A Secret Sanctuary, Seldom Seen: Pittsburgh’s Secret Greenway

train trestle through woods covered in graffiti

Seldom seen but oft-graffiti’d. The “secret place” graffiti trestle at Seldom Seen Greenway, Beechview.

It’s not an easy thing to do–hiding a 22-acre green space right in the middle of a city. But that’s just what seems to have happened here.

On the one hand, Seldom Seen Greenway seems incongruously named. The medium-small park is at a collision between the steep wooded hillsides on southwest side of the city and a criss-crossing of old urban infrastructure. What remains has been graffitied and tagged-up; footpaths are littered with the broken glass of a hundred beer bottles. Go there on a sunny Sunday, like we did, and you’ll encounter casual hikers canoodling and doobie-smokers cave-huffing. In short: enough folks have managed to visit and leave their traces that this place is at least somewhat seen.

wide creek through woods

Sawmill Run through Seldom Seen Greenway

By any other measure, though, Seldom Seen is legitimately a secret among its peers in the city parks system. There’s no signage to point you to an entrance and getting here is neither either easy nor obvious. A placard near the tiny parking lot states Est. by the City of Pittsburgh, 1985 and Given by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy but neither entity wants to claim it.

The CitiParks web site lists several dozen–maybe a hundred–different parks in city limits. These range from gigantic Frick, Schenley, and Riverview down to individual basketball courts and corner-lot playgrounds, but it makes no mention of Seldom Seen. The Greenway is just as invisible on the WPA Conservancy site.

Technically in Beechview, Seldom Seen is really nowhere–off-road along an anonymous stretch of Rt. 51, downhill from Mt. Washington, and just east of the West End. I’ve been in Pittsburgh for 24 years and yet I don’t know anyone who’s been there. It was time to go check it out.

stone arch over creek and footpath

The Seldom Seen Arch, 1902

Acting as both entrance gate and its most prominent single feature, the Seldom Seen Arch, a creek-spanning stone-and-brick railroad bridge, is worth the trip all by itself. A Pittsburgh History & Landmarks plaque informs us the arch was constructed in 1902 and features the kind of masonry craftsmanship one worries has been banished from this earth.

The particular design has a series of tiered, stair step-like half rings that are each offset from the previous layer by a width of two bricks at the base. At the point directly overhead, everything flattens out; by the opposite wall, the layer order has reversed. It’s really a remarkably beautiful construction for something as mundane as the underside of a small railroad bridge in the woods. I’m afraid no single photograph will do it justice, so if you like this kind of thing you really need to go see it in person.

detail of intricate brickwork in arched stone and brick train trestle

Detail, Seldom Seen Arch brickwork

Infrastructure around train tracks is something of a theme at Seldom Seen. There are at least three different trestles the visitor walks under/around in the relatively short span of a hike here. Neither of the others are as spectacular as the arch, but they all offer great thing-in-the-woods scenery, dramatic shadow forms, and opportunities for exploration.

underside of old steel and wood train trestle


cement and steel train trestle in the woods

Shadowplay. Train trestle and walking bridge.

Of course, the real attraction of a place like this is the open nature one gets to explore and Seldom Seen has that in abundance. Little Sawmill Run flows slowly on a crooked course through the venue. Here in Pittsburgh’s dry season, it’s obvious the water is at a low point, allowing easy walks out into the middle of the slow creek on various stone patches. Likely the full width of the creek spreads out considerably in rainier times.

woman standing by creek in woods

Mom of Orbit (MOO? OK, maybe not)/Orbit Mom (OM? better) in the stone-filled, low water Sawmill Run

While north of the creek is relatively flat land where a couple short hiking paths lead through the woods, the other side tells a different, more dramatic, story. Rising up from the water’s edge is a steep hillside that appears to go straight up for at least a hundred feet–all of which is covered in a thick wood.

layers of graffiti on cement wall

Layers of graffiti

Together, Seldom Seen Greenway is a beautiful collection of elements that feel uniquely Pittsburgh: steep hillsides, lush deep green overgrowth, industrial history, a kids-in-the-woods/troublemaker paradise, and nature-without-man benign neglect. Its status as no one-wants-to-claim-us park/not-a-park only makes it moreso.

It took me 24 years to make it here–heck, it took me 20 years just to hear about the place! You know about it too (at least, now you do) and there’s never been a better time to check out a place where you’ll encounter few other humans and lots of fresh air.

salt dome by busy two-lane highway

Getting there: turn at the Rt. 51 salt dome!

Getting there: The first rule is don’t rely on Google’s directions! If you do, you’ll end up at a small industrial drive surrounded by the wares of an apparent flag merchant. This is interesting in its own right, but it’s not the Seldom Seen Greenway.

