Step Beat: The Steps of California-Kirkbride, Part 2: Hyena and Marvista

street with old houses and city steps climbing hillside, Pittsburgh, PA

Hyena Way alley and steps, California-Kirkbride

Apparently, the Internet informs us, North America once hosted its very own hyena. The Chasmaporthetes ossifragus managed to cross the Bering Land Bridge from Asia, make its way south to present-day Arizona and Mexico, and then east to what’s now Florida. There’s no mention of the big cat up here in the Northeast. This smaller, faster hyena seems to have gone extinct around one million years ago.[1]

So how did a little North Side alley and dramatic flight of 166 city steps end up with the name Hyena Way? We have no idea. But the loosey-goosey manner with which Pittsburgh ended up naming its back alleys would make for a near endless supply of Orbit fodder–if only we knew how to figure out the explanations.

view from the top long set of public city steps in Pittsburgh, PA

looking down from the top of Hyena Way with view of downtown Pittsburgh and Mt. Washington

When last we left you, Team Orbit was ascending the cluster of vertical streets on the eastern half of California-Kirkbride. The North Side neighborhood is small, but hosts an outsize number of both steps and viewpoints. Today we head just a couple blocks west to the thrilling pair of steps that meet at the end of the paved section of Hyena Way.

Visible from the main road as a straight climb right up the hillside, Hyena Way begs for a visit from anyone glancing in from California Ave. and excited about such things. We are powerless against this siren call, and thus continued the journey up, over, around, and down.

view from the top of long set of public steps in Pittsburgh, PA

looking down from the top of Marvista Street

All that mumbo-jumbo last week about how you can see so much more before the leaves come back to the trees really makes sense on these two stretches. Both flights have tall spindly trees right up to the handrails and it’s obvious they’ll generate a thick canopy over the walkways soon enough. That’ll be beautiful in its own right, but it behooves the step-hiker to catch these long views while she or he can.

From Hyena, you’re looking almost due south, over the railyards and Manchester, across rivers to downtown and Mount Washington. It’s a lovely, long scope that encompasses many great landmarks in the city all from one vantage point.

Marvista is perpendicular to Hyena and therefore faces west as one looks out from the top. There are fewer name-brand attractions in this direction, but it’s no less a pleasure to take in the landscape all the same.

public steps climbing the hills of Pittsburgh, PA

At the intersection of Marvista Street and Hyena Way, a network of steps and ghost steps

Where Marvista and Hyena meet is a fascinating cluster of still-in-use city steps (the two main flights) plus obsolete connectors and spurs–often terminating at empty foundations and tree-filled lots. The complexity of steps at this junction speaks to those same refrains we think about on most of these hikes: how this once-dense city neighborhood lost the vast majority of both its population and housing stock in the 140-or-so years since it was laid out and the fact that no one really needs to hike down the hillside every day to get to work. This gruesome one-two punch make any like them endangered species.

But as infrastructure of pleasure–recreation, meditation, and speculation, not to mention a history lesson in every walk–the steps of Hyena Way and Marvista Street are just about as exciting and beautiful as anywhere in the city. Some–certainly those who prefer solitude and exploration–will argue they’re even more valuable than their well-dressed and more popular peers along the riverfronts or up on Grandview Ave.

hillside with city steps in Pittsburgh, PA

Marvista Street

There was a plan to include a map and suggested walking route for all the steps in California-Kirkbride. But as we plotted it out on paper, there was just no obvious loop to bag all the steps and get you back to where you started. It was going to end up being a confusing figure-8 or something and the truth is that it’s just not that hard to come up with your own plan if you’re so-inclined.

The trees are budding, so you won’t have these views for long. Get up there, stretch your gams, and keep your eyes open–maybe you’ll even spot one last hyena.

concrete public steps in Pittsburgh, PA

ghost steps, lower Marvista Street

Step Beat is an occasional series where The Orbit describes interesting features of Pittsburgh’s 700+ sets of public city steps.


