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Urban Walking Tour: Bloomfield to the Strip

In the past two years, I’ve traveled obsessively by foot around Pittsburgh. When I’m unfamiliar with a route, I’m exploring: remembering where to turn, stopping to check out a bakery or, perhaps, a painting in a Bloomfield barbershop window. I’m experiencing a neighborhood’s details.

When I walk a route I’ve taken enough times, I don’t have to think about directions or details. Instead, I walk because I need to think. It frees up my brain to digest ideas, big and small, trampling worries and complications and smoothing them out until they’re tidied up and (somewhat) solved. I reach a state of pleasant neutrality. It’s peaceful even if there are cars rushing by or a chainlink fence on my right.

Traveling on foot from Bloomfield to the Strip District allows for both of these kinds of walking to come into play as you first stroll Bloomfield’s bustling main street, which is Liberty, and then stay right on it the whole way through (downhill) to the Strip District.

I like this walk because it offers nice, wide sidewalks—some surprising industrial views, a bustling mix of delis, stores, and restaurants and then after descending past a couple of breweries, the nuts and bolts of Pittsburgh: auto parts dealers, public works buildings, union headquarters, and a Space Odyssey-esque electrical station, ending in a quaint garden.

It’s almost impossible to get lost. You can relax, enjoy the views, and after exploring a little, plunge into the art of walking to walk.

Suggested walking route: (Walking time: 45 minutes)

Start at 47th and Liberty Avenue. Stay on Liberty straight down Bloomfield’s shopping district. There’s the Paddycake Bakery (with amazing cakes). At Cedarville is the Pleasure Bar, which is aptly named. Dan Cercone’s Hair Styling Center is on the left, boasting a traditional barber’s pole and an anachronistic “National Barber of the Year” painting. Keep going past Donatelli’s Italian Food Center, followed by the delicious and quaint Grasso Specialty Café (Italian ice! Espresso!), to Pearl Street where there’s Thai Cuisine—always friendly service.

At the far end of the bustle, there’s one last chance for a beer: Bloomfield Bridge Tavern (on the left). On Thursdays, they offer one-dollar bottles from the refrigerated case out amongst the tables. Pick your own, but the waitress has to open it, so just be patient. She’ll scurry over soon with her big, silver opener and take a buck from you.

At the Bloomfield “Shur Save” grocery store, (Howley Street and Liberty), turn left to the traffic island. Take a right to continue on Liberty. The Bloomfield Bridge stretches out on the left, and in the distance Oakland’s Cathedral of Learning peeks up to say hello.

Now it’s time for some urban industrial meditation. Beautifully dilapidated Paul Lumber and Supply Co. rests on the left, while the eccentric Iron Eden welcomes passersby across the street. Proprietor John Walter makes superhuman metal work. There are pretty iron flowers lining the place—even the mailbox has steel curly-cues.

At 40th Street, patches of old-time brick mingle with cement sidewalk. At the futuristic electric station at 37th Street, shiny, silver arms bend to connect wires with a robotic, 1950s sci-fi aesthetic.

There’s a nice vista at 36th: Look left, brick stacks dominate the foreground with tiny houses dotting the hills. Smoke wafts upward.

Church Brew Works is on the right. The tan and red striped brick on the church’s exterior gives it an exotic flair. The building is an historic landmark. Built in 1903 as St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church, it now pays homage to pints and growlers. (Rumor has it a few of the retired priests stop in now and again for a pint of stout, but the nuns of St. John’s protested the conversion of the old church to a micro-brewery, with its stainless steel vats on what used to be the altar.)

Traffic rushes past as Pittsburgh Brewing Company, established in 1881, comes into view at 34th. This is the home of Iron City Beer. The block-long brick building sprouts maroon awnings, windows with pale green trim, and a giant bottle of Iron City. (Their t-shirts make great souvenirs.)

At Liberty and Ligonier and Herron avenues there’s a bridge to the left, above it is a great, cramped hillside with an Iron City brick stack. Cross and continue downhill on Liberty, walking under the railroad trestle with “Brewery Entrance” painted on its base with an arrow. (If you’re an early morning walker, you might catch a glimpse of the Amtrak train rumbling into its daily route to all points east.)

Soon downtown comes into view, a beacon of prosperity in the distance as the USX tower looms over the old Penn Station.

Now pass a series of buildings that are remnants of Pittsburgh’s industrial heritage. At 30th, the historic Pittsburgh Gage and Supply Co. building joins in with its pretty facade. Built in 1907, there are squares of masonry flowers around the front door with an ornate gage on each side.

Beginning at 28th a gigantic turn-of-the-last-century sandstone wall juts up—its sooty stone, solid and intimidating. Up the stairs, you’d visit Polish Hill. Instead continue on Liberty as stacks of retired lampposts rest at the 26th Street Painting Division of Public Works. Its motto is, oddly: “Creative and Competitive.” The sandstone wall follows Liberty all along this way, diminishing until 18th, where it disappears altogether.

At 17th, turn right into Old Saint Patrick Church Monastery Garden, dedicated in 1937. Throughout the Depression the church was an advocate for the poor living amidst the blighted living conditions in the Strip District. The garden itself is preciously cared for throughout all the seasons. This is one of my favorite respites in the city. In winter, decorative grasses bustle in the snow. There are well-tended rose bushes surrounded by cushiony pachysandra. The stone grotto with the Virgin Mary makes a person feel like she is in another (European) country. There is a bright green bench to rest on. The traffic is hushed while the grasses and leaves rattle under the tall trees. Late afternoon light comes in big brushstrokes alongside a birdbath and another stone bench. Time is compressed, noises hushed. Listen. You can almost hear your (now much healthier and happier) heart beating.

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

Paul Lumber and Supply Co.

Dan Cercone's Hair Styling Center

Bloomfield Bridge Tavern

Iron Eden

Pittsburgh Brewing Co.

Saint Patrick Church Monastery Garden

All photographs copyright © Jonathan Greene

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