Fairview Elementary School fifth-grader Gianna Patterson was surprised to learn there are 446 bridges in Pittsburgh.
Classmate Sam Ummer, 11, didn’t know that the Duquesne Incline – one of the last in the country – was opened in 1877 to carry cargo up and down Mt. Washington.
Gianna and Sam were two of more than 120 fourth- and fifth-grade kids in the Fox Chapel Area School District who participated in a new program to learn more about Pittsburgh.
The VisitPITTSBURGH initiative is free to any school in Allegheny County. The idea is to have a program here that raises the visibility of the region to students – and to give back to the community since so much of the tourism and marketing agency’s work is focused outside the region.
“We should teach students what we are saying across the world, why we are unique and different,” says Tom Loftus, the chief operating officer of VisitPITTSBURGH. “They may be our future ambassadors.”
Loftus led the program, called “Why is Pittsburgh Special?”
For a fun thrill, Kennywood Park’s Nick Paradise showed an old video of the Jack Rabbit. The park’s wooden roller coaster, built in 1921, simultaneously excites and frights with its distinctive click-click-click as it rolls along the track. Kids learned that Kennywood is a National Historic Landmark, with some of its rides dating to the early 20th century.
Kids got an overview of other attractions, such as the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium. And, of course, neighborhoods. There are 90 in the City of Pittsburgh.
Allegheny County Councilman Edward Kress, whose District 3 seat serves the Fox Chapel area, offered a crash-course in Pittsburgh-ese. The distinctive mash-up of words and pronunciations includes Downtown (“Dahntahn’’) and iron (“arn”).
Before the session, Grace Gouwens, 9, says she didn’t know why some people “like to smoosh words together.” Now she knows it’s part of the local Pittsburgh-ese dialect.
Then there are words unique to the area. Kress held an object in front of the students and asked what they would call it: A gumband or rubber band?
In Pittsburgh, it’s gumband.
Another one: Pop, not soda.
“It’s important to know those traditions, where the words came from,” says Kress, who learned something too. After an informal survey of kids, he found many were not familiar with chipped ham.
“That surprised me,” says Kress, laughing.
Students were asked to consider what makes Pittsburgh special. Sam, 11, says he thinks of skyscrapers. For Gianna, it’s professional sports teams and Kennywood Park. The Monongahela Street Railway Company opened as a trolley park in 1898, but its first roller coaster didn’t debut until 1902 – the Figure Eight.
“If you really love your city, you should know some stuff about it, so when you’re at another city you can tell them about it,” Gianna says.
The interactive program kept kids engaged with active discussion.
“The kids were surprised about some of the history they shared about Pittsburgh,” says Stefanie Lipke, a counselor at Fairview Elementary. “They did a really good job at bringing the message back to kids that everyone is different.”
The program transitions from what makes Pittsburgh unique, to what makes the students unique.
“Our thought process was to discuss how our differences make not only Pittsburgh special, but everyone special,” Loftus says. “They also can take home those important messages.”