[1] Source: Brian Switek, “North America Used to Have its Very Own Hyena,” Smithsonian Magazine, Oct. 3, 2016. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/north-america-once-had-hyena-its-very-own-180960673/

Step Beat: The Steps of California-Kirkbride, Part 1: Sunday Sunny Sunday

view of downtown Pittsburgh from public city steps

B Street, with view of downtown Pittsburgh, California-Kirkbride

In a few weeks (fingers crossed) everything will look different. The signs are all there: we’ve crossed the vernal equinox, birds are chirping their beaks off, full daylight exists before and after work, the first purple and gold crocuses are nudging their little flower heads from packed earth and sad-looking grass.

But for now, Pittsburgh still exists in its foliage-free late-winter monochrome of gray-brown. Bare trees are just spindly brown stalks. Hillsides have been reduced to impenetrable rats nests of last year’s dried up knotweed, tall grass, and loose vines. Grassy patches have typically turned into either a boggy mess or–in the case of this relatively dry winter–parched yellow straw.

The sky usually doesn’t help matters. A thick blanket of gray clouds casts its pall across the landscape more often than not; the absence of Vitamin D a severe depressant for the sun-deprived this time each year.

public city steps in Pittsburgh, PA

B Street, from Lamont

But not on this day! Last Sunday the blue above was so iridescently deep and rich, the sun so full and bright, and clouds just picture-perfect cotton balls, that it seemed to kick in the door of spring a week early, even if the plants hadn’t gotten the message.

You don’t have to tell this blogger twice: it was step-climbing weather if there ever was such a thing. So we lit off for the little North Side neighborhood of California-Kirkbride, home to a smattering of getting-fixed-up row houses, some terrific views, and–depending on how one counts them–five or six or seven great sets of city steps.

public steps on hillside in Pittsburgh, PA

St. Ives Street (foreground) and Sunday Street (in back)

Now, truth be told, we’d just been to the neighborhood 24 hours earlier–though admittedly, unenlightened and on a tighter timeline. The previous day was all of the above–chilly, desolate, and bleak. On that occasion we only got as far as the intersecting steps of St. Ives and Sunday streets and their eventual top-of-hill conclusion at Oriana. The latter parallels the old stone wall surrounding Union Dale Cemetery.

From the top of the steps, the day hiker is rewarded with interesting views both across the roofs of Manchester to downtown and over the river to Mount Washington. Turning the other direction, we can see right into the headstones and treetops of the looming cemetery.

Little B Street–connecting Lamont to Morrison–is well worth your time while you’re over there. It’s just a block long, but dramatically steep and featuring a pair of accessible-only-by-steps row houses. There’s another nice view at the top.

public steps and view of North Side, Pittsburgh, PA

a day earlier: gray view from top of Sunday Street

Here’s the thing they don’t tell you about a (late) winter step trek: you get to see so much more! Yes, soon enough this entire scene will be filled with lush green as Pittsburgh’s chronic humidity will prompt every bare patch of earth to sprout life, spread outward, and reach up into the sky.

All that overpowering tree, shrub, vine, and weed growth is a wondrous and beautiful thing, but it sure cuts down on the available sight lines. Every step trekker knows it’s a four-seasons hobby; in winter, we get the longest views.

public steps on sidewalk with hillside cemetery above, Pittsburgh, PA

Oriana Street steps and Union Dale Cemetery

Now, at this point, astute Orbit readers and chronic step-walkers are either rabid with anticipation or out-and-out screaming into their electronic devices. What about the rest of the neighborhood? They might say, You’re totally missing the best parts!

Fear not, dear reader. California-Kirkbride doesn’t have the largest quantity of steps in the city, but it still has too many to cover in just one post. We’ve also got a part 2 wherein the crew scales the deep hollow steps on the western side of the neighborhood. Hopefully we’ll see you on the steps.

view of Pittsburgh from city steps

view from lower Sunday Street


Step Beat is an occasional series where The Orbit describes interesting features of Pittsburgh’s 700+ sets of public city steps.

