Pittsburgh: Will tourists find charm in historic steps?

Posted: Sunday, April 18, 2004

PITTSBURGH Bob Regan is out to save part of Pittsburgh's history one step at a time.

Not long after moving here from Boston 12 years ago, Regan was smitten by the sight of the hundreds of stairways and thousands of steps linking one hilly street level to another.

"They're history," said Regan, a visiting professor at the University of Pittsburgh, specializing in geographic information systems. "I can't help but walk some of them and picture steelworkers schlepping the steps" long ago.

More than half of these pedestrian thoroughfares are legal streets and show up on maps as such, confounding many a motorist in this jumble of hills, valleys and bridges that could have served as an inspiration for artist M.C. Escher.

Regan calls the steps the city's first mass transportation system. They enabled laborers to travel between now-defunct steel mills along the rivers and their homes along the steep hillsides, which rise as high as 370 feet above downtown.

Regan first began paying attention to the steps on morning bike rides. His real inspiration came one day when he looked up and saw what looked like a hillside column illuminated by streetlights. The "column" was actually a stairway.

He took it as a sign.

"So I went home and woke my wife and said, 'I'm taking two or three months off to map the steps.' And that's what I did," Regan said.

"The Steps of Pittsburgh: Portrait of a City," with photographer Tim Fabian, was published earlier this month.

"I bicycled the whole city, looking for steps," Regan said.

He documented 712 sets of mostly concrete steps containing 44,645 treads within the city's borders. If stacked, they would extend 4 1/2 miles. And Regan has climbed them all. Municipalities sharing the city's border also have steps.

"My whole goal right now is to publicize the steps. The more publicity they get, the better the chances for their preservation," he said.

Many steps are old most around today were built between 1925 and 1945 and are deteriorating. Still, Regan commends the city public works department for what maintenance has been done, even as the city has faced continuing budget problems. He's donated his research to the city.

"There's a lot of maintenance not only in winter with snow and ice control, but in the summer with weed control and litter," said Guy Costa, the city's public works director.

Last year, the city spent $250,000 on maintenance and repair of the steps, Costa said. In past years, the figure has been much higher and this year for the first time Costa is aware the city budgeted no money for step maintenance, though crews will do minor repairs.

Pittsburgh is better known for another mode of hillside transportation: its two surviving funiculars, or "inclines" as they are known locally, inclined railways that provide sightseers spectacular views of the downtown.

Fabian, a Pittsburgh resident, admitted he never really noticed the steps, which are in two-thirds of the city's 90 neighborhoods.

Now, he says, "I see steps everywhere."

Fabian specializes in pan-oramic photography in which typically the top and bottom of a photo appears cropped, giving a wide horizontal view. Fabian turned the camera a plastic Ansco Pix Panorama purchased for $2 at a flea market 90 degrees to focus on the steps' vertical nature.

"As a photographer, this is a real opportunity for me to photograph a way of life," he said.

For some, steps are a way of work.

Gene Belton, 49, is a UPS delivery man whose route includes a number of steps.

"I like the view," he said. Jim Brynda, 52, works in the city's South Side neighborhood (elevation, 350 feet) and spends most lunch hours walking the steps for exercise.

Though the steps he walks afford a stunning view from an angle probably not seen by many tourists, Brynda said he doesn't pay that much attention, instead focusing on his exercise.

"Most of the time, I just keep going. I'm familiar with the view," he said.

Regan believes the steps, if marketed by the city, could be a tourist draw. Some neighborhood associations have step walks, but the city has been, well, a step behind.

"I think it has a lot of potential, but we haven't done a lot with it yet," Laura Ellis, a spokesperson for the Greater Pittsburgh Convention and Visitors Bureau.

But reading Regan's book, she said, has made her consider what can be done with the steps.

"I think Pittsburghers take a lot of wonderful things for granted," such as its rivers, scenic views and architecture. "You tend not to see the things that are right in front of you."

A small Pittsburgh publisher, The Local History Company, put out Regan's book.

"Both my partner and I love quirkiness and we love cities, so that was a very wonderful combination," said Cheryl Towers, co-owner and editor. "We knew about the steps, but we had no idea how unusual that was in terms of other cities."

(Pittsburgh has more than double the number of hillside stairways as San Francisco, according to Regan's count.)

Towers, who moved to Pittsburgh from New York in 1981, said she noticed the steps right away. She even found herself trying to get somewhere in her car, only to be confronted with steps instead of a road.

"But if you're a Pittsburgher, it's just part of the fabric of life."

If You Go...

THE BOOK: "The Steps of Pittsburgh: Portrait of a City," by Bob Regan (Local History Co., $21.95). Visit www.thelocalhistorycompany.com for more information.

THE STEPS: There are 712 staircases totaling 4 1/2 miles scattered around hilly Pittsburgh. While many are in older working-class neighborhoods where tourists might not otherwise find something of interest, those that provide some great views include:

Mission Street steps from Oakley Way to Barry Street on the South Side provide a spectacular view of the South Side and downtown

Middle Street off East North Avenue on the North Side offers another good view of downtown and was the location for the book's cover photo

Downing Street steps off Herron Avenue in Polish Hill offer a view of downtown from the east

Top of Yard Way off St. Pius St. on the South Side provide a spectacular view of the South Side and downtown

FACTS ABOUT THE STEPS: 712 sets of steps; 44,645 treads; 24,090 feet of steps; found in 66 of the city's 90 neighborhoods; longest flight has 378 treads

OTHER PITTSBURGH ATTRACTIONS: Andy Warhol Museum, Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, Pittsburgh Zoo, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Carnegie Science Center, Children's Museum of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Museum of Art. For help in planning a trip to Pittsburgh, visit www.pittsburgh-cvb.org/ or call (877) LOVE-PGH.

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