Friday, March 31, 2006

Pittsburgh Remembered

Lately I have been taking time to do some good reading, and after a long long hiatus I return today to writing. Much obliged to BM and VM for the inspiration.

Today I remember Pittsburgh in blog. I have been encouraged to do so by a friend (he of the IBM persuasion) who is scheduled to visit Pittsburgh next week and wants to know what is worth his while to see. The first thing I should do is point him to what other worthies have written about Pittsburgh: I refer the reader to Ramesh Mahadevan's Goodbye Pittsburg. Ramesh Mahadevan is always a delight to read, isn't he? Being of IIT and CMU pedigree, his memories overlap with mine. Even though he didn't go to the same IIT as I did, his piece titled IIT Garden of Love could well have been written in my IIT.

But I digress. Good old Pittsburgh. On the memories front, Carnegie Mellon obviously gets top spot. The center of my world was the area from the intersection of Forbes and Morewood to the intersection of Fifth and Craig, and the CMU campus. In the first year, that is. Later I developed an affinity to Shadyside, Walnut St, etc. as my close friends will remember. These areas of Pittsburgh have mostly old houses and school buildings and churches, with old-fashioned tree-lined streets, a kind of atmosphere I miss in Austin. Walnut Street in Shadyside and Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill are both beautiful shopping and dining areas, frequented by the CMU population.

Carnegie Mellon is a small campus, consisting of the Mall, the University Center, and a few buildings like the battleship-shaped Wean Hall where the CS-types used to hang out, and Hamerschlag Hall (with that unique structure at its top) which was the ECE building. There was the Arts Building which on the inside looked like an Italian museum with white marble columns and walls and white marble statues of nude Roman and Greek gods and goddesses with missing appendages.

A much larger campus houses the University of Pittsburgh. Its Cathedral of Learning, a sinister structure reminiscent of the Tower of Isengard, is a must-see. You can take a self-guided audio tour of the 21 Nationality Rooms inside, each of which depicts the teaching tradition of the country it represents.

At the corner of Forbes and Craig is the Carnegie Museum of Art and the Carnegie Museum of National History, and the Carnegie Science Center. If you don't have much time in Pittsburgh, these may not be very high on your list. But there is a "flourescence and phosphorescence" display in the minerals and gemstones section for which I have a childlike fascination. In a dark room there is an exhibit of some crystals upon which lights are directed; and when these lights are switched off, the magical display of luminiscence begins. It is quite captivating; methinks it is worth the $12 admission fee.

Behind the campus is Schenley Park and the Phipps Conservatory, both of which can make for a relaxing afternoon of wandering and photography. My first rolls of SLR shooting were at Phipps shooting flowers, guided by my friend AN.

All these places are accessible by foot from the Carnegie Mellon campus. For things that are further afield, good public transport is available in the form of buses.

The Andy Warhol museum is definitely worth visiting, as is the Mattress Factory, a modern art museum that is a relatively short trip, both near the downtown area. Speaking of downtown, don't miss the winch train ride from Station Square to Mount Washington, from where you can see all of downtown including the bridges and the confluence of the three rivers Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio. The view of the downtown lights from there is a great sight at dusk.

Public transportation definitely won't get you to the Sri Venkateswara Temple. This temple is one of the largest in North America, and can be seen on the side of Interstate 376 as you enter Pittsburgh. As Ramesh Mahadevan mentions in his article above, the curd rice and tamarind rice there are still great, and the temple is quite crowded on Sundays. The nearby restaurant which Ramesh refers to as "Vegetarian Delight" is now called "Udipi" and was supposedly called "Dosa Hut" in an incarnation prior to this. It remains a universally made stop on the way back from the temple. Get good directions before you start; it is easy to get lost going to the temple.

Speaking of desi eating places, the "Star of India" referred to by Ramesh is still there on Craig Street. And at boundary of the Carnegie Mellon and U Pitt campuses (in front of the Hillman Library) there used to be lunch vendors operating out of their trucks on weekdays. Kashmiri's was a regular haunt... I wonder if his truck still serves lunch there.

If you are into architecture and such, you should visit Fallingwater. This is a house built by Frank Lloyd Wright which stands on top of a waterfall, supported by cantilever beams. They have hourly short tours, but the best tour is the daily long tour that starts at 8 am and used to cost $50. The long tour is worth it, even if it means you have to book it in advance and start driving from Pittsburgh at 6:30 am. If you have even more time to spend on architectural marvels, you can visit the nearby house called Kentuck Knob, also a Wright design. Kentuck Knob has a modern sculpture garden and all, complete with a piece of the Berlin Wall and all. Laurel Caverns and Ohiopyle State Park are also within a stone's throw of here. The Western Pennsylvania countryside is quite beautiful this time of the year.

Pittsburgh is a wonderful place. But ultimately it was the people I was with that made my life in Pittsburgh complete -- you know who you are. Some of them are still in school there, and I have visited Pittsburgh once since I left CMU. I am looking forward to more visits... :)