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Confessions of a Walker

This story begins where many good ones do: the Wild West. In May 2003, I found myself at an artist retreat in Ucross, Wyoming, (population 27) for four weeks without a car, exploring the high plains on foot.

Each morning I rambled through a two-hour hike to discover a new aspect of the terrain. When my husband picked me up I realized I had experienced everything—stark red rock formations, antelope, meandering roads and paths, and prairie dog towns—differently from the average tourist.

I nudged into the passenger seat, strapped myself in, and it felt like a rocket ship taking off as he accelerated over roads I’d learned intimately in terms of hours instead of minutes. Velocity distorted the west I’d come to know, and I suddenly understood how the automobile’s invention changed the world entirely.

I returned to the 9:00 - 5:00+ job that I’d been driving to and from for six years. Buckled into my bubble, the thrum of NPR leading the way. But I longed to feel foot on pavement, the patient momentum that comes when walking without interruption, letting horizon unwind into the foreground; my brain unraveling and opening up to life goals, favorite bands, good first sentences, how to properly make risotto, Richard Jackson poetry, and even (winter 2006) the Steelers Fight Song “Here We Go.” But I’m getting ahead of myself.

When five months later I decided to change jobs, combining a three-day-a-week job at Heinz History Center with freelance writing, everything popped into place. I wanted my work life, social life, and alone time overlapping in big creative chunks the way they had in other places I’d lived: Portsmouth, NH, San Francisco, CA.

Living on the South Side Slopes, I could now catch the 51C to work. Walking to the bus stop instead of turning an ignition key was invigorating, the morning views from the slopes beautiful.

Waiting with my fellow citizens through rain, sleet, sun, and snow I felt connected, taking advantage of city living. I zipped downtown in under 15 minutes; caught up on eavesdropping, 20-something fashion, and over-the-shoulder People magazine reading. A month later I fell into my present-day commute: bus to work; walk home.

My walking commute takes me along bustling Grant Street, through a lovely parklet, over a bridge, through a neighborhood, and up many stairs into the slopes. An hour from the History Center to my own front door, I walk in 90-degree weather as well as sub-zero. Rain or shine, I’m a walker.

Experiencing the city first-hand through all seasons has made me admire both its beauty and walkability (something Pittsburghers sometimes ignore). There’s nothing like a city muffled by fresh snow: from Mission Street—looking out over the Brewhouse—and the Smithfield, 10th Street and Birmingham bridges—flakes twinkle in the distance with dusk coming on, and car and shop lights pop into view.

Finding the Way

I couldn’t get enough once I learned to negotiate sidewalks: South Side to Oakland; Squirrel Hill to East Liberty; Strip District to the North Side; Bloomfield to the Strip District. Nearly anything was possible with determination, a good pair of walking shoes, and weather-appropriate attire.

I’ve discovered excellent out-of-the-way stores, interesting post-industrial views; run into little-seen friends, lost ten pounds (avoiding the gym!), and saved over $250 in bus fare (double or triple that if I was driving and parking).

This is the first in a series of suggested urban walking commutes, this one based partially on my daily commute.

Urban Walk #1:

Strip District to South Side

Forty-five minutes one way:

01) Start: Heinz History Center. Take in their new exhibition: Soul Soldiers: African Americans and the Vietnam Era (through October 2007).

02) Exit heading left on Smallman Street. Note the noble, sloping bridge-like roof of Pittsburgh’s Convention Center as it scoots into your skyline.

03) Take a left onto 12th Street then right on Penn Avenue to walk by the classic Eide’s comic book and magazine stand.

04) Cross to 11th Street and turn left onto Liberty Avenue. On your left note the interesting urban still life that includes the former and still-glorious Penn train station with its magnificent rotunda, built in 1903 and designed by Daniel Burnham. You can check the time with the station’s still-illuminated clocks. Beyond you’ll see the gleaming dome of Mellon Arena, which started as the Pittsburgh Civic Arena; and the grand 1932 U.S. Post Office.

05) Take a right on Liberty walking past the Federated Investors Tower plaza, with benches and trees bearing pretty yellow berries. At this intersection Liberty becomes Grant, cross to the brick-paved, tree-lined street.

06) Take Grant past the Federal and Koppers buildings on your right, the USS Tower on your left to 6th Street.

07) Cross to Mellon Green, walk diagonally through the Parklet’s lawn and trees with a fountain, and benches for resting. Continue diagonally on the park’s sidewalk to Ross Street. Turn right.

08) Note your stunning, straight-on view of the Allegheny County Courthouse’s “Bridge of Sighs” modeled after Venice’s and built by noted architect Henry Hobson Richardson in 1883. Walk toward and under it, past pacing lawyers and clients and hundreds of extinguished cigarettes in the sandy tops of the garbage cans. Mitchell’s Tavern on your left was established in 1903 and the 3rd Avenue Deli on your right offers soup, sandwiches, pastries, and coffee.

09) At Ross and Second Avenue, cross, noting the yellow signal box straight ahead with the long-division graffiti: 21 divided by 4, leaving one.

10) Solve the endless problem in your head as you take a left onto Second Avenue, under the viaduct, past what will be the new dorms for the Pittsburgh Art Institute to the new jail. Sometimes chalk-drawn love notes to inmates are scrawled on the sidewalk. A tombstone-looking memorial reading “Care-Custody-Control” is nestled into the landscaping.

11) Turn right onto the beckoning, suspended 10th Street Bridge. Bridges stretch in the distance on both sides as you cross the Monongahela River. The rising slopes of the South Side greet you. Note, also, the gaggle of yellow school buses nestled on the right far bank.

12) At the end of the bridge on the right is the new location of Abruzzi’s boasting a stark, contemporary Italianesque interior. Oddly enough, this Italian-American establishment has fantastic Margaritas. Just past Abruzzi’s that whiff of chlorine is the historic Oliver Bath House.

13) Continue on 10th Street to East Carson then take a left and stop mid-block at Silver Eye Center for Photography to see present-day Vietnam with their new 2006 fellow, Howard Chen’s exhibition Multiple Entry Visa: To Vietnam and Back (through February 10, 2007). Continue along East Carson, noting the exquisite purple-black glass façade on Ace Athletic, the multiple coffeeshops (Beehive, Starbucks, Tuscany) and many great specialty shops (Ethnic Artz, E House, the Culture Shop).

14) Cross the street at East Carson and 17th, heading away from the river to Sarah Street and Dish Osteria Bar, a tiny establishment cherished by South Side residents for its food and atmosphere. It’s cash only but there’s an ATM at 18th and East Carson. Always cozy, especially in winter, Dish offers great cocktails and small plates and the best table faces 17th with a scenic view down Larkin’s Way where little houses dot into infinity.

While everyone else is scrambling for a parking spot, be a walker: smug and revitalized.

(At 17th and Sarah there is a bus stop for 51 B, D, F, G)

Sherrie Flick is author of the flash fiction chapbook, I Call This Flirting (Flume Press) and artistic director for the Gist Street Reading Series.


Walking across the 10th Street bridge

Pittsburgh Regional History Center

David L. Lawrence Convention Center

Pennsylvanian (old train station)

Mellon Green

Allegheny County Courthouse

Silver Eye Comtemporary Photography Gallery

Dish Osteria

All photographs copyright © Jonathan Greene

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