PITTSBURGH — My favorite thing to do when I get to any new city is to wake up relatively early and take a walk. As a photographer, I appreciate that the light is better and that the streets are less busy.
I’d been excited to arrive in Pittsburgh as part of GeekWire’s rotating cast of HQ2 characters, to lend my take on the city’s continuing evolution through both the stories I’ll find and the images I’ll capture.
A jackhammer outside our live/work space in Lawrenceville around 8 a.m. took the adjustment to East Coast time out of my hands, so I got up and headed out for coffee.
Like a snapshot of Pittsburgh as a whole, the Lawrenceville neighborhood is and has been undergoing a great deal of change.
New shops, bars and restaurants have filled in vacant storefronts along Butler Street. In the entryway to one such bar the night before, I had a spirited discussion with the doorman, about “hipsters” and why he preferred to be standing in the cold outside while they were drinking cocktails on the inside. It’s a term that follows change to any city, anywhere, and it’s a conversation I guess I could have had in Seattle, on Capitol Hill or in Ballard.
I’ve been in Seattle for 22 years and have photographed the city from all angles for all of those years. I’ve always had an appreciation for any city’s ability to hang onto its charm, whether it’s through old houses and buildings, old cars, or businesses that have defied the test of time.
In Seattle, finding that stuff has become more of a challenge, and my photography has evolved along with the city — juxtaposing new against old definitely tells a story.
So on my first morning in Pittsburgh — a city I hadn’t been to since my brother lived here in the early ’90s — I walked around a neighborhood of old row houses, giddy over the ability to find something worth shooting at practically every turn.
The brick and the awnings, the weathered doors and stubby stoops, and the narrow streets and alleys and the chainlink fences separating tiny backyards were all so beautiful in a please-don’t-change-a-thing kind of way. Historic buildings that have been refurbished even fit rather seamlessly with neighboring homes that have been neglected.
But at the end of one block I found the juxtaposition I have become so familiar with back in Seattle.
A row of new townhouses, with the colorful accents and the corrugated siding, and the frosted garage-door windows stood out against the landscape of older Lawrenceville.
As a visitor in someone else’s city, I place no judgment on developers or land owners who are building new homes like these. I have no idea what vacant lot or decaying structure stood there previously, or whether people have been clamoring to have them. Certainly it’s easier to build new than to breathe life back into the super old. I’m sure they fetch a good price in a neighborhood that had been affordable for generations.
But if I was dropped onto the front step of this new development, and I opened my eyes, I wouldn’t know what city I was in based on this housing style. I could be in Brooklyn, or Chicago, or Baltimore, Austin, Portland and so on. That wasn’t the case on other blocks where I walked and where I clearly felt like I was somewhere unique.
I don’t doubt that this evolution and its juxtaposition is something I’ll encounter across Pittsburgh this week, as I have across Seattle for years.