America in Miniature: Exploring Ed Simon’s An Alternative History of Pittsburgh
Ed Simon’s new book, An Alternative History of Pittsburgh, takes an idiosyncratic and fresh look at the geological, social, and industrial origins of the Steel City. Lily Ekimian sits down with Simon to discuss his book and the history of Pittsburgh as a stand-in for the history of the nation at large.
“Kathy,” I said as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh
“Michigan seems like a dream to me now”
It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw
I’ve gone to look for America
So says the narrator of Simon and Garfunkel’s “America,” who, embarking on a journey to “find” America, meets his girlfriend and takes off from the same city Lewis and Clark did: Pittsburgh. Little did either duo know that in the city they were leaving behind they could find exactly what they were looking for. Because what would one really find when trying to discover America? I’d say they’d find a place of extremes, of contradictions. It is a place where anything is possible, where people can truly build something from nothing; at the same time, it is a place that actively oppresses and suppresses. It is a place with a narrative of boundless freedom but a reality built upon slavery and stolen land. It is a place of opportunity and opportunism. It is a place to have both great pride in but also immense shame. Ed Simon’s new book, An Alternative History of Pittsburgh, argues that Pittsburgh can be viewed as America in miniature. “I find that the writing itself is almost an experiment to derive what it is that you actually think about something,” Simon commented, when we had a chance to speak about his book. “What began to arrive in my mind was this idea that Pittsburgh functioned as a metaphor for the country at large...and that’s because there’s so much about the history, though it’s obviously very individual to Pittsburgh, that also tells that same narrative of the American story—all of its ugliness as well—but in a miniature way.”
Simon writes his history of Pittsburgh in forty short chapters that don’t follow one another in terms of a straightforward narrative but instead work towards a larger, greater, deeper understanding of the location. We travel through the story of Pittsburgh in chronological order, albeit erratically, though each chapter is a full history in its own right. We begin unexpectedly at 300 million BCE, and the title of that first chapter, “A Leaf Transformed into Coal,” hints at Simon’s method; the scope of each chapter, despite having a singular focus, is vast (though none quite as much so as the geological formation of western Pennsylvania) and always forward thinking. We read about the six-foot-long millipedes and larger-than-a-bird dragonflies that occupied the land during the Carboniferous period, leap forward to the opening of the area’s first coal mine in 1762, and reflect on our future as the effects of carbon dioxide emissions are considered: “Call it geological irony,” Simon writes in the chapter, “as the long-dead remains of creatures we can scarcely imagine facilitate an extinction of our own doing.” From the unthinkably distant past to our inevitable future, we get a contained and unique understanding of Pittsburgh’s role in a narrow yet all-encompassing view of history.
The book is divided into three sections, named for lines from Jack Gilbert’s poem “Searching for Pittsburgh.” The poem has long been significant to Simon. “I used to keep a copy of it taped up on the wall of my office when I was at Lehigh,” he said. The poem touches on all parts of Pittsburgh, from the natural elements of the location, its rivers and its wilderness, to the people that live there and the industrial components of bridges and steel. When it came time to write his book, the poem provided Simon an excellent backdrop in the form of that three-part structure. “[The lines] worked well in succinctly describing the major thematic concerns that I wanted to look at in those individual subsections. Gilbert is one of those very connotative poets where he’s able to gesture towards a tremendous amount of material and thinking in only a few words.” This is not unlike Simon’s book, as he, through his compact chapters on a wide array of subject matter, also gestures towards grander ideas and larger implications.
The “alternative” history referred to in the book’s title has more to do with the method of storytelling, the “impressionistic” style Simon uses, than it does with the content of that history. As a Pittsburgh transplant, I can say I both learned things I previously didn’t know about the city as well as formed a new appreciation for the things I had a passive knowledge of. The Pittsburghers featured in the book include Andrew Carnegie (referred to by Simon in conversation as the “cursed patron saint of Pittsburgh”), Henry Clay Frick, August Wilson, Andy Warhol, Rachel Carson, Billy Strayhorn, and Stephen Foster—to name a few. He also features significant events of varying influence and impact, from the Great Fire in 1845, to the Pittsburgh Agreement in 1918, to the Immaculate Reception in 1972. With Simon’s book, what we end up with are many parallel histories, beginning at various times but almost always overlapping, whether literally or in their consequence.
