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As the City of Pittsburgh celebrates its 250th anniversary this year, alumnus and senior editor Cara J. Hayden reflects on a freshman night when she realized that the Pittsburgh campus extends far beyond a single neighborhood.

Pitt’s Burgh

missing image file We were giddy that night. Riding on the 54C bus,we were a bunch of Pitt freshmen who had just finished our final exams, out to celebrate before we spread across the country to our parents’ homes for the summer. While the seven of us rumbled toward Pittsburgh’s South Side, Michele gripped the handlebars of the bus seat in front of her and opened her mouth in terror, pretending to be on a roller coaster at Kennywood. We could always count on her to make us laugh.

The impromptu roller coaster ride ended after we crossed the Birmingham Bridge and jumped off the bus at the second stop. From there, we filed into an Italian spot called Paparazzi. In the dim art-deco restaurant, my roommate Megan and I split a calzone that was so huge it flopped off our plate. We snapped a photo of us holding up the flour-dusted loaf because it seemed appropriate at a place named Paparazzi, and because we were taking a lot of pictures that night. It was an evening to document, one that marked how much my friends and I had changed since we’d hauled our dorm stuff into the Towers residence halls in the fall of 2000, as well as how much we still had to learn about the University, and Pittsburgh, and ourselves.

I remember that last night of freshman year because it signified how the city, not just Pitt’s campus, had become home to me. This year, as Pittsburgh celebrates its 250th anniversary, I’ve been thinking about how the entire city became Pitt’s campus to me and my friends. For more than two centuries, the city has been a vital part of other students’ experiences, too. It’s something all Pitt people share.

There were the times we got on buses heading in the wrong direction, the nights when we dressed up for the symphony or opera downtown, the afternoon we attended a political rally for Al Gore, the late-night parties where we wondered about those stand-alone toilets in South Oakland basements, that ’70s retro film we saw at The Andy Warhol Museum, and all those football games when we cheered on the Panthers at the same big-time stadium where the Steelers play.

My first year of college was fantastic, and at that last dinner, my friends and I were melancholic about having to return to our boring hometowns in Texas, New York, and Pennsylvania. While Megan and I sliced up our calzone, and everyone else forked into their dinners, we reminisced about all the fun we’d had during the year.

There were the times we got on buses heading in the wrong direction, the nights when we dressed up for the symphony or opera downtown, the afternoon we attended a political rally for Al Gore, the late-night parties where we wondered about those stand-alone toilets in South Oakland basements, that ’70s retro film we saw at The Andy Warhol Museum, and all those football games when we cheered on the Panthers at the same big-time stadium where the Steelers play.

Of course, we also talked about the legendary baseball game. Our posse had melded at a Pirates game, one of dozens of events that Pitt had planned for freshmen during move-in week at the beginning of the year. Michele, Megan, and I had sat together, half-cheering for Pittsburgh’s team, mostly chatting and creating origami out of wrappers, forming our girlfriend trio. Asaf, Mike, Paymon, and Ryan—our guy friends dining with us at Paparazzi—were at the ball game, too. We were an eclectic group. Our intellectual interests spread across the business, engineering, and arts-and-sciences schools, and we came from different cultural backgrounds and faiths. Together, we enjoyed exploring the cosmopolitan activities that our urban campus offered.

On the last night of freshman year, after we stuffed ourselves at Paparazzi, we caught another bus down East Carson Street to Station Square, and then clicked up the Mon Incline. At the top of Mt. Washington, we wandered onto one of the concrete pods that overlooks downtown and leaned on the railings, gazing at the luminous city. Streetlights reflected on the river like long, orange stalactites. The turrets on the PPG Place skyscraper—designed by celebrated architect Philip Johnson— glowed like giant lanterns. I had dubbed the building the “glass castle” the first time I explored downtown.

Somewhere beyond the lighted archways of the Smithfield Street Bridge, in the midst of the buildings lining the Boulevard of the Allies and Cherry Way, was the original plot of the academy that became the University of Pittsburgh. In 1787, just 29 years after the British army built a fort at the confluence of the three rivers and named the surrounding settlement Pittsburgh (in honor of England’s Sir William Pitt), the University was founded by state representative Hugh Henry Brackenridge. In an article in the Pittsburgh Gazette newspaper, he wrote:

The situation in the town of Pittsburgh is greatly to be chosen for a seat of learning … I do not know that the legislature could do a more acceptable service to the commonwealth than by endowing a school at this place … We well know the strength of a state greatly consists in the superior mental powers of the inhabitants … I should rejoice to see Pennsylvania at all times able to produce mathematicians, philosophers, historians, and statesmen, equal to any in the confederacy …

And so the Pittsburgh Academy became the first school of higher education in the young city on the western frontier. For more than a century, students studied rhetoric, geography, Greek mythology, and other subjects in log and eventually brick buildings in the Golden Triangle of Pittsburgh. Students commuted to class in horse-drawn carriages and later streetcars, precursors to the buses my friends and I have used in the new millennium.

From the windy Mt. Washington lookout where Megan and Michele were snapping photos and the guys were examining the treetops below, we could see the hills to the left, where telescopes in Pitt’s Allegheny Observatory were likely scanning the night sky. Part of the University’s 19th-century campus—then called the Western University of Pennsylvania—was located on the north end of the city near the observatory.

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From the right side of the Mt. Washington lookout, we could see the crown of the Cathedral of Learning in the distance, a beacon of the modern University and the homing tower that we always followed back to campus after our citywide adventures. The University moved to Oakland in 1908, changing its name to the University of Pittsburgh that year. The name change reflected the fact that the University and the city were inextricably linked.

