Peculiar Pittsburgh

Why yinz give directions using bygone landmarks is even more complicated than Pittsburgh’s roadways

You have a mental map because you love Pittsburgh. But also: The roads here are crazy.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline
Sarah Anne Hughes

In a joke told by Pittsburgh comedian Tom Musial, he gives his yinzer dad a GPS as a gift.

“It gives me stupid directions,” the father says, in Musial’s windup.

Musial then downloads a “special plug-in,” which provides directions much more to his father’s liking: “Get on the Parkway going toward tahn. Get off like you’re going to Kennywood. … Go right where Swissvale High School usetto be.”

“Although the story of the joke is 100 percent fictional, the spirit and details of the bit are pretty true to life,” Musial said by email. “Pittsburghers have a habit of living in the past, so it’s not uncommon for them to refer to landmarks by old names — or even refer to landmarks that aren’t even there any more.”

He also points out that “there was a time when road signs in Pittsburgh were rare.” Adding them to every street corner was one of the first things Mayor Sophie Masloff did after taking office.

“People used to come to Pittsburgh and couldn’t find their way around or they would say you go to the next corner where there used to be a gas station,” she said in a 2010 interview.

According to Post-Gazette columnist Tony Norman, the decision to add them Downtown was considered a “revolutionary act of passive aggressive modernity.”

“Signs implied there was something odd about relying on directions from old-timers who delighted in referencing non-existent landmarks when navigating newbies: ‘Go up three blocks past where Isaly’s used to be and turn left ’n at.'”

This style of giving directions — specifically, by referencing places that may no longer exist — is a strong part of Pittsburgh lore. It’s one of the:

Not giving directions this way is, conversely, one of 11 Things No Self-Respecting Pittsburgher Would Ever Do.

But why exactly do Pittsburghers give directions this way? And is it really as unique to the city as some in the ‘Burgh would like to claim? That’s harder to answer.

Go toward dahntahn n’at

Scott F. Kiesling is a linguistics professor at the University of Pittsburgh who, with Carnegie Mellon professor Barbara Johnstone, studies a Western Pa. specialty: Pittsburghese.

Think dahntahn, Mount Worshington and gumbands.

Giving directions by since-gone landmark has birthed its own Pittsburghese phrase, usetto be, defined in a glossary as, “A phrase used when giving directions. Make a left where the ____ usetto be. This phrase is always followed by a ‘Yinz can’t miss it’ even though it is no longer there.”

A lot of people in Pittsburgh speak like this, Kiesling said. But there’s an imagined component as well. Jeet jet — or did you eat yet? — is claimed as a part of Pittsburghese, but Kiesling said it “happens everywhere in English.”

“It kind of doesn’t matter if that’s what people in Pittsburgh do,” he said. “It’s … part of the identity, part of what people tell each other is about being in Pittsburgh.

“That’s a lot of what Pittsburghese is.”

In the same way, this style of giving directions is just as much a part of the popular narrative about Pittsburgh as it is a thing people actually do.

Kiesling said he and Johnstone “haven’t done any research on” giving directions this way, but he said there are some parallels with Pittsburghese.

“I started to give directions like that once, and I said, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m starting to become a real Pittsburgher,'” Kiesling said. “Once you’ve made that connection, it starts to become real in people’s minds.”

It’s also a way to display local knowledge — to signal to someone else “I’ve been here long enough to know it was something else,” he said.

The blueprint in our mind

The Incline is not the first news organization to try to get to the bottom of this.

The Tribune-Review approached the question in 2009 by speaking to psychologist Paul Friday of UPMC Shadyside, who told the paper giving directions by bygone landmark makes sense for a city so connected to yesterday: “It might be the ultimate Pittsburgh secular religion — our past.”

Mick McNutt is an architect, adjunct professor at CMU and native Pittsburgher who has a confession: He’s been guilty of giving directions like this, too.

“I remember when the steel mills were up and have to remember that they were torn down or have a different name,” he said.

These landmarks, he said, could be “monuments that people remember. It’s just part of the cultural memory.”

It’s an urban phenomenon, not unique to Pittsburgh, for “close-knit communities [to] rally around a certain thing, whether it’s Three Rivers Stadium or Forbes Field,” he added. “People remember that experience or families talking about it or friends or family that have had experiences there. It just becomes part of the mythology, the natural history of the place.”

Giving directions in this style is a way of preserving memories, said Derek Alderman of the University of Tennessee, “and keeping them fresh and keeping them reproduced, even though those places themselves are no longer around.”

“I can’t say for sure how unique this is to Pittsburgh,” Alderman said, adding that he’s seen similar behavior in other places. “That doesn’t mean that people who are from Pittsburgh shouldn’t celebrate it.”

Alderman, a geographer who studies the names of streets and places and the meaning that revolves around them, described the tool at work as a mental map, a representation that everyone has in their minds but that varies a great deal person to person.

“They can be a blueprint in one’s mind of how a city is laid out and how one would negotiate and navigate to get from one place to the next,” Alderman said. “In fact, we rely on this mental map when we’re asked to give directions.”

Mental maps are “composed of things that are memorable to us” and “things that have feelings tied to them,” Alderman said. The way that people give directions, he added, provides an insight into their mental map and into the way they see the city. Places are part of our identity.

The people who give directions in this way know something is physically gone, Alderman said, but “they are claiming ownership that it’s not completely gone” — at least, to them.

A ‘Burgh necessity

There’s also a pretty simple explanation for this style of giving directions: Pittsburgh’s roadways are complicated as hell.

“Everything is crazy,” as Pittsburghese expert Kiesling put it. “You really need landmarks.”

Kiesling moved to Pittsburgh in the early 2000s, the days before GPS systems were everywhere. He relied on “Pittsburgh Figured Out,” a street atlas by Informing Design founder Bob Firth.

Firth described the atlas as “gridding the ungriddable.” He created maps that showed how the city’s streets actually flowed together and created grids in areas that truly resist them, like the South Side Slopes.

“Pittsburgh Figured Out” was born during Firth’s time at Westinghouse, he told The Incline. After the Parkway North was finished, engineers who lived in the North Hills kept ending up in the South Hills instead of Downtown. Unable to find a usable map, Firth created a mosaic out of satellite images, identified the “counterintuitive moments” and sketched each and every lane in Downtown into a map. The result was so popular that he plotted out the confusing parts of all of Pittsburgh and the surrounding suburbs.

The published atlas was extremely popular. It sold 100,000 copies in three years — as opposed to the usual 1,000 or 5,000 for regional books, Firth said — and ended up on national bestseller lists.

Because of “Pittsburgh Figured Out’s” success, the city approached Firth and his firm to design a wayfinding sign system that is still updated today. These signs point to landmarks and parking, but they also connect neighborhoods, which can be particularly hard task in Pittsburgh, where you have to “aim for a bridge that’s out of sight” to get from one place to another, Firth said.

“Everybody needed help,” he said of the project. “If you left your usual route, you were as lost as a visitor.”

There was “really quite an outpouring of enthusiasm” for the signs when they were installed in the mid-1990s, Firth said. Now, 25 years later, the signs are still there giving directions that people can actually use.

But, Firth jokingly added, “We could use an update, Mr. Mayor.”