North Winebiddle is the steepest street in the East End, a 22 percent grade from Penn to Hillcrest. To aide pedestrians, a loping staircase runs parallel to the street. Its design is common to Pittsburgh: long flat stretches interrupting an upward crawl of steps.
Pittsburgh unfolds in stages from each of those plateaus: the Allegheny Cemetery tower, the Cathedral of Learning, the Hill District and then Downtown behind it, the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Polish Hill, the yellow bridges reaching across the Allegheny River, the twin steeples of Saint Paul Cathedral and the rotunda of Hamerschlag Hall in Oakland, and, from the top, the leafy hillside of Arlington Heights.
Seen from Penn, North Winebiddle is an unassuming hill, but from the top the view is magnificent. While I ruminated, Allison photographed Fort Pitt Elementary School.
A man came out of a ranch house and asked what I was doing. I told him I was photographing the view. He asked to see some ID. I refused. He asked again and I refused again. “Do I have to get my badge and my gun and my handcuffs?” he asked. I told him he did not. In short order, he pinned to a tree. He was a pretty big guy. My heart started racing, but then I saw my face reflected just inches away in his mirrored sunglasses and I calmed down some. It’s distracting to witness your emotional state at close range.
He said he worked for the County. I asked to see his badge. He refused. He asked to see some ID again, and, after doing the math, his build against mine, I abandoned my principled stand and relented. He stared at my driver’s license for a long time, as though it might reveal something blatantly incriminating. “What are you doing here?” he asked.
I explained the concept of the website as best I could, given the circumstances.
“You can’t take pictures on a man’s property without asking first,” he said.
“Is this your property?” I asked. I was standing on the sidewalk, beyond his fence.
“Yes,” he said.
I stuck my toe into the street. “Is this?” I asked. (In my defense, I meant the question genuinely, but the second it came out of my mouth I realized how smart-alecky it sounded. I’ve since checked the County assessment database; I wasn’t on his property.)
We went back and forth for a while. He kept asking why I was taking pictures. I kept finding it difficult to explain the concept of this website while pinned to a tree.
“For money?” he asked. No. “For graduate school?” No.
“It’s just a personal project,” I said. “It’s called Pedestrian Pittsburgh.” The name never sounded dumber to me than it did in that moment, and internally I hoped I wouldn’t be forced to explain the double meaning. I wasn’t. He gave me back my driver’s license.
“When someone asks you a question, you better have an answer,” he said.
Mostly I disagree with that, but I kept my mouth shut and finally he let me go. We hurried back down the steps. Pittsburgh gradually disappeared behind its hills and from where we sat on Penn to debrief, his house couldn’t be seen through the trees.
Even though it was a frustrating encounter, I’m glad it happened. Being shaken every so often keeps your outlook from settling, and in the ongoing attempt to make sense of something complex, disturbances and stillness should be considered in equal measure.
For photographs and video (of the stairs, at least) check out Allison’s Tumblr.