Pittsburgh: Gotham City's alter ego

Gotham City Hall is no longer enveloped in chaos. The fighting outside its bulbous neoclassical columns has dissipated and, now the cameras have gone, it has reverted to its previous incarnation as the Mellon Institute.

By David Whitley
Published 4 Sept 2012, 11:38 BST, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 11:03 BST

Similarly, the unexpected August snowfall on the city streets has thawed and the Heinz Field American football stadium has been patched up following the explosions.

Gotham, this time around, is Pittsburgh. And you can't go too far in this west Pennsylvanian city without someone telling you about what happened when The Dark Knight Rises film crew was in town.

That is, of course, when they're not telling you about the latest film being shot in the city. Matt Damon was spotted here; this street was closed off the other day; did you know The Silence of the Lambs was shot in the Allegheny County Courthouse? Dawn Keezer, director of the Pittsburgh Film Office attributes the city's current big-screen popularity to having "many different looks within a small, accessible radius of the city centre".

Some of those looks are magnificent. From the top of Mt Washington, the city is quite beautiful. Skyscrapers, including a marvellously odd glass 'castle', soar in a central triangle, created by the convergence of three rivers. Dozens of eye-candy bridges peel off to the sides.

This may come as a surprise to anyone who lumps Pittsburgh in with struggling northern industrial cities such as Detroit and Buffalo. In truth, Pittsburgh's a bit of a chameleon that doesn't quite fit anywhere. It's too inland to be east coast, but not quite far enough to be mid-West. And it's too prosperous to be 'Rust Belt'. Despite being in a northern state, it's only narrowly above the Mason-Dixon Line — and its rivers eventually flow into the Mississippi rather than the Chesapeake Bay.

It's certainly a city that's no stranger to transformation. The former railway track along the Monongahela River is now the preserve of joggers and cyclists rather than freight trains ferrying steel from the smoking, belching mills. The 100-or-so bars in the nine-block strip of East Carson Street behind it are now full of college students rather than post-shift steel workers.

The Strip is another area revitalised. Cocktail bars are starting to move into the brick warehouses and the old family businesses that used to attract only wholesale traders are pulling in the foodies. This isn't a case of cool things being brought in — it's a case of people finally clocking on to the Italian meats, frenetic fish counters and preservative-free bakeries that have been there for generations.

This applies to the Mattress Factory too. If focuses exclusively on installation art — from weird projected shapes in darkened rooms to garden sheds full of dolls and self-portraits. This could all seem very new and edgy, but the Mattress Factory has been doing this since 1977.

And, in a city that continually throws up unexpected treats, this is probably the greatest surprise of all. The transformation from a smoky steel town to a gorgeous city that The Economist has voted the most liveable in America for four consecutive years hasn't been due to any Hollywood-style razzmatazz. It's been about cleaning the dirt off strengths that have existed for years.

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