Step Beat: Basin Street Blues

Looking down the Basin Street city steps, Pittsburgh, PA

Looking down from near the top of the Basin Street steps, Troy Hill

If there are more stereotypically Pittsburgh names for a couple streets than Brabec and Voskamp, point this blogger to them. That these two short residential ways (in Troy Hill and Spring Garden, respectively), should be connected by a picture-perfect set of city steps is all the more apropos. Action, scene, cut, and print.

Top of the Basin Street city steps at Brabec Street, Pittsburgh, PA

Top of Basin Street at Brabec Street, Troy Hill

Tripping across a new set of city steps is no great feat–there are hundreds of them after all*. But randomly arriving at a stretch as spectacular as the Basin Street steps doesn’t happen every day. The couple hundred individual risers that connect these two near North Side neighborhoods have everything the step trekker and urban daydreamer could possibly hope for–theater, tranquility, history, and mystery.

View of Spring Garden and Spring Hill neighborhoods from the Basin Street steps, Pittsburgh, PA

View from the steps: Spring Garden (below) and Spring Hill (above)

Steps, by their altitude-adjusting nature, almost always offer something in the way of rewarding city vistas and Basin Street is no exception. The view from the very top (at Brabec Street) is shrouded in trees, but multiple points along the way offer terrific angles through the branches down to the Spring Garden bottoms below and up into the lush hillside of City View/Spring Hill above.

Thick tree cover and hand rail from city steps, Pittsburgh, PA

Hill view from the steps

Aside from the surround-sound bird chirping and song-singing–plus one indefatigable opossum loitering in a Voskamp Street back patio–not a creature was stirring in or around Basin Street on the day we visited. It is this gentle peace right in the center of the city that makes a great set of steps so special.

Basin Street has its requisite signs of humanity–foundations for long-gone homes off to the sides and no small amount of litter left by teen drinkers and hill campers–but it generally has more of the feeling of being way out in the woods. It’s fair to say that this particular wood still features the sounds of weed whackers, dudes working on cars, and distant classic rock wafting through branches–but a wood nonetheless.

Looking up the Basin Street city steps, Pittsburgh, PA

Looking up the Basin Street steps

Like Tolstoy’s happy families, each story of the city steps is in a sense the same: a wonderous artifact of urban infrastructure still exists, relaxing in repose on and under-visited city hillside. Nature, time, and tide reclaim as much as the Pittsburgh D.P.W. allows. The occasional pedestrian saunters through, but they exist mostly in a time of their own.

On the other hand, though, each passage of steps–at least the really glorious, long, secluded ones like Basin Street–offer their own unique experiences: different views, twists and turns, different high, lows, and end points. Rising Main, it ain’t, nor does it have the clusters of great steps like Fineview or the South Side Slopes, but this little backside of Troy Hill is well worth the trip. Big ups to the Basin.

View of the Spring Garden neighborhood from the Basin Street city steps, Pittsburgh, PA

Voskamp Street, Spring Garden, from near the bottom of Basin Street


* There is no official number, but the estimate is somewhere around 750 sets of public steps in Pittsburgh.

Step Beat: May the 54th Be With You

Top entrance to the 54th Street city steps, Pittsburgh, PA

There is a darkness. Upper entrance to the 54th Street steps at Camelia Street, Stanton Heights.

An unusually iridescent quality to the daylight–the result of diffuse, cloud-filtered sunbeams’ gentle descent to Earth. That, paired with recent showers and high spring reawakening, resulted in a glorious array of patchwork greens popping from every direction. Bright yellow-greens from first leaves and tangled weeds climbing through last year’s dead growth. Deep low greens darken ivy shadows and taller members’ undergrowth. Add one storybook passageway–literally full of twists and turns, hoots and birdsongs–and you’ve got a recipe for magic.

Right-angle turns at the top of the 54th Street city steps, Pittsburgh, PA

Zig zag wanderer: right-angle turns at the top of the 54th Street steps.

The 54th Street steps are a stretch that one can only assume is on the endangered species list. Several pedestrian walkways link the residential neighborhood of Stanton Heights (above) to 10th Ward/Upper Lawrenceville (below). At one time, there must have been significant demand for this kind of infrastructure, but with (most of) Lawrenceville’s big industry jobs long gone and automobile ownership more rule than exception, it’s hard to imagine many people needing to use these particular steps anymore. This blogger didn’t encounter a single other human on his recent visit.

Long middle section of the 54th Street city steps, Pittsburgh, PA

The long middle section of the 54th Street steps including wooden replacement handrail.

