Pittsburgh deserves its moniker of the Steel City, even now that the steel works have moved away. First, there are the 446 bridges, many made of the same material, that span its three rivers – the Allegheny, the Monongahela and the Ohio. Then there is the Steel Building – at 64 stories, one of the tallest in the city, and displaying its dark steel exterior as a badge of pride. Even its NFL team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, is named after the city’s best-known export.
More than any of these, there’s the character of the people – friendly, welcoming and yet pragmatic, no-nonsense, and with a touch of toughness; a bit of steel, you might say, coming from the shared heritage of this industrial city. This was a tough, hard-working place, and you get the sense that no one wants to forget that history forged with grit. Why should they, when it has left such a legacy?
For Pittsburgh is the city that made America. Its steel went into rails that opened up the continent, and provided the skeleton frames for the skyscrapers that came to define its cities. As that industry moved abroad, Pittsburgh suffered, although not as badly as many other places, and today it has been reborn as a high-tech center, meaning visitors see regeneration rather than decay.
Walk around downtown and you quickly find yourself examining brick and stone-cast frontages of 19th-century commercial and office buildings, many now converted into apartments. Grand civic buildings slow your step, while the huge theatres dating from a century ago – and refurbished many times since then – still welcome audiences.
Historic buildings have also been renovated by several hotel companies – the Distrikt Hotel (distrikthotelpittsburgh.com), for example, part of Hilton’s Curio Collection, is an impressive reimagining of an old Salvation Army hostel, with the restaurant in the former gym. There is no sense of faded grandeur to Pittsburgh; the city celebrates the past, but very much looks forward.
ROOM TO GROW
The airport is a good symbol of this push to the future. At its peak, in the 1990s, Pittsburgh International served 100-plus destinations with more than 600 flights per day and 20.5 million passengers annually. At its pre-pandemic low in 2013-14, this fell to 37 destinations and 7.8 million passengers – a drop completely out of the hands of the airport and the city. US Airways, which had a hub here, moved away. The effect was instantaneous.
“When the hub left, the airport was in pretty big trouble,” says airport chief executive Christina Cassotis. She points out that Pittsburgh wasn’t alone. “The entire Midwest lost its hubs: Cleveland, Cincinnati, Minneapolis, St Louis, Memphis, Nashville. It’s just that Pittsburgh was the first to go.”
When she joined in 2015, Cassotis was clear that the airport’s future was in point-to-point traffic, and in that it is succeeding. Of those 21 million passengers back in the nineties, 15 million were on connecting flights, so the 9.7 million point-to-point travelers hosted in 2019 represent an increase.
Of course, like the rest of the travel industry last year, PIT did not escape the damage caused by the global pandemic. The latest numbers show its traffic dropped to 3.65 million passengers in 2020.
Nevertheless, the airport is building for the future, as work continues on a $1.1 billion terminal renovation. The project, which was unveiled in 2017, includes new facilities for check-in, security and baggage claim. The pandemic has delayed completion, and the opening – originally set for 2023 – has been pushed out to 2025.
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