Anna J. Cawrse, a landscape designer at the Design Workshop in Denver, visited Pittsburgh last fall in part to participate in the annual Step Trek event in which people traverse the public steps of the South Side Slopes. This year is it Oct. 5. Find out how to sign up and trek here.
During her studies at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, she had taken a class called "Shrinking Landscapes." Each student was assigned to choose for study a city that had done the post-industrial swoon.
“I selected Pittsburgh, not by chance but from the persuasion of a very passionate University of Pittsburgh alum,” she wrote in a piece she titled “Paper Streets of Pittsburgh.” “She was the first person to introduce me to the innovation and resilience of this adaptive city.”
Part of the assignment was to create a guide or game “that reveals a less-known aspect of the city,” she wrote. “As my research of Pittsburgh progressed, so did my appreciation of the city. I applied [for] and was awarded the Penny White grant at Harvard to come to Pittsburgh, walk the steps, and visit with the South Side Slopes Association.”
Pittsburgh has 712 sets of public steps, more than any other city in the country. Cincinnati is the next closest with 400. San Francisco, with 168, rounds out the top three.
“My final project for the Shrinking Landscapes class was a map highlighting all of the steps of Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods and a set of collector cards for each staircase. Together the map and collector cards recast the steps dealing with the steep slopes as a challenging game. If a partaker climbed all of the steps in Pittsburgh, they would have nearly climbed Mt. Everest.
“It was through this class and assignment that I immediately realized that Pittsburgh is taking on a new identity. This tough, industrial and sports-crazed town is being looked to for its repurposing and adaptive attitude. Yes, Pittsburgh is considered one of America’s shrinking cities, and yes, Pittsburgh is still climbing out of that time, but it is creating a strong community that embraces its past while transforming for its future.
“The South Side Slopes Neighborhood Association is a prime example of a group that is dedicated to preserving these pieces of historic infrastructure for future generations. Their mission goes beyond maintenance to focus on the community that is directly linked by the steps and to create awareness of this unique feature for the rest of Pittsburgh. They host events throughout the year that range from cleaning up parks, removing invasive weeds, creating community gardens, lighting the stairs and their main event, Step Trek. This event takes participants on varying routes of difficulty throughout the neighborhood via several different sets of South Side steps.
“Two friends joined me for Step Trek last year. Even though both had lived in Pittsburgh for years, this was the first time they had heard of and participated in the Step Trek. I was struck by how many times they said ‘I had no idea this was here’ as we walked up and down the stairs.”
photo by Anna Cawrse