“Pittsburgh: A New Portrait” by Franklin Toker (2009). A beautiful book about Pittsburgh’s buildings and the neighborhoods they inhabit, from iconic skyscrapers to churches, bridges and eccentric little houses clinging tenaciously to hillsides. Pitt professor Toker takes readers on a walk through the history of Pittsburgh’s structures — from the Gothic grandeur of the Cathedral of Learning to lesser-known curiosities like the radically modernist row houses of Aluminum City Terrace in New Kensington, designed by Bauhaus giants Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer to house Alcoa workers.
“Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh Project” by W. Eugene Smith (2003). Simply one of the most rigorous, richly nuanced photographic portraits of a city ever shot. Smith stormed out of Life magazine in 1955 to undertake this project for Stefan Lorant’s book commemorating the city’s bicentennial. It clearly began to consume him — he stayed for a year and took 16,000 photos, maintaining that it was his greatest work. A thousand years from now, Smith’s portrait of mid-century Pittsburgh — the hellish heat of its industry, the pains and joys of its people, the ghostly dead-end roadway of Dream Street itself — will likely endure.
“Pittsburgh Born, Pittsburgh Bred: 500 of the More Famous People Who Have Called Pittsburgh Home” by C. Prentice Orr, Abby Mendelson and Tripp Clarke (2008). It doesn’t matter if you were born here, played sports here, went to college here, or maybe even just crashed on a couch in Squirrel Hill for too long … Pittsburgh will claim you. It’s just what we do: we automatically brand you as a Pittsburgher for life. From superstar singer Christina Aguilera to trailblazing undercover reporter Nellie Bly, to 18th-century native chieftain Queen Aliquippa, to Negro Leagues baseball legend James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell, to iconic dancer/actor Gene Kelly, to bigger-than-football personality Joe Namath, to the poison warning sticker Mr. Yuk (okay, not a person), this book tells the story of Pittsburgh through its people.
“The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers” by Maxwell King (2018). Pittsburgh is a city of good neighbors, or at least that’s what we like to imagine. Fred Rogers was the ultimate good neighbor, but he was many other things as well: a children’s television pioneer with “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” a sickly, bullied and socially isolated child, a Presbyterian minister, a writer of 200 songs and 13 operas, a fierce advocate for quality public television free of commercial influence, and a child psychology genius who understood the moral and ethical reasoning of children better than anyone on television before or since. He was able to see the world with a child’s eye and took their worries, fears and questions seriously. His saintly reputation is verified here, though he wasn’t without his outbursts of anger, self-doubt and mistakes. Journalist and philanthropist Maxwell King explores fascinating details such as Rogers’ ability to handle a prank — like the time a young stagehand named Michael Keaton stuffed a female blowup doll in Rogers’ closet — which he proceeded to dance around the set with like Fred Astaire.
“Striking Gridiron: A Town’s Ride and a Team’s Shot at Glory during the Biggest Strike in American History” by Greg Nichols (2014). Another football book? Yeah, well, this is Pittsburgh, and football is in our blood. This one tells the tale of the Braddock Tigers and their record-breaking, six straight undefeated seasons, as the thriving steelmaking city slowly grinds to a halt around them during the biggest strike ever — when 500,000 steelworkers nationwide walked off the job in 1959. There’s a ton of football content, as charismatic coach Chuck Klausing uses grueling workouts, a color-blind choice of players (in a region rife with racism), a granular grasp of advances in play-calling, and the toughest sons of steelworkers Braddock had to offer. There’s also a lot of labor history, as steel mill owners upend a decade of chummy negotiations with new hardball tactics, to claw back the post-war gains that made steelworkers into some of the most prosperous industrial workers in America. It was a city that lived and died by its team, even as its eventual economic collapse was just beginning. The atmosphere Nichols recreates is unforgettable, and filled with fascinating details, like a Gypsy string band playing before a game, to the dreaded giant seven-person blocking sled welded together by U.S. Steelworkers named “Big Bertha.”
