The well-worn line is that Pittsburghers won’t cross a river to have a good time. Like most lines, that one misses more points than it touches, but it might hold true for the Ohio. The only East Enders I know who regularly spend time in the West End work at the one of the two library branches over there. I have no haunts in the West End. It’s so removed from my daily life that it might as well be a different city. Since it isn’t — since it’s Pittsburgh proper — Allison and I decided to visit. Our goal is to walk all twelve neighborhoods in the West End. We started with Elliott, a hilltop hamlet overlooking the Ohio River.
We picked up coffee and Better-Maid Donuts — including three decorated in black and yellow sprinkles (jimmies?) — and ate breakfast at the West End-Elliott Overlook. The Post-Gazette was forecasting that the Steelers-Jets game the next day might be the coldest home playoff game ever. I forgot gloves. Allison let me borrow an extra pair, but even so my fingertips turned white and waxy by the second donut.
The Overlook boasts what is undoubtedly the grandest view of Pittsburgh, honored as such by the street running along side it: Rue Grand Vue. The perch is so ideal that Pittsburgh, in all its glory, feels like a necessity: an entire glittering city built just to provide something worth viewing from that perfect spot.
Strange inversions of that sort pervade the West End. Coming from Squirrel Hill, Oakland and Bloomfield, I think of Pittsburgh as a city that converges to a point, but from the West End the idea is reversed: a line that splits the land into thirds. From the Overlook, Downtown sits straight ahead, its skyscrapers pushed toward Point State Park like a group of children trying to fit through a narrow doorway. To the left, the West End Bridge leads like a yellow rainbow over to the North Side, to the industrial flatlands of Chateau, the symmetrical street grid of Manchester and the stadiums of the North Shore. To the right, the warehouses lining the South Shore run toward Station Square. Off in the distance, behind Downtown, the east hills form a gentle horizon that ripples like a hand drawn line.
Then you turn around. Because Pittsburgh is so compact, the only boundary separating many public parks from the back yards surrounding them are lines drawn on a plat map. Just as it’s hard not to envy the families on Beechwood Boulevard that use Frick Park as a personal forest, it’s hard not to envy the homeowners on Rue Grand Vue who get to watch the sun rise over those eastern hills, illuminating the buildings and rivers. That’s another strange inversion: Having the best view means standing back from whatever you’re viewing. You can’t have the best view of yourself without holding up a mirror.
From the Overlook, we walked down Lorenz Avenue, the spine of the neighborhood, toward the business district along Chartiers Avenue, but we got sidetracked by a glimpse of old iron and stone at the top of Elkton Street. We climbed the hill and found St. Martins Cemetery at the top. Just past the gate, a hand painted statue of Jesus, his bare chest draped in snow and royal robes, one hand broken off, appeared at the crest of the hill, positioned perfectly so that he seemed to rise from the ground as we approached.
Being cold, and Saturday, Elliott was pretty quiet. A black lab on a tight leash barked at us, and a woman sweeping snow off her steps down the block said, “That dog’s crazy.” Of the few shops — Elliott’s Town Market, the Lorenz Cafe, Elliot’s Coin Op — only the florist appeared to be open. It was hard to picture the wild borough described in a 1904 article in the Pittsburgh Leader (courtesy West End Elliot Citizens Council): where Lorenz was a mud street and so was Chartiers (save a railcar), where half finished sewer and water lines meant that raw sewage pumped onto the ground and house fires required bucket brigades, where locals mined coal from narrow tunnels dug into their backyards and avoided the “doubtful, rickety boardwalks” running along River Hill, an earlier name for the Overlook.
Elliott is full of great sights, though. The rusted, flaking sign for the defunct Overlook Inn is bolted to a brick wall beside chalk graffiti declaring “West End Street Jam” and “Love Each Other.” Down the block, someone spray painted “No Copper” on a vacant building and a few doors father down someone hung up a plastic Steelers tablecloth as curtains.
We turned left on Chartiers and followed a staircase up to Thaddeus Stevens Elementary School, named for a public schools advocate and anti-slavery Congressman who lead the effort to impeach Andrew Johnson. The original school was built in 1894, just a quarter century after its namesake died, but burned down in the 1930s and was rebuilt on Crucible Street in 1940. The school projects the stoic idealism of the New Deal: various reliefs embedded in the brick front showcase grand symbols: owls, planets, a girl holding flowers, a loin-clothed Adonis standing among wheat stalks.
The Pittsburgh Leader article ends by noting that despite the unpaved streets and simple homes and “lack of progressiveness,” Elliott offers “many scenes of rustic beauty.”
“Green-clad hills, little lanes hung with trees, paths, shrubbery and neat, pretty houses form pictures not to be seen in districts where paved streets and other evidences of civilization are not to be found.”
Those assets still exist in Elliott, (along with parks and paved streets, nice houses and other evidences of civilization). Like so many other interesting corners of Pittsburgh, Elliot embodies the two contradictory meanings of the word overlook: to miss something worth seeing, and to catch everything in sight.
For more pictures, visit the Pedestrian Pittsburgh Tumblr blog.