South Side's steep streets and stairs provide a built-in workout

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Precipitous Pittsburgh is zigzagged with public steps that residents used to take to get from homes up on the hills down to work in the mills.

Darrell Sapp/Post-GazetteKay Comini pauses during one of her daily treks up and down the South Side's steps and streets.    
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Step and learn


Kay Comini is one of the people who take the steps to better health.

Having undergone an emergency quintuple heart bypass in the fall of 2001, she's steadfastly continuing her rehabilitation with all the elements of the Dr. Dean Ornish program, including 30 minutes of daily exercise. She wasn't slowed even when her treadmill's hill-climbing function broke.

She just looked out a window of her house on the South Side Slopes and said, "Well, I've got the hills right here we call stairs."

Now, three times a week, the 63-year-old retired welfare caseworker gets her heart up to target rate by zigzagging around her neighborhood. The stairs she takes are the sidewalks along some steep streets, as well as stairs that are marked as streets on maps and even have their own blue street signs. Many of her neighbors don't even live on a street. Their only way to and from home is steps.

The public is invited to experience the ups and downs of this local phenomenon, as well as the magnificent views, by participating in the third annual StepTrek on Sunday.

Sponsored by the South Side Slopes Neighborhood Association along with Duquesne Light Co. and others, Sunday's event invites people to "step in to history" as it celebrates the past of a neighborhood that is as colorful as it is vertical.

Organizers have mapped out two routes -- a "black" course and a "gold" one -- that cover some 2,700 steps and approximately 1,460 vertical feet.

But as co-chair Beverly Bagosi explains, it's not just up and down. There are plenty of sideways stretches. Those less inclined to be inclined can take a relatively level church tour past and inside several pre-Civil War churches, including St. Josaphat and the St. Paul of the Cross Monastery. Hence the event's poster, incorporating a church over a steel mill and the words "Heaven Above ... Fire Below."

New this year is an emphasis on history, which organizers researched and wove into the course descriptions each trekker gets. Also this year, dozens of residents will be sporting tags inviting trekkers to "Ask Me" about landmarks and customs and other threads of their close-knit community.

It all starts at the UPMC South Side parking lot at Josephine and 21st streets, where parking is free. Registration for the trek now costs $10 per adult (children up to 12 are free) and includes a T-shirt.

Walking and running groups and individuals who want to really get their hearts going by doing the trek briskly will depart at noon. Those who want to take their time will start about 10 minutes later.

There are rest and water stops along both routes, one of which includes a new segment of secluded steps and a wooded path. It's described as climbing through German Square and descending Welsh Way, on steps the neighborhood association just recently reclaimed from overgrowth and debris.

Back at the parking lot, participants can partake of food from various vendors, listen to live music and find out if they won any of the prize drawings for products and services from local businesses.

Also on hand will be the man who wrote the book on the city steps, Bob Regan. He and photographer Tim Fabian's "The Steps of Pittsburgh: Portrait of a City" is due to be published by the local Local History Co. early next year.

Regan, a geographic information systems specialist and visiting professor at the University of Pittsburgh, is a Boston native who became captivated by all of this city's public steps. He wound up mapping more than 700 sets of steps, some 400 of which are legal streets, sometimes called "paper streets" because they only look like streets on maps. (Dispatchers know to warn emergency crews, and the city still budgets money to not only maintain but also build new steps.)

In the book, he traces their history -- mainly, the means for poor immigrants to get to and from work. They are less counted on these days, he says, but, "They're not ornamental. They're used." He makes his case that the steps should be preserved and celebrated as a tourist attraction, since Pittsburgh towers over its closest rivals, Cincinnati (claiming 400 sets) and San Francisco (about 350). Both cities bemoan having lost many steps, he says, "but they never had the amount that Pittsburgh has."

And the South Side Slopes has the greatest concentration.

For her regular walks, Comini never has to take the same route. On a recent rainy morning, she started up so-called St. Michael Street, periodically pausing on the landings between the concrete stairways. "I like this garden," she said, breathing just a little harder, besides brightly painted stakes that this summer held up sunflowers and now support whimsical pumpkins and ghosts.

This could be a little scary for those afraid of heights. When she reached the top of the 78 St. Thomas St. steps, Comini already seemed level with the spire on St. Michael Church Beyond that sprawled the Monongahela river and the Oakland and Downtown skylines.

Comini kept going up -- pausing as she likes to do to say a prayer at St. Paul's -- then over to Billy Buck hill before wending her way back down, pointing out the crooked cliff-clinging houses, the purple morning glories, the way the clouds had shrouded the top of the USX Tower.

She figures this exercise is good not just for her physical heart, but also for her spirit.

"The rest of my life I intend to do this," she said, and she wasn't out of breath.

For more information, call 412-488-0486 or visit the Web site

Bob Batz Jr. can be reached at or 412-263-1930.


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