An Urban Hike: William Street, Mount Washington

downtown Pittsburgh seen through silhouetted trees

Ghost City. Downtown Pittsburgh as seen through trees on William Street, Mt. Washington.

If Rod Stewart is to be believed, every picture tells a story. This one’s a doozy.

In the photograph, the camera lens is roughly eye level with the tallest buildings in downtown Pittsburgh. They’re not “skyscraper” material, but we’ve got a collection of 40-, 50-, and 60-story towers that can legitimately feel “big city” if you pick just the right block to look up in. But here, it’s hard to actually see them–the distant office buildings of Grant and Smithfield Streets are heavily obscured by a foreground scrim of silhouetted trees clustered awkwardly, bent by nature, and leaning with no perceptible pattern.

The city scene is so background, washed-out, and featureless behind the crisp black tree line that it’s nearly unrecognizable if you don’t know what to look for. The storyline writes itself–Pittsburgh: the illusion of a big city within the reality of Appalachia.

single-lane road surrounded by trees in Pittsburgh, PA

big city living: William Street, about half way up

The bummer in taking a hike–if there is one–can be just getting there. As a person who’d rather not be in a car, the irony that one must drive to take a walk is befuddling and frustrating. It’s like purchasing new trash bags to just put them straight in the waste bin. Sure, you could live in a mountain cabin and hike right out the front door, but then you’d have to get in the car to buy your provisions–what a mess!

Not so in Pittsburgh. There are, of course, terrific woodsy trails in the city parks (especially Riverview and Frick), but one needn’t stop there. Between the up-and-down topography and relative sparseness of the hilltop communities, there are ample urban hikes just a bicycle ride or bus transfer away.

hand-painted road sign with multiple curves, Pittsburgh, PA

they ain’t kidding: curves ahead on William Street

Like the old joke, “I went a to a fight and a hockey game broke out,” we arrived at William Street  last week on journalistic assignment and a hike happened. We were up on Mount Washington to track down and photograph the childhood home of [bygone football hero] Johnny Unitas. [For more on that, see last week’s story “A Football Team That Wanted Him: Johnny Unitas and the Bloomfield Rams” by David Craig.] Oh, we located the house–but we found so much more too.

sun coming through trees in Grandview Park, Pittsburgh, PA

uphill to Grandview Park

There would have been a lot more homes up here in young Johnny U’s day–frankly, it’s a bit of a surprise the Unitas house is still standing. William Street, which descends as a snake-slithering one-lane/one-way from Boggs Ave. down to Arlington Ave., has few remaining buildings today. A 1901 map, however, shows us how many homes once stood along the road. Whether that’s because the residential plots were requisitioned to create the surrounding park land or if it just got too difficult and expensive to maintain houses in a holler on the side of a mountain is unknown. Maybe one was a convenient excuse for the other.

In any case, the signs of life are still here. Like any self-respecting city steps hike, the amateur archeologist is rewarded with nature-without-man trees growing through basements, layered stone foundations, felled chimneys, and still extant front steps edging right up to the roadside–all this as the sun’s halo casts a rich, dappled light through the lush greenery of Grandview Park.

stone steps and house foundation on hillside in Pittsburgh, PA

forgotten foundation and entry steps, lower William Street

detail of William Street from a 1901 map showing many former houses on the south and east sides of the street

detail: lower William Street c. 1901 showing many former houses on the south and east sides of the street (G.M. Hopkins & Co. map collection)

There’s a line that every Pittsburgher has a favorite view of the city–the West End Overlook, Grandview Avenue, or St. John’s Cemetery in Spring Hill, for example. The richness of options on this one little path make a fair case for William Street as two or three different best views.

