Pittsburgh: The Ultimate Repurposed City

Long after Pittsburgh’s steel days were over, a new life is breathed into this formerly industrial metropolis.

Pittsburgh: The Ultimate Repurposed City

Pittsburgh’s recently opened Ace Hotel was formerly a YMCA.

Photo by Rob Larson

Legacy lives strong in a place like Pittsburgh. The Pennsylvanian city minted itself as a blue-collar paradise in the 20th century with names like Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick who made fortunes from the city’s prolific steel.

But when the industry all but disappeared in the 1980s, warehouses and factories stood abandoned. A brief departure of youth spread the notion that Pittsburgh was destined to grow old. It seemed its spirit, too, was gone; what it really lost was its purpose.

Pittsburgh, a working-class town made of steel, couldn’t fold forever. Slowly, it has repurposed itself in the 21st century. Savvy investments encouraged even savvier industries: Steel City became Tech City. An old Nabisco factory became a logical space for even the brightest names, like Google, which now operates a hub in the 100-year-old building. A riverfront warehouse district, full of grit, made room for a smorgasbord of ethnic eateries, full of charm. A grand building became a design hotel. Vacancies became opportunities. Today, the inspired crowd of just over 300,000 locals populate their hilly neighborhoods, filling every abandoned nook with new spirits (and literal spirits, in fact) and businesses. Here are just a few.

1. The Strip District
Now home to a vibrant array of artisan purveyors, the Strip District was the city’s industrial core throughout history. The warehouses, mills and factories that line the Allegheny River (even before the city struck steel) were never abandoned for long. Here, homegrown spots like Wheel & Wedge curate American-made cheeses—most of which are made on farms just beyond the city’s limits. Neighboring shops include artisan shops such as Crested Duck Charcuterie, which crafts an award-winning, crowd-pleasing Moroccan Lamb Coppa. Visit the Strip District on a Sunday to see vendors bustling on streets for locals stocking up on epicurean delights.

2. George Westinghouses Air Brake Factory
Stop here. It made stopping easy in the first place. Among the historic buildings along this stretch of the Allegheny river is George Westinghouse’s Air Brake Factory. It’s where the first automatic system was developed to stop a locomotive with air pressure (before this, it was a manual endeavor), and fittingly, different bursts of air will now stop you in your tracks: it’s the new home to the Pittsburgh Opera House, one of the oldest companies in the country.

3. Ace Hotel Pittsburgh
There are five stories at the newly opened Ace Hotel Pittsburgh, all with a storied past: once upon a time, it was a YMCA. The century-old, new digs fit the Ace brand all too well, with its penchant for new-age throwbacks; varsity letters on the staff’s attire, and a former bi-level gym with retro, sporty murals is now being used as one of Pittsburgh’s trendiest event spaces. Out of the woodwork, tables are crafted with materials from felled barns, while from the kitchen, meat falls off the bone at Whitfield, a newly opened restaurant in the lobby.

Church Brew Works

Church Brew Works

4. Church Brew Works If churches served beer more often, their pews might be as full as the tables at Church Brew Works. Originally a baptist church that laid its first cornerstone in 1902, it served the swelling immigrant community who came for industry work. The church persevered for a century before it closed its doors, and now, thanks to a massive renovation, the structure rose again as a brew pub. The towering structure—complete with stained glass windows and tables reconstructed from pews—is most known for the steel and copper vats brewing beer on the former Apse. If you’re going to raise any glass of beer here, we might suggest the Celestial Gold—like the name, this light and hoppy brew is quite heavenly, indeed.

5. Mattress Factory
It’s not hard to guess what the Mattress Factory once was. However obvious that might be, what’s inside isn’t as easy to grasp: Now an art museum, it’s filled with site-specific installations. Don’t arrive expecting to see paintings framed on walls. Here, you’ll find an installation—a hole in the second floor—that looks straight down to the ground outside. Another piece will lead you into a room where you’ll sit in absolute darkness for ten minutes (if you think you’re seeing things, you’re seeing things). Meanwhile in a separate building—a repurposed Victorian townhouse—you’ll find an ongoing installation by Chiharu Shiota where three floors are webbed over from floor to ceiling. The angled strains of black yarn enclose nostalgic items like a wedding dress and a suitcase, meant to represent fogged memories. Somewhere in the tangles, you’ll even find a mattress.

>>Next: Every Type of Taco You Need to Try in Mexico City

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