You've just had St. Louis-style pizza.  Friends don't let friends eat bad pizza.  I briefly pondered a journey south to Canton to introduce them to the other hall of fame, The Pizza Oven, but Pat was beginning to look weak, so we had to move quickly.  Luigi's was in plain sight, so we opted for the pie by which all others in Akron are measured.  It was the first time I had visited this venerable Italian eatery since our return, and it did not disappoint.

The next day, Friday, would be Cleveland day.  If you had less than 8 hours to show someone your favorite city, what would you choose to do?  Of course, you have to factor in drive-time and such, but do you create an iron-clad itinerary?  Do you allow for improvisation?  And, one can't forget to include some of the things that they already planned on doing.  It can be difficult.  One of the things I didn't factor in was our late start.  Pat and Kathy are much like me.  They like to ease in to their day.  I have to have my weekend coffee and my newspapers (both the Plain Dealer and the Beacon Journal).    I also have to throw in a little ESPN SportsCenter, too.  Donna, on the other hand, can jump out of bed, grab her toothbrush, rinse, and then head outside to tear down a garage or in to the garden to do some weeding.  Since she was in the minority, our Cleveland day really didn't get started until about noon.

What's a must in Cleveland?  Yes, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.  It was at the top of their list, and that was fine, because it had been about 7 or 8 years since I'd been there.  The stars were aligned, too, because the main exhibit focused on Bruce Springsteen!  Pat, southern Illinois' official Springsteen fanatic, was not displeased.  Neither was I.  We even managed to sneak a photo of The Boss's main axe.  While the others hung around at the gift shop, I went outside, sat on a bench, and peered at "The Mistake on the Lake".  I love this city.  Coming up here with my father and brothers to watch Indians games, downtown seemed like Emerald City from The Wizard of Oz.  The sounds of the horns and motors from cars and trucks, reverberating off the tall buildings as they cruised down East 9th Street towards the shore-way, was a new and strange experience.  The wind coming off the Lake and careening through the skyscrapers had a metallic edge to it, but I liked how it felt.  I marveled at seeing buildings like the Terminal Tower, Public Hall, and, of course, Municipal Stadium, having only seen them before in news reports on television.  The smell of the hot dogs from vendors on the street corners, the waves jumping up in the distance on Lake Erie, even the panhandlers on the corners of Chester or Euclid Avenue, all made for a big-city full-frontal assault on the senses.  Cleveland was big, loud, and a little dirty.  I loved it, and I still do. 

The weather was beautiful, sunny and quite warm.  I thought about a jaunt down to Edgewater Park, but the malty goodness of Great Lakes Brewing Company nudged us towards Ohio City.  Once we finally found a place to park (doesn't anyone in Cleveland work on a Friday afternoon?) we managed to find a table outside.  Pat promised himself that he would not drink a Commodore Perry IPA until he could drink it on draft at GLBC, so that made the parking fiasco worth it.  I was mildly disappointed in that they didn't have anything on draft that couldn't be obtained at, say, the local Acme Fresh Market.  As a last resort, I asked our server if the brewer had, you know, a spare keg of Christmas Ale tucked away for an occasion such as this?  She smiled, said, "Uh....no", and retrieved our check.  Wow, and they flew all the way in from St. Louis, too.  Geez!

We then walked across the street to the West Side Market.  Pittsburgh has the Strip District, which is very cool, but it's the size of a 7-11 compared to the West Side Market.  You can literally get Italian sausage at 15 different vendors at the Market.  Want pierogies?  Got 'em.  Head cheese? (why, I'm not sure.)  Got it.  Kathy wanted cannoli.  Pat wanted spicy beef jerky.  Both were easily found, and in large quantities.  And that didn't include the adjoining building that housed the vegetables and fruits.  Lucky for us, the Market was close to the end of their day, so vendors were looking to part with product at bare-minimum pricing.  I didn't think Donna would buy 25 ears of corn for 5 bucks, but she did.  And yes, I'm sick of corn for awhile.

We decided on one final "Cleveland" thing to do, and Kathy and Donna already decided what it should be: a trip to the house featured in The Christmas Story.  It's on the near west side, in an area called Tremont.  How the director decided on that particular house was a mystery to me.  Situated in that neighborhood on West 11th, it merged in seamlessly with every other house in the neighborhood.  But, yes, on film, it is the unmistakable home of "Ralphie" and his Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle!  I could taste the Lifebuoy soap in my mouth as I snapped a few photographs.  Unfortunately, the museum gift shop across the street wasn't open, so we suggested bringing them up again on the way to the airport on Sunday.  All in all, not a bad trip!  No, there was no time to do the art museum, or hit Slyman's Deli for a corned beef sandwich, or bum around the cool shops in Coventry.  But, it was a quick, titillating taste of the North Coast.  Tomorrow, the 'Burgh 'an 'at!

