Walking on a lovely side street in Crafton, Pennsylvania, it’s pouring rain, but around me are happy, curious people in raincoats and umbrellas, with water bottles and daypacks. We’re the Urban Hike of the month, organized by Urban Hike Pittsburgh
, an eclectic group of lifelong and transplanted Western Pennsylvanians whose love of on-foot urban travel has brought them together to organize explorations of the region—one step at a time.
Here’s how it works: you sign up
for the email list, then a friendly email arrives in your inbox telling you where to meet, along with some tantalizing facts about the destination. My first Urban Hike email announced, “Crafton, Pa.,” and informed me I’d get to visit Big Daddy’s 24-hour donut shop, see Bill Cowher’s boyhood home, drink (good) beer, and hike for 2-3 hours.
After asking every person I knew, including many Pittsburgh natives, to
point in the general direction of Crafton, no one could. It was like an open parking space on East Carson Street during happy hour; you know it exists, you just don’t know where. Crafton is, I now know, beyond another elusive geographic area—the West End. It’s in Chartiers Valley, with its pleasant tree-lined streets, interesting little shops, and an enthusiastic Crafton Historical Society
. The society’s members also participated in the hike and gave us bits of Crafton history, some of them walking right out of their own homes to talk to us. Did we know that back in the day there was an exclusive Thornburg golf course on the banks of Chartiers Creek? Women could tee up on weekdays only. Did we know that a streetcar connected Crafton to Pittsburgh in 1892? Did we know that kids could smell the bread at Glasers Bakers and Ice Cream Makers as they walked home from school? A peek through the closed-down store’s window revealed a corner family shop frozen in time, an ice cream board still hanging on wall with the flavor of the day—Bisque with Almond Macaroon.
Urban Hike was founded in 2003. The initial hike was a quixotic 24-mile exploration of the city that the group couldn’t finish. From there, they
trimmed it down to 3 to 5 miles a month. Each member of the team adds his or her own expertise to the planning stages, and then the hike begins.
To date, they’ve explored 23 towns and neighborhoods, April through October each year. The season ends with a scavenger hunt in the city. Last year they focused on Shady Side, this year, in conjunction with Pittsburgh’s 250th birthday, Urban Hike will be hunting Downtown.
Emily Keebler, a native Pittsburgher who works for NeighborhoodWorks, a community service group in Uptown that offers financial education services to kids, has been a key organizer of Urban Hike from the get-go. “I think that discovering new things is the best part of the hikes,” she says. “Some are in areas I knew nothing about, and I found places that I wouldn’t have stumbled upon otherwise.”
Emily offers up details about community services in the areas that Urban Hike explores, while other staff members add historical facts, knowledge about architecture, or current events. For them, Urban Hike is a well-organized hobby that runs on sheer determination, enthusiasm, and a small grant from the Sprout Fund
to maintain their website.
“We rely on what we know,” Emily says, “and we’re pretty outgoing. We’ll go get something to eat in a little diner where we want to hike and ask the waitress what’s cool. Generally people are very proud of their businesses and neighborhood.”
The hike I attended had a great balance of history, local interest, and
architecture. (Diane Dennis even let us walk through her house—a 1938 tudor designed by noted architect George Rowland.) When I arrived at the designated meet-up/end-up point, Sharp Edge Beer Emporium, an Urban Hike staffer handed me a map of our route that included Crafton census data. Any guesses on the mean travel time to work for Crafton residents 16 years and older? 21.5 minutes.
The rain continued off and on, but that didn’t stop us. We walked along the creek, through residential neighborhoods, and down a couple of quaint business districts. After three hours we’d made a big circle, and the 45 or so Crafton-educated hikers ambled into the Sharp Edge
, gathering around tables on their (covered) deck. There, I met Kay a 25-year-old transplant who lives in Friendship. Originally from Clarence, New York, Kay’s a Fellow at UPMC in Administrative Health. She was attracted to the urban hike because she moved to the city knowing only one person. “I’ve been on the lookout for ways to get involved in the community,” she says. “I also enjoy being outdoors and meeting new people. Urban Hike seemed like a great way to put it all together.”
This was Kay’s first hike, and she plans to come back for more.
“Pittsburgh really has a fascinating history. When you get out into the neighborhoods, you can see the differences in architecture and hear the stories about the people as well. Getting the local perspective has been really great.”
The hikes attract all kinds of people. Kay met a woman from her sorority and a guy who was just visiting Pittsburgh for the weekend. Emily’s dad always comes along, and there were graduate students from several universities. I walked with Urban Hike staffer Allison Fromm for awhile. She once vowed to never return to Pittsburgh, but here she is, interested in history, hiking, and working for the Bayer corporation. “I have to say that Pittsburgh is full of great things to do if you can find them,” she says.
Here’s one uncovered. The next urban hike is actually a scavenger hunt that takes place downtown on Friday, October 3rd from 6 to 8 p.m. Click here
to find out more.To receive Pop City every week, click here
Sherrie Flick is artistic director for the Gist Street Reading Series and also Pop City’s resident urban walker.
Photographs copyright Brian Cohen