Pittsburgh, PA – City of Hard Knocks

7//25/11 – Pittsburgh, PA is a unique city. Situated at the junction of three rivers it has mountains, cliffs, cable cars, a hip European feel. It is both old world and also a city reinventing itself after its economy collapsed in the 1980s. The Pittsburgh area was where Andrew Carnegie built his first libraries in the U.S. These libraries were the beginning of the 1,600+ library system he built nation-wide. Because they were the first he built them in ways very different from the later Carnegie libraries. They originally were built for his workers to have a place to relax, recreate and to better themselves through lecturers, performances and, of course, books. Carnegie himself, as a young lad from Scotland was introduced to the idea of self improvement through books by being allowed access to the private library of a wealthy industrialist in Pittsburgh. Young Carnegie vowed that if he every made a lot of money he would do the same later in his life. He wound up giving away approximately 70% of his vast fortune, mostly for creating his libraries. Of course, many of his workers wished he had created better working conditions and salaries in his steel mills while he was making his money rather than giving it to create libraries at the end of his life. We arrived at our first Carnegie library of the day in Allegheny. We were shocked to find a new, rather ordinary looking library. The librarian explained that the original Carnegie had been struck by lighting a few years ago and it had fried the library’s electrical system. It now housed a Senior Citizens Center. We found it was closed and it looked abandoned. Outside was a statue that perfectly summarized Carnegie’s ideal for his libraries. It portrayed a bare-chested young worker sitting on an anvil reading a book. The Carnegie library in Homestead had all the elements of these early Carnegies including a concert hall, an indoor pool, an indoor gym and, of course, many reading rooms. Surprisingly, it had a hot, humid, run down feeling to it. When the steel mills shut down this area was left to carry on without the previous support. We finally arrived at the first American Carnegie library in Braddock. It was even more run down than Homestead and the librarian told me that the previous librarian had struggled to keep it from being closed. She gave me a wonderful tour and then turned me loose to photograph Carnegie’s vision and its decay in the heat and humidity. Walker and I decided to make a few, quick photos of the exterior of this important landmark. The street in front seemed sketchy but Walker was covering my back from the steps nearby. While I was under the dark cloth I saw a hand reach in and try to grab my 4X5 camera. I immediately grabbed the hand and shouted “Don’t do that!” I came out from under the dark cloth and was immediately punched in the jaw by an older, crazed, drug addict who  thought I had taken his picture. I was stunned but Walker and I quickly screamed the guy down and he slowly walked away, muttering darkly. We were lucky that it hadn’t escalated into something worse. The librarian happened to drive by right after the fight and asked if we were OK. We sort of laughed it off but got out of Braddock ASAP. After photographing the McKeesport Carnegie we ended the day at the Main Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh. This is a beautiful, grand library that I didn’t have the time to do it justice. We ended this memorable day having a delightful dinner with my niece Phoebe Manchester and her partner Mary Burke. Although we are exhausted the fascinating conversation kept us up until the wee hours.

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2 responses to “Pittsburgh, PA – City of Hard Knocks

  1. Rainer

    You two have been putting yourself out there, interacting etc – glad you weathered the incident…

  2. I’m also a lover of libraries and became interested in the Carnegie libraries through my interest in the Noe Valley Library in SF. A few weeks ago, on a trip to settle me into grad school in Lexington, KY, I stopped in Braddock to visit the library. Did you notice the books in locked cabinets? I understand the library’s struggle to keep its collection, but I was struck that the very first library to function as a space of community and to provide information and services to the masses had made such a ironic turn away from its founding principles.

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