Even though we're northeast Ohio natives, in some ways Pittsburgh was an even more challenging exercise to share highlights over a one-day period.  I love showing Pittsburgh to visitors.  And even though I've only lived in Pittsburgh for 5 years, I feel like we had a chance to explore a great deal about the area, in some ways much more than some natives that we met during our stay there. ("You live in the North Hills," they would ask, "and you drove all the way over to the Century III Mall?  Why!?")   Pat and Kathy seemed excited to see Pittsburgh, too, after we spent so much time during our stay in St. Louis talking about its nooks and crannies.  Since Pittsburgh is "the only city with an entrance", I went out of my way to get off at the first exit of the PA Turnpike and take 60 down through Beaver County and out past the airport so that we could arrive in the city via the Fort Pitt Tunnel.  The only thing missing from the view was the fact that we could not show it to them at night!  Once in town, we drove down the Parkway East over to Oakland, turned around, came across the Birmingham Bridge over to the South Side, and took Carson Street over to Station Square.

After some time spent perusing all of the "Cleveland Sucks" t-shirts, we jumped in the car and drove over to the Duquesne Incline.  It was a warm and somewhat hazy day, but the view from the top of  Mount Washington was still jaw-dropping.  After pointing out a few sights and areas of the city, we walked down to the George Washington-Guyasuta statue on Grandview Avenue.  That walk must have taxed our metabolism, because even in the hazy humidity I could almost taste the maltiness of a Pious Monk Dunkel from The Church Brew Works.  After hopping into the cable car for the ride down the incline, we drove over to the North Shore, past PNC Park, took the 10th Street Bypass through the Strip over to Liberty, and made our way to The Church Brew Works.  I've never been an enormous fan of the beers from The Brew Works.  They're solid, but nothing spectacular.  Occasionally, I recall having some very tasty seasonal offerings, but it's the decor and ambiance that seems to win over first-time visitors to the 'Burgh.  How can you not like sipping suds in a place where you once confessed your venial sins?  Talk about absolution!

While I munched on my buffalo-burger, I felt a bit of a wave of depression wash over me.  Not only was I bummed because I had forgotten my East End Brewing Company growler, which meant no "Big Hop" for the ride back home, but I really missed living in Pittsburgh.  I recall Donna's son Kenny coming in for a visit several years ago.  We were driving them through Oakland over in to Shadyside and I remember him talking about how bad the weather was here, why his mother would choose to live in a city that had, essentially, died, and  how phenomenal it was in Fort Lauderdale.  I interrupted him by announcing that Pittsburgh was a real city, with real imperfections and pot-holes that you sometimes had to roll over or avoid in order to get to the good stuff, but once there the reward would be awesome.  It wasn't a city comprised of look-alike strip plazas and indistinguishable houses with screened-in pools.  In the dictionary under "cities with no character", you'll find a picture of Fort Lauderdale.  Yes, you have palm trees and 82 degree temperatures, I get it.  You also have access to a whole ocean, which just happens to lean up against a city that is completely devoid of a soul.  I don't miss Pennsylvania's bizarre beer laws, Pittsburghers' penchant for slowing down when entering a tunnel when there's absolutely no need to do so, or the two weeks of the year that lead up to the Sunday contests between the Steelers and the Browns.  (Sorry, but Cleveland doesn't suck.) What I do miss is a chilly, early-morning run in North Park, sitting outside sipping a Penn Pilsner on Carson Street, shopping for pierogies in McKees Rocks, and driving through a neighborhood in Bloomfield or Dormont.  I miss looking at houses carved into the hillsides, the echo your tires make when you drive through the Liberty Tubes, and walking along the river outside of PNC Park.  I think it's cool how 6th Street can dump out on to 6th Avenue, and I like the look of "wow" on visitors' faces when, after blazing through tunnels and across yellow bridges and up steep mountain-sides and down through borough alley-ways, you reach your destination, intact.  And I like looking down at my radio dial and seeing "1020", and knowing that my voice was once on it.          
Amidst a frenetic burst of rain, we finally left the brewery.  Rolling through Lawrenceville, across the Allegheny over on to 28, down through Millvale and up Thompson Run Road, we wanted to show Pat and Kathy our old house in McCandless.  We also stopped at our old next-door neighbor, Rich, to catch up for a bit and take a regular dose of Cleveland-bashing.  I lost many-a-case of beer to Rich Durkee during my time on Meadow Road in Allison Park.  I miss our neighbors and our neighborhood, but I don't miss that.  On our way towards the turnpike, we stopped briefly at 3 Sons Dogs and Suds in Wexford.  The trip would have been incomplete without some contraband "Old Chub" from Oskar Blues Brewery! Yep, it would been nice to take Pat and Kathy shopping over in Shadyside, or out to eat at Vivo in Bellevue, or even for ice cream at Brusters. (They may have even had Black Walnut, Pat!)  However, in a span of 4 or 5 hours, I thought it was a nice sliver of the "City of Champions".  Now, I was looking forward to breaking open that bottle of "The Big Dipa" from Clipper City Brewing.

The Hedgers.  I'm grateful to have had such nice neighbors, especially since they've become some of our best friends.  I'm also grateful that I've had the chance to show off two magnificent towns.  I'll always be a long-suffering Cleveland sports fan, but I'll also be the first person to stick up for the 'Burgh.   Yes, I know.  In both places, the weather is inhospitable, the job prospects are dubious, and the population continues to dwindle.  The bounce-back doesn't come easily.  But they're working on it.  So, let's see how the gleaming, freshly-painted outposts like Phoenix or Las Vegas or Charlotte respond to the down-times, the challenging times.  When they're on your 4-yard-line, your defense has to dig in and respond.  Time to get tough.  Time to show what you're made of.   'Cause that's what cities do.  Real cities.


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