Street / Art [or] The Street as Art: Serially Accumulated Mural (Masonry #9)

concrete sections of road stacked neatly in a pile, Harmar, PA

Sky / wall / earth, “Serially Accumulated Mural (Masonry #9)”, Rt. 28, Harmar

What happens when things “go away”? Isn’t a wall just a road in another form? How can we replace the very ground beneath our feet?

Serially Accumulated Mural (Masonry #9)*, the awesome deconstructed and reconstructed public installation artwork just outside of town asks these questions, and many more. The sculpture, consisting of hundreds–perhaps thousands–of four- to eight-foot sections of decommissioned highway is spread over several acres of barren berm within the graceful curl of a Route 28 on-ramp. Road is lifted into the blue sky and lets the participant view it alternately as both compact, well-ordered stacks and chaotic, post-catastrophe fallen landscape.

concrete sections of road stacked neatly in a pile, Harmar, PA

The viewer will inevitably first encounter the piece from a distance, likely traveling at high speed. Its huge mass and gentle shape echo the rolling hills of the Allegheny Valley in which it resides. In fact, were it not for its treeless surface, the installation might be mistaken for merely another mound of earth, another hill rising up from the river.

But to approach the work as it really must be seen–up close, on foot, with time to wander, poke, and explore–is to experience the tremendous weight (quite literal, that) of our built environment. One imagines a skyscraper collapsed, an entire small town collected and swept in the corner, a border wall separating the righteous from “bad hombres” who seek to breech its crevasses in a bloodthirsty quest for our dollars and our women.

top view of giant pile of road sections, Harmar, PA

Atop the piece, [access points are provided at the participant’s own caution] it is a different story entirely. The ordered, neatly stacked piles of Masonry‘s south end contrast with the topsy-turvy, patchwork firmament of its expanse. The structure is unmistakably formed of ex-roadway–the omnipresent worn yellow center lines and fine-textured concrete surface give that away. It forces us to confront the disorientation of disaster. This, the artwork suggests, is what the big one feels like…if we’re lucky enough to still be here when the earth stops shaking.

Like Duchamp’s Fountain before it, visitors to Serially will never mistake where they are or what they’re looking at. But with a world bent, flat lanes severed, split, and tumbled, and the rushing highway traffic reminding us of exactly where these raw materials came from, we’re asked to look deeply at the disposable nature of the most durable of goods. If 10-inch thick, rebar-enforced concrete can be discarded by the side of the road with the same casualness as a paper coffee cup or flicked cigarette butt, what chance have we in this world?

detail of broken road sections showing painted yellow line, Harmar, PA

The Orbit has eaten its hat more than once over the suggestion of locating the ultimate street art. First, it was the tantalizing Toynbee Tiles of Smithfield Street (R.I.P.), the artwork embedded directly into the macadam, fused by the force of the traffic that overruns each of the tiles. But then we got tipped off to another PennDOT collaboration–the road sign murals up in Meadville.

Finally, it seemed like the crown was clearly taken by the Howard Street Line Painting Tests. How could you get more “street art” than painting directly on the street, with street-painting equipment, performed by the Department of Public Works road crews?

Well, as we found out here, I’ll tell you how: you take an actual stretch of roadway right out of the ground, rack it, stack it, and compact it, and then display it to the very travelers who drove across it in its previous life, viewable right out their passenger-side windows as they whiz by. If that doesn’t get your noodle spinning, well, I don’t know what will.

concrete sections of road stacked neatly in a pile, Harmar, PA

Getting there: PennDOT’s Serially Accumulated Mural (Masonry #9) is along Route 28, south-bound, right by the Harmarville on-ramp. As they say, you can’t miss it.


* Charles Rosenblum contributed to this article.

Step Beat: Oakley Dokeley, The Oakley Way Rehab

Detail of public steps with mosaic decoration of a woman's head, Pittsburgh, PA

It’s a cruel reality: when you’re working the city step beat, there ain’t a lot of news to report. No, most of the stories we run end up being about going to visit steps that inevitably won’t be around for long, occasional Indiana Jones-style heroics to hike them, or the historical curiosities of infrastructure ruins that were once so vital and now–all too often–go nowhere and serve no one.

