Pedestrian Pittsburgh: The Department of Stairs

Stanton Avenue runs along the back of the East End like a zipper up the back of an evening gown (on a woman in repose) hiding some things worth hiding and some things worth seeing. We walked it from end to end on St. Patrick’s Day observed because a sunny break in a week of late season snow begged for a long scenic jaunt through the hilliest, windiest, loveliest, loneliest city in America. Over its twisting three-plus miles, Stanton Avenue touches five neighborhoods, starting at the Highland Park Tennis Courts and riding the flat border of Highland Park and East Liberty before flashing past Morningside on its way up to Stanton Heights and then tumbling down a long snaking slope into Upper Lawrenceville. The road is presumably named for Edwin Stanton, the Pittsburgh lawyer and cabinet member in various administrations who, at the deathbed of Abraham Lincoln, coined the famous phrase, “Now, he belongs to the ages.”

Stanton Avenue offers some great views. From its start, you can see the jagged steeple of East Liberty Presbyterian Church, sunlight streaming through two sides of the rhombus-shaped Highland Building and the Cathedral of Learning farther off in Oakland. Even on its initial stretch through the flat residential streets of Highland Park, houses rise up behind the houses on hidden hills. Just past the Stanton-Negley Drug Co. and the Union Project, the road turns sharply as it climbs the edge of Morningside, turning the long blocks below into a patchwork of beige and gray and leafy rooftops. Off beyond, the mansard roofs of Baywood and the long flat reservoirs appear through the trees. As Stanton slowly tumbles downhill, vistas appear in the gaps between houses, strung together like pearls: the downtown skyline from behind, glimpses of the Hill District and, across the Allegheny River, Etna, Millvale and traffic zipping toward along Rt. 28.

Under a bright blue sky choked by swift clouds, Allison said Pittsburgh felt like home to her because “it matches what I believe is important in life and will always give me something in return.” We passed a church sign that read, “God wants spiritual fruits, not religious nuts” just as two Mormon missionaries asked for a moment of our time. We said no, and as they passed I thought about how hard it would be to leave home the way they did (or to be more at home in an idea than in a place). We passed Engine House No. 7 and saw the three yellow ribbons taped to a flagpole out front that memorialize the three Pittsburgh police officers killed in a Stanton Heights shootout almost two years ago.

Stanton Heights has always kept to itself. The neighborhood started out as a playground for the Croghans that became a golf course and then a suburb inside the city limits, like Greenfield if Greenfield didn’t have a Giant Eagle. On the day we walked through, the neighborhood seemed quiet and a bit raggedy, the sidewalks torn up as they pass out-of-season urban gardens, a de facto dump and the backside of the cemetery. But the views! Where there are hills there are stairs, and we found an epic set connecting Upview Terrace to McCandless Street and another zigzagging into Upper Lawrenceville. In the Pittsburgh of my imagination, a Department of Stairs works out of a corner office on the top floor of the City County Building. Up there, undersecretaries in the Division of Unstaired Hills study topographical maps for potential candidates and members of the Stair Restoration Committee rush out on emergency calls to aide stranded citizens. Meanwhile, out in the field, the Director of the Top Step Scenic Authority chugs alone from one hill to the next, holding a picture frame at arms length, trying to decide just how high is high enough.

Check out more photos from Allison.

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3 Responses to Pedestrian Pittsburgh: The Department of Stairs

  1. Corey says:

    This was my favorite so far.

  2. sadie says:

    did you know pedestrian comes from the latin word pedem? it means feet! i learned that in class..!

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