Roots (For Sandy) by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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We all come from somewhere. Some of us—and you know who you are—are “from heres,” the ones who were born and raised locally and have Kent County roots that run several generations deep. Others of us are “come heres,” most often from the nearby mega-metropolises over on the Western Shore—Washington, Baltimore, or the Philadelphia area. But I’m of a slightly different ilk: I come from Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh: city of rivers, city of bridges, city of hills and neighborhoods and ethnicities. It’s a blue collar/white collar midwestern city: polite, friendly, unpretentious. It’s a city that has reinvented itself, not once but twice. Steel is long gone, but health care and medicine provided an encore act, while entrepreneurship and high tech industries now take pride of place. It’s a pleasant place to live: affordable, green, innovative. It has great sports teams, a world-class symphony, a vibrant arts scene, efficient public transportation, three renowned universities, and numerous great restaurants. Andy Warhol came from Pittsburgh; dancers Marta Graham and Gene Kelly took their first steps in Pittsburgh. A Scottish immigrant named Andrew Carnegie began to produce steel in Pittsburgh in 1875 and left the city a wondrous legacy of free libraries and museums. Pittsburgh was the first American city to have its own movie theater and the world’s first commercial radio station (KDKA) began broadcasting from Pittsburgh in 1920. Jonas Salk invented the polio vaccine in Pittsburgh. Mr. Heinz bottled his ketchup in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is the birthplace of the Clark Bar, the Klondike Bar, chipped ham, and Iron City Beer. You’re welcome!

Pittsburgh’s three rivers—the Allegheny and the Monongahela join forces to form the Ohio at Pittsburgh’s “Point”—gave the city its geopolitical start. A young George Washington once surveyed the site and during the French and Indian wars, the fort that commanded the way west changed hands several times: Fort Pitt when it was British, Fort Duquesne when it was French. The town was besieged during Pontiac’s Rebellion while just a few years later, the notorious Lord Jeffrey Amherst waged the world’s first biological warfare there when he ordered blankets contaminated with smallpox to be distributed to Indians surrounding the fort, killing hundreds of thousands as the disease spread.

In the fall of 1803, acting on orders from Thomas Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis sailed away from Pittsburgh on the Ohio River before joining forces downstream with William Clark to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Territory. Lewis and Clark and their intrepid Corps of Discovery ultimately found a way (thanks, in large part, to Sacajawea) to the Pacific Ocean, marking the first overland path to America’s Manifest Destiny.

In the years leading up to the Civil War, Pittsburgh had a number of active stations on the Underground Railroad. By the 20th Century, Pittsburgh’s steel mills operated 24 hours a day, empowering a nation and helping win two world wars. But the city paid a steep price: once called “the arsenal of democracy,” Pittsburgh’s air quality became so polluted that it evoked an earlier characterization as “hell with the lid off.” Two ambitious campaigns to clean up the city’s air and water and to revitalize it’s working class neighborhoods—Renaissance I and Renaissance II—put Pittsburgh back on track to becoming the livable and (dare-I-say) fashionable place it is today.

Pittsburgh is a place of letters and art and music: Gertrude Stein came from Pittsburgh; Rachel Carson did, too. August Wilson, David McCullough, Willa Cather, Michael Chabon, and Annie Dillard all hail from Pittsburgh. The Andy Warhol Museum over on the North Side draws thousands of visitors a year. Mr. Rogers and his make-believe neighborhood were a familiar part of the Pittsburgh landscape of my childhood. More recently, Wiz Khalifa’s rap anthem “Black and Yellow” (the city’s colors) hit number one on the national Billboard Chart.

Despite its many charms and its history of creative post-industrial transition, Pittsburgh isn’t perfect; like all of us, it still struggles with difficult issues. The recent deadly shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a police officer in a Pittsburgh suburb is yet another tragic brick in our shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later national wall.

Pittsburgh is often ranked at or near the top of the list of “Most Livable Cities in America.” It is a thriving urban example of what can happen when the public and private sectors work effectively together for a common good. It even has romance! Just a few years ago, Forbes magazine paid the city a somewhat back-handed compliment by placing Pittsburgh high on its list of “most unexpectedly romantic cities in America.” Hmmmm….

Sadly, my parents are gone and my family have all moved away; my own road has brought me here. Now I have nothing but memories to take me back to Pittsburgh. Sometimes when I fall asleep, I close my eyes and see the city’s hills and rivers or watch in awe as one of the blast furnaces at the old J&L Mill opens to light up the night sky. I remember Bill Mazeroski’s home run that beat the mighty Yankees in the 7th game of the 1960 World Series; I watch yet another grainy replay of Franco Harris’ “Immaculate reception;” I still cheer as Mario Lemieux or Sydney Crosby hoist yet another Stanley Cup. As much as I love Chestertown, those memories and many more make me the Yinzer I am—and proud of it!

So why is this Musing subtitled “For Sandy?” Because Sandy Hoon, God rest his soul, was a Yinzer, too.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” will be released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com.

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