So it is with no small amount of glee that The Orbit goes to press with a story on not only the complete rehabilitation of a set of core city steps, but the genuine newsy news that they’ve been wonderfully dressed-up in brand-new full-color mosaic tile.

public steps with mosaic decoration including houses, sky, a fox, a bird, sun, and stars, Pittsburgh, PA

Oakley Way Steps, top mosaic section

Oakley Way is one of the many climbs that create access points from the South Side Slopes above to the flats below (and vice-versa). The street is actually seven short (but mostly vertical) blocks long–part city steps/part steep road-with-steps sidewalk. The bottommost stretch (from Josephine to McCord) is the only section that’s received the mosaic treatment, but some of the upper sections have also been nicely rehabbed with patched concrete and fully repaired and repainted blue handrails.

Artist Laura Jean McLaughlin led a group of volunteers in the design, construction, and installation of the mosaic risers. That process was covered in a recent Post-Gazette piece that only scooped us because we got side-tracked by Fairywood and tryptophan and shelved the post for a month. Fooey!

looking up Oakley Street city steps, Pittsburgh, PA

Looking up: the Oakley Way steps

Spread across seventy-seven consecutive risers, the mosaic’s central figure is a tall red-booted woman in a checkered skirt who–based on the proportional size of the river, bridge, and factory building also in the piece–must stand about the height of the US Steel tower. Also decorating the lush scene are Slopes homes, grass, flowers, a fox, a bird, the sun and stars.

If you’ve seen any of McLaughlin’s other local projects you’ll recognize her loose, cartoonish, and earthy signatures. A lesser blog might invoke the term “whimsical,” or even (shudder) “funky”. The Orbit won’t stoop to that level, so we’ll just say they’re fun, very Slopes-centric, and a great compliment to the D.P.W.’s fix-up work.

Oakley Street city steps, Pittsburgh, PA

View down the bottommost section of Oakley Way (from McCord Street)

We’ve argued in these very virtual pages that Pittsburgh’s network of public steps is a city asset unlike any other–part transit route, part jungle gym, part historical oddity, and what should be a big draw for tourism*. It’s encouraging to see any set of steps getting much-needed maintenance, but it’s especially great to see them dressed to thrill with such a wonderful addition as McLaughlin’s mosaic.

There’s at least one other similar project out there and completed. Linda Wallen’s mosaic work at the base of the steps off Itin Street in Spring Garden isn’t nearly as ambitious as Oakley Way, but it’s still a great twinkling beacon in the great constellation of city step dark stars. May these two heroic projects guide step freaks to a new, golden dawn of altitude adjustment, wide perspectives, and throbbing calf muscles.

public steps with mosaic tile decoration of woman's head with houses and deer in the background, Pittsburgh, PA

Old and new: remnants of an earlier, defunct passage under the rehabbed Oakley Way steps


* Visitors who don’t want to lose their breath climbing dozens of flights of steps to dilapidated neighborhoods with spectacular views should consider lodging other than Chez Orbit’s fold-out sofa.

Fairywood: The World Without Us

fire hydrant in field of tall weeds, Pittsburgh, PA

Former Broadhead Manor public housing project, Fairywood

Fairywood. Has any place as bucolic a name? One would assume it could only exist in fantasy–within Narnia or Neverland or, at least, New Zealand. Fairywood must be a land of eternal mist, riddle-spinning toadstools, magick staffs hewn from gnarled bentwood, spellcasting. It is where banshees live, and yes, they do live well. But one need not cross the Misty Mountains nor the darkest depths of Mordor[1]–it’s right here in the City of Pittsburgh.

If one were to set out for Fairywood, she or he might also optimistically hope to encounter pixies, gnomes, gremlins, griffins, or unicorns along the journey. Such other-worldly creatures simply must exist in the forest faerie realm. Alas, that was not this blogger’s experience.

empty street with jersey barriers at entrance of former Broadhead Manor, Fairywood, Pittsburgh, PA

Entrance from Broadhead Fording Road

Look up Fairywood and you’ll likely come across some bad press. At this point, the peninsular neighborhood on Pittsburgh’s far southwestern border [it is surrounded on three sides by non-city boroughs] is mainly associated with two things: colossal ex-urban warehouses and off-the-charts crime.

