Pittsburgh, observed newspaper columnist Ernie Pyle in 1937, "must have been laid out by a mountain goat. It's up and down, and around and around and in betwixt."
Laboring up a concrete staircase called 18th Street, I find myself wishing for hooves. They'd come in handy for climbing the city's oddest attraction. Instead of street signs, these hills should sport black diamond trail markers.
In Pittsburgh's South Side Slopes, the streets are made of steps -- hundreds of them.
(Christopher Rolinson For The Washington Post)
As I climb -- make that crawl, at this point -- I realize I should have brought a walking stick. And maybe a cardiologist. With nearly 700 steps just to the crest of the South Side Slopes neighborhood, the workout's extreme, but it's the views that are killer. San Francisco and Cincinnati brag about their trademark city steps, but they don't stack up to Pittsburgh. In this former steel town about 260 miles northwest of D.C., there are more than 300 legal streets that are actually staircases: no cars, no curbs, just steps.
In a city whose traditional street grids begin optimistically, but quickly encounter topographic adversity, most of its neighborhoods feature a few of these step streets. But the Slopes claim 68 staircases, making this slice of the city on the South Side feel like a European village: a blend of historic piety, cliffside houses and quiet corkscrewed streets.
"When I walk the steps, I always get the sense of the mill workers from years ago," local steps historian Bob Regan tells me. "They walked down in the morning and then, 12 hours later, they walked back up."
Now, 20 years after the steel mills closed, Pittsburgh's air is bright and its hillsides are lush. The mill workers are gone, but their families remain. The South Side has been described locally as having "both kinds of blue hair," from grandmas to punks. Tattoo parlors, sushi bars and rock clubs flank the elaborate old pharmacies and beauty parlors on Carson Street.
My afternoon of Slope-trekking equals a stroll up and down a 31-story building. I begin off Carson under a railroad bridge to a Pittsburgh soundtrack: Church bells toll on the hillside and a half-mile-long train whistles toward Cincinnati on the CSX line, whose tracks divide the riverside Flats neighborhood from the Slopes.
The side yards slump intimately against the step railings here, like old friends against a corner bar. I pass terraced gardens with staked tomato plants and morning glories, six-foot rose bushes and early Halloween decorations. Narrow wooden houses face the Monongahela River. A huge willow brushes my head as I emerge at a cross street carved horizontally across the hillside.
"The steps were the first mass-transit system Pittsburgh had," Bev Boggio tells me. The 39-year-old nurse lives in a century-old former bakery on skinny Pius Street, where I've paused for breath. Windows with religious statues and plastic flowers reflect stoops with brightly painted doors and planters. The steps, she says, are nestled in between homes. "You can almost reach out and touch a house wherever you are, so it's pretty safe."
Boggio walks the walk in preserving the steps. She's president of the group that sponsors an annual walking tour, StepTrek (held this year on Oct. 17); lobbied the city for smaller fire trucks (a 1998 fire burned three flanking houses because the larger pumpers couldn't turn onto the street); battles Japanese knotweed, an invasive plant that can damage city structures; and hops into ravines to fish out tires -- last spring, 180 of them. "Fortunately, tires roll," she says cheerfully, describing their route to the bottom of the steps.