IN THE SUMMER OF 2011, I got a lot of texts and emails from my parents about Batman. It turned out that the caped crusader, and his various foes, had been traipsing around a series of familiar locales in the greater Pittsburgh area, and my folks had been following his exploits from their vantage high atop a converted condominium building on Fort Pitt Boulevard. There was the Batmobile tumbling across Smithfield Street, a be-masked Tom Hardy stirring a crowd of extras outside the Mellon Institute building in Oakland, and legendary Steelers’ wideout Hines Ward cosplaying as a “Gotham Rogue” at Heinz Field on the North Shore of the Allegheny and Ohio Rivers. I was a Pittsburgher in exile, living in the city on the other side of the commonwealth, and seeing these visions of my hometown filtered through the iconography of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight was an oddly comforting experience.
Nolan’s trilogy revolutionized not only the Batman film franchise, but also the entire superhero movie complex. Drawing on iterations of the character from comics of the ’80s and ’90s, Nolan’s movies were dark, serious, sometimes ponderous. Their artistic pretensions were leveraged through a realism rooted in regional grit, the idea of “real world” comic heroes and villains: grumpy, bruised, brutish, stalking cracked sidewalks and parking garages. One of the key signifiers of this shift from Tim Burton’s camp Gothic, itself a departure from Adam West’s mod kitsch, was Nolan’s conspicuous decision to move Gotham City to Chicago. Batman’s hometown had always been reflexively associated with New York, but Nolan foregrounded recognizable Chicagoland shooting locations in both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight to make sure audiences knew that his Bruce Wayne was, in fact, a scion of the American Midwest. Whatever that meant would be up to the viewer; but it meant something.
Yet when shooting commenced in 2011 for the third and final installment, The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan moved Gotham east to Pittsburgh. What could that mean? We speculated. Maybe the massive scale of Chicago would make way for the intimacy of a midsize city. Maybe some of the blue-collar aesthetic of the region would inflect the workings of this vigilante one-percenter. Maybe there’d be a shot where Batman’s pointy little bat ears are reflected in the mirrored, bat-eared PPG Place skyscraper downtown. What would Nolan make of a Pittsburgh Batman?
Not a lot, it turned out. We had known that Pittsburgh was not the only shooting location — urban scenes were staged in Chicago, New York, and London, as well. But when the final film was released, aside from the uncanny black and gold of the Gotham Rogues, all that remained of the city were landmarks and intersections that would be recognizable only to natives: Smithfield Street, Oakland, the North Shore. It wasn’t just the absence of a prominent Pittsburgh aesthetic that puzzled the viewers of Western PA, though. It was that this Gotham City was the most identifiably New York Gotham we’d seen since Burton. Prominent plot points occurred on the Queensboro Bridge; Bane very pointedly occupies Wall Street; and Batman skims over the East River on his way to self-immolation. Tom Hardy’s insane accent remains one of the strangest choices of contemporary film acting — so would it have been so hard to throw a “yinz” in there?
I thought about our Dark Knight summer a lot while reading Ed Simon’s singular new book, An Alternative History of Pittsburgh, from Anne Trubek’s essential independent press, Belt Publishing. It seemed like the kind of telling cultural-historical anecdote that would fit in with Simon’s epic, atomic history of the Steel City. It’s a story that, like the stories Simon tells in his book, both reveals and conceals the truth of Pittsburgh, a place as defined by the smoky haze that surrounds it in the popular imagination as it is by the people who live there. That Pittsburgh played such a pivotal role in the creation of Nolan’s film, only for it to subsequently disappear — for its contribution to be overshadowed by New York, of all places — made sense. As Simon shows again and again, everybody knows a little bit about the story of Pittsburgh; they just don’t always know it’s a story that belongs to Pittsburgh.
For all of its qualities, I’m not sure if An Alternative History of Pittsburgh is so much an “alternative” to existing histories of the city and region. The big-ticket modern narratives of the city are neither absent nor upended here: we still witness the transformation of a somewhat estranged frontier outpost into a hardscrabble steel town into a rusted-out boneyard for a dying industry. Nor have the Great Men vacated the scene: everybody from Andrew Carnegie to Andy Warhol takes the stage, even if momentarily. In fact, it’s possible Simon’s history — which is comprised of several dozen two- or three-page standalone vignettes — makes more room for famous figures like Daniel Boone, who might not otherwise get a chance to hold the spotlight in chronicles of the city. But those narratives and those recognizable names haunt much more granular, idiosyncratic, relatively unknown accounts of Pittsburgh’s characters and character. It wouldn’t be quite right to describe the book as a prosopography, or even group biography, in part because all of its characters appear so fleetingly, but also because its focus isn’t quite so scientific as that genre might suggest. The organizing logic of this group, generously, is just the convergence of three rivers over a couple million years. And while it shares an encyclopedic impulse with other sweeping cultural histories teeming with massive casts of characters — Michael Denning’s Cultural Front, Ann Douglas’s Terrible Honesty, even Louis Menand’s recent The Free World — it’s notably less invested in advancing a specific argument or staking out a particular historical angle.
