The Majesty and the Underbelly of Pittsburgh in Ed Simon’s New Book, “An Alternative History of Pittsburgh”

By Jody Diperna

In “An Alternative History of Pittsburgh,” a nifty little book just released from Belt Press, author Ed Simon takes the reader through some of the highlights and lowlights of Pittsburgh’s past, dating all the way back to 300 million BC and running right up to the ongoing schismatic gentrification of East Liberty.

The book is made up of 40 flash nonfiction essays which hit some expected notes and surprise the reader with others. According to Simon, the idea is to assemble these mini histories with the thought that they might suggest something which is not explicitly stated when taken in their totality.

Certainly, “An Alternative History of Pittsburgh” gives readers new information to add into the puzzle that is this place we call Pittsburgh.

The project started, appropriately enough, with a conversation at the Squirrel Cage: two Pittsburghers sitting around in a dingy, legendary local watering hole, debating the city itself feels almost too on-brand for Pittsburgh. They wondered how this city has a symbolic import in American mythology that other similarly sized cities do not — how and why is it that “Pittsburgh” is used as shorthand for very specific ideas.

“There’s a kind of type of accumulation, I think, of symbolic power in Pittsburgh that other places don’t quite have,” Simon told Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism via telephone from his home. A born Pittsburgher, Simon now lives in the DC area with his family.

“You have places in the United States that are sort of metonymous for particular ideas. If you say New York, or Hollywood, or Washington, people know what that means. There’s a certain connotative energy that comes out of that. Pittsburgh has that in a way that Indianapolis or some place like it does not. Not to cast aspersions on Indianapolis,” said Simon.

Just this past fall, Pittsburghers were witness to the political battle with both parties fighting like school kids over the working class mystique of this region like it’s the most prized piece of playground equipment. Everybody wants some of that down home labor associated with Pittsburgh to rub off on them.

In 2017, when then President Donald Trump announced he was withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement, he said, “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” Mayor Bill Peduto countered that the city of Pittsburgh remained in solidarity with the Paris agreement and was committed to addressing climate change. Peduto also pointed out on Twitter that the voters of Pittsburgh voted overwhelmingly against Trump in the 2016 election.

Aside from the obvious alliterative effect of connecting Paris and Pittsburgh in a sentence, Trump was trying to appropriate some of the romanticism that surrounds the city’s history of producing coal and coke and steel. Everybody seems to want a piece of Pittsburgh’s blue collar credentials, even if those are more legend than present-tense.

“Pittsburgh is this fraught imagined place that people kind of fight over as well. But it’s always this kind of working class kind of space is what it’s representative of. And the city itself is different from that, when you’re actually in it,” Simon said.

The quote “geography is destiny” was one of Simon’s guideposts in this undertaking. The journey begins with the formation of this place in the geologic era from 290 to 310 million years ago known as the Pennsylvanian Era, appropriately enough. To understand this place, one must imagine it even before there was coal deep underground. “Before there were three rivers, there was an ocean,” Simon writes.

Thus he launches his reader into a history of the place that alights like a bumblebee on this moment, has a look around, and then moves on to the next.

It’s not all oceans and tectonic plates, though. If you come to a history of Pittsburgh to get your Andrew Carnegie, your August Wilson and a requisite dollop of sports, you won’t go hungry. Simon devotes a chapter each to the aforementioned men, plus chapters on Bill Mazeroski’s home run and the Immaculate Reception. You’ll also get stories about General Braddock’s defeat and the attempted assassination of Henry Clay Frick. He writes about legendary artists Andy Warhol and the first tax revolt on United States soil with the Whiskey Rebellion.

Simon devotes time to much less well known stories, too, including the history and contributions of Native Americans to Western Pennsylvanian culture.

“I was thinking about when Rick Santorum said, ‘Oh, the Indians didn’t contribute anything to American culture.’ Which is such a racist and insensitive comment, obviously. But it is also just ignorant and wrong. In American history, [native history] is often occluded or obscured or glossed over. It seems like it’s this story which most Americans who themselves are not native, feel fine ignoring,” Simon said.

With his chapters about the Great Peacemaker, Deganawidah, a leader and shaman circa 1142, and another chapter devoted to Sganyadai:yo, also known as Handsome Lake, Simon’s appreciation for just a few of the Native Americans who contributed to this place creates a much richer and more thorough understanding of Pittsburgh.

