If the city of Pittsburgh had a neighborhood worthy of an attitude, it would be Oakland. It’s the hub for education, medicine, arts, culture, and technology. It has more restaurants per square mile than any other neighborhood. It’s home to the two largest non-government employers in the city. It gave the world both Andy Warhol and Dan Marino and has educated Nobel Prize laureates and Tony Award winners. And, it helped cure polio. It would be very easy for Oakland to be an unbearable, self-important ass, so full of itself that no one wanted to sit next to it at a dinner party.
But that’s not Oakland at all. Rather, it beckons: “Come here. Come enjoy. Come learn. Come play. Look, we have green space.” Oakland doesn’t want to keep its treasures locked up for itself, nor does it want to rub your face in its incredible good fortune. Oakland became the diverse cauldron of literally everything good in the world by welcoming everyone.
How it got this way could be up for debate, it certainly doesn’t hurt that it’s largely comprised of institutions designed to attract outsiders, and not just from around the country but from around the world. Starting with a name you can’t avoid when you talk about Oakland: Carnegie.
Carnegie Mellon University, arguably one of the best universities in America, attracts top-notch students, faculty and staff from pretty much everywhere. Within their walls they host people from all 50 states and over 65 countries. Over 6,320 of their 14,625 Fall 2018 student body was international, or about 43%. That’s a lot. And they don’t just attend school in Oakland. In many cases they live there. They work there. Through their very presence they butterfly-effect the very fabric of Oakland and people’s experience of Oakland when they visit.
And visit they do. The Carnegie Museum of Art attracts visitors from all all over on any given day, but those numbers are currently off the charts. Right now they are smack-dab in the middle of the 57th Carnegie International, one of the longest running contemporary art exhibitions in the world. Held every four to five years, started by Andrew Carnegie himself, the International attracts worldwide attention. Since the International opened in November, there has been an uptick of visitors from all over the US and the world. People from as far as France, Greece, China, UK, Ireland, Germany, and Vermont have descended upon Pittsburgh to visit.
And that’s just the visitors. The artists exhibiting at the International come from Austria, Bahamas, Cameroon, Cherokee Nation, Colombia, England, Germany, Ghana, India, Japan, Jordan, Kenya, Korea, Kuwait, Lebanon, Navajo Nation, Nigeria, Nonuya Nation, Pakistan, Palestine, Scotland, Senegal, Switzerland, United States of America, and Vietnam.
But perhaps nothing is more representative of Oakland than University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning. Reaching into the sky 535 feet, it’s the second tallest university building in the world, behind the main building at the University of Moscow because Russia. Built in the early 1920s by then-Chancellor John Bowman, it is home to 30, about to be 31, Nationality Rooms.
The Nationality Rooms are exactly what they sound like; representations of the heritage, culture, and history of each room’s namesake. They are painstakingly created to be an authentic, if not in material than in representation, experience for the senses. They are also, in all but two cases, functioning Pitt classrooms.
When Michael Walter, the Nationality Rooms Tour Coordinator for almost 13 years, is asked how the rooms came to be in the first place, he is very quick to answer, “It was public relations.” He goes on to explain; “When Bowman was hired in 1921 he found out he had been handed a very challenging job. The biggest challenge was investing the people of the city of Pittsburgh into the University.”
Walter continues, “He asked people why aren’t you sending your kids here? Why doesn’t the student body reflect the characteristics of Pittsburgh, with its multiple ethnic neighborhoods?” As the idea for the building, which was a necessity to meet classroom and office space needs, was being formulated, Bowman came up with an idea, along with the woman who would become the first Director of the Nationality Rooms, a sociologist named Ruth Crawford Mitchell, that perhaps there could be something in this building that would allow people to see a little bit of themselves.
It should come as no surprise that four of the five first rooms dedicated in 1938 were German, Russian, Swedish and Scottish, reflecting the earliest immigration patterns of Pittsburgh. Walter estimates the Nationality Rooms see about 25,000 visitors a year, with an even split between guided group tours and those who opt to self-tour using MP3 players that give descriptions of each room. While they don’t keep data of where visitors come from, the MP3 player tours come in 10 different languages, with more to be added. “We really need German,” Walter said.
Each room has their own distinct story. The Japanese room was actually built in Kyoto, taken apart like Legos, and rebuilt in the Cathedral. The committee in charge of the Armenian room was having a hard time getting enough Armenians to weigh in, so they went through the phone book, calling people whose last names seemed Armenian. While each is different, they all have one thing in common. They all, in the words of Chancellor Bowman, represent the good things each culture brought to the United States.
In talking about and walking around Oakland, it’s easy to see the impact so many different cultures have had on the neighborhood. Ethnic grocery and retail stores abound, often side-by-side. The Irish Design Center is a staple of the North Craig Street, and it’s nestled next to sushi restaurant Little Asia. While new owners Maura Krushinski and Tom Petrone might have only owned the business for 10 months, they’ve long been a part of the Oakland community. Tom grew up in South Oakland, on Parkview Avenue. “People like to say they grew up on the same street as Danny Marino. I say Danny Marino grew up on MY street.”