In its panoramic vision, if not in its length, it resembles most John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy. In his 1938 prologue to the collected volumes, Dos Passos wrote,
U. S. A. is the slice of a continent. U. S. A. is a group of holding companies, some aggregations of trade unions, a set of laws bound in calf, a radio network, a chain of moving picture theatres, a column of stockquotations rubbed out and written in by a Western Union boy on a blackboard, a public-library full of old newspapers and dogeared historybooks with protests scrawled on the margins in pencil. U. S. A. is the world’s greatest rivervalley fringed with mountains and hills, U. S. A. is a set of bigmouthed officials with too many bankaccounts. U. S. A. is a lot of men buried in their uniforms in Arlington Cemetery. U. S. A. is the letters at the end of an address when you are away from home. But mostly U. S. A. is the speech of the people.
Simon’s book shares some of Dos Passos’s democratic spirit, though Simon chooses the historian’s level gaze over the roving, modernist omniscience of the novelist. Characters pop in and out of focus, headlines are fleshed out in intimate detail, sometimes a figure shows up over and again, sometimes it’s only a cameo appearance. Like U.S.A., An Alternative History of Pittsburgh works in aggregate.
But Dos Passos isn’t the only potential influence here. Other points of reference for Simon’s work might include key 20th-century short story cycles, especially geo-located ones like Dubliners or Winesburg, Ohio. Dublin, Winesburg, Pittsburgh — no one story more important than the one they all tell together about the place. And in its aphoristic style, it even comes to resemble a souped-up version of the contemporary literary mode that Jenny Offill and Patricia Lockwood seem to have inherited from Renata Adler by way of Twitter dot com. That all makes sense. Despite the conspicuous “history” in its title, and despite Simon’s evident rigor, An Alternative History of Pittsburgh is a work of literature, a series of linked creative nonfiction essays, an historical story cycle. Histories of this city have been written — its story has been researched, told, and retold. If this book is an alternative to anything, it’s an alternative to the compulsive need to draw firm conclusions from all the things that have happened between three rivers.
And that’s why Simon’s unique style matters. Most of the facts we encounter in the book are traceable to popular and scholarly accounts of the city’s history, and Simon’s admirably transparent citational practice reminds us of that chapter by chapter. What the visibility of those other sources also does, though, is foreground Simon’s work as a sort of collage artist working in the medium of historiography. For a book trumpeted as one built from “interconnected” stories, there is surprisingly little direct overlap between chapters. Andrew Carnegie pops up in a couple of sections that are not his own, and the aforementioned smoke and steel is ubiquitous, but very little of the book is preoccupied with cute coincidences or elaborate networks of connection outside of the individual chapters.
At its best, Simon produces those overlaps interpretively and implicitly. The chapter that dwells most on the city’s famous midcentury pollution, for instance, is also the one devoted to a biographical interlude on Rachel Carson. It’s an elegant and ingenious piece of narrative management. The reader, by the time Carson’s chapter rolls around, is already a little impatient for some sustained attention to the city’s soot. But the introduction of Carson allows us to momentarily settle into a comfortable space: the capsule biography of a famous daughter of the city. We get a little history of her alma mater, Chatham College, and then we move into a broader description of her career as an uncommonly lyrical activist for the environment. By the second page, however, Simon begins to drift skyward again. A brief meditation on Carson’s suburban, near-rural hometown of Springdale — and its relative insulation from the furnaces of the city — leads us to a semi-distant vantage point from which we can really take stock of the iconic industrial hellscape for the first time. “Carson’s views,” Simon writes, “would not have been dissimilar to the same vista espied by the Indians and colonial settlers who made their way through the region two centuries before.” There’s a paragraph break, and then,
Within Pittsburgh, however, the continual dun of industry operating every hour of the day and all days of the week made a landscape that was an oily, dark, dirty, grimy, besotted, and coal-filled valley of concrete and brick; a city of perpetual midnight where if a house like Carson’s had been placed in the midst of all this activity, it would have been stained black within a few months by all of the mill exhaust.
Pittsburgh was not Carson’s subject. But Simon insists that we see that “city of perpetual midnight” as the origin of her advocacy, even her poetics. The remainder of the chapter turns to a consideration of the photographs — by Charles “Teenie” Harris and W. Eugene Smith — that produced the national imagination of this landscape. The book is littered with puckering or revelatory juxtapositions of this sort, moments when something we imagine we know transforms when put in context of a city we apparently didn’t. Rachel Carson, and dozens of others, rise anew from dark nights like these.
