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Historic Pittsburgh: A Grimy Wonderland

In the 1970s, David Aschkenas photographed Pittsburgh, in classic images that revive the city’s glorious past.
Bloomfield drugstore © David Aschkenas

Pittsburgh sneaks up on you. Perhaps the least obvious of all American cities, its rough beauty is tougher, more masculine than most. Perhaps because Pittsburgh was never built to be pretty. Instead, it was built to be strong. It’s a city that was built to last.

Documenting a place of startling vistas – the spiked hills, scarred brickwork, seeming iron rooftops – demands black-and-white. Perhaps it’s the endless interplay of light and shadow on the restive, angular environment. Perhaps it’s a remnant of the darkness-at-noon era, when soot coated everything and two shirts a day were de rigueur.

Downtown © David Aschkenas

Perhaps, too, it’s the perpetually gray skies, the leaden rivers, the unyielding industrial landscape. Perhaps it’s the jagged skyline, houses fabricated of aluminum siding, asphalt shingles, and insulbrick; houses perched like angry birds on impossible hillsides, hanging precariously off cliffs. Perhaps it’s the omnipresent mills, a black armada looming in the distance. Perhaps, though, Pittsburgh as black-and-white, as pentimento, stems from something else. More than steel. More than nostalgia. Perhaps a reverence for the place.

Pittsburgh carries with it a palpable sense of time. In a city where it’s always 12 degrees past yesterday, and directions are invariably given by what used to be, there’s a clear feeling that the clock has frozen, that reality is neither glossy nor gussied up. Not pastel-painted or prettified. No lavender blues. Just black and white. And gone. “I tried,” David Aschkenas writes, “to concentrate on places that are either gone or changed dramatically.”

Bradock © David Aschkenas

He has. A wonderfully subtle photographer, David Aschkenas has created images here that are gritty, but hardly grotesque; neither grab nor glory shots. There is nothing obvious, in life or landscape, no grimaces (as Anselm Adams dismissed candid portraiture). While some who photograph Pittsburgh seem duty-bound to create the extraordinary, David, instead, reveals – and revels in – the poetry of ordinary life. Things we’ve often seen but have frequently overlooked; things that create a city, the stark, stripped-down poetry of urban spaces. A Raymond Carver story of endless hurts and profane excess; a William Carlos Williams poem scratched out on a prescription pad.

Like those aperçus, Aschkenas’ Pittsburgh is a sad, self-effacing place. With none of San Francisco’s glory, say, or New York’s grandeur, Pittsburgh is innately beautiful – just sometimes you have to look a little harder to see it. And in seeing things so thoroughly familiar yet seemingly exotic, he creates the subtext of our lives, not only of a built environment but also of a culture we’ve created – but perhaps never really noticed. Put in a different way, David Aschkenas is a Midwest city, and the Midwest is the least affected place on the planet.

Donut shop © David Aschkenas
Gas station © David Aschkenas

Art Rooney famously said, “you never want to be a big shot.” In this vein, as a humble, self-effacing artist, David Aschkenas always works in service to the project. The viewer always sees the image first and foremost, then, like Pittsburgh itself, sees the artistry behind it.

Sir Philip Sydney wrote, “the best art is that which hides art.” That’s the trompe l’oeil of these arresting images: they never leave the mind’s eye. Although Pittsburgh proper stands as a city full of street life, people forever bustling about, chatting on corners, cake walking crosstown, here David Aschkenas gives us a place virtually denuded, a kind of soulless moonscape with nary the last soul standing. Brilliantly, he allows the built landscape – in all its triumph and tragedy, severity and squalor – to speak for itself, with no virtually no human figures to soften it.

Cadilliac church © David Aschkenas
Steel mills © David Aschkenas

So it seems with David Aschkenas’ Pittsburgh, a city seemingly caught in time but also in the throes of re-making itself, our stock-in-trade since a rye-soaked trading post on America’s western frontier rose like a 19th-century tsunami on coal and iron ore – and steel – to become the world’s great workshop. Here, too, in that spirit, are half-demolished buildings, razed seemingly at warp speed, their steel infrastructure and shreds of concrete cladding hanging like the guts torn out of rag dolls. Similarly, albeit standing hale and hearty, is an Autenreith, affordable, approachable, indomitable, seemingly eternal, everywhere then nowhere all at once.

It was through such stores that newly minted moms ‘n’ pops established their precious and precarious toeholds in America — crowded, unventilated cleaners, 50-cent shoe shines, Patsy’s Brushless Barber Shop. These nascent Pittsburghers walked through alpine aeries, prayed in small, stand alone churches, filled up in now-abandoned service stations. Aschkenas serves all this up, a wondrously luxuriant Recherche du Temps Perdu, along with the walk-in hypnosis clinics, Thom McAn Shoes, Hugo’s Fine Foods, Fox’s Grill.  An iconic Isaly’s, Klavon Drugs, Darlene’s Card & Record Shop.  Kunst Bakery, Nayhouse Optical, Lydia’s wholly seductive Sugarshack. And of course the mills, demonic, phallic, as seductive as Satan dressed in sharkskin on Saturday night.  Black and menacing, absolutely irresistible in their power and self-possession, in their relentless persecution of air and water and sky. Whose spikes scare us, whose corrugated metal roofs David renders into Escher-like geometric abstracts. Either way, his steel makers form a metallic Willie Stark, the political boss in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men – strong, sexual, with a taste for taking all and giving little – or nothing – in return.

Steel mills © David Aschkenas
Church demolition © David Aschkenas

We remember that it was those mills that made Pittsburgh a true world-class city, forging steel for virtually every major American project, the Panama Canal to the Empire State Building to Franklin Roosevelt’s Arsenal of Democracy. Engendering a vast economic base, they also gave us an endless identity. But when Big Steel died, the Temptations sang in “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” “all he left us was alone.”

Or perhaps not entirely alone, for some of the immense, immeasurable wealth has remained in any number of landmarks, not the least the Mellon-funded East Liberty Presbyterian Church, a sky-piercing icon of immense magnitude. But such show-offs are few and far between in this book. More typical are the many abandoned homes and snowy landscapes, and such small businesses as Keystone Plumbing and Heating, Walsh’s Lounge, and Zip’s Electric; such small gestures as the Lawrenceville Doughboy and the impossibly antique County Airport.

In David Aschkenas’ figuring, it all adds up to an America made of endless, backbreaking work, of mill towns and mean streets and a hard-scrapple life that no longer exists.

By Abby Mendelson

Abby Mendelson is a writer and former news reporter, based in Pittsburgh, USA.

Downtown © David Aschkenas
Abandoned house © David Aschkenas
Patti Smith group © David Aschkenas
Ukrainian home © David Aschkenas
Zoo entrance © David Aschkenas

Read more: New York Up and Down

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