The former is easy to see–along the south and west perimeters are huge distribution centers for UPS, ModCloth, Amazon, and Giant Eagle/OK Grocery. The hum of their idling 18-wheelers and beeps of reversing forklifts are omnipresent even from a great distance.

The latter is not so obvious. On a picture-perfect Saturday afternoon, we barely encountered a single living soul–and the ones we did meet were real nice! The sum of residential Fairywood is contained in four or five streets of pre-war frame houses and Baby Boom-era pill boxes and split-levels, plus one former project-turned-gated community. Only around a thousand people live here. Who’s committing all this crime?

cul-de-sac in former Broadhead Manor, Fairywood, Pittsburgh, PA

Cul-de-sac

Alan Weisman’s 2007 best-seller The World Without Us detailed the ways in which the built environment would inevitably deteriorate in the absence of human beings. I’ll confess I haven’t actually read the book, but Mrs. The Orbit did and relayed its projections of houses collapsing and cities overtaken by nature as I was suddenly getting much more aware of cracks in the plaster ceiling and loosening of our mortar joints.

By far, the most prominent feature of Fairywood today is the enormous negative space created by what was at one time the Broadhead Manor public housing project. In its absence is a massive plot of land–its footprint similar in size to a junior college campus or suburban shopping mall (including all the parking). The actual housing blocks have been razed and removed, but the infrastructure–several curling roads that terminate in dead-ends, street lights, sidewalks, fire hydrants, an absurd children at play road sign–all remain.

handrail and concrete sidewalk to urban prairie, former Broadhead Manor, Fairywood, Pittsburgh, PA

Handrail, sidewalks

Between these few remaining stretches of concrete, nature has come back hard and fast. It’s a very un-Pittsburgh landscape–almost completely flat (although you can see hills in the distance in any direction) and dominated not by trees, but instead with scrubby waist-high bushes, weeds, and wildflowers–much more midwestern than Appalachian. Nationally, these kinds of spaces have been coined urban prairies for a reason–they’re not quite nature without man, but they’re decidedly not city (as most tend to think of it) either.

That Broadhead Manor should or should not have been razed is a conversation for those who actually lived in and around it[2]. With no personal connection, it does strike me as a classic built-to-fail situation: warehousing people in closed-circle public projects at the most distant edge of the city in a neighborhood with neither business district nor many transportation options[3]. What could go wrong?

Man in winter clothes against chain link fence, Pittsburgh, PA

Mr. Ro Ro (note his wizard’s staff)

We met Mr. Ro Ro camped out on a folding chair, waiting for a bus on Prospect Avenue. A wizard’s staff was casually propped against the chain link fence. Mr. Ro Ro told us he’s lived in Fairywood for fifty years and said of Broadhead Manor, “Roosevelt built them after the war.” President Roosevelt’s connection is unknown, but Broadhead Manor was indeed former military housing, purchased by the city in 1946[4].

As the only human wandering through the strange dystopian landscape of an ex-neighborhood with all its buildings removed–now almost completely reclaimed by nature–the irony of the phrase “after the war” was ringing in the air. More than anything else, this huge section of Fairywood feels like what’s left after the nuclear winter has finally subsided and an entirely new form of nature begins again on the bones of the civilization that destroyed the old one. Let’s hope we get it right this time.

dead end street in former Broadhead Manor, Fairywood, Pittsburgh, PA

The end of the road


[1] It is telling that The Orbit‘s knowledge of Middle Earth comes more from Houses of the Holy than The Player’s Handbook.
[2] A post in the Abandoned, Old & Interesting Places – Western PA FaceBook group shows some of the housing after the residents had been moved but pre-demolition. It includes many comments–both positive and negative–including quite a few former residents who speak glowingly of their time at Broadhead Manor in the 1960s.
[3] Port Authority’s 27 bus route serves Fairywood and nearby neighborhoods with a link to downtown Pittsburgh.
[4] Fairywood Fact Sheet (date unknown) http://digitalcollections.library.cmu.edu/awweb/awarchive?type=file&item=550317

Get Out The Voegt: Finding the Spring Hill Spring

natural spring in concrete pedestal embedded in hillside, Pittsburgh, PA

Spring is sprung: Voegtly Spring, The Spring Hill spring

Ask a Spring Hill local how to get to the neighborhood’s newly-unearthed and re-opened natural spring and he or she will make it real easy for you: “It’s right by the boxing ring.” Me: “Oh, thank you very much, that helps a lot. Just one more question: where’s the boxing ring?”

