19 Ways Pittsburgh Earned the “Quirky” Label
Stand proud, Pittsburgh: Our brand of quirky is a good thing — positive, uplifting, fun, colorful, imaginative.
Well, of course, I first took this list to 20, a nice round number, but that would have been normal and not at all quirky. And Pittsburgh … is quirky.
Now, relax. Yes, Travel+Leisure Magazine named us one of the 20 most quirky cities in America, and we’d probably like to reserve the word quirky for cities such as Portland, San Francisco and, well, all of Florida. But as a city that has in recent years grown to feel confident in its identity, we’ve forged our own brand of quirky. It’s positive, uplifting, fun, colorful, imaginative. Pittsburgh quirky. It’s a good thing.
PHOTO BY DEBORAH HOSKING
1. We yarn-bombed a bridge.
It’s old news, but, you guys, we YARN-BOMBED AN ENTIRE BRIDGE. They may be yarn-bombing bikes, street lights and mailboxes in other cities, but in Pittsburgh, we say, “Knit big or go home,” and we cover a huge bridge in beautiful, colorful yarn. That’s quirky.
2. Give me a home, where the dinosaurs roam.
While other cities confine their prehistoric friends to their natural history museums, in Pittsburgh, we let them roam wild and free. From that rascal Creation Rex holding court at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh to Dippy the diplodocus in Oakland, to Ketchupasaurus and friends at PPG Place and Dollar Bank’s pink triceratops Dolly in East Liberty, you don’t have to go very far in Pittsburgh to come face to face with prehistory. Just don’t anger them. They’re very teethy. And quirky.
Andy Warhol, Self-Portrait, 1986, © AWF
3. We’re watching Andy, 24/7.
Andy Warhol was the epitome of quirky, and the museum dedicated to his life and work prides itself with continuing that quirky legacy. But perhaps quirkiest of all, the 24/7 webcam that is trained on Warhol’s grave, allowing any voyeur to peek in at any time to see what quirky tchotchkes have been left behind in his memory. I don’t recommend peeking in at night. It’s positively spooky.
4. Topping our healthy salads with fries.
At this point, putting fries on our sandwiches isn’t news. The rest of the nation knows we do it, and with Primanti Bros.’ planned national expansion, the country is going to get a taste of it as well. But fries on SALAD, a health food?! And not even a special salad called “fried salad” or “heart-attack salad.” In many local establishments, ordering a regular chicken salad or steak salad means it will arrive at your table topped high with hot French fries, onto which you will pour cold dressing. Because why not? Life’s short; stay quirky.
PHOTO BY DAVE DICELLO
5. The Gulf Tower has something to say.
The Gulf Tower’s lights aren’t just there to decorate the iconic historical landmark. Lately, Pittsburgh has latched onto them as a means of visually communicating information. Since it was revamped, the LED display has been informing gazers of the weather forecast, wind speed, precipitation, humidity, a Penguins goal, a Pirates home run and even our Instagram mood. We’ve learned to decipher this new language of light. Like hieroglyphics, only quirkier.
PHOTO VIA RICK SEBAK'S FACEBOOK PAGE
6. The quirkiest documentarian of them all.
A Google search of “quirky Pittsburgh” will provide several results pointing to the one and only … Rick Sebak. In fact, his devotion to showcasing Pittsburgh’s oddities had the Associated Press labeling him as a “quirky documentarian.” While other public broadcasting documentarians are covering heavier topics, he keeps his programs upbeat yet informative. He’s covered everything from our hot dogs to our ice cream shops, to things that just aren’t there anymore. There’s even one program called, “Flying Off the Bridge to Nowhere!” Quirky. Or you can use Sebak’s own word … funky.
7. A poet of the people.
Pittsburgh is chock-full of quirky people, such as musician and poet Billie Nardozzi, who pays $50 a pop to have his poetry printed in the classified section of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has a quirky habit of using quotation marks to indicate emphasis, and his black rocker hair and funky feathered earrings sure give him a quirky look. Though his poetry might not run as deep as Frost’s or Dickinson’s waters, its simple language and commitment to the rhyme easily roll off the tongue. From his poem “Pierogies”: On a "one to ten scale"/They get an "eleven"!/And you'll be eating them/24/7!
"Danaë" WORK BY JAMES TURRELL
8. A Mattress Factory that makes zero mattresses.
How about a whole museum dedicated to quirk? At least that’s the vibe the Mattress Factory museum gives off, with its trippy, colorful and eclectic selection of exhibits. You won’t find mattresses here, as the spot’s quirky name might lead you to believe. Guests attend the museum’s annual fundraiser in quirky (normally themed) attire, and Sampsonia Way, the North Side street on which it sits, is one of the quirkiest streets in the city. That’s a whole lotta quirk.
ILLUSTRATIONS BY WAYNO
9. Zombie Culture. I mean … BRAINZZZZZ.
We’re a city that proudly can boast that we liked zombies before zombies were cool, thank you very much, “Walking Dead.” We’ve been riding the slow zombie train to ZombieTown for decades, ever since George Romero filmed his cult classic “Dawn of the Dead” in Monroeville Mall. We’re a city with zombie walks, a Zombie Fest, a haunted interactive zombie paintball ride, a zombie corn maze and a zombie mud run all part of our zombie culture. If the zombie uprising starts here, we will tailgate the heck out of it. Because we’re quirky like that.
