The City of Steps

By Laura Zurowski


“There’s trash strewn about, and struggles of every kind. But from the stairs, I can hear the freight trains and the roar of the cars. And on the horizon, there’s a big yellow bridge. And I realize life doesn’t have to be pretty to be beautiful.

You are beautiful because of this. “

Upper Hill Story

Almost everyone knows that Pittsburgh is synonymous to City of Bridges. But do you know that “Pittsburgh has the largest number of public stairways of any place in the United States — more than San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, even Cincinnati”?

Some are old and some new but for sure that hundreds of thousands of Pittsburghers have used them.
Now, imagine if each stairway or each step can speak and tell us the many stories it has witnessed.

Hello, everyone. My name is Laura Zurowski. And for the last four and a half years, I have been photographing and writing about Pittsburgh’s public stairways — more commonly referred to as the city steps. Pittsburgh has the largest number of public stairways of any place in the United States — more than San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, even Cincinnati. Here in Pittsburgh, our public stairways are found in almost all of the 90 neighborhoods scattered throughout all fortress for all four quadrants of our city. When I was asked if I would be interested in participating in a storytelling event that focused on collections and collecting, I was very intrigued. Needless to say, I have amassed quite a collection of photographs and stories over the last few years. So today, without further ado, I would like to share with you some of the favorites from my collection. Right now, I’m going to go ahead I’m going to put my glasses on and I’m going to bring up my slide deck. That way you can see all of the photos of these amazing places that are all right here within the city of Pittsburgh.

Here we go at the beginning, glasses on. Welcome. As I said, my name is Laura Zurowksi. And this is some stories from “Mis.steps – Our missed connections with Pittsburgh’s public Stairways.” Here’s the first one.

Visit number 20. Something in the air reminded me of that summer when Lisa and I played together almost every day. I would run across the street as soon as breakfast was over. And it was hours of swing set, sand box, sitting in the grass, eating goldfish crackers playing hide and seek. As I remember it. On the final day, the air was damp in thick. The sky set rain and wind. The wind made the hair on my forearm stand up. We picked cucumbers from her mother’s garden and sat on the stairs eating them. I was 12, she was 10, and in a flash I saw that everything was about to change. This would be the last summer of our being children together. I willed myself not to forget the wind on my arms, the sweet taste of cucumber, the spittle of raindrops, her face. I’ve remembered it for both of us.

Visit 27. Cross my heart and hope to die it looks like anarchy but on a closer inspection organized chaos is a better description. Heat comes down from above, damp rises from below. Broad green leaves stretch and unfurl white blossoms burst open each petal performing a perfect backbend. The woodsy musk of leaves and moss and decay slowly swirls the floral sweetness, hovering dancing lightly bouncing over this Japanese knotweed feast are the honeybees. Hundreds are diving in and out; in and out of the creamy blooms, pollen nectar covering their bodies. The air pulses with the energy of 1000 beating wings. The humming drone fills my air fills my ears, and I am mesmerized by a hillside blanketed by tiny creatures, collectively hovering, dancing and lightly bouncing.

Visit 51. Churches, staples and crosses and stained glass windows. The men sit in front of the building next to the church. The barbecue is at full capacity in the smoke billows you can smell the roasting meat. The men talk amongst themselves about work and food and daily life. Their chatter fills the air. Cars go by, horns honking, greetings called out. The men shout in laugh, joy and exultation. Praise be to you and yours. Theirs is the work of ministering to hungry souls. Eat it up before it’s too late.

Visit 61. Maybe it’s because of the sunshiny blue skies. Maybe it’s because it’s a slow and sultry Saturday and I’m light hearted and at ease. But Harpster street has captured my attention. And I’m feeling a connection — a “je ne sais quoi” kind of thing. Harpster isn’t the most beautiful or the most popular, but there’s an intriguing blend of mystery, history and a straightforward sensibility that has me smitten. I want to walk and talk and hear you tell me about the disappearing brick walkway, the bunker that’s hidden under the weeds in the garden of Eden appletree. I’m falling for you and I’m falling hard.