With so many gaps and pauses and hustled time jumps between stories, we are forced to understand that it’s in those breaks where we are to find the work’s meaning. Unmoored from more synthetic historical accounts, the individual chapters come to feel like a crowd we have to cut through. We can’t see the shape of it from within, and there are times, reading the book, where we might miss that aerial view. But there’s pleasure, and insight, from being occasionally lost in the past like this.
I wondered on several occasions while hurtling through Simon’s menagerie whether this historiographical style was peculiar to its subject. The book is divided into three sections: one on the 20th century, preceded by one on the 19th, preceded by one on the millions of years leading up to that. Especially once the middle, 19th-century, section begins, and the more famous names begin to pop up, and the burden of pre-colonial and early American history eases a little, Simon moves swiftly through contained incidents in the stories of well-known and lesser-known Americans. Their lives, their moments in the sun, illuminate the city like a string of individual light bulbs — Martin Delany, Stephen Foster, Henry Clay Frick, etc. What is it about the city that requires such ephemeral narration? What overwhelming historical narratives might such an atomized approach be designed to revise or re-envision? In other words: why might this city, in particular, need its story to be fragmented in this way?
One would think this style ought to be portable. Especially for historians or would-be narrators of the forgotten metropolises of the middle of this country, telling the story of a place by way of ensemble cast makes a lot of sense. On some level, it’s the methodological variant of the ritual reminder we displaced Pittsburghers get used to leveling at our friends from New York and Chicago and Los Angeles: important people are from here too! Important things happened here too! Andy Warhol is from here! Mr. Rogers is from here! Even Batman is from here! Well, Michael Keaton at least.
But that’s on the surface. At times, I think Simon’s account of the city rhymes with Robert Altman’s approach to Nashville in his 1975 film of the same name. We don’t learn about a place through a group biography of nobles or a telling of tall tales; we learn about it from the attention we pay to the loose connections, the collisions, the accidents of time. The portrait of the city is a hundred people, famous and obscure, talking over each other, until, all of sudden, they sing together.
But, again, such a history could be written of San Francisco as well as Toledo. Every city is a cacophony of voices occasionally, fleetingly modulating into harmony. Why Pittsburgh? If there’s a reason to tell this particular story in this particular way, perhaps it’s that Pittsburgh has, for long stretches of modern memory, been an overdetermined place. First, it was the steel town, the heart of American industry. Then, it became the scene of the cardiac event that brought American industry low. The buckle of the rust belt. Growing up in the 1990s, long after the heralded ’70 s-era collapse, I had a novelty t-shirt that read, “Pittsburgh: We’re Not Manhattan, We Just Built It.” Proud, defensive, mournful. And that was a story that transcended the place. We all know a thousand myths about New York or Los Angeles. Most people only know the one about Pittsburgh.
I lived in Pittsburgh until I was 18. I was born in the midst of what’s known as the second Pittsburgh Renaissance, a time when the city skyline became visible again as the steel mills fell and the jobs went away. I never knew a Pittsburgh hazy with pollution, I never blew my nose and saw soot on the tissue, I never saw the smoke. But when I went to college in New England in the early aughts, I met at least a dozen teenagers from other parts of the country and the globe who asked me, with total confidence, about the smoke in my city. To them, the industry never collapsed, the jobs never left, the rivers never got cleaned up, nothing ever happened. These educated young people from towns large and small across America lived their lives imagining that people like me were born and raised outside blast furnaces in the 1940s.
About the 1845 “Great Fire” of Pittsburgh — which, like a lot of “great fires” of the 19th century, was a pre-condition for the city’s growth and modernization — Simon writes,
Now, virtually no evidence of the fire, or of the previous city which it transformed, remains. The event has all but been forgotten in Pittsburgh’s memory. An apt metaphor for industry and capitalism itself, the rapaciousness of change which transforms like a fire, the burning away of all tradition, history, and traces of the past, whether good or bad.
Simon’s book is a book of evidence, of testimony. It’s also a book of, and about, forgetting, and its endless, enigmatic table of contents a list of memories to lose and to find: “A Leaf Transformed into Coal,” “A Nativist in Market Square,” “A Cathedral of Learning.” A group of holding companies, some aggregations of trade unions, a set of laws bound in calf. The speech of the people.
Phillip Maciak (@pjmaciak) is the TV editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is also the author of a book about religion and early cinema called The Disappearing Christ: Secularism in the Silent Era(Columbia University Press, 2019), and his film, television, and literary criticism has appeared in Slate, Film Quarterly, J19, PMLA, The New Republic, and other venues.