Have you noticed that I’ve been absent the past two weeks?
I’ve walked North Highland Avenue many times, but it’s been over 3 decades since I last made this trek. I pass the old homes lining the avenue, which have changed little since the 80s. At the corner of Bryant, I stop at Tazza D’Oro, a coffee shop, for breakfast. This wasn’t here before. The cafeteria at the seminary, where I am staying, is closed during the summer. Coffee and a breakfast sandwich cost me $16. Spending a few minutes reading Karl Barth while eating. I notice the crowd seems different. The people are much younger than those I remember being around these parts. No do I remember having such a meager breakfast at such a price.
The coffee shop is just around the corner from Dinos, a dive bar I frequented. In 1986, I could get a 12-ounce glass of IC Light (pronounced Icy Light in Pittsburghese). Their top shelf liquors were only $2, but sadly the establishment closed after the death of the bartender in 1989. Today, the storefront host the Kyoto Restaurant, an upscale looking Japanese establishment which won’t open until much later in the day.
I continue walking north on Euclid Avenue, passing the ironic Azimuth Way, as I head toward Highland Park. The entrance is neat and clean with flowers blooming in the beds surrounding foundations. In the grass to the side, a yoga class is being held. I climb the steps leading to the walkway around the reservoir, a walk I took hundreds of time before. With a fast clip, I walk around the reservoir as I am meeting friends for lunch and need to shower as I have worked up a sweat thanks to the humidity. I head back to the seminary, having walked a little over 3 miles.
After cleaning up, I drive the same route I just walked, and then work my way around the park and zoo to the Highland Park Bridge, where I cross the Allegheny River. The bridge is being worked on, which isn’t anything new. When my parents first visited me in Pittsburgh, the bridge had holes in which you could look down into the river. I took my parents over the bridge to Aspinwall for dinner and my mother insisted we not drive back across that bridge again. She also ordered me not to drive across it, which became a mute request for soon they’d closed the bridge in order to rebuild it.
I’m meeting for lunch two of my professors (Charles Partee and Don Gowan) and the former seminary’s Director of Placement, Jean Henderson. The three of them, who have all lost their spouses and are in their 80s and 90s, live in a large continuing care facility in Cranberry Township.
After lunch, I return to the seminary and in the late afternoon take a walk south of the Seminary, around East Liberty (pronounced s’berty in Pittsburghese). Back in the 80s, I used to occasionally help feed the homeless men at the shelter housed by the East Liberty Presbyterian Church. It was eye opening, as many of the men would come in and pour hydroperoxide on the needle marks on their arms to keep them from becoming infected. I seldom walked this direction by myself at night, and when I did, I left my wallet in my apartment and only took a few dollars as it wasn’t uncommon for someone to be mugged.
Today, East Liberty is undergoing renovation. The high-rise low-income apartments have been torn down and replaced by more appealing apartment-like buildings. The old Sears and the buildings around it have been razed and a new Home Depot now sits in the area. The old Giant Eagle, a grocery store, is now a Senior Center. I wonder where the young men who used to hang out around the pay phone, waiting to receive a call for a lift. While this was frowned on, especially by the taxi companies, in the age before cell phones and Uber, it was efficient and met a need within the community. I’m not sure what other services beyond transportation they supplied, but they hustled.
There’s a lot of work being done on the roads around East Liberty. I walk pass Eastminster and East Liberty Presbyterian. Both are grand churches. Eastminster has wonderful Tiffany windows, while East Liberty is the closest thing we Presbyterians have to a cathedral. There was an older church at the site that was torn down so this one could be rebuilt. It was funded by Richard Mellon, from the prominent Mellon family of Pittsburgh, who in addition to working at the family bank with his brother Andrew, headed Alcoa and was involved in other business in the region. His hope was to create jobs during the Depression, and he has left an amazing structure. Inside, he and his wife’s remains are parked in a small prayer chapel off the main nave. As the sanctuary is massive, the seminary uses it for graduation. I continue to walk South, across the sunken railroad tracks and the bus way which allows buses to take you downtown without traffic in minutes. Then I cross over into the Shadyside neighborhood. Only a few things seem familiar.
For dinner, I drive back across the Allegheny River, looking for another favorite dive bar where, in the 80s, one could get a plate of eight whole chicken wings (not the cut up kind) for three bucks. They were so hot that you also ate the celery with ranch dressing along with several beers to down it all. It’s not there and I end up eating at a new Thai Restaurant at Waterworks. I’m back in my room at the seminary before dark and spend the rest of the evening preparing for the week’s seminar.
The next morning, I head out to an old Eat’n Park in Etna, where I often ate breakfast on Sunday mornings as I north headed to Butler and the church where I worked at from 1986 to 1988. I’m sure most of the waitresses weren’t even born when I lived here. I found myself wondering what ever happened to Lydia, one of the regular waitresses in the 80s.
Then I head downtown. I’m meeting two former classmates at the Willie Stargel statue by the ballpark on the north side. Back in the day, I would walk across the Roberto Clemente Bridge, the first of the “Three Sisters” (identical yellow bridges that cross the Allegheny). As the Clemente Bridge is closed for reconstruction, I take an option that wasn’t available in the 80s. The subway has now been extended to the Northside. It travels under the Allegheny River and drops you off right beside the stadium. Of course, the stadium is also new and is much nicer than the old Three River Colosseum, where I saw many Pirate and a few Steeler games.
We meet at 11:30, buy tickets for seats up above the third base line. It’s a beautiful day, a little warm, but not terrible. The game is competitive and at the end of nine is tied. We go into an extra inning, but the Giants blow out the Pirates in the 10th. Afterwards, we plan to go to dinner with another classmate (who had to preach this morning and was unable to make the game). We meet at Bakery Square, which is near the seminary. In the 1980s, it was a large Nabisco Bakery, but today consists of restaurants, offices, apartment flats, and a fitness center. I would eat here three more times over the next four days, as I meet with a theology group from Monday through Thursday.
By the end of my second full day in Pittsburgh, I realize that most everything I knew about the city has changed, except for the work on the Highland Park Bridge and the Pirates losing. Our group would also go to a night game at PNC Park. The Pirates lost again, this time to the Cleveland Guardians.