Near the top, there’s a unique look north-northwest to the side of Mount Washington proper–the big broadcast tower at the end of Grandview is an easy beacon. You also get the oddball collection of both traditional and uber-modern houses on little Cola Street in the foreground, plus a glancing shot at downtown and The Point. In the same general area, one can bag a nice sight line across the Smithfield Street bridge to the whole of downtown.

view of downtown Pittsburgh from Mt. Washington

William Street, north view: downtown, Smithfield Street Bridge, Cola Street

view of downtown Pittsburgh from Mt. Washington

William Street, view north-northwest: Grandview Ave. (with broadcast tower), houses on Cola Street, downtown

Further down, as William bends to more of an east-west layout, there are vantage points looking directly down the Liberty Bridge and off-angles from either side. Here, you’ll get eyes on the jail, Uptown, Duquesne University, and all the way across two rivers to Troy Hill and Spring Hill on the north side of the Allegheny.

view of downtown Pittsburgh from Mt. Washington

William Street, view north-northeast: Liberty Bridge, jail, and Uptown

William Street is not without its perils. One big section of the road has begun to crumble off the hillside. Other parts are so narrow there’s not a lot of margin for error. These are mainly concerns for the motorists rolling the dice as they travel downhill, but you’ll want to keep your wits about you.

Citizen-hikers should take note: William is an active city street and cars will slowly edge by you while pumping their brakes. That said, it’s just not that busy–in the full climb up and back on a Saturday morning, we probably encountered less than ten vehicles.

wooden steps descending to wooded trail, Pittsburgh, PA

entrance to Emerald View Trail from William Street

The street even provides for the folks who don’t consider a walk on pavement to be a “real” hike. Climbers have the option to sneak off the asphalt and into the woods near the top of the hill. There, the terrific Emerald View Trail runs right across the street on its route from Bigbee Field/Grandview Park above to the woods around McArdle Roadway below.

These are Pittsburgh’s salad days. Crisp, jacket-weather mornings followed by lush, unrelenting blue sky afternoons full of turning leaves, pumpkin-spiced and decorative gourd fall fantasias, plus a seeming mass conviviality we never quite achieve the rest of the year. Get out there and enjoy it.

Just Enough: Duck Hollow

community of Duck Hollow, Pittsburgh, PA

Duck Hollow (foreground)

To call the tiny neighborhood of Duck Hollow “cut off” is an understatement–there is only one way in or out. A short unnamed one-lane bridge spans the point where little Nine Mile Run creek spills into the river and acts as the sole gateway for motorists and pedestrians alike. The creek wraps around the neighborhood’s north and west sides; above it up the hill sits the suburban-feeling slag heap redevelopment Summerset. To the east, there is a steep hill and thick wood.

The Monongahela river forms the neighborhood’s southern border, but you can’t actually see it–train tracks elevated on an earthen berm block all direct access to the river. Walking in on little McCarren Road, a repurposed wooden headboard-turned-welcome sign informs visitors they’ve arrived: Duck Hollow, Population: “Just Enough”.

wooden bed headboard with the text "Duck Hollow. Population: 'Just Enough'", Pittsburgh, PA

Population: “Just Enough”. Duck Hollow welcome sign.

single-lane bridge crossing Nine Mile Run creek, Pittsburgh, PA

One way in, one way out. Bridge to Duck Hollow.

“Just enough” is as subjective as terms come. It’s probably fair to say that for many fellow Pittsburghers, Duck Hollow wouldn’t really feel like city living. Those with a healthy penchant for walking can leg it up the 3/4 mile hill to reach the strip mall-like IHOP/dry cleaner/Hokkaido Seafood Buffet complex on Browns Hill Road, but there are no commercial buildings in Duck Hollow proper, nor is there evidence there ever were. We counted eighteen total houses (plus a number of freestanding garages, sheds, and outbuildings). What does that add up to–maybe sixty or eighty people at most?

Telephone pole with Christmas wreath and cardboard sign reading "Merry Christmas Duck Hollow", Pittsburgh, PA

Merry Christmas Duck Hollow

ceramic cherub figurine on garage roof, Pittsburgh, PA

The garage cherub of Duck Hollow

We’d heard tale of winter seagulls taking up residence in our fair city, but never having crossed paths with them, it felt a lot like urban legend. Well, it turns out Duck Hollow in January is the place to catch them.

