All of my life, with exception of time out for college and other misbehavior, I have lived within walking distance of a river. As a child my dad would quote a friend, Fate Marable, who was the son of the eponymous jazz pianist, that there were two types of people: river people and everyone else. I can’t imagine what exactly that meant to the senior Marable since he led bands including one with young Louis Armstrong on riverboats throughout most of his career, an experience certainly more colorful and fraught than my own. He died when he was in his mid 50’s.
I would guess that most Pittsburghers are river people, whatever that definition is. We grew up at the confluence of the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio Rivers. This will sound familiar to sports fans, since it is repeated at every televised sports event that takes place there, sports championships having replaced steel as the major product of the city. The phrase will usually be accompanied by a beauty shot of downtown Pittsburgh and its Northside stadia taken from the neighborhood where I grew up, Mt. Washington.
The outstanding nature of that view was slowly being realized beyond our neighborhood just about when I was starting grade school. First there was the Grandview Theater, a classic neighborhood theater with a quarter admission and odd white swirling decorations against a red backdrop closed and reopened as LeMont, a fancy dining establishment. This transformation was roundly suspect in the area, with stories of rats through the aisles of the movies house not lending itself to French Service, no matter what the renovation. It was so fancy that when Premier Khruschev visited Pittsburgh and we proudly lit up all our buildings so he could enjoy the both the beauty and the steel production value of our city, he pronounced it a waste of electricity. At eight, this was first time I heard anything that might indicate that power of any kind could be a finite resource.
Surrounding LeMont was the neighborhood shopping district known as ‘upfront” which held the Incline and a dive bar called appropriately The Hut (both still standing), my grandfather and uncles’ drug store, a state liquor store, a cobbler, a couple of hair dressers, two gas stations, a less dive-y bar, an ancient pine floored A & P, the dry cleaner, a couple of butchers a pizza shop and smaller markets (all of which, along with others I cannot remember, long gone). My favorite among these was the bookie joint that had an ancient jar of mayonnaise languishing on a shelf in the window, its only formal nod to any other type of commerce. Each of these locations deserves at lease a paragraph if not an entire encyclopedia on their history. But I’m talking rivers now.
On the river-facing side of Grandview Avenue aside from the shopping district was housing, not particularly grand housing, but every single resident there and elsewhere in the neighborhood, knew and appreciated the glory of the view they had. My grandmother lived with my aunt and uncle and her family, with a backyard that lurched perilously downward as it faced the Three Rivers. A few doors away my school’s convent was there next to the “new” high school, which also had unequaled views, most of them were reserved for the Blessed Virgin Mary statue and excluded the students except for May crowning.
As a young child there was an open field on Grandview between our house and upfront. Field is rather too grand a noun, it was a lot, a large one by our standards. Through it you could gain easy access to “over the hill” which were forbidden precincts to all Mountie kids from the time the area was built. There were all sorts of perils: uncovered caves where coal had been mined, steep cliffs, annoying boys and another type of travelling people, hobos who would ride the rails at the bottom of the hill next to the river. My mother never mentioned the last , but did warn about some “people.” My mother to her enormous credit was the first politically correct person I knew.
But in the field itself were our look out rocks. They weren’t the stuff of children pretending to be settlers or natives looking out over the amazing fact of three rivers converging. By our, I mean my family’s. There were three main ones right next to each other at the far end of the lot. They extending beyond the relatively flat field and thrust out over the hillside. My favorite was the long, pointed one. It rose higher than the other two and jutted out further. It was also the flattest. It would be there that we would bring sandwiches and go watch the action along the river. There was plenty of space to run around and just nearly defy remonstrances to not go any further than a certain sumac tree (weed that it is, one of the few I could identify as a youngster). There were very few times and places that we were elsewhere together as a family. Our common outdoor experiences were barbeques in the back yard which required endless trips upstairs for condiments, drinks, plates, etc; and the evenings outside as everyone’s parents listened to Bob Prince call the Pirates games on the front porches and we played street games with the dozens of boomers living there.
The picnics on the lookout rocks were relaxed and sweet. We learned the meanings of the signals from Gulf Building with the weather forecasting beacons atop it, Point Park with its ancient Block House was easily identifiable. The endless bridges: our favorites being the 6th, 7th and 9th Street Bridges, all the same design, but somehow slighting poor 8th street.Tiny tug boats would ply the river piloting more than a dozen barges filled with coal and coke for the steel plants that lined the shore from downtown Pittsburgh miles up the Mon Valley. I see us there with Daddy talking about this and other lore, much of it apocryphal, Mummy relaxed and laughing. Each of us loved it there, it giving us space and a sense of wide open communal enjoyment that was a rare commodity in our often cramped lives.
So yes, take me to the river, because this is one of the places the river takes me.