How Pittsburgh’s Steps Shaped the City’s History
Pittsburgh has more public staircases than any city in the United States, and two locals are working to share the history of those “vertical bridges” and the people who feel connected to them.
Two women are celebrating local history by raising awareness of the infrastructure that links Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods unlike any other — the 800 staircases that cover the city’s hills.
Pittsburgh has more public staircases than any city in the United States, according to a citywide step assessment, with more than 45,000 individual steps dispersed throughout the landscape. Immigrant steel workers built the earliest stairways in the late 1800s and used them to commute between their neighborhoods on Pittsburgh’s hills and the mills in the valley.
Paola Corso, a poet and photographer, and Lee Ann Draud, a historian, have discovered untold stories of the steps and pioneered new ways to connect with Pittsburgh’s past through a variety of projects. Their work culminates with a public presentation, called “Vertical Bridges: A Presentation & Poetry Reading about Pittsburgh’s City Steps,” which will be hosted by the Heinz History Center on Thursday, July 20 at 6:30 p.m.
“It’s a way of paying tribute to the early immigrants who built the stairs, those today who are the stewards of the steps, and also the new immigrants that are coming into the city,” Corso said in a Zoom interview, commenting on one of the many goals of the event. “To me, the steps are just so symbolic of immigrants’ climb and how they ascend and aspire to be Pittsburghers and make a contribution to the city.”
The program will feature a presentation about the history of the steps by Draud and a poetry reading by Corso from her 2020 book called “Vertical Bridges: Poems and Photographs of City Steps.” Tickets are free, but guests need to register for the event.
Melissa E. Marinaro, director of the Italian American Program at the history center and organizer of the “Vertical Bridges” event, said in a Zoom interview that the steps are an important part of local history to highlight because they helped immigrants establish a home in the city and provided transportation for the workers and materials that fueled the industrial era — both of which led to the creation of the modern Pittsburgh that we enjoy today.
The steps “are more than just a way to get from point A to point B. They’re really integrated into people’s identities in this region,” Marinaro says. “When you walk the city steps, you are walking the path of the people that built the city.”
The steps have special meaning for some Pittsburgh natives, such as Corso, whose families are rooted in the city’s industrial history. One of Corso’s grandfathers worked at a steel plant, and the other was a stone mason who built the city’s steps. So the staircases, she writes in a blog post, connect her to memories of her grandfather’s “thick fingers and hardened palms” that held her hand when she crossed Pittsburgh’s streets as a child.
She says she was inspired to study the city steps when she discovered a collapsed set of stairs outside her grandfather’s house in Brackenridge; she realized how important the steps were in connecting her grandfather to the job that supported her family and created a new home for them after immigrating from Italy.
As she explored more and more steps, Corso, a performer at heart, says she realized that each landing was like a stage and each step was like a theater seat. Within the last 10 years, that idea has fueled a variety of creative projects that celebrate Pittsburgh’s heritage, from Corso’s founding of a live poetry performance group called “Steppin Stanzas” to her writing of a poetry collection inspired by Pittsburgh’s stairs.
Draud, on the other hand, didn’t grow up in Pittsburgh, but says that she saw the steps for the first time when she traveled to the city in 2000 to visit Kennywood. While she was initially drawn to the steps due to her fascination with the city’s industrial history, she says she became more invested in the topic when she learned about the deep personal connections that local residents have with the steps.
Draud says her goal is to climb every public stairway in the city, which she is still actively pursuing as she collaborates with Corso to document the stories of the steps.
The “step sisters” — a term that Corso created to describe the connection that she and Draud share — have worked together to photograph the staircases and collect family histories from locals to learn how the steps have shaped Pittsburgh’s identity. Their findings were published in the Fall 2022 issue of the Western Pennsylvania History Magazine, and they will share their work at the history center on Thursday.
Draud says she hopes the event raises awareness for maintaining and preserving the steps for future generations. Apart from serving as the city’s time capsule, she says the steps function as public transportation to connect remote neighborhoods to bus stops, canvases for artists to express themselves, gyms for those looking for a leg-burning workout, trails for hikers to take in new views of the city and even peaceful escapes for locals tired of the city noise.
“One of the things that struck me when I started climbing the steps was how quiet everything was,” Draud says. “It’s just a really peaceful place to be — you could just sit there and contemplate the world on the steps.”
Draud and Corso recommend that Pittsburghers explore the stairways, especially if they can’t attend the history center event. The duo agrees that the South Side is the best place to start, due to its strong ties to the city’s industrial past and its seemingly endless connections to other neighborhoods. Marinaro recommends that locals climb the Millvale steps that connect the neighborhood to Reserve Township, just past the 40th Street Bridge, for an unforgettable view of the city.
Corso says that through her work on various “vertical bridges” projects, she has discovered how the steps not only connect people to each other, but also connect locals to their city and its history of hard work.
Pittsburgh residents “continue to climb, and hopefully that’s together and in harmony, working for the same purpose of the betterment of our city,” she says.