In time for the 250th, a people's history of Pittsburgh

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Growing up, I used to think that every house came with a free copy of Stefan Lorant's Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City. It was a fixture on every coffee table, and it provided a lot of intellectual furniture too. Lorant's narrative is one we still take for granted: Big-shot white guys build Pittsburgh, nearly ruin it, and then build it anew.

This is the "great man" approach history, and it dominated scholarship for decades, just as "great men" dominated Pittsburgh itself.

But with the city celebrating its 250th anniversary, Charles McCollester, a labor historian at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, offers a different view. He takes the top-down approach and flips it like an hourglass: We can watch time pass again, only with the people who were at the bottom sitting on top. [Editor's note: Potter is among the readers at a Nov. 21 book party at Carnegie Lecture Hall.]

The Point of Pittsburgh foregrounds the experiences of Native Americans, immigrants, blacks, women and working people of all kinds, unifying them under a banner demanding self-determination and dignity. Those "great men" weren't acting in a vacuum, after all: Without pressure from below, they might never have acted at all. "[T]he achievements and contributions of workers are often overlooked," McCollester writes in his introduction ... and his book seeks to change that.

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