Precious Metal: The Disappearing Legacy öf Hard Rock Graffiti

spray paint rendering of the British flag on cement wall, Sharpsburg, PA

All we’ve got is a photograph: Def Leppard (c. 1983), Sharpsburg

There was a time when giants walked the earth. Abbreviated to just single power words, their names are legend: ZeppelinPriestDokkenMaidenKrokusCrüe. Burnouts, D-20 rollers, and teenage hair-farmers alike analyzed Tolkien-meets-toking mysticism, tapped and plucked modal riffage on second-hand battle axes, and armored themselves in a suburban denim-and-studs couture. Umlauts döminated every pössible occasiön. Yes, it was the very best of times.

The penance for an enviable life rich in metal mullets, keg beer consumed by a river, double bass drums, and a perpetual soreness in the neck and ringing in the ears was to pay tribute to one’s idols in the most public, lasting, and respectful way: half-assedly spray-painting their names on dimly-lit concrete walls.

masonry window sill with graffiti "Led Zepp", Pittsburgh, PA

Communication breakdown: Led Zepp(elin) (c. 1980), Hazelwood

Blue Oyster Cult logo spray-painted on cement wall, New Brighton

This ain’t the summer of love: Blue Öyster Cult (hook and cross logo) (c. 1981), New Brighton

Existing somewhere between the cave paintings at Lascaux and ballpoint etchings committed by high school students into classroom desks and Trapper Keepers, metal/hard rock graffiti occupies a very particular place in modern cultural history.

In the city (at least), we see graffiti everywhere–to the point it becomes a kind of visual white noise, unnoticed for its omnipresence. Every alley, dumpster, and bus shelter is tagged-up; jersey barriers, concrete infrastructure, and the back sides of traffic signs bear a familiar scrawl and riot of puckering stickers. In some places you’ll see elaborate full-color wall-sized tags and in others, pithy sophomoric humor. But nobody–and I mean nobody–ever paints graffiti to praise rock stars–or any other musicians–anymore. You just don’t see it.

graffiti for metal band Iron Maiden in cement drainage tunnel, Munhall, PA

Caught somewhere in time: Iron Maiden (c. 1984), Munhall [photo: Lee Floyd]

spray paint graffiti "Ace of Space" on cement wall, New Brighton, PA

Ace of Spade (sic) (Motörhead) (c. 1980), New Brighton

Like Stonehenge and Chichen Itzá, these primitive tributes dating from the late Cold War have stood stalwart through the ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the hot springs flow. Indeed, twenty, thirty, even forty years on we still see their traces…if you know where to look.

The jean jacket alchemists who spun black vinyl into precious metal blazed the names and iconography of their heroes in the kinds of places teenagers hung out before anyone in the gang had a car and long before the Internet existed. Some of these remain, blessedly untouched by the hands of public works crews with more important things to take care of.

graffiti of "Judas Priest" carved into handrail of city steps, Pittsburgh, PA

Judas Priest (c. 1984), Rising Main city steps, Fineview

graffiti reading "Iron Maiden" carved into handrail of city steps, Pittsburgh, PA

Iron Maiden (c. 1984), Rising Main city steps, Fineview

In Pittsburgh city limits, the obvious bridge railings, retaining walls, and industrial fencing has been tagged and painted-over in so many yearly cycles that almost nothing from this halcyon era survives. But dig a little deeper–or climb a little higher–and you can still find the names of goat-throwing deities carved into the handrails of underused city steps, scratched into train trestle underpasses, or spray-painted on stormwater runoff drains. Further afield, the spoils get richer.

spray paint graffiti for Deep Purple, New Brighton, PA

Deep Purple (c. early 1980s), New Brighton

faded graffiti reading "Led Zepplin rules" on cement wall, Sharpsburg, PA

Led Zepplin (sic.) rules (c. 1980), Sharpsburg

This all begs the obvious question, where did it go? Or, more precisely, why did it stop? No, we don’t expect the youth of today to still be into ZZ Top and Deep Purple (we can dream, though!), but kids still like music, right? Why did the act of desecrating public infrastructure in the (literal) name of a favorite musical act simply amount to a two- or three-decade fad, basically gone by the turn of the millennia?

