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Perception far from reality

The city of Pittsburgh isn't flat, boring or blackened by mills

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Pittsburgh is a green city with loads of parks, valleys and bridges.

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Pittsburgh is a green city with loads of parks, valleys and bridges.

The steel industry, after which the football team is named, for the most part is gone. There are no penguins and it is doubtful if a real pirate ever came close to the city. But Pittsburgh is home to some of the most passionate fans in hockey, baseball and football. These sports are significant economic generators for tourism in the area.

But my first visit to Pittsburgh would not be to see any of these fan-driven teams.

As a member of the Travel Media Association of Canada, I was a reluctant registrant to the annual conference which the city had won with a best bid over a number of other jurisdictions.

My image of the place was clear. Pittsburg would be a city blackened by the mills with streets that were as dark in day as in night, or so I thought. A flat, boring city, more or less treeless and pretty much without culture, art, or architecture, was the vision I held in my mind.

As the small plane that was taking many of us to the conference via connections in Toronto made its landing approach, my perceptions were quickly starting to fall apart.

Hillsides and valleys could be seen below, heavily treed, already in full greenery, even though it was not yet the end of May.

After spending a few days there, Pittsburgh, in many ways, reminded me of Winnipeg. A river city whose negative perceptions are fixed until visitors spend time here and discover what makes us great, motivating us to live here in spite of our cold winters.

Talk with Pittsburgh residents and you will hear prideful explanations of how the loss of the steel industry decades ago forced the city to reinvent itself.

The city may have lost an industry but many of the people who became rich from it paid the city back handsomely.

Andrew Carnegie, one of the richest Americans who made his billions long before the steel industry collapsed, put a large part of his fortune back into the city.

His legacy stands today from his charitable investments in what was to become the Carnegie Museums:

-- an art collection that offers many of the masters, both historical and modern;

-- a gathering of dinosaur bones that rival those displayed in Canada's great collection in Drumheller, Alta.;

-- a natural history display with enough polar bear and Aboriginal artifacts to satisfy even the most ardent educator in Canada;

-- and a large separate building that shows the unique greatness of one of their best known artists, Andy Warhol.

Another local name created a worldwide brand.

The Heinz logo on jars and bottles is recognized in the four corners of the earth. Most people think that ketchup was the first product that was bottled by the Heinz Corporation, but in fact the first product to hit store shelves was horseradish.

While the current Heinz leadership is moving jobs out of Canada, in their original home of Pittsburgh, they were icons.

You can find many examples of their philanthropy throughout the city and especially in the John Heinz History Centre, the Smithsonian Museum's home in the heart of the main commercial district of Pittsburgh.

While some of their wealthiest citizens certainly helped keep the city relatively strong through its worst economic periods, it was the broader commitment of its people that ensured the region had an outstanding symphony, a theatre district of its own, and development strategies that transformed former crime-ridden districts into strong food and entertainment areas.

In comparing the cultural similarities between Winnipeg and Pittsburgh, Slovakian dancers entertained us one evening, while perogies on the menu at our opening reception at the Fairmont Hotel helped underscore that completely. Pride in its homemade sauerkraut and sausages spoke loudly about its immigration history. And the ethnic names of restaurants covered the gamut of people who seemed to have ignored the melting pot theory of America.

In the heart of the city, some of the tallest and uniquely designed buildings dominate the landscape. However, a short drive out of the centre reveals parks, valleys and golf courses other cities would crave.

For the golf enthusiast there may be no better bargains to play the game than in Pittsburgh and the surrounding area. As I looked for courses, I thought perhaps the offerings I found were only of the least desirable tracks in the nation. Golf with a cart for under $50 was common.

In Mercer county where I spent a couple of extra days, weekday golf with a cart was $27 while weekend rates were under $40.

Perhaps the greater wonderment is the fact that in the town of Sharon, as a part of an endowment of Frank H. Buhl, another steel giant, there is the only entirely free golf course in America

It may be only nine holes but it is well maintained and worth playing.

It is no wonder that Ontario residents, who can drive the distance in a few hours, have made it a golf haven.

We all have pictures of places we etch in our minds before we actually visit them. It really is satisfying to visit a place where perception and reality are far apart. This latest for me is Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Forward your travel questions to Ron Pradinuk is president of Journeys Travel & Leisure SuperCentre and can be heard Sundays at noon on CJOB. Previous columns and tips can be found on or read Ron's travel blog at

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 14, 2014 E2

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