Visit 92. It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon and the kids are playing outside on the street. I hear a ball bouncing shouts and calls to one another. The sound brings me back to visiting grandma and grandpa for Sunday dinner. Deep in the past but still so close in mind. The overheated stuffy house with old uncomfortable furniture, the screened-in porch smelling of cigarettes, the grownups talking in Polish when they didn’t want us kids to understand. Sighs of relief when we were finally released from the table to run outside. Kickball, Dodgeball, Chinese jump rope, red light green light. Those Sunday’s moved at a snail’s pace. But decades of them have now sped by faster than lightning. The old days are fixed and final in my mind. But today, this Sunday is not yet formed and still full of promise. I run up the stairs just to see how fast I can go.

Visit 100. Why do humans so often have difficulty communicating an authentic apology? We’re either rattling off sorry, so frequently, it becomes an automatic speech pattern. Or else we’re mumbling it like an eight year old coerced by an angry parent. Head down a few barely understandable words, hightailing it out the door. The second we fulfill the obligation. When I’ve witnessed a person apologizing deeply, humbly, authentically, I feel like more than just a bystander. I have become a participant in the emotional journey of seeking forgiveness. There isn’t any one way to offer that kind of apology. But I think we all know it when we see it, or when we hear it. But that leads to the next question. If we were to be witness to those words, what would our reaction be?

Visit 131. While the interstates may have been this country’s first mass transportation system, I like to think that in Pittsburgh, the public stairways were the first city wide network for moving people around. In the days before the spaghetti tangle of highways, throughways, parkways and expressways all of these stairways carried inhabitants to work, to school, to shop, to worship, and to play. Even if you had the money for a bus or trolley, it’s likely that there was at least one stairway between home and the nearest stop. These days, the roads that were designed to make travel quick and easy, are so congested that it’s hard to remember when driving was fun. I’m certainly not advocating for return of the good old days. But, I do sometimes wish for a smaller world where almost everything you needed was just a few streets and stairs away.

Visit 137. There’s trash strewn about, and struggles of every kind. But from the stairs, I can hear the freight trains and the roar of the cars. And on the horizon, there’s a big yellow bridge. And I realize life doesn’t have to be pretty to be beautiful. You are beautiful because of this. And right now, that’s why I love you so much.

Visit 190. Water’s flowing underground. I can hear it. It’s beneath my feet beneath the stairway. But I can’t see it. Not even a trickling bit. A stretch out on the stairs, luxuriating in the sounds of this mysteriously hidden waterfall. And if it weren’t for the dang mosquitoes, I’d be inclined to stay here for a while. Little shiver runs up my spine and it brings a touch of euphoria. I feel like something marvelous is about to happen. That something marvelous is happening right now. Even if I don’t know what it is, something is happening. And I’m just going to trust that one day, I’ll see what it is. This is once in a lifetime. Water is flowing underground.

Visit 208. There’s a neighborhood bar at the base of this flight and the neon signs glow in the window. I’m tired and think that I won’t climb all 202 steps this time. I’ll get my photos right here and call it a day. But, I take a few steps. And before I know it, I’m a third of the way halfway more than halfway and then huffing and puffing I’m at the top and taking in the big few bridges and buildings and everything that’s ever been constructed, as far as my eyes can see. Then I glance down the narrow street I just climbed and see a young man and a large truck and an older man and a large car trying to squeeze by each other. They dance and maneuver gesticulating wheels turning sharply, neither wanting to say uncle and back up to let the other pass. I walked down all 202 stairs, and when I get to the bar, I turn around to look amused by their continued exertions and wondering how long they’ll keep at it. But I’m getting cold and tired again. I have no problem with saying uncle and heading home.

Visit 288. When I was a kid, my favorite books were the ones about the early explorers. Through their stories I crossed mountains and oceans, braved the frozen tundra and tropical jungles, witnessed a flat earth being shaped through those seeking fortune and fame. Knowing this, it should come as no surprise that I placed Bob Regan, author of the Pittsburgh Steps Book that formed the basis of my project solidly into the explorer category. In an era before GPS, Siri or a highly developed internet, Bob set off to locate Pittsburgh’s lost and forgotten stairs using only his bike and scraps of information from historical sources. The stairway maps we have today are a result of his persistent adventuring and charting. At the time of this visit in 2019. Bob had recently turned 80 years old and willingly accepted an invitation to meet at his self proclaimed favorite city stairs, the intersection of Fraser and Romeo streets in South Oakland. While these stairs have waned a bit since Bob first mapped them years ago, his adventurous spirit hasn’t. Three chairs for you, Bob.

