5 Best (Non-Food Related) Things about Pittsburgh

I’m one of the lucky people that joyfully gets to intertwine my work interests with my life interests. However, while you might not know it from my Instagram feed, I do sometimes spend my time doing things that don’t involve eating or drinking.


PHOTO BY CHUCK BEARD
 

Banjo Night

I’d been living in Pittsburgh for five weeks when a new friend asked me if I wanted to go to Banjo Night. “Is that some kind of country music thing?” I asked, unaware that “Banjo Night” is shorthand for the open rehearsal the Pittsburgh Banjo Club holds at the Allegheny Elks Lodge on the North Side. Now, I’m a regular. Every Wednesday night, 15 to 30 members of the club take to the stage to pluck sing-a-long, old-time jazz, Dixieland and polka on their 4-string banjos (sometimes accompanied by a few horn players).

Consider making a reservation if you want to sit in the front room, particularly if you’re with a group; the long communal tables in the bright space tend to fill up with groups of all ages. There always is quite a social scene at the rectangular bar in the back room, where weekly regulars mix with newcomers over economically priced pitchers of beer. Wherever you sit, the music is catchy — and the crowd is terrific. 

Pittsburgh Public Theater’s New Direction 

The 2019 season of the Pittsburgh Public Theater, the first under artistic director Marya Sea Kaminski, was for me its most exciting in my nine years in Pittsburgh. Kaminski’s six-play season ranged from classical to contemporary, with a winning blend of easy-to-enjoy and thought-provoking content.

Two productions moved me the most: “The Tempest,” adapted and directed by Kaminski, featured an all-women cast led by McKeesport native and Carnegie Mellon University graduate Tamara Tunie as Prospero. I appreciated how Kaminski’s spin on Shakespeare made for smart social commentary without feeling gimmicky; also, the clowns were knee-slap hilarious.

The season’s penultimate play, “Indecent,” had the most emotional impact. I might be a bit biased because I once was lucky enough to work with the show’s director, Risa Brainin, but … wow. The emotional journey of the artfully staged, smartly timed and thoughtfully crafted work highlighting the history of antisemitism and fear of immigrant culture was a reminder of the power of the theatre. 


PHOTO BY DOUGLAS DUERRING

The Allegheny Cemetery 

One of my favorite rites of spring is a stroll through the Allegheny Cemetery as the scores of native and ornamental trees break into flower among the final resting places of more than 124,000 people — you’ll see a lot of Pittsburgh street names on the headstones — buried in the 300-plus acres of “rural” cemetery. It’s a reminder to slow down and to live in the moment.

In summer, the parklike cemetery provides perfect picnic grounds (I hope I don’t need to say this, but leave the place cleaner than when you started). In autumn, it’s my favorite place in Pittsburgh to read fiction, immersed in storylines as the crisp wind rustles the colorful leaves overhead. And in winter, it’s a pleasant spot for respectful sledding and a slightly less polite snowball fight. No matter the season, I would never, ever, sneak into the cemetery at night for a stroll. Never. 


photo by paul g wiegman
 

Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens

I’m a borderline obsessive gardener, and Phipps Conservatory is one of the places I go to find inspiration; the annual May Market, where growers gather on the lawn of the 125-year-old institution, is like a holiday for me.

Throughout the year, I love to wander, lost in my thoughts, through the permanent, seasonal and special exhibits in the conservatory’s 14-room glasshouse. Phipps’ Winter Light Garden is a glowy seasonal pick-me-up, too. I love that in addition to being a showcase of botanical escapism and conservation, Phipps also is a world leader in progressive, sustainable living philosophy.

Its Center for Sustainable Landscapes, for example, is one of the greenest buildings in the world, earning top marks for its LEED Platinum certification and for meeting the goals of the Living Building Challenge. The institution’s educational programming offers the opportunity for both kids and adults to learn how to apply some of the tools to live a more beautiful and sustainable life, and I think that’s pretty fantastic, too. 


 

Community 

A few weeks ago, I waved to greet a friend in the crowd at Pittonkatonk, the wildly fun brass band festival that happens every spring near the Vietnam Veterans Pavilion in Schenley Park. Four people waved back. Because that’s Pittsburgh, the city that often resembles a village.

From events such as the Polish Hill May Day parade to summer afternoons spent with pals at the city’s public pools to the restless spirit of volunteerism, Pittsburgh’s interwoven friendship groups, supportive spirit and community focus make this city a standout place to live for many of us. That doesn’t mean it’s all peaches and roses; not everyone feels this way, and as a city, we need to continue to make sure that we’re doing the work to help people who don’t feel included.

On top of that, as Pittsburgh grows, we need to be mindful it’s an opportunity to pull more people in rather than a moment that leaves those on the fringes feeling left out.

Categories: Best of the ‘Burgh