Vastly outnumbering the human population of the neighborhood–not to mention the sizable collection of the hollow’s namesake ducks congregated on the loose riverbank–seagulls do their seagull things: standing around together all facing the same way and then getting excited and all taking to the air at the same time, singing their seagull songs.

I was told by more than one fellow bird-watcher these are “Lake Erie gulls” who fly south every winter when it gets too cold up there. Considering the particular non-winter we’re in, it seems like maybe they’re working off a calendar rather than a thermostat. Either way, we’re glad you guys made the trip down.

seagulls over the Monongahela River, Pittsburgh, PA

Seagulls of Duck Hollow

Monongahela River and Homestead Bridge from Duck Hollow Trail, Pittsburgh, PA

Monongahela River and Homestead Bridge from Duck Hollow Trail

Though small, Duck Hollow is not without its cultural amenities. There is an extremely high participation in lawn decoration–light-up deer, ceramic angels, cherubs, baubles. Figurines must outnumber people by a large margin. During our couple visits–the first on New Year’s Day and then again mid-January–the Christmas decorations, candy canes, and polar bears were out in full force.

A well-tended vacant lot sits at the center of the neighborhood and one imagines it as Duck Hollow’s town square. The rectangular plot features a flag pole that held no banner but does have a nice pole-sitting Mary statuette guarding its base and blessing The Hollow. Opposite is a strange arrangement of large river rocks topped by a discarded tire; the whole assemblage has been placed just-so and painted white. This blogger doesn’t know what he likes, but he knows art–and he thinks that’s what this might be…maybe.

green lot with flag pole and stone pile, Duck Hollow, Pittsburgh, PA

Duck Hollow town square with flag pole Mary and objet d’art

round metal lid painted with long string of text nailed to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Pole art

Duck Hollow doesn’t even appear on the city’s list of officially-defined neighborhoods*. That’s probably because it’s just too small to qualify, so they’ve likely bundled it in with one of its nearest neighbors–presumably Glen Hazel or Greenfield.

But it is so not either of those places. It’s just too physically isolated–down the long twisting Old Brown’s Hill Road, through the Nine Mile Run green space, over the bridge. That seems like a long way to go when you’re still well within city limits. But then again, maybe it’s just enough.


* This hasn’t stopped Pittsburgh Orbit from including it as unique entity in the 90 Neighborhoods list/project.

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.

On the Trail of the Wild Pawpaw, Part 2: Pickin’ Up Pawpaws

eight smaller pawpaw fruits in a white hat on wooden table

Hatful of holler. The first score.

First: a warning. One should not purchase tickets on the pawpaw express without knowing what she or he is getting into. When you opt to “ride the lightning”, you’re hopping on the front seat of an emotional and physical roller-coaster that won’t be slowing down until it’s thrown–nay, broken–all who boarded with anything less than total commitment.

Be prepared to give it all up. Relationship? Over. Career? Gone. That itchy skin? It’s not going away. Don’t bother paying the rent–you’ll be sleeping in your car most nights, anyway. Friends, family, loved-ones? Kiss them all goodbye–they’ll not be seeing you any time soon. When, or if, you reconnect, the vacant look in your eyes will tell them you’re never really coming back.

pawpaw fruit hanging in tree, Pittsburgh, PA

All that glitters. Nearly-ripe fruit sing their siren song, Squirrel Hill.

Andrew Moore is one hard dude to get an interview with…at least, this time of year. You can’t fault him, though–the author’s late summer schedule is solidly packed. Readings and signings at bookstores in Charleston and Brooklyn; judging the Best Pawpaw Contest and presenting at the Ohio Pawpaw Festival; fruit sampling with customers at the Erie Whole Foods; a talk at the nature club in Sewickley…and that’s just a couple weeks worth.

All that, and Moore still made time for Pittsburgh Orbit, right at the mid-September peak of pawpaw season. We knew we may never have this chance again, so we hit him with the big guns right away: Have you ever been bonked in the head by a falling pawpaw? (It could happen!)

