Is this Pittsburgh’s moment?

Some say yes–not just those from Pittsburgh but quite a few outside the city. And it’s a moment we’ve been waiting for.

Seven years ago, I arrived in Pittsburgh with my husband and our then-six-year-old son. We had left beautiful, multi-cultural–and very expensive–San Francisco in search of a city that was more welcoming to a couple of mid-career professionals who were late to the parenting game. Pittsburgh was the winner on our short list of cities (Minneapolis and Burlington, Vt. were the other two), and to this day we still drop our jaws every time we exit the Fort Pitt Tunnel and gaze upon the Golden Triangle. The flip side? There were few restaurants in the city that satisfied our foodie sensibility and municipal governance was in flux.

Fast forward to this season of giving and it’s easy to find oneself in a space of gratitude, for five very good reasons.

1. The city has never looked better. Ever. 

In the past few years, downtown’s Market Square has morphed from a desolate space to the beating heart of the city center. Tables and chairs are packed with the lunchtime crowd in warm weather and a slate of good programming is masterfully orchestrated by the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership.

When the Partnership brought the cutting-edge and interactive art installation, “Congregation,” to the Square earlier this year, we all swooned. Yoga on the Square? On my list. A short walk away, Point State Park was completely renovated in recent years and the fountain now shoots spectacularly in all its glory after a long dry spell. It’s not just the locals who are charmed by the Point – a 40-foot-tall rubber duckie appeared to wink at revelers in the fall of 2013.

Further into the downtown district, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy did the heavy lifting on the renovation of Mellon Square, a Modernist marvel which echoed today’s rooftop gardens yet had fallen into disrepair. After a $10 million renovation funded by civic giants including the Richard King Mellon and Colcom Foundations, the fountains are once again splashing and emerald-green “terraces” add to the feel of an urban oasis. These are some of the reasons why Pittsburgh, more than ever, is getting great buzz and more than its share of attention in the national press. The most recent? A glowing tribute from Atlantic Magazine on why millennials love Pittsburgh.  (We love Lena Andrew’s remark: “Every friend who visits us here wants to start looking at houses.”)

2. There’s never been a better time for Pittsburgh.

Right now, there are more people than ever – that’s right, ever – in the Pittsburgh work force. The unemployment rate for the Pittsburgh metropolitan area was 5.2 percent as of September 2014, the fifth lowest rate among major peers including Boston, Richmond, Baltimore and Philadelphia. And as NEXTpittsburgh has reported, the buzz about the city has never been greater, for many reasons. Capitalizing on this momentum is the administration of new mayor Bill Peduto, which is keen to listen to the data as well as the people as it fashions the city’s next renaissance. Key eyes and ears are a cabinet that includes Chief of Staff Kevin Acklin, Chief Innovation and Performance Officer Debra Lam, and Chief Education & Neighborhood Reinvestment Officer Curtiss E. Porter. Peduto, a progressive mayor with a hugely ambitious agenda is already making gains on top priorities that include education, economic development, public safety, transportation and sustainability.

The new bike lane on Penn Ave downtown. Photo by Tracy Certo.
The new bike lane on Penn Ave downtown. Photo by Tracy Certo.

3. We’re focusing on under-served neighborhoods and community voices.

It’s no secret that the steely (as in tough, as in real) nature of Pittsburghers is one of the city’s greatest assets but to maximize that, we need vibrant, livable places for all our citizens. NEXT recently profiled 5 people making Pittsburgh a more livable city for all. Now it’s time to recognize a few of the many organizations in town working toward improvement. One is  Neighborhood Allies, a “community development intermediary,” connecting underserved neighborhoods with the partners and investments that can help craft sustainable communities. The seasoned hands at the organization know how to succeed and are already securing positive outcomes throughout the city. Among the Allies is the longstanding Design Center of Pittsburgh, which utilizes design, urban planning, and public policy to shape equitable communities throughout the region.

Doing more good thinking on these vital issues is Urban Innovation21, an organization led by Bill Generett, that believes the innovation economy cannot thrive if under-served communities are left behind. It’s time to spread the wealth (generators) and while we have miles to go in this pursuit, Pittsburgh is on board more than ever with a multitude of nonprofit groups–and individuals–working to make the region better for all.

The healthy menu at Amazing Café. NEXTpittsburgh photo.
The healthy menu at Amazing Café. NEXTpittsburgh photo.

4. Our food scene is blowing up.

We can all be thankful this season for bountiful dining options in our beloved city. It’s easy to appreciate Rick DeShantz, chef-owner of Meat and Potatoes on Penn Avenue. DeShantz is committed to the city center and at his gorgeous, brown-on-brown signature table, the “Meat & Potatoes for Two” is a shimmery 34-oz. ribeye nestled against steak fries and a bone marrow gratin, the whole presented on a butcher-block-style carving board. It’s arguably the best dish in the city.

Table number two for DeShantz and partner Tolga Sevdik is Butcher and the Rye, where libations such as the one in the name take center stage. Around the corner, chef Brian Pekarcik and partner Rick Stern have re-imagined the classic Chinese dim sum breakfast as a dinnertime treat at Grit & Grace, and this former San Franciscan can’t get enough of the warm, palm-sized steam bun with housemade mortadella, coriander mustard and bread & butter pickles.

Up the road on Penn Avenue, chef Matthew Porco is redefining meatballs at Sienna Sulla Mercato, a multi-faceted dining destination that features a knockout rooftop beer garden. Porco has a sensibility for what diners want right now and delivers on his good instincts, placing his latest venture in the conversation with similar dining adventures in Chicago and New York.

Looking east, it’s impossible not to have a good meal at Trevett Hooper’s Legume, a temple for foodies, and Dave Racicot’s notion, a culinary extravaganza that’s always original. Young chefs (and best friends) Keith Fuller at Root 174 and Kate Romane at e2 are as passionate as any chefs in the city and serious about food, which is why their cozy establishments are always packed (and, well, Romane’s meatballs are all that). Arguably providing the foundation – and the chefs – for this culinary explosion is the Big Burrito Group, where corporate chef Bill Fuller helms a stable of wickedly good restaurants led by Eleven, the play space of chef Derek Stevens.

There are so many more, including Amazing Café on the Southside and Thin Man Sandwich Shop in the Strip, and more on the way.

5. We’re growing greener.

Even before he was elected mayor, Peduto traveled to Slovenia to visit Grah Lighting, the leading manufacturer of LED lighting in Europe. The plan is to have Grah locate a manufacturing facility in Pittsburgh and, at the same time, replace the city’s 40,000 streetlights with more efficient LEDs. This dovetails with the mayor’s vision of making the city a beacon of sustainability and green initiatives that includes a complete streets program with expanded bike lanes, a citywide bike share program, and rideshare companies such as Uber and Lyft reducing the number of cars on our roads. Renewable energy such as solar continues to grow within the city limits as evidenced by this year’s fourth annual Pittsburgh Solar Tour, held on October 18. Twenty solar owners were part of a self-guided open house tour on that day at which hundreds of people learned more about being, and saving, green.

Yes, it’s the season of gratitude in Pittsburgh, for a multitude of reasons. These are just a few of ours at NEXTpittsburgh.  We would love to hear yours in the comments below or by email.

Elaine Labalme
My mother's black bean soup recipe is the best ever. Some day, I will write a book about her Cuban cooking. I met Pope John Paul II by chance in Rome in 1991. He had the bluest eyes and the softest hands. If I've said it once, I've said it ten thousand times: "You don't ask, you don't get."