By coincidence, I arrived in Pittsburgh just about the same time a big yellow duck sailed in. A very big duck. The Rubber Duck Project, created by Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman, has been in Asia, Europe, South America and Australia, but Pittsburgh--beating out bigger cities like San Francisco-- was the duck’s first North American stop. During its three-week stay more than 1 million people trekked down to the waterfront to see the 4-story tall, 30-foot wide floating art (Pittsburgh’s version of Hofmann’s duck was specifically sized to fit under the city’s bridges.) They posed for photos--even in the rain--and bought yellow duck souvenirs. They spent time and money in the city.
This was my first visit to Pittsburgh and it surprised me in many ways. Oh, I knew the city had long ago left its smoky industrial past behind as it climbed out of the crash of the US steel market in the 1970s and 80s. I didn’t expect smokestacks but, to be honest, I think I was expecting a tired urban area with more of the past than the future in it. Shame on me.
Pittsburgh was built where the Allegheny and the Monongahela Rivers meet to form the Ohio River. It’s an old city with a lot of history, but unlike so many old river cities whose waterways were long ago given over to industry and transportation and have yet to be reclaimed or are only now moving in that direction, Pittsburgh embraces the water. Spanned by 496 bridges, busy with dinner cruises and Duck Tours (the WWII floating truck variety) the rivers dominate the center of the city. Adjacent to the site of Fort Pitt, is Point State Park an urban waterfront park and trail. And the two professional sports teams, the Steelers and the Pirates, play in waterside stadiums. Metro Pittsburgh is livable, walkable and the downtown area is vibrant and alive with new construction. The 90 neighborhoods that make up the city are each unique. The food, from the city’s signature sandwiches topped with fries and cole slaw to upscale farm-to-table fare, was delicious.
I’m late to the Pittsburgh party. National Geographic Traveler named the city one of the top places to visit in 2012, the Today Show picked it as a top travel destination for 2013, and an internationally known artist, who had his choice of prime ports, picked it as the best place to introduce his floating art installation. I added it to my own short list of places I’d be tempted to pull up stakes and move to.
Hofman has said the idea behind his big rubber duck is to remind everyone of the simple joys of childhood. The Rubber Duck Project can’t appear anywhere else for three months and its next stop is a secret, but Pittsburgh, a place built around water and a city with a sense of fun, was the perfect spot to introduce his giant smiling bathtub toy to North America.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at email@example.com