Pedestrian Pittsburgh: Behind Backyards

Because Grand View Scenic Byway Park rings three sides of Mt. Washington, its outer edge is essentially a cliff, or at least a steep slope, falling toward Carson Street on one side and Saw Mill Run Blvd on the other two sides. That slope makes Mt. Washington Mt. Washington: a hidden enclave for five percent of the population and a tremendous view for the other ninety-five percent. Pittsburgh’s hills give the city its peculiar mystery, that sense of knowing how to get somewhere without knowing where, exactly, that somewhere is, and Mt. Washington is no exception. Getting to it is easy. By car, the most common route is the P.J. McArdle Roadway, inspiration for the famous bumper sticker This Car Climbed Mt. Washington. On foot, the most common route is on one of the two inclines that plod up the hillside in a slow theatrical slog that is inherently Pittsburghian.

One of the benefits of walking, though, is access. While some places are logistically difficult to get to on foot, few are out and out impossible to reach, as they can be on bike and usually are in a car. So Allison and I forewent a formal tour of the park itself and instead just walked straight down the slope, from Bailey Avenue to Arlington Avenue.

We rode the bottom car of the Monongahela Incline up from Carson in the company of young parents trying to convince their toddler to appreciate the view. A Port Authority employee at the top made sure all the passengers deposited the correct change into a fare slot (presumably insufficient funds merely prompts a free ride down the incline as well) before pointing politely to Grandview Avenue just outside. We followed Wyoming to Bailey, passing a backyard chicken coop and a church and an Italian restaurant and houses from maybe four different decades and I realized the answer to a question that long bothered me: why Roy Blount Jr. chose to live on Mt. Washington — in the apartment building that once housed Christopher’s and now houses the Monterey Bay Fish Grotto — for his year in Pittsburgh. In my East End-centric view of the Universe, Mt. Washington is a destination, a place to take visitors. To an out-of-town reporter studying a map, though, it would be an obvious choice for a temporary home: an easy way to see everything at once. (For comparison, it’s worth noting that hometown hero Myron Cope spent his print journalism days in the 1950s working from a home office in Shadyside.)

Grandview is the fifth largest park in the city. As a Beatle, it would be Stuart Sutcliffe, impressive and overlooked. (To complete the analogy: Frick Park is John, Schenley Park is Paul, Highland Park is George and Riverview Park — or perhaps Three Rivers Park — is Ringo.) Grandview goes from being a traditional photo spot to a rugged forest in less than an eighth of a mile. We followed a trail zigzagging down the mountainside in a series of unmarked switchbacks until it disappeared, and kept heading downward. Despite the overgrowth, we spotted signs of human presence. There was a giant boulder, its nooks burned out from wanderers hosting campfires, and many rusted artifacts dropped decades earlier: pull-tab beer cans, a bike frame, bed springs. Without warning, the park became backyards, the backyards of those tiny houses visible on the hillside from Downtown and the Smithfield Street Bridge. We followed the property lines until we hit a short but sheer drop and fell one-by-one onto the shoulder of Arlington. Traffic zipped up to Allenton and down to the South Side. The downtown skyscrapers appeared up ahead. In the woods just a hundred feet back, though, skyscrapers were inconceivable.

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2 Responses to Pedestrian Pittsburgh: Behind Backyards

  1. Megan says:

    You were very near to that strange abandoned overpass-to-nowhere thing that Joel and I found in the fall.

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