Community group takes steps to safeguard stairways in Pittsburgh

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Since he wrote "The Steps of Pittsburgh" in 2004, Bob Regan has heard from numerous people who share his fascination and love of the city's 712 hillside flights.

One was a young woman named M.J. Flott.

"I was intrigued by what she wanted to do," Mr. Regan said. "I'm delighted she is doing it."

With his encouragement, the 24-year-old barista launched Community Steps Cooperative last fall and set out to find a partner with experience in nonprofit work. On Craigslist she found Alex Lake, who has worked on the Pittsburgh Urban Leadership Service Experience and at the Union Project.

With a microgrant of $1,000 from Awesome Pittsburgh, the fledgling organization will hold its first action day to clean, clear and paint city steps in Troy Hill on Saturday. Anyone can join the effort, which begins at 9:30 a.m. near Cowley-Goettmann Park, where there are two sets of steps. One descends with a view of Downtown, the other is heavily wooded and descends to Spring Garden.

Subsequent work days are July 28 in South Oakland and Aug. 4 in Polish Hill. Details will be provided on Community Steps Cooperative's Facebook page.

"My hope is that we can provide consistent, long-term support for the steps by organizing volunteers and resources," said Mr. Lake, who lives in Garfield. "From what I've seen already, there is a lot of support out there, and our goal is to focus it and provide structure."

The cooperative is incorporated with the state and working on federal 501(c)3 status.

"The city doesn't have the money to maintain the steps as stringently as they should," said Ms. Flott, who lives in Polish Hill. "The Stair Stewards in Polish Hill inspired me, and Bob [Regan] was so enthusiastic when I talked to him. He said, 'Yes! Someone should do this. And you're young.' "

Ms. Flott, a Virginia native, graduated from Duquesne University in theater arts and is now a barista at Tazza d'Oro in Highland Park.

She said a long-term goal is to create art on and around the steps.

"I used to sit with friends on the Ella Street steps in Bloomfield, and people left art there. Someone painted 'TRY' on every step. It was like a community art project."

Mr. Lake said they have met with artists, designers and architects "to put together improvement plans including public art, signage" and other aesthetic features.

"The first thing is to get them clean and safe," Ms. Flott said.

Mr. Lake said he has been walking as many of the steps as he can to determine where the greatest need is.

Representatives from the city could not be reached to discuss the maintenance it provides.

Pittsburgh has the most sets of steps of any city in the nation with 712, many of which are designated as streets. The Southside Slopes neighborhood has the greatest concentration with 67 sets of stairs. Beechview has 38, Mount Washington 32 and Perry South 26.

Mr. Regan, a software mapping professional, began mapping the steps he discovered during bike rides as a relative newcomer from Boston. He supplied the city with the most comprehensive map it had ever had, became the father of the annual South Side Slopes Step Trek and wrote the book "The Steps of Pittsburgh" with photographer Tim Fabian.

"I'm just delighted by the attention people pay to the steps," he said. "Last fall I got an email from a woman in Florida who has come here several times to walk the steps."

Charlotte Watenpool grew up in Cranberry and moved to Florida 20 years ago. In visits to see friends and family, she and her cousin decided to find a fun outing, she said.

"We found Bob's book and did Step Trek," she said. "I got so into it that I decided I wanted to walk all 712 steps."

She spent 10 days last year doing both Step Trek and Fineview's Step-a-thon.

"Then I found out my mom and cousin's mom used to walk the steps in Oakland and that my dad lived on the North Winebiddle steps in Garfield. I hadn't even known about them.

"Everyone has heard of San Francisco's," she said, but that city has 168 sets of steps. "Pittsburgh should be promoting them. The steps to me are just awesome."


Diana Nelson Jones: or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at


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