And that’s a shame…sort of. Pittsburgh has its share of great parks, trails, green spaces, etc. But it never ceases to amaze how simply walking around city neighborhoods offers so many everyday opportunities for nature, tranquility, solitude–you name it.

The 54th Street steps, as well as others up this way, are a prime example. The parks may have a greater bounty of trees, flowers, birds, and chipmunks, but they don’t supply the crazy catwalk gangways and cut-into-hillside stair climbs. You won’t see the same ghostly foundations of long-gone step-accessible (only) houses or burnt offerings to witchcraft. The entire length of 54th provides commanding bird’s eye views of Upper Lawrenceville and across the river to Millvale. The river trails are often crowded with Sunday cause-marchers and lollygagging strollers that can test the through-rider’s patience. The presence of humanity is no such problem up here.

Overgrown hillside view from the 54th Street city steps, Pittsburgh, PA

This is city living. View from the 54th Street steps.

The 54th Street steps are in quite good shape overall. There is some cracking to the concrete and there’s been obvious repair work including a fixed-up section of felled handrail with a jerry-rigged wooden replacement. But the treads are all sound and there’s no point where they feel like they’re falling apart. Any regular step-hiker will tell you this is no small achievement.

This is all pretty remarkable given the length and complexity of the operation. Fifty-fourth Street is definitely not the longest set of steps in the city (that’s the unbelievable Rising Main Way on the North Side), but with maybe 200 stairs* it’s probably up there. When you factor in the six right-angle turns and long flat stretches, it’s really a hidden jewel a in the city’s step crown. Get out there and try it on for size.

Bottom entrance to the 54th Street city steps, Pittsburgh, PA

Lower end of the 54th Street steps at Wickliff Street, Lawrenceville.

* Just guessing here–we didn’t count.

Step Beat: When Tullymet Sylvan

View from the top of the Tullymet St. city steps, Pittsburgh, Pa.

View from the top of the Tullymet Street city steps, Hazelwood

It is around this time of year that the intrepid city climber has usually packed-away his or her step-hiking boots and can but merely dream of a fast-forward to warmer temperatures, de-iced stair treads, and the re-greening of hillsides. But this particular season’s relentless run of glorious late fall weather has kept the traditionally cold, gray, and wet days at bay. There’s been nary a snow flurry, freezing rain, or frosty morn to even hint at the inevitable winter days to come. The bewildering number of perfectly blue sky days is something rarely seen around these parts.

And so it was this past weekend. We seized the opportunity to embark on an up-and-down* bicycle-based reconnaissance of the Greenfield and Hazelwood neighborhoods which led us to a happenstance trip up Tullymet Street, a most excellent set of city steps heretofore unexplored by this blogger.

Tullymet city steps, Pittsburgh, PA.

Steps as far as the eye can see. The longer stretch of the Tullymet steps, from Sylvan Ave. up to Gladstone St.

Hazelwood’s long, curving riverfront was once home to the enormous Jones & Laughlin steel mill and it is one of the many city neighborhoods that used to primarily house the industry’s huge local workforce. Like a number of its peers, there is no longer that much to walk down to anymore–the mill is gone, as is most of the commercial activity on Second Avenue.

Unlike those other neighborhoods–say, Troy Hill or Fineview or The West End–there’s also not that much to walk from up the hill. Gladstone and Sylvan are quite long streets that clearly used to contain many homes, (you can see this both in old city platte maps and evidence from the extant foundations that remain) but are now almost completely vacant. Today, there might be just one house every hundred yards up here–and half of those appear uninhabited.

Concrete house foundations with trees growing through.

Nature without man. Foundations of felled houses, seen from the Tullymet Street steps.

It’s a curious thing, as I could imagine it being quite a terrific place to live. The location is right there in the city (it’s probably three miles to downtown, as the crow flies), just around the corner from bustling Squirrel Hill, and an easy ride to Oakland. These particular streets are completely surrounded by nature, spectacularly quiet, and with lovely views all the way across the river–at least by this time of year, when the leaves have all fallen to clear the sight lines.

Oh, sure–it’s probably hard to get a pizza delivered up here and I imagine you’d get snowed-in pretty easily being the only one left on a half-mile dead-end street, but people pay top dollar for that kind of isolation in other places. Imagine the possibilities!

Street sign for Tullymet St. and Sylvan Ave., Pittsburgh, PA.

