So how do you write a book about Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods?
Well, yeah, you can study the city’s planning maps.
Or you can visit all 89 neighborhoods listed by city officials, wear out your shoe leather, take a lot of notes and clip a lot of newspaper articles.
That’s how Franklin Toker decided to do it.
For parts of four years — 2006 through 2009 — Toker, a professor of the history of art and architecture at the University of Pittsburgh, hoofed it around his adopted city.
The result is his latest book, “Pittsburgh: A New Portrait” — a 512-page tome that’s part history volume, part picture book, part guidebook for tourists.
“It’s really written from the street up,” Toker said. That means, he explained, that the book is less of a history read than a look at how the neighborhoods actually work.
And while the book highlights hundreds of churches, synagogues, mansions, row homes, museums, statues and skyscrapers, and dozens of other places that Toker says people pass every day without giving a second thought, it’s also not a book about Pittsburgh architecture.
“It’s not architecture exactly, it’s not ‘look at those Corinthian columns,’” Toker said. “I don’t think the word Corinthian is even in the book. I’m just trying to get down to specialty elements of Pittsburgh neighborhoods.”
By the way, Toker, who will speak about the book at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland Wednesday, Oct. 21, at 7 p.m., disagrees with the city on the number of neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. He thinks there are really just 25 to 30 actual city neighborhoods here. The rest are just names on a map.
And this so-called “Pittsburgh” book is really about the whole region. Toker visits the Pittsburgh suburbs and even strays into neighboring counties in his search for interesting places. A University of Chicago professor, originally from Mt. Lebanon, recently e-mailed Toker to say that Toker knows more about his old neighborhood than he does.
At first perusal, one might call “Pittsburgh: A New Portrait” a modern version of Stefan Lorant’s classic coffee table book, “Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City.” Like Lorant’s book, this tells the story of the city, it’s chock full of pictures and maps, but the dust jacket depicts something very new: the Downtown wall mural, “The Two Andrews.”
But unlike Lorant, Toker places more emphasis on having his book read than skimmed.
The photos in Toker’s book — though plentiful and interesting (and mostly taken by the author himself) — are printed much smaller than the shots in Lorant’s classic. He keeps the captions “slight” compared to the voluminous descriptions Lorant used, and he provides an appendix in the back of all the architectural data.
In Lorant’s book, he noted, “there are fights between the photographs and the text, and the photographs win.”
Still, despite all his efforts to make “Pittsburgh: A New Portrait” more readable, the long-time Squirrel Hill resident admits his densely detailed book is not the kind most people would read cover to cover. Instead, he expects them to pick and choose the sections that most interest them.
For instance, Pittsburgh Jews will likely cull those sections dealing with Squirrel Hill and other old Jewish neighborhoods.
“If you asked in 1909 and again in 2009 what is the Jewish center of gravity [in Pittsburgh], it’s barely moved two blocks,” said Toker, a former president of Young Peoples Synagogue.
He noted three of the most “visually prominent” structures in the city are synagogues: Rodef Shalom, Poale Zedeck and Beth Shalom. And the two most historically Jewish streets are Murray Avenue in the heart of Squirrel Hill and lower Fifth Avenue where Jewish merchants from outlying towns once flocked on Sundays to buy merchandise from wholesalers.
New and fresh as the book appears, much of it is actually taken from one of Toker’s earlier works, “Pittsburgh: An Urban Portrait.”
Because of his research, Toker is now referenced at least a couple dozen times in Wikipedia.
“I’ve now become the neighborhood historian,” he said.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)