Collier’s Weekly: The Hidden Corners of Pittsburgh
A move, and a well-placed theatrical production, serve as a reminder: Pittsburgh is much more than its main streets.
Last week, I took our tiny-yet-charismatic dog, Peanut, on a new walk route. The old paths were out of the question; for the third time in a four-year span, we’ve just moved.
We first moved to the South Side Slopes in 2018; we moved around the corner in 2020 and now to a house about a mile from the first two. Obviously, the neighborhood isn’t the problem; we’re pretty happy nestling into new nooks on the side of old Coal Hill. In each of the last two places, though, we ran into the sorts of problems you can’t know about in advance — noisy upstairs neighbors, leaky roofs, laughably ineffective plumbing systems.
So Peanut, who was a good sport about the whole business, was leading me around the inter-neighborhood corners every Pittsburgh neighborhood hides. In flat, grid-based cities, there isn’t often stuff where you didn’t expect it to be; poke around Indianapolis or Cleveland, and the streets are generally where you’d expect them to be.
Here, though, there can be hundreds of houses, pockets of business and slices of history tucked onto roads that you’ve never heard of. No one can possibly know every corner of Pittsburgh; there are too many unexpected turns and little-used back roads.
On that first walk, I snapped the photo above. In the Slopes, there’s a new, breathtaking view of the city every fifty yards or so. A vacant lot can open up a stunning vista; a dead-end street can lead to an overlook that would attract tourists in most cities.
I didn’t have to wait long for another new, remarkable viewpoint. Friday, I attended the opening-night performance of Quantum Theatre’s “The Cherry Orchard,” a lingering, heartbroken adaptation of the Anton Chekhov classic. Quantum is known for staging its shows in unconventional spaces; I knew this production was taking place somewhere in the vicinity of Hazelwood Green, but didn’t bother to check the precise location until I was typing it into my GPS.
I found myself outside of the coworking space OneValley, tucked along Blair Street near the Monongahela River. “The Cherry Orchard” was staged inside an industrial relic, metal beams set against a low hillside; from the temporary seating Quantum erected for the production, I could see yet another new view of the city skyline in the distance.
I live along the Mon; I drive across it every day. But something felt different in this spot; the lovely play had something to do with it, to be sure. But as the sun slowly set and the streetlights clicked on, I noticed a kind of near-pastoral calm soaking the area. Despite current efforts, it’s not something I can quite put into words; this place has a feeling.
Because everywhere in Pittsburgh has a feeling.
In my Q&A with Randyland creator Randy Gilson in Pittsburgh Magazine’s July issue, he spoke of “the secret architecture of the city,” professing his love for “the hidden, little places in the alleyways.” The lesson in finding these unexpected locations, I think, is that Pittsburgh is so much more than its main streets. We tend to hear a neighborhood name and judge it, good or bad, by its main drag; we characterize every space by the aspects of it that make the news. But beyond those landmarks, there are innumerable “hidden, little places” to be found and treasured.
Having decided that I had gazed at the city long enough, Peanut swiftly redirected me down another road. The next day, we tried heading left out the door instead of right. Within minutes, I was once again marveling at another hidden, little place.