This is where Tullymet Sylvan

Whether or not you’d consider moving in, it’s well worth an afternoon visit–especially if you get another it-ain’t-winter-yet day like this one. Tullymet’s two sets of steps probably contain 250-300 actual stairs (I didn’t count), so it’s a good run any way you cut it. But numbers aside, I can’t stress enough how fantastic it was to be right there, on the edge of the center of the city, in eyeshot of the Monongahela River, in absolute tranquility; the only sounds the chirping of birds and the rustling of fallen leaves.

View of late fall trees and vines from the Tullymet St. city steps, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Hillside view from the Tullymet St. steps

And I realized what a mistake it was to consider the post-fall colors period to be down time for a step hike. What’s left of Pittsburgh’s lush spring/summer viney overgrowth, denuded in the cold weather months, creates an eerie, otherworldly science-fiction landscape when struck against the impossibly bright blue sky and low winter sun. How fortunate are we to have these magical landscapes right here, open all year ’round.

Tullymet city steps, Pittsburgh, PA

Looking down the shorter stretch of Tullymet steps, from Sylvan Ave. to Chance Way


* “Up and down” is no joke. This blogger’s fancy phone informed him that he climbed the equivalent of 131 flights of steps over the course of Saturday–this is roughly a hundred flights more than the average day.

 

Step Beat: Bloomfield’s “Try Try Try” Steps

City Steps with graffiti reading "Try" on every riser, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield’s “Try Try Try” Steps

Try, try, try. What a wonderful message of self-affirmation, coming to you directly from your urban infrastructure! You can do it–whatever it is! Just make it a little farther, a little higher. Reach for the sun; step into the light!

The word Try is identically painted over and over again on each of the risers on the long second flight of Bloomfield’s Ella Street steps. If only all law-scoffing paint-huffing miscreants would take such an interest in the collective conscience. Sometimes we wish the city would put more effort into the upkeep of the steps, but if some well-meaning civil servant were to white-wash each of these, you could bank on this blogger’s mellow getting majorly harshed.

City steps in the Bloomfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh, PA

The “Try Try Try” steps from Lorigan Street

Bloomfield won’t make anyone’s short list of great city steps must-sees. Despite the steep drop-off into “Skunk Hollow,” The Orbit knows of only two sets of steps in the whole neighborhood–these on Ella and one other at the end of Cederville. But don’t let the step snobs of more vertical wards deter you from a really great easy-access down-and-back hike. The end of Ella Street is mere blocks from Liberty Avenue, Bloomfield’s main drag, but a world away from the dense thicket of row houses you pass to get there. It’s all air and light and thick, untamed overgrowth, spilling off the hillside and into the hollow below (at least by this time of the year). Get your hot sausage, go for a little hike down the hill, come back up for a cannoli.

Homemade toy truck bolted to city steps in Pittsburgh, PA

The little red truck: the “Try Try Try” steps unofficial mascot

I’ve been up and down the Try Try Try steps a dozen times in as many years, and for that entire duration, there’s been a curious attachment to the bottom-most landing (just above Lorigan Street). A rusted, red-painted toy truck, which seems to be a homemade piece from heavy garage scraps, is bolted to the concrete. The motivation for this is curious, as is the respect it’s paid from the crews that hang out and graffiti the step rails after hours. They may leave their malt liquor bottles, but they don’t mess with the little red truck. I tend think of it as the unofficial mascot of the Try Try Try steps: the little (fire) engine that could.

View down the Ella Street city steps, Pittsburgh, PA

View down the Ella Street steps

Reaching the top of the Ella Street steps (and optionally the short flight up the perpendicular Wertz Way steps that adjoin) one gets a great payoff with views through the tree canopy to Polish Hill, North Oakland, and down to Skunk Hollow. On this beautiful early fall(-feeling) day, the sky a perfect cloudless blue, the dappled light, and lush, overgrown hillsides were as spectacular as one could want. And all we had to do was try.

View of Skunk Hollow and North Oakland from Wertz Way, Pittsburgh, PA

View of Skunk Hollow and North Oakland from Wertz Way steps

 

Step Beat: The Shortest Street in Pittsburgh

Jewel Street city steps in Pittsburgh, PA

“Little” Jewel Street in Polish Hill: Pittsburgh’s shortest street (we think)

Years ago, this blogger attended a dinner party at a house on the steep hill high above upper Lawrenceville. I remember very clearly that there were fifty-six exterior stairs to get from the street to the (second floor) kitchen door where people entered the house. Man, I thought to myself at the time, that’s a long way up to haul your groceries.