From there, it just gets more confusing. The “boxing ring” is actually the Steel City Boxing Association and Google Maps puts it way down the hill from its true location. Assuming you do find the right place, the stonework is engraved Hook & Engine Co. 53 for its (former?) life as a fire hall and contains no after-market mention of the sweet science.

How about the Internet–a recently excavated and restored piece of local history should be front page news, right? Well, you try a web search for “Spring Hill spring”–it’s un-Googleable! Spring Hill’s Internet presence doesn’t assist at all–there’s nary a peep about the spring from the neighborhood associations or its wiki page. C’mon, guys–help a blogger out!

Rest assured, dear reader: if we achieve nothing else, The Orbit will get you to the Spring Hill spring.

Detail from public mosaic "The German Settlers of Spring Hill" depicting the Spring Hill spring, Pittsburgh, PA

“The German Settlers of Spring Hill” (detail) mosaic depicting Voegtly Spring, Spring Hill

A large mosaic installation titled The German Settlers of Spring Hill welcomes visitors near the corner of Homer and Damas Streets*, one of just a few access points to the hilltop neighborhood. The final section of the four-panel piece features various community members in old world garb gathered around the image of the hearth-like Voegtly Spring, the natural water source that gave Spring Hill its name.

In that depiction, the spring is a flooding outpour overflowing its basin, its output equal to a dozen garden hoses. That’s not exactly what we found. The constant stream of water–there is no Off valve to a natural spring–is more of a dribble or a trickle than the gusher one might expect from the artwork mere feet away. That may have something to do with us visiting after a run of dry weather, so we’ll have to go back to verify after a decent stretch of rain.

masonry enclosure around pipe dribbling natural spring water, Pittsburgh, PA

The spring

Some background, from the Voegtly Spring historic nomination form**:

A stream ran down from the top of Spring Hill, ran through the intersection of Humboldt St. (now Homer St.) and an unnamed street (now Damas St.) and down into modern day Spring Garden (Fig. 4). In 1912 a rectangular stone and concrete structure was built into the shale hillside alongside Damas St. (formerly Robinson Road) to harness the flow of water beneath the ground to provide easy access to drinking water for the residents of the neighborhood and surrounding area.

The nomination form goes on to mention that “the spring water was tested and shut off sometime in the 1950s” and that house construction above the spring “may have contributed to [its] contamination”. Furthermore, “It is reported that during this time the spring water developed a distasteful odor and became a yellowish orange color.”

There’s no official word on whether the discoloration is still in effect, but it looked fine to my admittedly low standards. Despite the warning that “public works does not encourage its use because [the water] is not treated”, it’s certainly right there for the drinking and let’s face it: it’s cool to suck spring water right out of the hillside. Lesser journalists–speculative or otherwise–would turn toward home after snapping some pictures, but this blogger rushed in for a righteous century-in-the-making quaff.

glass of water from Voegtly Spring, Pittsburgh, PA

No discoloration here. Voegtly Spring water.

So…what does Voegtly Spring’s water taste like? Well, it ain’t Perrier, that’s for sure. If it’s not too vague, we’ll describe it as earthy, or maybe minerally. Flavorful–but I wouldn’t describe that flavor as desirable. It’s maybe a little gritty–like a woodsy stream–surprisingly warm, and decidedly different from city tap water (for good or bad). That said, it doesn’t have the natural toe-tingling effervescence of more celebrated waters. I’ll go out on a limb to suggest it’s unlikely we’ll encounter Winnebagos parked on Damas Street with tourists filling five-gallon jugs like you regularly see down in Berkeley Springs.

I’ll be honest: there’s not a lot else to do at the spring. You can drink from it straight like a water fountain and you can fill up a jug. That’s pretty much it. As entertainment, a visit is pretty low rent compared to, say, Pac-Man or The Jumble. Regardless, it’s a neat little old world nugget to trip across if you find yourself hanging out by the boxing ring or, more practically, desperately need some hydration and can’t quite make it down to Penn Brewery.