10. We’ve somehow managed to make banjos cool.
If you’d asked me a decade ago to list the uncoolest instruments one might learn to play, the banjo easily would have made my list, along with the accordion, tuba, triangle and didgeridoo. I mean, come on. BANJOS. Plucky, little, round guitars. They haven’t been cool since square dancing was cool, and honestly, was square dancing ever cool? Well, forget everything you’ve ever thought about banjos because Pittsburgh Banjo Club’s Banjo Night at the Elk’s Lodge is one of the coolest weekly events in the city. Oldsters, local celebs, hipsters, professionals, college students and more, all enjoying a raucous good time listening to … banjos. Banjos. Cool? That’s just quirky.
11. With a wave and a kiss.
Here’s another quirky ’Burgher: the Vic Cianca of crossing guards, Cathy Gamble, aka “The Kissing Crossing Guard.” Just watch, and see why she’s quirky. And awesome.
PHOTO BY RENEE ROSENSTEEL
12. Love via art.
Randyland arguably is the quirkiest spot in Pittsburgh. At a home on a corner of the Mexican War Streets is artist Randy Gilson’s visual homage to color, art, happiness, positivity and love. Visitors are welcome to visit his art-rich courtyard each afternoon, where they’ll see the painstaking fruits of his labor to spread his message: “When you do more for others, you do more for yourself.” His hallmark piece is, of course, the 40-foot mural that adorns his home. Gilson is as colorful and quirky as his courtyard, but he clearly is a man who believes his message with all of his quirky soul.
13. Josh and Gab: Not afraid of little jagoffs.
There are ways to talk to kids about bullying. You can use cheesy puppets. Somber PSAs. Boring class handouts. Discussions, UGH. Or you can get quirky like local duo Josh and Gab and teach kids that bullying is not OK, using comedy and catchy drum- and guitar-backed rock songs. With tracks including “I’m Not a Bully” and “Nine O’clock Behind the Jack Rabbit,” comedian Gab Bonesso and musician Josh Verbanets have formed a quirky duo with an important message for kids of all ages: Don’t be a bully, you little jagoffs.
PHOTO VIA COMMONWEALTH'S FACEBOOK PAGE
14. (Un)Commonwealth Press.
In trying to describe Commonwealth Press as a business, I get stuck. It’s a screenprint shop. And retail store. And online store. And a graphic-design firm. And an event host. Oh, and the press runs an annual Beer Barge outing that sells out instantly — an event that owner Dan Rugh put his house on the line to start. Market myopia is not an issue with this quirky firm. Rugh even started a line of shirts, Asuneda (“a sunny day”), featuring his young daughter’s doodles. And when a vandal threw a brick through the shop’s Carson Street shop window? Commonwealth auctioned it off for $1,150 and donated most of the money to charity. Quirky.
15. Step right up. And up. And up and up and up.
Did you know that Pittsburgh has more public steps than any city in the country, which makes sense because good luck taking three consecutive strides on flat land here? There are 712 sets of public steps that dot our city hillsides, totaling 44,645 steps. Ouch. When the South Side Slopes Neighborhood Association brainstormed how to raise needed funds, the group thought to charge people to go on an organized hike of the steps. And it worked! Now in its 15th year, StepTrek draws crowds of ’Burghers on a self-guided tour of leg-burning ascension of a few thousand steps. Fun? I’m not sure. Quirky? Definitely.
16. The electric bill has to be HUGE.
Bob’s Garage is not a car garage, as its name would lead you to believe. It’s a karaoke bar in Blawnox. A dive bar, really, which isn’t at all quirky. The quirky comes into play with Bob’s enormous year-round display of holiday lights, especially the locally famous Christmas-light display that starts outside and continues inside in a blinding, colorful wall of bulbs. The light display is so obnoxious (in a good way) that Yelp reviewers throw around the words “tacky” and “kitschy.” In 2013, Pittsburgh City Paper reported that it takes more than 360 man-hours to put the lights up. Wow. That’s a lot of effort for a little quirk.
PHOTO BY ERIC LIDJI
17. Protractors galore.
There are at least 456 protractors superglued throughout the city, and no one knows why or how or who did it. Pittsburgh Magazine already looked into the Great Protractor Mystery … and came up with zero answers. My first thought was one protractor for every bridge, but Pittsburgh only has 446 bridges. That’s 10 off. Maybe ProtractorMan (™ me) is bad at math. Ironic. And quirky.
PHOTO COURTESY CBS/KDKA
18. Our mayor is quirkier than your mayor.
We’ve got a quirky mayor. While most mayors show up at neighborhood events in slacks and a crisp button-down shirt, ours shows up in jeans and puffy vests. He attends rock concerts on his downtime and has an affinity for “old-man hockey.” His appearance on “Undercover Boss” was quirky — but not as quirky as the letter he released as his alter-ego, Ed Chadwick, in the wake of questions about the sources of money handed out on the show. Most mayors who visit with the President of the United States might be nervously tongue-tied or asking quietly for funding, our mayor boldly asked for the entire scaffolding used in the rehab of the Washington Monument, with the hopes of erecting it at the trail of the Great Allegheny Passage. Quirky!
PHOTO BY DAVE DICELLO
19. WAY out at left field.
We’ve also got a quirky ballpark! At least its dimensions are. PNC Park’s far right field wall is only 320 feet from home plate, despite an MLB rule that ballparks’ right and left field walls be at least 325 feet from home plate. But they approved an exception for PNC Park because, well, we’ve got that pesky river in the way there. Now, our left center field wall where a quirky asymmetrical nook exists? A whopping 410 feet from home plate. Almost 100 feet further than right field. Lesson? Aim for the right.