Pittsburgh is a city like no other for many reasons, one of which is our terrain. Our hilly, and in some cases, mountainous peaks as well as our numerous creeks, streams, and three rivers have shaped our landscape and our culture. Our geography has resulted in more bridges than Venice, Italy, inclines to shuttle people up and down hillsides, a system of color-coded beltways for navigating our sometimes maze-like streets, and tunnels for transporting us through, what would otherwise be impassable mountains. We also have city steps.
History of Pittsburgh’s City Steps
Pittsburgh grew from the first settlement at Fort Duquesne and then Fort Pitt at the confluence of our three rivers known as The Point. As the population grew and the city expanded, residents headed for the hills surrounding the city, leaving the river banks, for the most part, to industrial use. With workers now living away from their places of employment, they needed a means of transportation to get them to their jobs. The least costly means of transportation has always been good old foot power. With our hills, those who wished to walk to work would either have to repel down the side of a mountain or develop a safer means of descent. To address that need, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the city began to build staircases all over the hillsides in the area.
Proliferation of Pittsburgh’s City Steps
Forget that stair climber you see on TV advertisements; Pittsburgh residents were the original stair climbers with the network of city steps scaling our hillsides becoming the primary way Pittsburghers commuted to work. Originally the city steps were built from wood and then later concrete. We had so many staircases traversing our hillsides that famed journalist Ernie Pyle described Pittsburgh in 1937 as looking as if:
“…it was laid out by a mountain goat. And then the steps. Oh Lord, the steps! I was told they actually had a Department of Steps in the city government. That isn’t exactly true although they do have an Inspector of Steps. But there are nearly 15 miles of city-owned steps in Pittsburgh, going up the mountainsides. The well-to-do people drive to work. The medium people go on street cars ‘inclines’–that’s what they call those cable cars. And the poor people walk up the steps.”
How Many City Steps Are There?
Though the city doesn’t have a Department of Steps, the miles of staircases in the city are overseen by the City of Pittsburgh Department of City Planning, and its website says that there are more than 700 staircases. Bob Regan, a retired geophysics professor, who wrote a book The Steps of Pittsburgh, says there were 45,545 city steps climbing our hills when he counted them in 1999. We have more steps than any other city in the United States, and the only reason we don’t hold the Guinness World Record title for the most city steps is that Guinness doesn’t have a category for that. Mr. Regan contends that if each of the city steps were collectively stacked, they would nearly reach the top of Mt. Everest.
The City Steps – A Pittsburgh Social Center
In addition to being a means of getting to and from work, the city steps also served as a meeting place. In years past, kids played on the steps, friends met there, and teens often hung out on them, stealing a kiss while sitting on the steps overlooking the city. Sadly, today some of the steps have become places where some less-than-desirable things occur. City of Pittsburgh police receive special training on how to navigate the steps while patrolling to keep them safe. It is believed that 66 of the city’s 88 neighborhoods have city steps.
The Condition of the City Steps
Today, many of the staircases are in disrepair with broken steps and railings and crumbling supports. In a 2014 Wall Street Journal article, Guy Costa, the city’s chief operations officer, estimated that the city now only has 675 public staircases, after losing some to deterioration. Repairing them is costly. “You have to get equipment to the site, and you have to pump concrete up a hill,” Costa said. While he knows they are a city attraction and offer magnificent views of the city, he says other city expenses are more vital. Costa says of this conundrum, “It’s tough, do you buy fire trucks or repair steps?”
The Popularity of Pittsburgh’s City Steps
More and more walkability is becoming a factor for people when considering where to purchase a home. City steps play an important role in maintaining that walkability for many neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. One such neighborhood enjoying a resurgence is the South Side Slopes. This area of the city also boasts the greatest concentration of city steps, more than any other neighborhood in the city. As such, it may also have more steps than any other neighborhood in the United States. Preserving Pittsburgh’s network of city steps is crucial to maintaining walkability, and the residents of the South Side Slopes know that full well. Since 2000, the South Side Slopes Neighborhood Association has been holding the annual StepTrek, a route through the area making use of all those steps. Along the way of this self-guided tour, trekkers take in breathtaking views of the city, learn some history, and get some exercise.
The Future of Pittsburgh’s City Steps
The city steps were once a practical solution to a transportation problem, but they have grown beyond that. While some still use Pittsburgh’s city steps as a means to get around, many people view them as a link to our past and one of our charming, uniquely Pittsburgh features that make this place so special to residents and visitors alike.
How You Can Help Maintain the City Steps
The city has an interactive map of all its staircases on its website for those who’d like to explore them further. In addition, the city is also enlisting help for assessing the status of those staircases. If you’d like to help preserve the city steps, visit the city’s website where you can find out how you can volunteer to help survey the condition of the steps. Learn more at: http://pittsburghpa.gov/dcp/steps.