Here, on this eve of an incredibly important national election, we can only recommend that Orbiteers first get out and vote. And then, if you’re still not satisfied, get out and Voegt.

masonry enclosure for natural spring in hillside, Pittsburgh, PA

Voegtly Spring, The Spring Hill spring

Getting there: Voegtly Spring is on Damas Street, just off Homer. When you see the old Hook & Ladder Company or the big public mosaic/garden, you’re real close. The easiest way to get there (especially on bicycle) is from Spring Garden Avenue, up the hill on Homer. We’ve also added a pin for the spring to our Map page.


CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story quoted an August, 2016 Post-Gazette piece on the re-opening of the spring that incorrectly lists Fred and Wilbert Bergman as the builders. The Bergmans took the earliest known photograph of the spring, but construction was done by the city Department of Public Works.


* The mosaic was constructed by a large group at the leadership of Linda Wallen, whose Yetta Street mosaics (also in Spring Hill) we profiled last year.
** A big thank-you to Spring Hill resident James Rizzo for helping to clarify the facts on ownership and construction of Voegtly Spring.

Day of the Dead: Susan Hicks, Uber Alles

bicycle painted completely white and decorated with flowers and lights, Pittsburgh, PA

Ghost bike memorial for Susan Hicks, Oakland

Last week marked the one year anniversary of Susan Michelle Hicks death. This blogger didn’t know her personally, but Ms. Hicks was “friends of friends” who commuted–and was killed–riding her bicycle on a stretch of Forbes Avenue in Oakland where I ride all the time. Quite literally, it could have been me.

Very near the tragic spot where Ms. Hicks died, just across the street from Dippy the Dinosaur and the Carnegie Music Hall, is a so-called “ghost bike” memorial. Chained to the pole of a stout street lamp, it’s a decommissioned older bicycle, painted completely white, draped in flowers, ribbons, personal messages, and a strand of solar-powered lights. A felt-tipped pen left on the seat invites visitors to ink inscriptions to the fallen–many have done so.

The effect of seeing the Hicks ghost bike–or any other–is incredibly moving. It’s both beautiful and haunting, arresting, sombre, and reverent. It’s also encouraging that this obviously-un-sanctioned memorial has been allowed to remain intact; city works crews choosing to leave it alone–now, for over a year–in this very public, well-travelled spot instead of treating it as an act of litter or vandalism.

detail of ghost bike for Susan Hicks, Pittsburgh, PA

Statistically, Pittsburgh is among the very safest U.S. cities to be a bicycle rider/pedestrian. This is, perhaps, surprising given our severe infrastructure challenges, but according to some numbers collected by Bike PGH, the city’s rate of 1.8 fatalities per 10,000 commuters is way down the list of American cities. As comparison, the bottom of the collection contains Ft. Worth, Detroit, and Jacksonville, all with an average of 40 to 50 fatalities on the same scale.

That said, it’s sadly no surprise this particular tragedy happened in the heart of Oakland. Any Pittsburgh cyclist will tell you what a nightmare it is to navigate the neighborhood on two wheels. It’s nearly impossible to feel safe riding from, say, Neville to Atwood, or CMU to Pitt without either breaking some kind of law or going way out of your way–and this is a part of town with 40-some thousand college students! I get mad at the kids riding on sidewalks, but what alternative do they have?

Handmade sign reading "Are we the last generation who learns to drive?", Pittsburgh, PA

Anti-Uber sign, Oakland

On a recent ride home from work, I came across a batch of wooden signs nailed to telephone poles. On each was a hand-scripted message: Are we the last generation who learns to drive? read one on Craig Street, and Humans crave community, not isolation another. The messages continued in Bloomfield:  Automation smothers natural beauty and awe and Deep in your humanness, your heart longs not to be mechanized.*

If you’ve spent any time in the East End over the last half year, you know where these are coming from. Uber self-driving cars are being tested all over the city–we see them every day**. It’s a technology that’s not without controversy, but surprisingly little considering the potential societal implications. Overall, opinion has felt more like a collective ho-hum.

collage of photos of Uber self-driving cars being tested on Pittsburgh city streets

Uber self-driving cars testing in Pittsburgh [photos, clockwise from top left: P. Worthington, M. Hertzman, A. Hoff, K. Barca]

The full point of these guerrilla signs is not entirely clear, but each contains Uber’s name in a crossed-out circle. We can assume the opposition to the ride-sharing company is the anonymous sign-poster’s major thesis, but there are also messages around community, beauty, and “humanness”.