As luck would have it, in the last six years of researching, writing, and extensively traveling the pawpaw belt–Ohio to Louisiana, Virginia to Kansas–a fruit-to-cranium collision has never occurred. Moore took this in stride, as did questions about his wife’s tolerance for that demon pawpaw and the amount of refrigerator space devoted to gestating seeds. [Answers: very much, he loves her a lot; and about the size and volume of a shoe box, respectively.]

Author Andrew Moore holding three huge pawpaw fruits in a pawpaw orchard

Andrew Moore with the enormous pawpaws of Deep Run Orchard, Maryland [photo courtesy of Moore]

The Orbit consumed Moore’s 2015 book Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit (Chelsea Green Publishing) with a gastro-bibliological gusto that invoked what we can only call Pawpaw Fever. It is the definitive work on the subject and as such, Moore has created an elegantly-constructed and fascinating journey through a (literal) landscape both seemingly prosaic (pawpaws grow wild over most of the eastern half of the U.S.–they’re not rare) and at the same time otherworldly (an ancient fruit, re-arriving out of nowhere, with a narrative gift-wrapped for locavores and foodies alike).

Pawpaw contains a couple broad theses that ring long and loud after the last page is turned: the pawpaw as neglected super food that rightfully deserves to be back in markets, lunch bags, and restaurant menus, and the mystery of how this once-ubiquitous early autumn staple that colors so much American history managed to disappear almost entirely from the nation’s collective consciousness. It’s a great read and, needless to say, the book is Orbit-recommended.

pawpaw tree with sign for free use

The giving pawpaw tree of Squirrel Hill

When last we left our blogger, he was deep in the heart of the Schenley Park pawpaw patch, considering an uncertain fruiture (that’s a future in fruit). The pawpaws dangled tantalizingly in all directions, but like Coleridge’s ancient mariner, there was nary an “Indiana banana”–not to mention pawpaw, paw paw, paw-paw, or papaw*–to eat.

Why? Well, one of the pawpaw’s challenges is that it may only be gathered (either shaken from the tree or collected from the forest floor) when ripe. Unlike, say, a tomato or a banana, the hard pawpaw prematurely selected from the tree will never ripen. That’s no big deal out in the wild, but in the very limited supply and unmet demand within metro Pittsburgh, it’s a real crime to prematurely pick the fruit or overzealously shake the tree.

The hunt was on. We got to the, uh, low-hanging fruit (sorry) first–Schenley Park’s pawpaw patch and the magical pawpaw trees of Squirrel Hill. Moore praises the latter: “God bless [the homeowner/planter] for introducing so many of us to our first pawpaw.” This blogger is no expert, but he’s been around the pawpaw patch enough to realize that while a great entry point, these are chump change, amateur hour, gateway drugs. Both sets of trees are well-known and well-traveled destinations at this point, and as such they’ve been over-shaken, abused, ravaged, and the fruit is rarely given the chance to ripen sufficiently.

A large pawpaw cut in half with spoons and a knife

Giant pawpaw, halved.

So…blah blah blah, but what do they actually taste like? Well, I’ll tell you: they’re freakin’ delicious! The blanket description of “tropical” is safe, and banana is clearly the closest common fruit flavor profile. Some of the fruit we found was darker in color (more orange than yellow inside) and absolutely tasted and felt like caramel custard.

One other detail we never saw mentioned is that the pawpaw is really fun to eat. You slice it in half, eat it with a spoon, sorting tasty pulp from the large seeds in your mouth. They’re really unique–like a small dessert right there in every fruit.

So, our early goal of uncovering free public pawpaws right in the city gets mixed marks. We did indeed taste the fruit of several different trees, but weren’t able to uncover any real surprises. The chase is still on, though. As Moore tells it, the trees give themselves up in October, flashing a bright yellow where others go all dropping leaves and fall colors. The dedicated hunter marks her prey and bides his time for the oncoming season. Until then, The Orbit will be out there, cruising the trails…watching.

potted pawpaw tree, Frick Park, Pittsburgh, PA

Future fruit. Potted pawpaw at Frick Environmental Center, likely destined for their “From Slavery to Freedom” garden project.

