Monongahela shores

Posted by jdg | Monday, October 23, 2006 |

Apparently there's some C-list actress out there named Sienna Miller who is more famous for her outfits in Us Weekly and getting screwed by Jude Law than she is for any actual film she's ever been in. Miller was recently filming an adaptation of a Michael Chabon novel in Pittsburgh when, in an interview with Rolling Stone, she called the city "Shitsburgh" and complained to the reporter: "Can you believe this is my life? Will you pity me when you're back in your funky New York apartment and I'm still in Pittsburgh? I need to get more glamorous films and stop with my indie year."

I don't mean to be too hard on Sienna Miller. But she was staying at the Omni, not some flophouse in the hill district. And now, after her boyfriend cheated on her with a homely nanny, she also had this to say in the interview: "Monogamy [is] overrated because, let's face it, we're all fucking animals. The fact is, no one is perfect." It's hard to argue with that incredible logic, and I don't want to question the thinking of such an intellectual powerhouse. But I'm going to anyway.

We just spent part of the weekend in Sienna's "Shitsburgh," and I have to say it's one of my favorite cities. And I don't just mean that from the side of me that loves grungy post-industrial graffiti-covered cityscapes. From the most objective standpoint, Pittsburgh is a beautiful town. When you approach it from north 279 and come out of that tunnel and suddenly see the sunlight on the rivers and the skyscrapers and the hills and the metal bridges, I don't think there's any comparable approach to any other city in America. Instead of just the monotonous, depressing suburbs or industrial wastelands that pollute the outskirts of most cities, in the hills surrounding Pittsburgh and along the three rivers there are old steel towns riddled with old trestles and bridges and neighborhoods with true character supplied by multiple generations of various immigrant communities. There is a solid sense of culture in Pittsburgh that many faster-moving cities lack. Wood's dad lives in the South Side slopes, and for ten years we have visited him there, and I love walking those hills and the flats, seeing the statues of the virgin and the fake flowers in the windows of Edwardian row houses and walking past corner beer-and-a-shot dive bars. During the summer of 2002 Wood lived in Oakland (the Pittsburgh neighborhood, not the bay area city) and I spent a month there procrastinating studying for the bar exam, driving around to thrift stores in most of the boroughs and eating lots of sandwiches and salads inexplicably topped with french fries. I grew to love Oakland's drunken excesses, its mattresses smoldering in the streets and Italian grandmothers culling tomatoes from plants arching upwards among broken bottles of Yuengling. I loved the parks. The people. The Primanti brothers. I would live in Pittsburgh in a heartbeat.

On Saturday afternoon, Wood's father drove us through a new development on the South Side, down by the hot metal bridge, and it was with a certain sense of dread that I drove past the bustling storefronts of the type of familiar chain stores that clutter strip malls everywhere and even Fifth Avenue and lower Broadway in Manhattan. They were the kind of places a girl like Sienna Miller might shop if she wasn't so rich. Part of me thought it was wonderful that the money was being spent on development in the city, and not in some strip mall somewhere in a suburb. Part of me wished that someone would have that kind of confidence to develop in Detroit. Part of me disliked how the "edgier" chain stores like H&M and Urban Outfitters were obviously sold on the project because they could feed off the long-established "punk" atmosphere of Carson street. I was conflicted. The place was hopping. Clearly, this was where people want to spend their money.

I have to curb my pretention and remember that to locals, these kind of developments may feel like progress, you know: "We finally got an H&M, just like New York!" whereas an outsider like me sees the potential demise of a certain sense of culture with the gentrification, knowing that for every yuppie like me who will move into the existing housing stock, some old Ukrainian woman whose family has lived there for generations will have to find somewhere else to go. As an outsider, it is that sense of culture that I think makes Pittsburgh so damn wonderful, so damn different than any other city I've ever visited.

The people of Pittsburgh are fiercely proud and needed no apology from Sienna Miller. But one of her handlers wrote an apology for her eventually. As someone who recently moved from San Francisco to Detroit, I am sensitive about remarks like those made by Miller. I hear that kind of thing all the time about Detroit, and feel that it is such an unattractive thing to discuss a place where so many people live as though it were intolerable. I wondered this weekend what it was about Pittsburgh that Miller found so unappealing. I suppose it's no London, no Manhattan. It makes me realize how far away I am from a woman like that, how unappealing I find people like her. Sure, she is probably physically attractive. It's her job, after all, to be desirable. Wanting to fuck Sienna Miller is probably easy, just like "hearting" N.Y. is easy, just like, if you are water, flowing downhill is easy. But I don't really want to fuck Sienna Miller. See, I'm in a monogomous relationship, and besides, she probably smells like Dexatrim and cocaine and would refuse to take her ugly-ass boots off. But even worse, she's kind of sad. Pathetic. Kind of like that cheerleader in all the eighties movies at the end, after they have given the "nerdy" girl a makeover to win the prom queen tiera and sash and everyone has learned the lesson that it's really what's inside that counts. People like Miller are so blinded by their own sense of self-importance that they can't see the beauty of the world around them. And that's sad.