The Orbit has no clear answer for this–not even an educated guess. That said, it’s likely some combination of The Internet, overprotective parents, unlimited and ever-changing entertainment options, and…oh yeah, The Internet again. Why climb down in a culvert with a can of Rust-Oleum for some band no one will care about in six months when you could be Snapchatting with a stranger in Singapore?

spray paint graffiti on cinderblock wall for ZZ Top, Homestead, PA

ZZ Top (c. 1983), Homestead

graffiti for metal band Metallica spray painted on cement wall, Munhall, PA

0 for 2: Metalica (sic.) Alchoholica (sic.) (c. 1990), Munhall [photo: Lee Floyd]

It’s all probably a good thing for the sake of our public spaces. Here at the Orbit, we report on graffiti when it makes sense, but we’re also not advocating for it. If young people have a deeper respect for our parks and sidewalks, private residences and commercial buildings that’s great…but I don’t really think that’s what’s going on.

With all its great opportunity, something definitely got lost when The Internet came to town. There was a deep connection that many of us had to a small number of artists–saving up weeks of paper route money to buy one record which then got played over and over. That’s no longer a practical necessity when the history of popular music is available right through the phone in your pocket. The opportunity is great; the connection and identification, not so much. Who’s going to risk a misdemeanor for […hold on while I Google the current pop/rock charts…] Ariana Grande or Panic! At the Disco?

[Side note: the irony that as we’re going to press Queen holds 13 of the top 25 “Hot Rock” tracks is not lost on this author.]

logo for hard rock band Twisted Sister scratched into cement, Sharpsburg, PA

Twisted Sister (c. 1984), Sharpsburg

graffiti tribute to Norwegian metal band Mayhem on cement wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Mayhem (c. 1990s?), Mt. Oliver

Some notes on the photos and dates:

Sadly, The Orbit doesn’t have the proper resources to do the kind of carbon-dating and art preservation that these historical documents clearly deserve. That said, we consulted the expertise of metal scholars Dave Bjorkback, Ben Blanchard, and Lee Floyd in the course of reporting this story. We are indebted to their lifetime of study.

faded graffiti for metal band Korn on cement wall, Sharpsburg, PA

Korn (c. 2000), Sharpsburg

  • We don’t know for sure that the rendering of the Union Jack (above, top) was in fact a tribute to Def Leppard, but they were the U.K. band who flew…err, sat on the British flag most prominently during this, their prime “ten-arm” Pyromania/Hysteria era–so it’s a reasonable guess.
  • The 1980s were way past Deep Purple’s early-’70s creative peak, but given the proximity to other specimens in New Brighton’s Big Rock Park [yes: that’s really the name of the place where this–and others–were found], we believe this is a more accurate estimate.
  • Faster Pussycat was an also-ran in the Sunset Strip hair metal scene of the late-1980s. The band was named after a Russ Meyer film, however, and the cryptic hobo tag on this boxcar (below) doesn’t really give us any clue as to what the writer was after. It’s still worth a mention.
graffiti cartoon of a vampire with "Faster Pussycat" written on his cloak, Neville Island, PA

Faster Pussycat, Neville Island

Step Beat: Talking Missed Connections and Mis.Steps with Ms. Steps

bent street sign for the intersection of Lappe Lane and Shirls Street with downtown Pittsburgh in the distance

Only the street sign remains: where Lappe Lane used to end at Shirls Street, Spring Hill

Lappe Lane is one of the more fascinating throughways you’re likely to travel. Roughly equal parts city steps, paved road, and (non-existent) “paper street,” Lappe begins down in Spring Garden and then runs straight up and over the hill, back down the other side, through a cemetery (though you wouldn’t know it), and just keeps going.