Conclusions:

The bad news: According to Moore, there just aren’t that many publicly-available patches in city limits to get your paws on pawpaws…right now. It’s not a case of us not looking close enough–they just aren’t there. Between the amount of city build-up we’ve had, 150 years of heavy industry, and that damned knotweed, whatever wild pawpaw may have hugged the rivers pre-industrialization likely didn’t survive the steel industry, et al. What is here now was almost surely planted very consciously.

The good news: There is no lack of American pawpaw, even very close to Pittsburgh. As Moore says, “This is not an endangered species…you see it everywhere, especially starting right around the Mason-Dixon line** (and south)”. The Orbit finally got its first big score from a set of trees in the North Hills and realized very quickly how fast you can fill a big bag and why one probably shouldn’t eat eight pawpaws in twelve hours.

Further, Moore paints a portrait of an exciting future for Pittsburgh pawpaw. The fruit is either “having its moment” or “coming back”, depending on how you look at it. [Moore’s book is clearly a not-insignificant factor in this.] Pawpaw is on the cultural radar now like it hasn’t been for several generations and the number of city projects in parks, schools, and community gardens–not to mention all the private growers adding a couple trees to their yards–is huge. According to Moore, in five or ten years there will be more city pawpaw trees than you can shake a stick at…or, you know, just shake the fruit out of.

Man seated at table with a large pile of pawpaws.

Driven to madness. The author, with pawpaws.


Pittsburgh Orbit has accepted Moore’s spelling pawpaw (one word), but paw paw (two) seems to appear even more often “in the wild”.
** Basically, the Pennsylvania-Maryland/West Virginia border.

On the Trail of the Wild Pawpaw, Part 1: Way Down Yonder

hillside and trees overgrown with knotweed, Pittsburgh, PA

Panther Hollow hillside. Do pawpaws live here?

This blogger has it bad. Pawpaw fever, that is. The old scout song makes gathering pawpaws sound so easy. Pickin’ up pawpaws, put ’em in your basket…way down yonder in the pawpaw patch. Nothing to it, right? Just head down to the ol’ pawpaw patch–the damn things must be everywhere. Yeah? Well, it’s not quite that simple. 

It started so innocently, almost a year ago. A chance encounter with Andrew Moore, the pawpaw expert who literally wrote the book on “America’s forgotten fruit”[1]. In that conversation, I learned that I had just missed the 2015 season, which was frustrating, but certainly something to look forward to. That pawpaw trees (and their fruit) grow wild and plentiful in our region only made the pursuit more enticing. Could The Orbit locate publicly-accessible fruiting pawpaw trees right in the city? We set our sights on finding out.

five wild turkeys crossing a gravel road, Pittsburgh, PA

Q: Why did the wild turkeys cross the road? A: We don’t know, but they didn’t find any pawpaws. Allegheny Cemetery

So I waited. Eleven long months counting down to pawpaw season[2]. I read Moore’s book, which only intensified desire. Pawpaws are among our oldest heritage foods–eaten by natives, colonists, and western explorers. The trees grow wild through a wide swath of the eastern half of the United States, but they’re amazingly foreign to most Americans.

The fruit is loaded with vitamins and minerals and is credited with treating diseases from gonorrhea to cancer. And, of course, it’s supposed to be delicious. The flavor is most often compared to something between banana and papaya, often with “caramel notes”, and a pleasing custard-like texture. Hungry yet? Yeah, me too–and you haven’t been waiting a year to get a taste!

Friends, neighbors, The Internet were all polled: Do you know any pawpaw patches in Pittsburgh? People tried to help, but like marrying a prince, or profiling serial killers, one has to sift through a lot of bunko anonymous tips to kiss the right frog.

Alley intersection with street sign marking "Pawpaw Way", Pittsburgh, PA

No pawpaws here. Pawpaw Way, Hazelwood.