Is Uber being accused of colossal corporate takeover? Or is the issue that they’re developing self-driving technology? Assuming the latter, how does changing the way a car navigates “smother natural beauty and awe”? [We did a pretty good job of this way before Uber came along.] Plenty of people drive alone every day–why do these vehicles create any more isolation than any other solo car trip?

If we’re worried about the number of Uber (and other) human drivers who may be put out of work by this technology, that’s legit. But let’s not assume that’s the only sociological possibility for self-driving vehicles. There is the very real likelihood that autonomous cars will be much safer on the road than humans. They certainly won’t drive drunk or fall asleep at the wheel. They won’t show off to impress the girls in the back seat and won’t take their eyes off the road when their phones light up. There are a whole lot of people with disabilities who can’t wait for an alternative to Access.

Handmade sign reading "Automation smothers natural beauty and awe", Pittsburgh, PA

Anti-Uber sign, Bloomfield

Bicycle riders are not saints. There are a lot of dangerous people out there, and we come across them every day–treating sidewalks as bicycle lanes, recklessly jack-rabbiting through traffic, ignoring traffic lights, signaling, and stop signs. Cyclists who take off without a helmet or foregoing lights in the dark are just plain foolish.

These are condemnable actions that frankly burn this biker’s breeches–you guys give us all a bad name! That said, it’s nothing compared to the regular behavior we see from drivers toward cyclists. I’ve never been hit by a vehicle driven by a computer; the same can’t be said for humans. In my years (ahem, decades) on two wheels, I’ve been spit on, had trash thrown at me, yelled-at, cat-called, and aggressively hip-greased more times than I can recall. Drivers routinely drift absent-mindedly, park in bicycle lanes, and wildly swing open their parked doors without first consulting their mirrors. While driving, they eat and drink, talk on the phone, apply lipstick in the rearview mirror, and, of course, are constantly texting.

Given all this, I’ll take my chances with the robots. If they’d been deployed to Oakland last year at this time, maybe Susan Hicks would still be with us and on the road today.

bicycle painted completely white and decorated with flowers and lights, Pittsburgh, PA

Ghost bike for Susan Hicks, Oakland


* If anyone has seen more of these, we’d love to know about them.
** So far, always with a human in the driver’s seat.

Step Beat: Anthony and Ivondale

intersection of Anthony Street and Ivondale Street city steps, Pittsburgh, PA

Anthony and Ivondale streets, The Run

They’re not the longest or the prettiest. They’re not one of the great nature-in-the-city hikes, and there’s not much of a view. Heck, these steps don’t even fulfill the most basic purpose of infrastructure: you can’t go anywhere on them!

So why are we even reporting on the Anthony and Ivondale city steps? Well, this blogger will tell you. There’s a time for greatest hits and, as Buck Dharma so wisely reminds us, there’s a time to play B-sides. On the back of the platter, Anthony and Ivondale still earn the occasional spin, and it still sounds…er, walks pretty good.

The onion domes of St. John Chrysostom Byzantine from the Anthony/Ivondale intersection, Pittsburgh, PA

The onion domes of St. John Chrysostom Byzantine from the Anthony/Ivondale intersection

Last year we reported on the wonderful existence of the great Romeo & Frazier intersection in an overgrown hillside of South Oakland. That particular confluence of city steps is remarkable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is Pittsburgh’s commitment (at least, historically) to pedestrian thoroughfares as fully-accredited “streets.”

We see the same great treatment at the corner of Anthony and Ivondale, where the steps are given their own street light and signage. Only here, the whole enterprise is more absurd since there’s not really any chance of either walking these steps in the dark or needing directions to where they’re (not) going.

intersection of Anthony Street and Ivondale Street city steps, Pittsburgh, PA

Looking up Ivondale Street from behind St. John’s

The other obvious factor on any step-trekker’s noodle is that this particular pair of step-streets is almost surely on the endangered list. At one time, Anthony Street must have continued all the way up the hill to Greenfield*. That would have connected residents of The Run up to Greenfield’s commercial district and uphill parishioners down to the mighty St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church.

