It’s been a week of walkabouts. There is a lot of history to trip over in Pittsburgh any time you set out on foot, especially when you wander into older neighborhoods. Last Friday an errand brought me up into the Hill District, where once upon a time Pittsburgh’s African-American culture was rollicking. Famous jazz musicians met to play and compose (Lena Horne and Billy Eckstein called the place home), August Wilson scribbled plays, and Claude McKay named the neighborhoods on “the Hill” the “crossroads of the world”. The Negro League baseball team that played up there – the Pittsburgh Crawfords – claimed two Hall of Fame players: Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson. The infrastructure was deteriorating, but in the 1930s-50s the Hill District was a vibrant and important place.
The systematic destruction of homes and property seen as sub-standard by the city government, the failed Civic Arena, rioting following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and the collapse of the steel industry brought things crashing down around the residents and business owners ears. The Hill almost died – but in the 1980s the city began to invest in the area again and over the past several decades there has been new development and energy there. Some folks call it a renaissance.
Last Friday I got to see a mural being finished up on the side of a building on Centre Avenue. It features August Wilson and highlights his plays. 10 local kids and young adults worked on it, supported by the Moving the Lives of Kids Community Mural Project, which was started in 2002 by an artist from the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Wilkinsburg. There were a dozen folks from the neighborhood standing around watching the progress, and one passing local said proudly to me, “Well now it does look like August Wilson!”
I passed the Hotel Terrace Hall and wondered what went on there back in the neighborhood’s heyday (or now, for that matter!). The St Benedict of the Moor Church, with it’s statue of the saint welcoming one and all, was another interesting landmark. The views of the city that you can get from the Hill District are pretty special too. Although the best 360 views are from the top – Herron Hill Park in the residential area known as Sugar Top – that day I enjoyed a new-to-me look at my own neighborhood of Lawrenceville.
Stories about this walkabout inspired a friend of mine, and she asked me to take her up to Herron Hill Park. On Tuesday we set out on what would eventually be a 9 mile walk, for me, through 7 different neighborhoods, up and down some of Pittsburgh’s notorious stairs, across bridges, and through a tunnel.
On Andover Terrace, a shady tree-full street that zigs up to the zag of Bryn Mawr Road (by which you can eventually make your way to Sugar Top) we found something that stopped us cold. According to an interesting article about the house above (we felt compelled to Google it before moving on!), the swastika is benign. The original owner had it’s concrete form poured in 1912, at a time when the symbol meant nothing more than good luck. The present owners discovered the existence of the swastika when they had the wooden siding that covered it removed in 1981, 5 years after purchasing the historic home. As you can imagine, they had to decide what to do about it. After researching the house and discussing it with their neighbors (some of whom were Holocaust survivors…) they decided to let it remain – to startle and intrigue passing pedestrian explorers!
The views from Herron Hill Park are fantastic, as my friend discovered on Tuesday. Although the foliage is still thickly blocking some angles, the downtown skyline and Lawrenceville, Bloomfield, East Liberty, Oakland, and neighborhoods and boroughs beyond can be easily picked out by an eye familiar with the surrounding hills.
The following day I had to go downtown for an interview (I have since been accepted into the KEYS Service Corps!) and afterward I took advantage of the fact that I was across the street from the Smithfield Bridge.
I have lived in Pittsburgh for nearly a year, but until Wednesday I had not walked across the Monongahela River via the Smithfield, or any other bridge. Completed in 1883, this is a lenticular truss bridge, and is the second oldest steel bridge still standing in the country. I walked across it with lots of other folks – it has probably the most pedestrian traffic of any bridge in the city, situated between downtown and Station Square where many commuters park.
From the Smithfield Bridge you can see the Fort Pitt Bridge at the mouth of the Monongahela, and the Panhandle and Liberty bridges further up the river.
The details of the bridge are lovely. It was fixed up in 1994-95 after being nearly demolished, due to it’s age and low clearance above the river. I’m so glad it’s now protected and cared for, since I can think of no finer way to traverse the Monongahela – unless it’s puttering about in a little boat in the sunshine…!
I have a few more weeks of relative freedom before I begin training for my new job (an AmeriCorp program) and I’m sure I will fill my time with more exploring. I went through a rough patch at the beginning of September and really thought I was going to leave the city, striking out for Maine or the West Coast (either direction would have been okay!) I pulled myself together though and sorted out the next step for me, which will be 10 months of service to the youth of the Pittsburgh community. This has pulled my energy firmly back to this city, and as I head into my second year here I am thrilled to be continuing my adventures, and look forward to getting to know the place better.