“There’s a stand in Highland Park by the reservoir,” read the first to arrive. The search was called off before I’d left the house. “Sorry for the false alarm,” the coming-clean tipster filled-in later, “they’re actually horse chestnuts–no pawpaws here.”

Another spoke to rumored pawpaws by the Stanton Heights community garden. I climbed most of that big hill in a low gear, traipsed through the woods, and talked to an Allegheny Cemetery groundskeeper and some Saturday morning gardeners. Sadly, no one knew anything about pawpaws…or at least, no one’s talking. We did happen to cross paths with a rafter of wild turkeys[3], which seems like a decent trade-off.

A third offered pawpaws along the North Side bicycle trail, just as you get off the ramp to the Washington’s Landing bicycle/pedestrian bridge, but it wasn’t happening. There were even more vague directions for entire neighborhoods: “South Side Slopes” and “Panther Hollow” and “on the hill behind Phipps (Conservatory)” and “Frick Park, along the trails”. It’s no surprise that none of these panned-out, but people have got to be a little more specific–we’re racing against time here! Little Pawpaw Way in Hazelwood is six kinds of overgrown, but not with its namesake tree, which is nowhere to be found.

close-up of pawpaw fruits and leaves from a tree, Pittsburgh, PA

First sighting: two fruits of the pawpaw tree

So, empathetic readers will undoubtably understand what a thrill it was to finally lay eyes on the big, tropical leaves of the first pawpaw trees we actually found. There, just feet from a trail in Schenley Park, were tall, mature, big-leafed trees–much larger than I’d expected, but unmistakable after so much preparation.

A scurried hustle off the path and down into the fabled pawpaw patch. Trees–from tiny infants to mature thick-trunked giants–in every direction and continuing far back into the wood. It is glorious, cool in the near full tree cover, soothing, airy, and private.

Seeing no fruit, we began to shake the trees small enough to wrap a hand around. Ripe pawpaw fruit should fall from a shaken tree, but none did. We continued on, deeper into the understory. And then, there they were: a pair of oblong, fist-sized, and potato-shaped green fruits joined under a leaf section. Looking around, another cluster, and then another. Some of the pawpaws low enough to touch, others many feet out of reach. We were finally, unequivocally, in the right place…or were we?

Two clusters of pawpaw fruits hanging from pawpaw tree, Pittsburgh, PA

Double clusters: pawpaw pawpaw.

Will our blogger ever achieve sweet relief beneath the leaves? Does the peculiar pawpaw please the palate or merely maim the maw? And With fruit in hand, what’s the plan, man?

I’m afraid, dear reader, this blog post must end on the kind of nail-biting cliffhanger one would expect, nay, demand from a story about foraged fruit. We get to all that, however, in Part 2 of On the Trail of the Wild Pawpaw.


[1] Andrew Moore, Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit (Chelsea Green Publishing). More of Moore in Part 2.
[2] Pawpaw fruit is ripe enough to pick roughly for the month of September in western Pennsylvania’s climate zone.
[3] Yes, rafter is the term of venery for turkeys.

The Frankenstein Hillside of Woods Run

Hillside with embedded bricks and cinderblocks, Pittsburgh, PA

The Frankenstein hillside of Woods Run (detail)

This is about as Pittsburgh as it gets. A steep, nearly vertical, hillside forms a natural boundary between two distinct neighborhoods–Brighton Heights up above and Woods Run down below. Hillside erosion (or the threat thereof) has forced the hand of…someone (the city? industry? private property owners?) to infill cracks and fissures in the bare rock, but they’ve done it in the cheapest, most ramshackle way possible. It’s kind of like creating the goofy colored belt system instead of actually building any new highways–but to solve erosion issues instead of…directional? [The belts certainly do nothing for traffic.] In both cases, The Orbit applauds this philosophy of low-tech, minimally-destructive, infrastructure recycling.

Hillside with embedded bricks and cinderblocks, Pittsburgh, PA

Even with the bright morning sun shining on them, it’s a little hard to see what’s going on in these photos. The hill probably reaches fifty or sixty feet above street level at its highest and there are at least a handful of houses that back right up near the top edge. At the base is vacant land (today), but likely held row houses, retail, or small industry buildings back in the day.