“I wanted to make sure that at least in the foundation, I substantially emphasized who was there—what they were like, what they were doing and what their culture was—and to name who those groups were. I wanted to show the distinct ethnic groups and linguistic groups that were in this place and had a really important role in its history,” according to Simon.

Springdale is a small borough about 18 miles northeast of the city, nestled on the northern side of the Allegheny River. Just a little hollow of a flat, with the hills climbing steeply only a few blocks from the river, the hills on the other side of the Allegheny create a mirror-like vista. This the birthplace of one of the most important environmental and conservationist voices this nation has ever known. After her childhood in Springdale, Rachel Carson moved to Squirrel Hill to attend Chatham University (then known as the Pennsylvania College for Women.)

In her groundbreaking 1962 book Silent Spring, Carson documented the adverse effects of widespread unregulated pesticides and pointed at misinformation spread by the chemical industry. In his chapter, “An Activist in the Making,” Simon posits that the ways in which Carson witnessed the despoiling of the land as a young woman helped to sharpen her talents toward understanding the intersection of industry and nature. Her early life in this place was foundational to her later work.

Rachel Carson sits, arms crossed casually across her thighs and a set of binoculars in her right hand. A body of water disappears into the background behind her, but her attention is on the camera taking her photograph.
Rachel Carson at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, 1950.
Photo courtesy the Linda Lear Center for Special Collections & Archives, Connecticut College and PBS

Simon writes: “Silent Spring was, both literally and metaphorically, a product of this environment. Carson would never have written what she did if hers had only been a life of wilderness, for it was in the degradations of the polluted city that the young biologist was able to first grasp exactly what was at stake.”

The book also seeks to consider the literal shape of the city and how the terrain shapes its inhabitants. One needs to drive down Rialto Street just once to understand the outlandish nature of building a city up and down the hills around the confluence. And even though Simon himself can’t help but admire what he calls the preposterousness of Pittsburgh, he didn’t want to write, “a yinzer book, like, here’s a bunch of kind of goofy facts about Pittsburgh.”

In a black and white photo taken by Charles “Teenie” Harris, three enthusiastic black men gather joyfully around a well-worn paino. Dancer Honey Coles, dressed in a light, bright, and crease-free suit perches jauntily on top of the instrument, while Duke Ellington sits laughing at the keys, his left hand above the ivory and his right moving a sheaf of papers from beneath Honey's shoe. Framed between them stands a young Billy Strayhorn caught up in the moment, his glasses catching a light from the camera's direction, his arm draped on the piano top just-so.
Charles “Teenie” Harris: Duke Ellington at piano, dancer Honey Coles (left), and Billy Strayhorn (center), Stanley Theatre, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, c. 1942-43. Teenie Harris Archive. © 2006 Carnegie Museum of Art.

In addition to chapters about the importance of union and labor activists, chapters celebrating the genius of pianist and composer Billy Strayhorn (a Westinghouse High product), and the radical labor art of Max Vanka, Simon goes to the uncomfortable places, too. He examines the pressures that led to the 1968 Hill District Riots and the closing of the mills in Reagan’s America.

Unknown to most of us is Henry Bouquet, a British colonel at Fort Pitt who, in 1763 pioneered the idea of using smallpox blankets as biological warfare against the local Native American peoples. This genocidal act was then replicated to decimate the populations of numerous Indian tribes on the Trail of Tears. Bouquet’s reward for conceiving of weaponizing the virus that had already killed countless Native Americans: having a street in Oakland named after him.

Then there is the story of John Barker, a bombastic street preacher who became Mayor of Pittsburgh on a platform of anti-immigrant demagoguery. In his one year as mayor (1850-1851) he used his office to create his own police department and harrass Catholic immigrants (mostly German and Irish) coming into Pittsburgh for work. He lost his re-election bid and eventually died when he stumbled drunkenly onto train tracks, but his rise to power points to the ease with which the populace can be riled up with nativist fears and bigotry.

In this way, Pittsburgh also reflects the larger nation. There is a greatness to this place, but there is an underbelly as well. There is colossal industry and there is the cost to the health of the land and the people who serve that industry. There is art and majesty. And there are hired thugs deployed against working people. Simon wanted to capture bits of all of it—the inspiring and dispiriting, the whimsical and the tragic—like catching lightning bugs in June.

“I wanted to reflect the beauty and the grandeur of Pittsburgh, but I also wanted to be like, hey, these smallpox blankets. There’s ugly stuff here, too. That’s part of what makes the city and the country of which it is a part interesting. Giving a little bit of complexity was what I wanted to do,” he said.

Jody DiPerna can be reached at