Pittsburgh City Steps: An Artist Tells Their Stories
Artist Laura Zurowski is on a mission to document Pittsburgh's public steps in an unorthodox way.
by bradford mumpower
Laura Zurowski gathers the supplies needed for the day’s exploration: a backpack with a copy of Bob Regan’s “Pittsburgh Steps: The Story of the City’s Public Stairways,” two journals to record information at the stairway, chalk, iPhone and Polaroid Spectra camera. She’s off to the Middle Hill to climb the 100 steps from Center Avenue to Brackenridge Street.
“Finding the steps is the first challenge. The address can be as little as ‘Center Ave near Church’,” she says while scanning the hillside for the steps to reveal themselves. Zurowski is comfortable with these directions; there’s no Google Maps open on her iPhone, just her field journal with the general address of the steps and the knowledge of the city that has been her home for five years.
Zurowski finds this stairway with ease. Half way up the steps and she feels as if she has left the city, “One minute you can be in the city and in a few seconds you’re surrounded by trees and nature and hear the birds twittering away.”
Climbing the steps is a deliberate act of studying the surrounding area, what is above and below, why were these steps used, who walked here before. Stairways, often taken for granted as a means to a destination, are the destination for Zurowski. Explore. Listen. They have stories to tell.
Zurowski is embarking on a four- to five-year project to explore and catalog all 739 of Pittsburgh’s public staircases. Far from the first person to take an interest in the stairways that were once a lifeline to the many neighborhoods on the hillsides of Pittsburgh, Zurowski stands apart from her step-enthusiast predecessors with her blend of one part photographer, one part author and one part archivist. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday a new staircase gets a Pittsburgh Craigslist Missed Connections post, where all of the parts can be viewed: the objective description, the two photographs and her narrative. Using her handle @mis-steps, these ads are also cross-posted on Instagram and Flickr. The immensity of this public art project might appear daunting, but it is a challenge Zurowski embraces.
To create something more tangible, Zurowski is partnering with artist and printer Jimmy Riordan to publish “Pittsburgh Stairs Trading Cards.” The cards will be released two or three times a year in randomized 10-packs. “The trading card will be styled to look like a Polaroid photograph,” Zurowski says. “Each will have an artful and creative three-color Risograph print reproduction of the original Polaroid picture on one side and the narrative from the steps on the back.” Looking to collect all 739 trading cards? The final set will be available in 2022.
Once Zurowski has fully surveyed the Brackenridge Street stairs, it’s time for their photo op. The Spectra camera is removed from its original box. A few looks through the viewfinder, double-checking the camera’s setting, a click and a flash and the undeveloped Polaroid is ejected from the camera. Only one picture is taken. Gone is the luxury of multiple shots and a plethora of filters to get the perfect look. It’s a 15 to 20 minute wait for the picture to develop, time she spends penning a narrative about this space. Out comes the second journal, the diary of sorts, where she subjectively documents this stairway. Something on the stairs catches her eye and a story unfolds into a tale that might best be described as creative non-fiction:
“Once upon a time was there a home tucked into the sloping hillside below Brackenridge? Nothing is apparent. No foundation, no brick or stone walls, nothing that indicates what or where these few steps originally led. The knotweed hides everything.”
The story written and the photograph clear from its Polaroid fog, it’s time to tag the stairs and move on. Out comes the chalk, and with ease she casually draws a white square and colors it in to be similar in size to the Polaroid. She places the Polaroid next to the square, and for the first time the iPhone emerges to document this, a picture of her picture and her tag, leaving her mark, as temporary as it is on these steps, before moving on to her next adventure.