Peculiar Pittsburgh

Climb into Pittsburgh history this summer on a ‘Stair Stepping and Cider Sipping’ tour

Pittsburgh is home to more public staircases than any other city in America.

Lawndale Street in Homewood North, with 90 steps built in 1949.

Lawndale Street in Homewood North, with 90 steps built in 1949.

Courtesy of Laura Zurowski
Rossilynne Culgan

Pittsburgh is home to more than 700 sets of public outdoor staircases, some still used, others long neglected — and you can explore some of Spring Garden’s steps with local history buffs this summer.

Led by Laura Zurowski, founder of “Mis.Steps: Our Missed Connections with Pittsburgh’s City Steps,” and Meredith Meyer Grelli, co-owner of Threadbare Cider & Mead, the Sunday morning Stair Stepping & Cider Sipping events are part fitness trek, part history tour, and part booze tasting.

The event begins with a history of the neighborhood and 40-minute stroll along sets of stairs in Spring Garden. It then transitions to a mini-tour at the ciderhouse, which includes some more Pennsylvania history and cider samples. Afterward, you’re welcome to stick around for brunch (and more cider) for purchase.

For Spring Garden residents (and Pittsburghers, in general), stairs served as an important means of transit in the early 20th century, but now that people use cars to commute, some of Pittsburgh’s stairs sit neglected, while others are still accessible.

“Pittsburgh has changed so much since these stairs were built. It was such a part of the daily infrastructure, the daily way of life,” Zurowski said.

Inglenook Place in East Hills with 201 steps built in 1944.

Inglenook Place in East Hills with 201 steps built in 1944.

Courtesy of Laura Zurowski

Zurowski — an artist, editor and writer who moved to Pittsburgh five years ago — realized last summer that she wanted to get to the know the city better, and she thought Pittsburgh’s staircases would make a perfect map. Mis.steps was born, using Bob Regan’s book Pittsburgh Steps as a guide. Over the next four years, she intends to visit every single staircase, snapping a Polaroid Spectra photo and writing a short piece of creative nonfiction inspired by each one.

When Grelli heard about the project, she contacted Zurowski to see if they could collaborate.

“We have so many dramatic stairways in Spring Garden-Troy Hill because it’s a valley community,” Grelli said. “[They] have amazing views of Downtown.”

Together, they dreamed up the Stair Stepping & Cider Sipping program and promoted it this spring. It sold out almost immediately, so they added a tour each month. Capped at 25 people, tours take slightly different routes, enticing repeat customers. The walks accommodate a range of physical abilities and incorporate exercise without being too challenging, Grelli said.

“[Zurowski] does a really beautiful job pointing out interesting things — stairs that go to nowhere now but once went to houses,” Grelli said. “There’s one that I call the Fallingwater of stairs — this enormous four-story staircase that’s cantilevered over a hillside.”

A group on a recent ‘Stair Stepping and Cider Sipping’ tour.

A group on a recent ‘Stair Stepping and Cider Sipping’ tour.

Photo by Ben FIlio / Courtesy of Threadbare Cider & Mead

Zurowski’s work serves partially as a documentary effort, a means to etch this history on the record before it’s gone. It’s also, in part, a call to action for fellow Pittsburghers to get outside and explore their town — as she puts it, to “forge a greater connection between individuals and the land.”

Perhaps, even bigger than that, she hopes the project will encourage Pittsburghers to care for the steps in their neighborhood. She stresses that her work isn’t a political statement aimed at trying to make the city fix steps in places where people don’t live anymore.

The city is currently working on a citywide steps survey “to prioritize these investments” in repairs. It’s a massive undertaking because Pittsburgh has more public staircases than any other city in the United States — more than 45,000 individual steps, according to the Pittsburgh City Steps website. A full report is expected in June, per the South Pittsburgh Reporter.

“It’s a resource that’s very uniquely Pittsburgh, and I think deserves celebration,” Grelli said. “And it’s also a resource that, of course, does not have the funding it needs.”

The excursion’s cost — $12 — includes the tour and a cider flight, with proceeds supporting Zurowski’s project. It does not directly cover step repairs.

Zurowski knows that by the time she finishes the Mis.steps project, some of the stairs she documented will have caved in, broken apart or fallen off a hillside.

“So many of them are languishing because our world has changed,” she said. “Every time I’m out there … it’s like the land that time forgot. It’s the Pittsburgh that’s not here anymore.”

Stair step and cider sip

Tour Spring Garden's paper streets, hidden by-ways, and stairs on foot with two tour guides. Walkers are encouraged to bring cameras, sketch pads and journals to capture the adventure.

Where: Threadbare Cider and Mead at 1291 Spring Garden Ave. (Spring Garden)

When: September 9, 2018 from 11:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

How much: $12

Want some more? Explore other Peculiar Pittsburgh stories.

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