Pockets of Weirdness

Where are Pittsburgh's pockets of weirdness?

I picked up the phrase from this short piece on Baltimore, in the Style Magazine of the New York Times:
Over a meatloaf dinner at the Metropolitan Coffeehouse & Wine Bar in Federal Hill, my old friend, the writer Michael Yockel (he hired me at City Paper), is picking apart my theory about his hometown. I’m suggesting that it’s one of the last genuine midsize American vernacular cities — a big small town that’s somehow retained its rough edges, its singularity, its historical quirkiness. Every city, Yockel counters, has its pockets of weirdness — it’s just that Baltimore has had some effective PR over the years thanks to a certain filmmaker. ‘‘And there’s a John Waters waiting to happen in plenty of other cities!’’ he says.
Really? Pittsburgh certainly has its quirks and its characters, but I tend to think of the city as reliably middlebrow, desperately clinging to its sense of orderliness and normalcy. Retro beehive hairdos and Divine wouldn't play here - or if they would play in some corners, the city as a whole wouldn't embrace a would-be John Waters flaunting them as urban iconography. (Does Baltimore?) But maybe, as with so many things, I'm altogether wrong, or at least out of the loop.

Where are Pittsburgh's pockets of weirdness?


9 Responses to "Pockets of Weirdness"

Jefferson Provost said... 11/25/2009 4:27 PM

I once heard Pittsburgh's weather described by a psychologist as all variance and no mode.

It seems that culturally, however, Pittsburgh is all mode and no variance.

Anonymous said... 11/25/2009 5:16 PM

The South Side at least used to be a neat pocket of weirdness. My understanding is that it has become too respectable.

Tacitus said... 11/25/2009 5:36 PM

Grant street is pretty weird.

MH said... 11/28/2009 10:33 AM

Why is a beehive 'retro' and a mullet just old?

Adam said... 11/28/2009 1:49 PM

Also, what is with those kids and their rock and roll music nowadays?

Jim Russell said... 11/28/2009 4:16 PM

Pittsburgh doesn't have pockets of weirdness. The entire city is weird. Retro is everywhere.

I think the weirdness is at its greatest in the demographically oldest neighborhoods. Anyplace where hipsters mingle with the stubbornly two martini lunch crowds is classic Rust Belt Chic.

Chiodo's Tavern in Homestead was a good place to watch two very different generations hang out. Is Donzi's still open? That was a very weird scene in the late 1990s.

joe said... 11/28/2009 10:38 PM

The link to the NY Times piece doesn't work for me, so I'm not entirely clear how they're defining weird here...if it's of the John Waters variety, check out my elementary school classmate Paul Petrosky and his Weird Paul Rock Band. Some say it's Pittsburgh's loudest band. He grew up a stone's throw from Warhol's hillside grave (before it was Warhol's grave).

And Jim, I say it's not just our oldness that gives us our weirdness, it's our cohabitation -- both the higher % of folks over 65 and living with a grandchild under age 18 in the same household. Check out the most
noteworthy neighborhoods for that
, circa 1999. 222 such households in Brookline alone.

Keeping it weird, in Paul's song Gimme Your Lunch Money he opens it with a home recording made circa 1979, recounting how everyone wanted the peanuts he brought to school - including me, who apparently pushed him into the girls bathroom to get more.

Justin Kownacki said... 11/30/2009 10:22 AM

I agree that every city has its pockets of weirdness, and that Baltimore's quirks have become famous thanks to John Waters. But so far, my experience as a Pittsburgh expat living in Baltimore has not convinced me that Baltimore is "weirder" than any other US city; it just happens to get that association thanks to Waters's iconography.

Pittsburgh has the South Side, CMU and Warhol, as well as the unmatched obsessive tendency to ascribe divinity to the Steelers. If none of those things are weird, then you've been living in Pittsburgh long enough for them to have become acceptable.

And that's the rub: people have a hard time understanding what might be deliciously, embraceably weird about their own cities because their daily proximity to that oddity helps them take it for granted. And the more weirdness you encounter in life, the less weird any of it seems.

If anything, Waters should be admired not just for celebrating the weirdness of Baltimore, but for being culturally astute enough to notice it in the first place.

Karen Lillis said... 8/24/2011 10:18 AM

I couldn't agree with Justin more. Pittsburgh is the weirdest place I've ever lived, and I've lived all over the country. Pittsburgh is not weird in a hip, already-marketed, John Waters way. Pittsburgh is weird in its own way. The weirdest thing about Pittsburgh is how its mass exodus and relative isolation has let its old-fashioned regionalisms stay intact, AND the extent to which the inhabitants don't know that these are regionalisms! ("Not everyone has a cookie table at weddings??" NO! Most places do NOT feature cookie tables at weddings! I am constantly having this type of conversation with people.) It is then this very lack of critical distance that has prevented the weirdness from being made into a movie a la John Waters.

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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