The Cathedral Map I: Getting Started

This morning I started a project I’ve been wanting to take on for a while: using the Cathedral of Learning to map Pittsburgh. The idea is to make a map of Pittsburgh showing all the places where you can see the Cathedral of Learning in the distance, and all the places where you can’t see it in the distance.

Why? For a couple of reasons.

The genesis of this idea came about seven years ago, when I was a student at the Pitt. I saw an exhibit called “One A Day: 365 Views of the Cathedral of Learning, 1997-1999” in Alumni Hall by a painter named Felix de la Concha. He spent two years in Pittsburgh and painted the Cathedral of Learning from a different viewpoint on each calendar day. It took him a couple of years to complete because of Visa issues. (It’s just a coincidence that the link I found for the exhibit proposes the idea of the Cathedral view blog. Great minds!)

A few years later, I was driving to the city after a day in the South Hills when I got disoriented. Suddenly, the Cathedral popped up in the distance and I knew where I was headed. It’s easy to get lost in Pittsburgh, and the Cathedral is the most useful landmark in the city (or at least the East End and the Southside) for getting found again: it’s a tall building on relatively high ground in the geographic center of the city.

Some time after that, I read a New Yorker Talk of the Town piece about a man who walked down every street in Manhattan (or maybe all five boroughs, I haven’t been able to find a link to the article). He carried a little map and marked off each street as he walked down it. That stuck with me. I liked the idea of methodically tackling a whole city. It’s not possible in many cities, but it’s very possible in Pittsburgh.

The final shove, though, came yesterday, on my morning run. I noticed how the Cathedral appears and disappears not just block-by-block, but even within some blocks, depending on the size of houses and buildings. So I decided to take on the challenge of making a map showing everywhere it could be seen.

One of my long-standing hesitations with taking on this project was that I knew there would be false starts, many of them, despite good planning. Today was definitely a false start in several ways.

First, I decided to use the Bike Pittsburgh map for the actual expeditions and later transfer the information onto something more visually appropriate. What I found, though, is that the Bike Pittsburgh is too small to accurately show how the Cathedral appears and disappears on one street. (For instance, in the map above, it’s hard to tell that the Cathedral disappears on Gross Street between Corday Way and Mend Way.) So on my next excursion, I’m going to print out the city maps. Eventually, I’ll stitch them all together, pretty-like.

Second, I forgot to bring a camera. The most interesting thing project about this isn’t the raw data, but the actual views: playful, strange, majestic. My favorite sight today, which I plan to go back and document when I take my next stab at this, was when the Cathedral appeared for just a few yards of Harriet Street, seen through the side porch of a house, and then immediately hid behind the other houses on the block.

Third, I forgot gloves. I usually don’t wear gloves in winter unless I’m doing something outdoorsy, but using the map my thumbnails got that painful feeling they get when they’re exposed to the cold for too long.

Fourth, I need to plan my routes for each expedition in advance to minimize the amount of doubling back.

So that’s a number of challenges — big and small — that need to be addressed going forward.

I did have a nice moment today, though, the kind that justifies a project of this scale. Just as I left my house, I ran into a man name Paul. He had a salt and pepper beard and was wearing tartan pajama bottoms and walking a toy poodle. “Are you mapping the city because you’re new to the area?” he asked.

“No,” I said, and I told him about the project.

“Are you a student?” he asked.

“No. This is just something I’ve wanted to do for a while.”

On my way home, I ran into him again. He said he was asking questions because he used to make similar maps when he was a student at CMU. Now, he works in admissions at Duquesne University. He used to work in institutional advancement at Pitt and CMU, making mathematical models to determine how each school could best compete in the marketplace (which, in Pittsburgh, is very competitive and very crowded).

So already, on day one, I’ve seen some interesting sights and met some interesting people. Onward!

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