“Pitt” was soon embraced as a nickname and, to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the University, the school installed electric signs on Mt. Washington that read “PITT 1787-1912” in 12-foot-high characters. All around the city, folks could see the Pitt display. Many were already taking pride in Pitt and its football team, since the Panthers won their first national championship in 1910. During the following decade, the team won three more championships, drumming up fervor.

Then, in 1921, Chancellor John Bowman came up with an idea that would strengthen the connection between the Oakland campus and the city. He wrote:

Why not put up a building which itself will tell of the spirit of Pittsburgh? Such a building, if it were to express intense emotion, would necessarily be high. A high building, a tower—a tower singing upward that would tell the epic story of Pittsburgh.

The resulting Cathedral of Learning was dedicated in 1937. Built with the help of 97,000 local schoolchildren who donated dimes to buy bricks, and honoring the city’s immigrant groups with the Nationality Rooms, the tower truly involved the people of Pittsburgh. Like many newcomers, I was wowed by the building while driving up Forbes Avenue on my first visit to Pittsburgh in 1999. Big things happen here, I thought.

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When I began applying to colleges shortly before that ’99 visit, I’d never heard of Pitt, nor many of the universities that I received brochures from in the mail. The stack of sleek pamphlets that piled up in my bedroom all seemed the same. They all promised academic excellence and caring faculty and trees underneath which I could think Deep Thoughts. Then Pitt’s brochure came, which emphasized the superb academics and professors and trees, plus more—a lot more. Pitt was a place where students could experience urban life and the independence that comes with it.

That independence was what my friends and I would miss when we went home for the summer after our last hurrah at Paparazzi and the Mt. Washington overlook. In future summers, we stayed in Pittsburgh. Our high school friends were somewhat baffled by this, since they and their fellow students rarely stayed on their campuses. But in Pittsburgh, there were internships and lab research to pursue, not to mention more exploring. During the summers, we ventured into Bloomfield’s “Little Italy,” and the market stalls in the Strip District, and other neighborhoods that we didn’t have time to visit during the school year.

Although I knew students who went to urban colleges in Boston and Buffalo, they weren’t as involved in city life as my Pitt friends and me. The University made an extra effort to make the city part of our overall student experience. Our student IDs doubled as free bus passes, and the Pitt Arts program got us free or reduced admission to museums, operas, jazz recitals, ballets, musicals, and orchestra concerts. And the University hosted events like the freshman meet-and-greet baseball game. Pitt actively encouraged us to think of the entire city as our campus.

The University has always been an important asset for the city, too. Each year, the University spends more than $1.5 billion in the community and supports more than 32,000 jobs and businesses. Its students spend more than $213 million on goods, services, and rental payments. The University also attracts thousands of visitors from outside the region, and their spending helps the local economy.Start-up technology companies fuel Pittsburgh’s post-steel era, often founded on ideas developed at Pitt; and the Pittsburgh campus confers about 6,400 degrees annually on its undergraduate, graduate, and professional students, many of whom remain in Western Pennsylvania and help to build the region’s future.

While some of the University’s most important contributions involve economic development, Pitt also adds tremendous value to the city through an array of educational, health and medical, cultural, social, and athletic programs—as well as through the positive enrichments made by individual alumni, faculty, staff, and students.

As Pittsburgh celebrates its 250th anniversary, city residents are rebuilding their neighborhoods with ongoing help from Pitt’s Community Outreach Partnership Center, the Pitt Volunteer Pool, Pitt Partnership for Food, the Healthy Black Family Project, and many other initiatives in which University people and programs are involved. Local schoolchildren benefit from educational outreach programs and attend writing, math, radio, and sports camps at the University. Community members take advantage of Pitt-sponsored leisure-learn opportunities, and local retirees expand their knowledge through Pitt’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. Most importantly, the University is still educating students to become well-rounded citizens, professionals, and leaders, just as founder Brackenridge intended.

Several years after our graduation, my friends and I are pursuing careers in divergent fields—hospital administration, public health, computer science, religious ministry, writing, marketing, and teaching.

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Students enjoy a performance at Heinz Hall, as part of the Pitt Arts Program.

At the end of our freshman year, we didn’t know what jobs we’d eventually get—we were still figuring out what to study. That last night up on Mt. Washington, we decided it would be fun to go see the fountain at Point State Park up close. So we clicked back down the incline and hopped on the “T” train to downtown. Then we meandered past all the buildings we’d just been admiring from above, and wandered into Point State Park. We expected the fountain to be lit in white lights, spraying enormous veils of water, but someone had turned it off for the evening. It was dark and cool in the park.

On the lawn, we noticed that our shadows from the streetlamps were long and wide. We began creating shadow puppets, like butterflies with intertwined hands. Soon, we were spelling out

P-I-T-T with our shadows. Someone bent over into a “P” shape and someone else stood like a soldier to represent “I.” Myself, I stood with my arms extended, creating the letter “T.” In the darkness at the center of the city, I was reaching my arms out, embracing the moment. This was where I belonged.

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The Brillobox, a popular neighborhood hang-out.

 

Each year, the University spends more than $1.5 billion in the community and supports more than 32,000 jobs and businesses .... As Pittsburgh celebrates its 250th anniversary, city residents are rebuilding their neighborhoods with ongoing help from Pitt’s Community Outreach Partnership Center, the Pitt Volunteer Pool, Pitt Partnership for Food, the Healthy Black Family Project and many other initiatives in which University people and programs are involved.

 

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