By Paul Ruggiero
To really know a place, you have to walk it.
And in Pittsburgh’s Southside Slopes, you’ll take the stairs, the same sixty-eight sets of stairs that have for decades connected these hillside communities to the business and industrial districts along the Monongahela River. Today, instead of going to work at industrial sites, the neighborhood’s young residents go to work in the restaurants, shops, and clubs of the South Side Flats. As you make your way to the South Side Flats, stroll through one of the local parks, which take up nearly half the neighborhood. But the city’s never far away—around every tree and quirky home clinging to the mountainside, you’ll find stunning views of downtown Pittsburgh.
At the bottom of the stairs, hop a bus across the Hot Metal Bridge, through Oakland, and across the Bloomfield Bridge. Get off when you reach Liberty Avenue and walk down the path by the lumber yard to a park huddled beneath the bridge. On a summer day you’ll hear bouncing basketballs and clacking bocce balls. While you’re puzzling over the gap-toothed sign on the abandoned Bloomfield Recreation Center, you might catch some spray from swimmers in the adjacent pool. Nearby, spray-paint coats the bridge supports by the renovated baseball field. Not even the plaque dedicated to lifelong neighborhood resident and fallen police officer Paul Sciullo has been spared. Yet you’ll find all kinds of folks from the tightly-knit community of Bloomfield here, pumping life into their neighborhood’s infinite heart.
Spice of Life
Take the long walk from there to the neighborhood of East Liberty to discover the past, present, and future of one of Pittsburgh’s most vibrant cultural centers. Across Penn Avenue from the massive East Liberty Presbyterian Church, admire the elaborate façade of the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, a reminder of East Liberty’s entertainment and commerce glory days, and head in for live music, dance, and theatre performances. More than half a century ago, you’d have heard live jazz from every corner. After a decades-long decline of vanishing businesses and rotting buildings, East Liberty is now on a decidedly different path. Once again you can hear live music pumping out of popular nightspots. Turn right around the church at Highland Avenue, and you’ll smell food from the Caribbean to Ethiopia. Walk down Centre Avenue and find shops, cafes, bars, and groceries. Come back in a few years, and you’ll see new condos and shops inside the now-abandoned East Liberty YMCA.
But walk east on Broad Street into empty, weedy lots and it’s clear East Liberty’s renaissance hasn’t reached Larimer, not yet at least. Station Street Hot Dogspersonifies the neighborhood’s struggles, having been closed, relocated, and reopened several times since 1915. Be sure to grab a ketchup-and-mustard classic or tabbouleh dog. And imagine, as does a group of Larimer residents, what other life could fill the nearby vacant lots.
Under the Bridge
Fortified by French fries, head north toward the Highland Park Zoo and PPG Aquarium, Children’s Hospital, and Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Engineering Center. To reach the casino, museums, and sports complexes of the North Shore, you could go up Butler Street to the 62nd Street Bridge, though the intersection’s light industry, crowded rowhouses, cell phone towers, and billboards don’t make for a very grand crossing.
You’ll find a more impressive view of the Golden Triangle from the West End Bridge. Catch the Allegheny Riverfront trail below the bridge and trek east toward the North Shore attractions. You’ll be passing the many commuters who walk or bike downtown, despite the trail’s weeds and poor conditions.
In the industrial Lawrenceville stretch of trail on the south side of the Allegheny, you’ll find a gem of a park beneath the south end of the 40th Street Bridge, officially the Washington Crossing Bridge. Fromthe park, the underside of the bridge looks like the sky-blue ceiling of a cathedral dedicated to engineering. Follow the narrow trail around the bridge support to a scenic view over the river. You might think it a shame that the park gets so few visitors.
Empty Stores, Full Hopes
Cross the 40th Street Bridge to the borough of Millvale, home to about 3,700 residents, roughly half the population of the 1940s steel boom. The patina of small-town America hasn’t worn well in the community’s business district. Many storefronts feature empty windows. Yet you can tour murals by Croatian-American artist Maxo Vanka, browse tiny art galleries, and sample French pastries. Stop in the drugstore diner on the corner of North and Lincoln Avenues for First Lady Michelle Obama’s favorite pancakes. And listen for guitars thundering from the church on Lincoln, which has been converted to one of the best rock music venues and recording facilities in the region.
If you drove past that church, you might never know what goes on inside. But Millvale is like Larimer, East Liberty, Bloomfield, the Southside Slopes, and the roads, bridges, and trails of the city: if you give those places your feet, eyes, ears, and even nose, they will, in return, show you their hearts.