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City of stairways may lose some of its character

By Tony LaRussa
Saturday, March 26, 2005

Efforts are under way to prevent the network of 737 public staircases linking Pittsburgh’s hilltop neighborhoods to the ground from becoming a casualty of the city’s financial crisis.

Pittsburgh’s staircases — the most of any city in the nation, even more than hilly San Francisco — were built in an era when automobiles were fewer and residents, especially mill and factory workers, needed a way to navigate the steep terrain. The staircases have 44,770 steps; the longest staircase, at 378 steps, runs along the “paper” street Ray Avenue in Brookline, linking West Liberty and Pioneer avenues.

About 18 of the city’s staircases have been closed off because they are in bad shape, according to the city’s Department of Public Works. Maintenance also has been abandoned on about a quarter of the steps that have not been closed off.

“Maintenance on the steps — removing snow, spreading salt and clearing debris and brush — is very labor intensive,” said Mike Gable, deputy director of public works. “We’re just not able to get to a lot of the things we did in the past.”

The city will, however, perform maintenance if it receives requests from residents or neighborhood groups.

In previous years, the city typically earmarked about $500,000 a year just for maintenance.

This year, only about $250,000 — all of it federal grant money — is available to pay for road paving and maintenance of retaining walls, fences and steps, Gable said.

The federal money can be used only in the 52 percent of city neighborhoods that qualify for aid, said Councilman Doug Shields, council’s finance chairman.

Among the cost-saving initiatives called for in the Act 47 financial recovery plan is a survey of the steps to determine which ones can be closed and demolished.

By mid-summer, the Public Works Department expects to provide city officials with a list of 60 to 100 staircases it recommends be demolished, said Rob Kaczorowski, the assistant director of public works.

The city’s plan to reduce its inventory of staircases comes at a time when neighborhood groups are rediscovering their value.

The Fineview Citizens Council uses its steps as a marketing tool for the neighborhood by hosting an annual 5-K “Challenge of the Hillside” race 400 feet up four public staircases. Money raised from the event is used to maintain the community’s 17 sets of steps.

The South Side Slopes Neighborhood Association launched an annual “Step Trek” celebration in 2000 that uses mapped routes along some of its 68 public staircases to showcase the neighborhood. Residents there also volunteer to clear brush.

Bob Regan, whose 2004 book “The Steps of Pittsburgh: Portrait of a City” chronicles the history of the city’s staircases, said he has been receiving an “overwhelmingly positive” response to his writings and lectures.

“My experience as I talk to neighborhood groups about the steps is that their consciousness has been raised,” said Regan, who conducted a lecture on city steps Thursday for the Lawrenceville Historical Society. “Folks who took the steps for granted begin to see them as a unique, historic artifact that they are willing to work with the city to preserve.”

Though the loss of some of the staircases might be inevitable, Regan said, he is calling for a cautious approach in the process.

“I’m not an idealist. I understand the realities of the fiscal constraint the city is facing. I realize some of the staircases will have to be closed and probably torn down. I just hope the city approaches it in a rational fashion,” said Regan, a Boston native working as a visiting professor of geographic information systems at the University of Pittsburgh.

“I’d hate to see a haphazard process at a time when we are just beginning to realize that these steps have the potential of being major tourist attractions.”

Kaczorowski, who is coordinating the survey, said the list that is turned over to the Murphy administration and City Council will have steps that are used the least at the top.

“We have some steps in the city that were originally built to provide access to a school that no longer exists, or that lead up to a street where there’s no houses anymore,” he said.

City Council President Gene Ricciardi, whose neighborhood has the largest number of staircases, 70, said the steps are among those uniquely Pittsburgh things that could help boost tourism.

“Besides still being a practical way for a lot of people to get around the hilltop neighborhoods, the steps can be a marketing tool for those who visit here,” Ricciardi said.

“They should be on the ‘must-do’ list with the inclines, the museums, the opera and the sports venues,” he said. “We are missing a golden opportunity if we don’t preserve them.”

Ricciardi said he will push for at least some of the revenue from a bond-refinancing proposal in the works to be used to maintain the steps.

Council next week will consider refinancing about $250 million in debt at a lower interest rate, which would generate about $7 million to finance public-works projects.


Step by step
Some facts about Pittsburgh’s steps:

Number of staircases: 737

Total number of steps: 44,770

Total number of feet: 24,176, or about 4.5 miles

Number of staircases that are legal “paper” streets: 334

Number of staircases with more than 300 steps: 5

Number of staircases with fewer than 25 steps: 189

Number of wooden staircases: 80

Number of brick steps: 1

Neighborhoods with the most staircases: South Side, 70; Beechview, 39

Number of neighborhoods with no staircases: 24

Decades in which most staircases were built: 1940s, 204; 1950s, 137

Longest staircase no longer in existence: Indian Trail steps, more than 1,000 wooden steps up Mt. Washington from Carson Street to the intersection of Shaler Street and Grandview Avenue, Duquesne Heights

For more information about Pittsburgh’s steps, visit:

Source: Bob Regan, author of “The Steps of Pittsburgh: Portrait of a City”

Tony LaRussa can be reached at

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633