Visit 400. Forrest Gump may be responsible for people believing that “life is like a box of chocolates, because you never know what you’re going to get.” But here on Bligh street, life is like a turtle. Not because people are taking it slow or believe this life necessitates a hard shell, but because forward progress only happens when you’re willing to stick your neck out. You have to be unafraid to take steps forward, when others choose to hide inside.

Visit 448. When we walk the city steps, we follow the paths of those who have come before us: the workers, the children, the mothers with their babies – thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of thoughts and prayers, hopes and dreams, sorrows and anxieties are infused in the concrete, stone, and steel that carried them every day. The hillsides hold their voices in songs, laughter and cries. It doesn’t take much imagination to conjure up the conversations and concerns of these ancestors. Chances are they were very much like our own. Will I have enough money to pay that bill? Should I agree to go out on a date with him or her? When will that pain in my knee go away? To the uninitiated, visiting the stairs may appear to be a very solitary and lonely activity. But when you’re there, staring at the skyline, or marveling at trees, occupying spaces where homes once stood, you quickly realize that you’re never truly alone, and the silence surrounding you is full of answers.

Visit 612. Standing by a moving freight train is a bit like swimming in the ocean. All pulsations of buoyancy are countered by a pole more potent than a giant magnet. Even when experienced from a safe distance, it’s still a shocking rush to the senses. And I imagine 200 years worth of people have felt the same. These massive mechanized creatures of human engineering radiate a dynamic allure. But 14,000 tons of steel will not suffer fools gladly and there is no forgiveness for mortal transgressions. Still stepping into the all enveloping forcefield is like downing a cup of very good, very strong coffee. And who doesn’t enjoy a dose of euphoria from time to time? All this and more are easily accessible via the Jacob street city steps. The second longest flight in the city with its opposing stairways walkway traversing a babbling creek, blooming wildflowers in the spring and summer and hiking trails leading to brick lines Memorial Park. It’s an ideal spot for old schools trainspotting and marveling at beauty both manufactured and natural.

Visit 622. Standing here, I try to ignore the unpleasant odor of a stagnant nearly dry creek bed. I pay no attention to the soda cans, snack wrappers, and empty cigarette packs dotting the hillside like brightly colored flowers, plastic flowers, or for that matter, the faded graffiti peeling paint in rust stains. I tune out the sounds of traffic all blaring horns and pounding music. Instead, I close my eyes just a bit and look out to an empty spot in the middle distance. Without much effort at all transforms into something almost refined, nearly majestic. And dare I say even a bit romantic? A touch of glory faded yet enduring awaits you here.

Visit 679. As as as I was sitting on the stairs of this a dead end street, a car pulled up alongside me, and the driver’s side windows slowly powered down. My first thought was that the person inside must be confused and looking for directions. I smiled and waved and said, hey, there are you lost. To my surprise, the young man said that he was fine. He said he saw me sitting there with a backpack and wanted to make sure I was okay. The temperature was turning colder and rain was on the way. Holding up the Polaroids, I explained that I was taking photos and writing about the city steps to which he laughed and gave a thumbs up sign. We smiled and said goodbye as the car window closed. I sat for a while reflecting on how in our modern world, a person sitting alone on the steps can cause concern. This thought brought me some sadness, until I realized that if the places were reversed, I too, might stop and ask the same. Perhaps that inclination is Pittsburgh nebbiness. But it also might be people who believe in looking out for one another.

And on that note, I’ve come to the end of my stories. If you have enjoyed the photographs and the stories that I’ve been reading, I encourage you to follow along with the Mis.steps project. You can find me through my website You can also follow me on instagram and twitter. I hope these stories and the photos sharing my collection with you has inspired you to, you know, perhaps go out and explore some city steps in in your neighborhood, or better yet go to other neighborhoods. We’ve got a big beautiful city here and there’s so much wonderful, wonderful things to see and explore wherever you go. So thank you so much for listening.

Transcribed by

Story Credits

Story Coaches: Pamela Monk & Kay Bey
Videography &
Web Producer: Will Halim

Disclaimer: the narrative expressed in the article is solely those of the author(s).
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