An article on Pittsburgh in the Oct. 3 Travel section gave an incorrect name for a church in the South Side Slopes neighborhood. It is St. Josaphat, not St. Jehosaphat's. Also, a map with the article incorrectly located the South Side Slopes neighborhood. It is on the south side of Carson Street, not the north. (Published 10/5/04)
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.
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.
Rolling downhill is a solution I mentally file for my descent. I've already climbed close to 100 vertical feet, and my reward is an over-the-treetops view of Pittsburgh's downtown, framed by the spire of former St. Michael's church, now heavenly condominiums.
From here, the city looks like a life-size version of a 1950s train set, whirring with action. Little cable cars race hawks down the green bluffs, river barges chug past the confluence, railroads trundle busily around the mountains, and cars beetle over bridges. I count a dozen churches below, from onion domes to towers -- a separate-but-equal ethnic approach to God.
St. Michael's was the German church of the Slopes (the Poles went down the street -- er, the steps -- to St. Jehosaphat's) and the site of a local miracle. When an 1849 cholera epidemic decimated the neighborhood, the church ran out of burial plots. The desperate faithful pledged to St. Roch that they would keep a holy day if the parish could be spared. The plague ceased; a recurrence four years later bypassed the hillside, too.
Devout memories hover around the neighborhood, from the saints' names on street signs to the community theater group. The Veronica's Veil Players, celebrating their 85th season on Pius Street, got their start enacting a version of the Oberammergau passion play. Dozens of local amateurs reprise it each Lent, allowing the group to claim it's the longest-running play in American theater. (They fast-forward to Neil Simon-style comedies through the winter.)
I'm grateful for Pius's flat sidewalk as I search for Yard Way, the city's longest step-street. The first few flights up are all I can see: This stairway to Heaven climbs 317 steps, to St. Paul's of the Cross Monastery and Church. Its single bell rings each hour, sounding louder with each riser. A syncopated thunk punctuates the bell-tolling as I reach Huron Street and turn off the steps to investigate. I find Winters Playground, whose fence prevents kids from accidentally skydiving down the green bluff below. A teenager in Steeler black and gold drives down the court, seeming to leap over the skyline for a basket.
The Romanesque St. Paul's is another 19th-century Bohemian relic, its side chapel glittering with garnet votives. It's an ideal spot to rest before I head down Billy Buck Hill -- the name reminds me of Pyle's mountain-goat theory -- to the Flats below.
My quadriceps quiver as I descend, and I break into a sort of bounding nanny-goat gait to relax. Two burgers are sizzling unattended on a backyard grill about an inch from the railing. I briefly wish for a fork. But as I pass back over the railroad tracks, I find sustenance at Mabel Meyers's tiny grocery on Bradish Street.
Clad in a University of Pittsburgh sweatshirt and black sneakers, 84-year-old Meyers welcomes strangers as well as locals (evidently dogs are regulars too; a pair gets a big hello as they drag their young owner through the door). After 1,400 steps, I'd pay almost anything for a soda. But Meyers won't hear of it. "Let me treat you!" she says.
We compromise. I offer her 50 cents and she gives me a soda, a plastic chair next to the candy counter and her autobiography.
After World War II, when she and her husband bought the 1889-era shop, business was good. Their grocery was next to the lower station of the Knoxville Incline, one of the cable car lines that carried passengers and even horse-drawn wagons uphill till 11 at night. (Two, the Monongahela and Duquesne, survive). Incline passengers would wave to her children as the car rose uphill.
"My son Herbie always says, 'We lived history,' " she says. The incline shut in 1960; Meyers started closing shop earlier and earlier, but still spends her days selling soft pretzels and snacks.
"Even if I don't make money, I talk to people," she says with satisfaction. "I've got a very good life here. Where else could you live that's so convenient?"
Christine O'Toole last wrote for Travel on holiday festivities in Prague.