“Morning Glory, A Biography of Mary Lou Williams” by Linda Dahl (2001). When it comes to creating great jazz musicians, Pittsburgh ranks up there with New Orleans and NYC. Mary Lou Williams is easily among the most fascinating, however. This biography definitively tells the story of the greatest female jazz composer ever. She taught herself to play the piano at the age of three, then helped support her 10 brothers and sisters at the age of 13 by playing at parties. She became known throughout the city as “the little piano girl.” She would go on to compose and arrange for Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and her mentor Dizzy Gillespie, as well as for Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. A spiritual crisis led her to consider abandoning music, but she eventually embraced Catholicism and wrote masses like “Black Christ of the Andes” (1963), attempting to reconcile spirituals and choral music with her deep roots in the blues. This book delves deep into her experience in the almost impossibly fertile jazz scene in mid-century Pittsburgh and Harlem, and her struggles as a Black woman determined to carve out her own niche in a world of men. She also turned her Harlem apartment into a one-woman rehabilitation center, as she fed, clothed and found work for drug-addicted musicians.
“Helen Clay Frick: Bittersweet Heiress” by Martha Frick Symington Sanger (2007). When she inherited $38 million in 1919, Helen Clay Frick became the richest woman in America. If money could buy happiness, she was certainly in the market. Her mother suffered from terrible depression, her older sister and newborn brother died young and her industrialist father was one of the most hated men in America (and barely survived assassination). She spent a lot of her fortune on philanthropic endeavors, many of which bear the Frick name in Pittsburgh today. This portrait of Pittsburgh high society in the Gilded Age by Frick’s own great-granddaughter is quite sympathetic to its subject and fascinating.
“An American Childhood” by Annie Dillard (1987). There have been a number of great women writers who have lived in Pittsburgh (Willa Cather, Gertrude Stein), but fewer have chosen Pittsburgh as a subject or setting. One major exception is Annie Dillard (Pulitzer Prize winner for “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”), who has lived elsewhere for decades, but her memories of growing in Pittsburgh in the 1950s color her book, “An American Childhood.” The memoir is as much about Dillard’s inner journey from childhood self-absorption to intellectual engagement with the world, as it is about a specific time and place.
“The Odds” by Kathleen George (2009). Pittsburgh has long been an abundant source of mystery, and few put it on the page as convincingly as Kathleen George. Her Edgar Award-nominated mystery novel, “The Odds,” goes deeper than the usual gumshoe clichés, following two Pittsburgh homicide detectives investigating a drug-related killing on the North Side. In the same neighborhood, four abandoned siblings are living on their own and determined to stay that way. A sympathetic ex-con at the pizza shop gives the kids some food, but he hasn’t entirely escaped the local drug trade, which is starting to heat up.
“How To Be Drawn” by Terrance Hayes (2015). OK, this one isn’t “about” Pittsburgh. But Hayes is one of America’s best contemporary poets (a MacArthur Genius Grant and National Book Award winner), and it’s not difficult to find pieces of Pittsburgh scattered in his work. Occasionally the city is name-checked specifically, like in “Some Maps to Indicate Pittsburgh.” Other times, it’s simply a stray reference or allusion; “Elegy With Zombies For Life” begins at the grave of Mary Lou Williams — “the mother of jazz” — in Hazelwood.
“The Paris of Appalachia” by Brian O’Neill (2009).
Is Pittsburgh East Coast? Is it Midwestern? Is it Rust Belt? None of the above: it’s the “Paris of Appalachia,” in former longtime Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Brian O’Neill’s memorable formulation. This extremely slim volume reads like a love letter from an outsider-turned-Pittsburgher, but one written with a journalist’s eye, that doesn’t gloss over the abuse the city’s taken from politicians and planners over the decades.
“Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City” by Stefan Lorant (first published 1964). This is the one your grandma probably has, collecting dust on a shelf, its days as a standard coffee table book for Pittsburgh houses long since passed. However, it’s still a great, even unparalleled history that tells the early tale of Pittsburgh from its very beginnings, through an incredible archive of photos and historical digging. The pictures featured were taken by Lorant and some of the last century’s greatest photographers: W. Eugene Smith, Margaret Bourke-White and Norman W. Schumm. The first version of this book came out in 1964, 10 years after Edgar Kaufmann (who started Kaufmann’s department store and commissioned Fallingwater) convinced Lorant to take on the project of illustrating a great American city in transition — from industrial behemoth into something else yet unknown. The book has been updated many times since.