It’s funny to think that one home’s front entrance walk (up) would be four times the length of an official city street, but that seems to be the case. Though I don’t know it for sure, at just thirteen steps, plus one short walkway at the top, tiny Jewel Street* in Polish Hill is very likely the shortest street in Pittsburgh**.

Jewel Street city steps in Pittsburgh, PA

Looking down the full length of Jewel Street, all thirteen steps of it

Back in May, when The Orbit reported on the remarkable intersection of Romeo & Frazier, we got all urbanophysical about what a “street” really is. Little Jewel Street seems to push that notion over the top, and then some. Let’s not worry that no vehicles are traveling on this particular thoroughfare and just consider that it has only ever served one house. There are likely other public streets in the city that have just one address on them now, but I’d wager that most of them were built back in the day when there were rickety worker houses up and down every pointy hill and slanted dale in the ‘burgh.

Jewel and Flavian Street city steps in Pittsburgh, PA

Jewel Street from the Flavian Street steps

How the first residents of the only house on Little Jewel Street managed to swing the deal where they didn’t have to build or maintain their own steps is beyond both my knowledge and researching capacity. But if they hadn’t, Pittsburgh would be stuck with some anonymous half-block-long shortest street that no one would even blink an eye at. To you, Little Jewel Street, keep on keepin’ on. We’re on your side.


* There is a two-block-long alley across Melwood Avenue which becomes a substantial set of city steps, both marked as Jewel Street. But here’s the thing: from the spot we’re talking about, you have to travel down an entirely separate street (the Flavian Street city steps) and make a hard left to get to this other Jewel. Each is an entirely separate entity. Even seemingly all-knowing Google Maps isn’t aware of this set. So we think it’s fair to count the very short residential section of Jewel off Flavian as its own street, despite the repetition in name.

** The Internet has very little to say about Pittsburgh’s shortest street, the main nominations being a pair of streets in the South Side–one of which no longer exists–both well over the length of Little Jewel.

Step Beat: Rising Main, The Longest Steps

Rising Main city steps, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Rising Main Way steps (from hobo camp)

The one and only time he met (then) Pittsburgh mayor Luke Ravenstahl, this future citizen-journalist knew it was a prime opportunity. “What are you doing to save the Rising Main Way steps?” was the sum total of my interrogation. (There was a rumor at the time that Rising Main was slated for demolition.) I got a non-committal response: “I thought those were getting fixed-up?”

Sure: public education and jobs and keeping crime down and paving the streets are all important things, but The Orbit will argue all day that the city steps (in general) and Rising Main Way (in particular) are a historical and cultural treasure that should be maintained and protected the way we preserve the Fort Pitt Blockhouse or Pitt’s little log cabin.

Intersection of Rising Main Way and Toboggan Street, Pittsburgh, Pa.

View from base camp: the intersection of Rising Main Way and Toboggan Street

In the world of city steps, Rising Main Way is the big Kahuna, the alpha and the omega, the most colorful single crayon in the box. At 371 steps, Rising Main is not just the longest stretch of city steps in Pittsburgh, it is among the longest sets of community steps in the country. To put it in perspective, it’s something on the order of a fifteen to eighteen-story building, built straight up a steep hillside, and now totally surrounded by nature. And it’s less than two miles from the center of downtown Pittsburgh.

Two sets of steps of city steps in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Two sets of steps: Toboggan Street (foreground) and Rising Main Way (back)

Getting there: There are a couple different ways to approach the Rising Main steps. Probably best for the first-timer is to drive/ride to the very end of Howard Street (off North Avenue, North Side), park/lock up anywhere and plan to just do an up-and-back. It will be plenty.

That said, there are a ton of terrific steps throughout Fineview and a lot of great things to see when you’re up there, so the more adventurous could plan one of many possible longer routes around. The Orbit will most certainly be back to describe some of these possible journeys.

Former home foundation in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Forgotten foundation

One of the fascinating things about any step hike is the amateur archeological survey one inevitably ends up on. At one time there were dozens of properties that lined the hillsides of both Rising Main and the shorter Toboggan Street. Today maybe eight houses still stand, and only a few of these appear to be occupied.

Along the way up, you’ll see plenty of evidence of these former homes: if their sandstone foundations and crumbling walkways don’t give them away there are obvious breaks in the step railing that show where there was an entrance point from the steps to a property. Some of these inevitably become hobo camps or teen drinking hangouts. If you’re lucky, there’s evidence of witchcraft.