Sadly, you do need a car* because one has to drive on the highway. There will be no road signs for the Greenway. You can only get there from the south-east-bound lane of Rt. 51/Sawmill Run Blvd. Just before you get to Woodruff Street, there’s a BP station and then the tell-tale DPW salt dome. Take the little turn-off and there will be a small parking lot with a little sign telling you you’re in the right spot. You won’t miss the arch.

* Perhaps one could walk from the back side of Mt. Washington (Woodruff Street), but it ain’t recommended.

wooded hillside and creek

Sawmill Run through Seldom Seen Greenway

The Pizza Chase: Beto’s of Beechview

Sign for Beto's Pizza in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Beto’s Pizza, Beechview

Pizza has gotten almost totally standardized. Sure, there’s a couple varieties: New York-style thin-crust and Chicago-style deep dish, square Sicilian, and some fancy places dress theirs up in various ways, but you’ve pretty much seen it before.

We’ve been collecting stories about Pittsburgh-area pizza houses that do something fundamentally different from any of the above standard configurations. We’re not trying to name the best pizza (although each of these has its super fans); we’re just looking for something that’s truly unique. These will be explored in a new series called The Pizza Chase. And we’re going to start with Beto’s Pizza of Beechview.

There are a bunch of goofy things about Beto’s:

First: there are only two denominations of pie: either individual cuts (approximately 4″ square) or an entire 28-cut rectangular “tray”. Nothing round; none of this small/medium/large business. You’re either all-in, or you take it on the run.

Second: ordering individual cuts (as almost all customers seem to do) takes exactly the same time as ordering a whole tray. (We were told this by the staff and wound up ordering a tray on our first visit; they speak the truth.) How can that be? Anywhere else, the cuts are ready to go and they just pop them in the oven for a minute to warm them up. Not at Beto’s. What are they doing back there? I don’t know, but they’re not working off the standard playbook.

Third: even if you order a full tray, it doesn’t arrive on anything resembling one. The pizza is delivered as seven separate plates, each containing four cuts with an giant halo of post-op mozzarella cascading to the floor.

Beto's pizza tray

Beto’s full “tray” with four cuts removed. Note the near total lack of melted cheese and the employee applying mozzarella to the box (photo: The Internet)

Most jarringly, Beto’s separates itself from other pizzerias by only adding the cheese and toppings after the pizza has left the oven. This bizarre practice produces a hot-on-the-bottom, cold-on-top sensation that is as pleasurable as being in a hot tub while it’s snowing (to its fans) or as disorienting as, uh, being in a hot tub with a big block of ice on your head (to its detractors). After two visits, The Orbit still isn’t sure where it stands on all this.

I should add that if you are the kind of conformist who wants his or her cheese melted to the rest of the pizza, this is an option you can specify. You just need to order it “baked.”

Three cuts of pizza from Beto's, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Three cuts the normal way (not “baked”), Beto’s Pizza

How does it taste? Well, a guy trying to watch his carbs will start by saying that he generally feels like even when pizza is bad, it’s still good. It’s a forbidden fruit, a taboo pleasure to be savored when the occasion presents itself and he’s prepared to put in some extra hill climbs to pay the rent. And so in that sense, Beto’s bi-temperate, sometimes-you-gotta-break-the-rules approach still satisfies.

That said, it is this blogger’s belief that eating melted cheese on fresh-baked pizza dough is one of the world’s great carnal pleasures and to eschew this when you’ve got all the tools and ingredients right there seems insane. But I’m here for the ride.

Beto's customer "Red" Bob Jungkunz

Our Beto’s ambassador: Bob Jungkunz

To get a handle on all this, we called in an expert. Carrick native Bob Jungkunz has been a Beto’s customer since at least 1975 when his older sister and her boyfriend first introduced the cross-hills Beto’s to her little brother. Bob has been coming to Beto’s ever since and continues to stop in for dinner nearly once a week.

Bob swears that the pizza preparation hasn’t changed a bit in the last forty years and went on to detail the old environment. Apparently before the expansion of both the dining room and parking lot, it was common for Beto’s customers to simply eat in their cars in the cramped lot, seating in one of the the handful of tiny booths nearly impossible to secure.

Bob describes Beto’s no-cook-topping approach and mild sauce as “subtle” and the overall experience as “very pleasing,” preferring plain cheese, but mixing it up from time-to-time. He also gave us the pro tip that one can order cuts to go and by the time you reach your destination the cold cheese had done its own partial melt from the in-box heat, offering yet another taste and texture option.

Bob is not alone. Beto’s dining room is stuffed with cold-topping cut-consuming customers, photos of smiling faces, decades-old news clippings, and mementos of the pizzeria’s fifty-plus-year history. To-go boxes sit pre-folded from counter height to ceiling everywhere you look around the kitchen, prepped and ready for a phalanx of orders.

I don’t know if I love it–heck, I don’t know that I like it–but I’m glad it exists.

Beto’s Pizza is at 1473 Banksville Road in Beechview.