If you like hiking the steps, there’s a decent chance you’ve already climbed Lappe Lane’s lower flights where the stairs intersect Spring Garden Ave. or Goehring Street and continue up to Yetta and St. John’s Cemetery at the top of the hill. These early sections offer great options to what entry-level step trekkers are after–steep vertical ascents, great city views, kooky between-house catwalks, and lots of nice here-to-theres with alternate options to get back down the hill.

Even so, you’ve probably never made it up here, where we are, at the very end. And that’s because–like some twisted Zen koan–even where Lappe Lane finally ends, it doesn’t actually go there.

hillside with staircase overgrown with weeds, Pittsburgh, PA

Lappe Lane, from South Side Ave. to Fabyan Street, Spring Hill

Laura Zurowski has an ambitious goal: visit and document every one of Pittsburgh’s seven hundred and thirty-nine (known) sets of public steps. As if all the navigating, stair-climbing, and list-checking-off weren’t enough, Zurowski’s Mis.Steps project gets even more complicated. No mere exercise/sight-seeing venture, each and every steps visit is followed by an additional mixed media exploration via old-school/pre-digital instant photography, short prose, colored sidewalk chalk, print-making, and final distribution via the computer Internet.

We’ll get to all this. Today, though, we’re just trying to locate the very last two flights of Lappe Lane, at the far north end of Spring Hill.

woman taking photograph of weed-covered set of public stairs in Pittsburgh, PA

In the weeds: Laura Zurowski with her Polaroid Spectra 2 camera

“Pittsburgh chose me,” Zurowski says of her relocation from Providence, by-way-of upstate New York. The decision came six years ago alongside the desire to own a home in a place she could pursue more creative projects. “I asked myself, ‘What do I want life to be?’ and the answer was that I wanted to be open to ideas; to have a more robust, creative existence.”

The interest in the city steps only came some time after the move. Seeing the volume of empty houses in Pittsburgh was new, startling, and inspirational–but also melancholy. “Every one of those (abandoned) homes contained people’s lives, so seeing them empty is really sad,” Zurowski says, “With the steps–even if they’re in bad condition–I never feel sad like I do with empty houses.”

That, coupled with Bob Regan’s Orbit essential The Steps of Pittsburgh: Portrait of a City (The Local History Company, 2004) was enough to send Zurowski on her mission.

woman marking public steps with sidewalk chalk

Chalk it up: Zurowski tags another completed set of steps with a Polaroid-sized chalk square.

We see one small boarded-up home, but for the most part, the houses on this block all appear both lived-in and loved. Lappe Lane’s thirty-or-so steps starting from South Side Ave. [Mis.Steps Trip #109] are easy enough to spot. There is no street sign at this intersection, but a familiar pair of red-brown handrails reaches out of the hillside and right down to the edge of the quiet residential road.

But try walking up these stairs and you’re quickly ensnared in wild jumble of weedy overgrowth, thorny bramble, and whatever those plants are that leave prickly stickers on your socks and pant legs. Even half-way up the short flight, it’s obvious you’ll not be going far. One of the uphill homeowners has–perhaps, illegally–built an elaborate A-frame treehouse directly blocking the public right-of-way. Even if someone wanted to, no one’s going anywhere on these steps.

Polaroid photo of overgrown city steps in Pittsburgh, PA

Trip #109: Lappe Lane – S. Side Ave. Polaroid [photo: Laura Zurowski]

Zurowski fights her way through the thicket of tall grass, up past the first plateau, and on until nearly swallowed by the plant kingdom. There’s a shrugged acceptance this is far as these particular steps will allow, an untangling from the jaggers, careful descent back to the landing, and then hands dart into the backpack for the Polaroid camera. The single picture–there is only one per set of steps–is taken in an instant.

“My friend who’s a photographer said, ‘You’re going to have a really hard time coming up with 739 ways to take pictures of stairs’,” Zurowski says, “And it would be hard if they were all the same–but I haven’t come across two sets that look alike.”

