Monday, September 20, 2010

What I'm reading: Out of this Furnace & Pittsburgh in Stages

This past couple of weeks has been like “History Month” for me as far as reading goes. 

As some of you might already know, I moved to Pittsburgh from Seattle just over a month ago.  While it was sad to say goodbye to some of the amazing and talented people we met in the pacific northwest, it is nice to be back on the east coast, and a little bit closer to family.

(I've never lived in Pittsburgh before, or any place like it so now I'm going to chronicle that newcomer experience in a new blog called I Speak Yinz NowCheck it out).

Having no knowledge or lay of the land is quite disorienting and so I’ve started reading some books that might help me get my bearing.  

First up, I read Thomas Bell’s book Out of this Furnace, which chronicles three different generations of immigrants who come to Braddock and end up working in the steel mills.  (Braddock is only a couple of miles from Pittsburgh proper and literally only a few miles from where I'm living now). Although the prose isn’t poetic and at times the reading can be dry and slow-going, this book does give you a feel for what it was like to come to this area a hundred years ago and try to survive.

What's also interesting is that some of the characters live in Homestead, just across the river, where there used to be a ton of steel mills.  Now there is the Waterfront, home to a huge shopping center which has all your standard stores like the Gap, Target, etc.  Some of the towering smoke stacks are still there, casting their shadows over the parking lots.

By the way, Braddock is now the focus of some infamous, and inspiring Levi’s commercials—check it out.

The other educational and helpful book I’ve read lately is Pittsburgh in Stages by Lynn Conner.  This takes the past hundred years and looks at theater and performances from the early days of Fort Pitt, to the burlesque shows of the 1920s on up to the more legit stages like the birth of the Pittsburgh Playhouse and the Pittsburgh Public Theater.  

Although at some points it definitely reads like a history book, it's chock full of great stories about theatre luminaries like Eleanora Duse and Lilly Langtry, as well as focusing on some of the well-known Pittsburghers, like renowned playwright August Wilson.

It’s essential reading for anyone wanting to know the theatrical context of this region.  

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