But those aren’t really well-travelled routes any more–at least, not on foot. In fact, they’re so neglected that you can only walk a tiny minority of Anthony Street before you’re met by an ocean of out-of-control overgrowth that completely blocks passage on the through-way**.

city steps overgrown with weeds, Pittsburgh, PA

Pittsburgh Babylon: Anthony Street’s long, inaccessible climb up to Greenfield

Anthony & Ivondale will never be destination steps like Rising Main or Little Jewel Street or the “Try Try Try” steps. But if you find yourself in The Run for a large sandwich at Big Jim’s or just passing through en route between the Schenley Park and “Jail Trail” bicycle runs, it’s well worth the stop and poke-see. You won’t get lost; there’s nowhere to go.


* Looking at the map, it seems like Anthony probably terminated at tiny Raff Street, itself just an extension of Alger Street, a block off Greenfield Ave.
** Already on the list is going back in the winter when we can see what’s left when the knotweed has died off.

Step Beat: Climbs 57

looking up long set of city steps, Pittsburgh, PA

Looking up the lower section of the 57th Street steps

Has Pittsburgh fifty-seven varieties of city steps? Maybe.

It’s an intriguing question. There are long and short sets of steps; steps on the side of the street and steps alone in the woods. There are steps of wood, metal, and concrete; steps in good repair and ones that are falling apart; open steps and ones permanently closed. Some have special bicycle ramps added; others just tell you to Try. There are steps with crazy turns and angles and steps that just go up one straight line. There are steps the whole neighborhood uses, step street intersections, and steps that no longer go anywhere.

It would probably take a significant imagination to keep this riff going all the way out to the magic number. However, we know Henry J. Heinz considered 57 to be a lucky number*, and if it’s good enough for the king of condiments, it’s good enough for Pittsburgh Orbit. We certainly felt lucky after a climb up the very fine 57th Street Steps in Lawrenceville.

city steps with older home, Pittsburgh, PA

Step-accessible (only) house at the bottom of the 57th Street steps

city steps at 57th and Duncan Streets, Pittsburgh, PA

The intersection at Duncan Street, mid-point in the 57th Street steps

The steps that make up the pedestrian section of 57th Street qualify as at least two of these varieties. The lower half, from where Christopher Street forks off 57th up to Duncan Street, is in immaculate shape. The treads and rails are all perfectly maintained, with easy clear passage. The surrounding foliage has been neatly trimmed and there was no litter the day we visited. There’s even one remaining house that is only accessible via the steps.

An the upper half? Well, that’s another story. In the middle of a lush Pittsburgh summer, dense knotweed has enveloped the majority of this stretch with just enough room for the city trekker to go full-on Indiana Jones. [Note to readers: bring a fedora, whip, and satchel.] It’s clear this batch is neither as well-loved nor as well-used as its downhill sibling. Still, it offers a great off-the-grid version of the step experience, which is just as much of what we’re after.

city steps nearly overgrown with knotweed, Pittsburgh, PA

Entrance to the upper section of 57th Street steps (at Duncan Street)

looking up city steps covered by trees, Pittsburgh, PA

Looking up the upper section of 57th Street steps

If there’s a bummer to the 57th Street steps, it’s that you’re stuck with a straight up-and-back trip–there’s no looping around for a more interesting walk/hike. Somewhere around half-way up the top stretch (above Duncan), you hit a pretty decisive end-of-the-line. The treads are gone, trees and weeds have overtaken what’s left, and a clear Steps Closed barrier has been placed across the route.

At this point, the red handrails continue, tantalizing us by disappearing into the hillside. The map shows that at one point the steps terminated up on Price Way in Stanton Heights, but that connection seems unlikely to be re-opened–at least until The Orbit gets put in charge of public works. Until then, pass the ketchup.

city steps missing treads with "Steps Closed" sign blocking the way, Pittsburgh, PA

End of the line: top of the 57th Street steps


* Heinz famously had way more than 57 different food products when the “57 Varieties” tag line was dreamed up and added to packaging.