I asked Simon who he thought embodied the story of Pittsburgh best. He said that because of the nature of the city’s many self-contained neighborhoods, “one person’s Pittsburgh is very different from another person’s Pittsburgh.” With that caveat, Simon noted that, in the way many people have a complicated relationship to the city, Andy Warhol represented a common narrative in Pittsburgh. Warhol once wrote of himself, “I come from nowhere,” but despite his attempts to distance himself from the city, the city left a noticeable imprint on his art. “Pittsburgh is a tremendously weird city in a lot of ways, it has a surreal perspective on the world,” Simon said. “His vision I see as being very singularly Pittsburgh. I don’t see Andy Warhol coming from any other place.” And that industrial nature of Warhol’s hometown manifests itself in more obvious ways, too. “His studio is called the Factory—literally called the Factory—and he mass-produced art,” Simon added. But Warhol is a New Yorker—and famously so—in spite of his upbringing, so is it fair for Pittsburgh to try to stake a claim to him when he so desperately wants to shake it off? In a way, yes, it is fair, precisely because that is one of the stories you see recur in Pittsburgh—people fleeing the city that has indelibly influenced them, only to learn they can never fully separate themselves from it. Sure enough, Andy Warhol is buried here in the South Hills, eventually returning to the place he wouldn’t call home. “It does get into your neurological system,” Simon said of being from Pittsburgh.
In his analysis of Pittsburgh as America in miniature, Simon goes one step further to say that East Liberty is, in turn, Pittsburgh in miniature. “You have this very complicated, very fraught history of how we organize urban spaces as embodied by East Liberty, which has been virtually everything—it’s been everything from rural grazing land to neglected inner-city neighborhood, to wealthy suburb,” Simon said. “I think that that kind of story is fascinating to look at in a micro-sense through this one place.” East Liberty is almost without fail at the center of every conversation concerning Pittsburgh. At the present, it is being positioned as a tech-hub, a sign of renewal from the city’s industrial collapse, but the scars of redlining and inequity remain, as do the relics of extravagance, like the East Liberty Presbeterian Church. Simon’s examination of East Liberty comes at the very end of his book. “What I wanted to do is have this whole story, this whole narrative of 40 short vignettes, and then retell the story again from the beginning, but focusing in on this one particular neighborhood.”
In a famous Calvin and Hobbes comic strip (that was coincidentally published in 1985, the same year on which Simon chooses to end his book), Calvin ponders aloud to Hobbes, “I wonder where we go when we die.” After a pause, Hobbes offers up, “Pittsburgh?” Calvin responds, “You mean if we’re good or if we’re bad?” It’s hard to put your finger on what Pittsburgh is—what it feels like. Somehow, it may actually be both heaven and hell. Physically, Pittsburgh is situated at a convergence; on a small scale, it is located at the convergence of rivers—the Monongahela, Allegheny, and Ohio. On a larger scale, it is the gate through which the East enters the Midwest, where the North brushes against the beginning of the South. “It’s at this meeting-together of places,” Simon said. “There’s always the joke that if you’re on the east coast, Pittsburgh is in the Midwest, and if you’re in the Midwest, Pittsburgh is at least in the east, if not literally on the east coast.” It is a place of duality, a place caught between cultural and geographic identities. It is a blending of regions and influences, of pasts both good and bad, and futures both optimistic and doomed. Returning to the Simon and Garfunkel song, if the couple had not boarded that Greyhound, if they had stayed in Pittsburgh, they would have found all the various realities and contradictions one would surely encounter in the search for America. ▲
Lily Ekimian is an independent filmmaker from Washington, D.C., now based in Pittsburgh. You can follow along with the films that she and her partner, Ahmed, are working on via their social media @dogdoorfilms!