“I look at the Polaroid [photos] like they’re portraits of people,” Zurowski continues, “If I were going to give human-like qualities to the steps, what would they be like? Hopefully the Polaroid captures the essence of what each flight of steps is all about.”

Polaroid photo of public staircase with trees and house behind

Late summer scene: Polaroid from Trip #61 – Harpster Street, Oct. 2017, Troy Hill [photo: Laura Zurowski]

The instant photograph is ejected from the camera, rested on a stair tread, and then the journals come out. There are two of them: one for “field notes”; the other, narrative impressions. With each visit, Zurowski includes a short meditation on the scene, which will be used later on.

Zurowski scratches a rough square, just about the size of a Polaroid picture, with sidewalk chalk on one of the stair risers. Mis.Steps super fans are undoubtedly taking selfies with chalk squares around town right now. Finally, the iPhone is used to snap one last picture summing up the whole scene.

With that, we’re on to Trip #110–the very end of Lappe Lane, just up the hill from where we are now. Here, Zurowski will do it all over again, but, just like every other one of those 739 sets of steps, this one is completely different from the one we just saw. For one, there aren’t any steps here (anymore).

autumn leaves on long set of public steps in Pittsburgh, PA

A blast of autumn past: Mis.Steps summary photo (including Polaroid and chalk square) from Trip #68 – Basin Street, Troy Hill/Spring Garden, Oct. 2017 [photo: Laura Zurowski]

That’s a lot of process–but it ain’t over yet! Back home, Zurowski completes the cycle with the publishing of each Mis.Steps adventure every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The narrative is honed, the Polaroid digitized, and the pairing of image + words goes out to the world via the Mis.Steps’ blog, Instagram, and Craig’s List “Missed Connections” page. That’s right: between “Kinky Dom Roleplay – m4m (Canonsburg)” and “Thanks for the hot time – m4m (McKeesport)” there’s a little story and photo about listening to birdsongs on the Morningside Avenue steps.

Risograph print of a Polaroid photo showing public stairs with a woman leaning on handrail

#20 Diulius Way, Central Oakland. Risograph print by Jimmy Riordan.

I know what you’re thinking: All this sounds great, but there’s nothing to hang on my wall or swap with friends! That’s where you’re sorely mistaken. Conveniently, Mis.Steps has taken the whole project out of the aether and fed it through a 1980s-era technology at the hands of Braddock printer Jimmy Riordan.

The result is a hard copy series of “trading cards” that further abstract the original murky Polaroid into ghostly, high-contrast 3-color art prints. In addition to the photographic image, the cards contain the Mis.Steps index number, street and neighborhood names, location, step count, and the city’s construction date (if known) on the front and the narrative text on the back. Card collections are available from the Mis.Steps website and Copacetic Comics in Polish Hill.

collage of nine Risograph prints made from Laura Zukowski's steps photos

No two alike: various Mis.Steps Polaroid-sized Risograph trading cards printed by Jimmy Riordan

If it’s not obvious yet, Laura Zurowski really loves Pittsburgh’s city steps–Orbit readers know we share an opinion on this matter. “If there’s an underlying goal,” Zurowski says of the Mis.Steps project, “It’s to get people to visit the stairs. I’d like to encourage people to look around, to check out other parts of the city, and to become connected with their neighborhoods.” We couldn’t agree more.

woman at top of long set of public stairs looking at a view of downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Route with a view: Zurowski at the top of the Vinial Street steps, part of the “Spring Garden Stair Stepping” event, Troy Hill

Still not enough Mis.Steps for you? Well, you’re in luck. Zurowski has teamed up with Threadbare Cider for a series of combined guided city step hikes and cider house tours/tastings dubbed Spring Garden Stair Stepping (and Cider Sipping). You’re probably too late for today’s kick off hike–and it sold out way ahead of time anyway–but there will be a couple more chances with repeat events April 15 and May 20.

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.

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.