Irregularly set into the rock face are a mortared collection of various masonry materials–bricks of all shapes, sizes, and colors, as well as cinderblocks, paving stones, and poured concrete. The overall effect is as if some bygone cheapskate public works director gave the order to “just fill the cracks with whatever you have laying around.”

Hillside with embedded bricks and cinderblocks, Pittsburgh, PA

The combination is beautiful, weird, and, yes, looks like the work of a mad scientist, or maybe a mad civil engineer. There’s the very awkward collision of nature and technology–like a brick and stone cyborg, only this one wants to keep loose rock from falling on you instead of hunting you down for crimes you’ll inevitably commit in the future. The spare parts and junk shop chic is something any crazy inventor with a bricklaying hobby would be proud of. The hill’s vertical face is rendered in wonderful 3-D, at points both smooth and jagged, metric and chock-a-block–it gives the whole enterprise this incredible depth and texture. Seeing these on a clear day, in the A.M. (when the eastern sun lights them up), will match any gallery experience. We guarantee it, just like Dr. Frankenstein did.

Hillside with embedded bricks and cinderblocks, Pittsburgh, PA

Getting there: The Frankenstein hillside runs along the dog-legged stretch of Woods Run Ave. between Eckert St. and McClure, right across the street from Mr. Jack’s Neighborhood Bar (“No guns. No knives.”)–just look up. Cyclists will be well aware of this particular patch of road as it’s the primary route from the very end of the river bike trail by the old jail to points west and north.

The Wood Demon of Woods Run

Sculpture carved from tree trunk, Pittsburgh, PA

The Wood Demon of Woods Run

This blogger wasn’t looking for trouble, but trouble sure found him. Everyone knows blogging is dangerous work–just look at the language: deadlines, obitsgraveyards, “kill it.” Was it Ben Franklin or Jim Morrison who said “No one here gets out alive–so pay your taxes!”? Does it really matter? Whoever uttered those prescient words was talking about The Art of the Blog™…and it is a dark art indeed. We know all this going in, but rarely does the ne’er-do-well blogger literally come face-to-face with his demon(s).

Cloudless deep blues skies, sixty-ish degrees, a gorgeous Sunday with no obligations. Yes: God was telling us to go “reporting.” And so, on trusty steed to the North Side we did ride to follow-up on yet another golden baby tip [keep them coming!] and then on to check out the various Pop des Fleurs locations nearby [more about that soon…probably]. We continued–through the Mexican Wars Streets, Manchester, and then up Woods Run Avenue. It was a chance turn of the head–a mere tourner of the tête, a giro of the cabeza, if you will–that sealed our fate. Out of nowhere, a startled bewilderment that the scrubby, gnarled leaf-bare hillside revealed a face in the wood, staring back.

Sculpture carved from tree trunk, Pittsburgh, PA

It is a curious spirit, to be sure. Hewn from the remaining trunk of a felled medium-size tree, the figure rests maybe ten or fifteen feet back from the road and stands roughly five feet tall. It’s canted at an awkward angle. The Wood Demon’s face has the gouged triangular eyes and orthodontists’ paradise gap-toothed sadistic grin of a Hallowe’en jack-o-lantern. The nostrils appear to be sculpted by the not-too-delicate incision of a chainsaw. Eyes have been formed with a pair of rubber balls, hammered in place with what look like knitting needles. [Don’t mess with those crafters!] On his head is a jagged crown.

Whether The Wood Demon is watching over sacred land, is out guarding the fine citizens of Woods Run, or just wants to haunt wayward bloggers is unclear. Perhaps he’s just here to reinforce the late fees at the nearby Carnegie Library branch, a hundred yards down the road. [Music is just a one-week checkout! The Wood Demon grants no grace period!] Whatever he’s doing, we’re glad The Wood Demon is here, watching.

Sculpture carved from tree trunk, Pittsburgh, PA