That houses were only accessible by the steps is certainly not unusual–you still see many of these around. But the thought of being half-way up or down this particular incline, needing to haul your groceries the equivalent of, say, eight or ten stories to your front door, is pretty amazing. It’s romantic to think of the houses built in this environment, but the reality would certainly be challenging. It’s no surprise that few of these homes remain.

View from Rising Main city steps, Pittsburgh, Pa.

View from half-way up Rising Main city steps

The original purpose of the steps was of course a means of commuter travel from the many high hills (where people lived) to the valleys and flats along the river (where they worked, shopped, prayed, and played). Some of the steps still serve this purpose, but Rising Main certainly does not. Plenty of people live in the Fineview neighborhood (at the top of the hill), but there’s really nothing to walk down to anymore.

The project that built I-279 in the mid-1970s ran right through the industrial and commercial heart of the valley that separates Spring Hill and Reserve Township (on the east) from Fineview and Observatory Hill (on the west). The constant drone of rushing traffic never lets you forget it. The full run of houses that used to line Howard Street (at the base of the hill) have been long demolished (though again, many foundations remain), so there aren’t even any people to visit. [But The Orbit will put in a pitch to visit Pittsburgh’s finest piece of public art while you’re there.]

Stenciled marker reading "371 Steps" for Rising Main Way, Pittsburgh, Pa.

371 Steps

I’ve dragged a lot of out-of-town guests up the steps–and some of them don’t let me forget it! But if I were visiting Pittsburgh for the first time, I’d take a step hike over a trip to the museum, or a ball game, or whatever it is that most people do when they travel. Take The Orbit‘s advice: corral your guests and get their whining-ass kiesters up the steps–they’ll thank you for it later.

View from the top of Rising Main city steps, Pittsburgh, Pa.

View from the top, Spring Hill in the distance

Step Beat: Romeo & Frazier

Street signs for Romeo and Frazier Street intersection, Pittsburgh, Pa.

In our automobile-oriented culture, we tend to think of streets as a means for car travel. In cities and towns, hopefully you’ll also get a sidewalk; in the suburbs or out in the country, not so much. If you’re lucky, the road might be striped for bicycles.

Pittsburgh has its own definition. A street is simply a public thoroughfare that may be any and all of these things, but it could also just be a pedestrian walkway, usually on a hillside. These are city steps, and we have a ton of them.

The intersection of Romeo and Frazier Streets, South Oakland, Pittsburgh, Pa.

The intersection of Romeo and Frazier Streets, South Oakland

Nowhere is that notion of walkways as public streets more perfect than the intersection of Romeo and Frazier Streets in South Oakland.  There, on a steep hillside, in a fen of trees, climbing vines, wildflowers, and thick weeds meet two terrific sets of well-maintained concrete city steps. Like any other crossroads worth its rock salt, this one comes complete with street signs and a streetlight.

The steps go way back. Back to a time before the automobile, the bus, or the trolley. They’re sometimes considered Pittsburgh’s first public transportation system as they were used extensively by workers to commute from residential neighborhoods up the hills to the factories and business districts below.

Frazier Street city steps, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Looking up Frazier Street from Bates

The steps don’t get anywhere near the traffic they once did. For one thing, most of those industrial areas and many of the business districts just don’t exist anymore (witness the steps leading from Troy Hill down to Route 28 or from Fineview down to 279–there’s nothing to walk down to). And then, of course, there are just a whole lot more ways to get around, and most people prefer them over the shoe leather express.

All that said, the city steps are an amazing resource. This blogger routinely drags his out-of-town visitors up to Fineview or the South Side Slopes or maybe the West End to get a full dose of up-and-down, nature-in-the-city, and a reliably terrific views from whichever ones we opt for. Some first-timers are agasp; others are just gasping for breath. Either way, you do enough of them and they’ll get you in shape right quick. Hopefully The Orbit will get back to all these spots at some point.

Romeo Street house accessible only by city steps

Romeo Street house accessible only by city steps

One great egg hunt of city step hikes is finding houses (or just the foundations) that are/were only accessible by the steps. On Romeo, there’s just one of these, right at the top of the steps. The house is a good 50 yards or so from the nearest paved road (also Romeo Street).

It must be a pain to move into a place like this or haul your groceries in the snow, but it sure is pretty and peaceful out there. From the Tibetan prayer flags and half-inflated balloon decoration to the snare drum and Oriental carpet on the porch, I’ll admit I was making some unsubstantiated judgements about these renters skipping a little rope. But hey, man, it’s all good. They’s just on the step beat.

Frazier Street city steps, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Looking down Frazier Street