His wife Anissa walking beside him, Aaron Davis pushes their adult son Quinten in a red wheelchair up Grandview Avenue on Mount Washington.
It’s a sunny day with scattered clouds. A coal barge glides up the Monongahela, skyscrapers tower over Downtown, and the three rivers flow below in ribbons of emerald.
But Aaron Davis is missing much of this grandeur as he trains his eyes on the potholes, cracks, and broken curb of the sidewalk sprouting with utility poles. He carefully navigates the wheelchair, sometimes pushing down on the handles to lift the narrow front wheels over obstacles.
“It’s pretty bumpy,” he tells Pittsburgh City Paper. “It could be a lot smoother.”
Residents and community groups on Mount Washington are urging the city to ease the bumps on western Grandview Avenue by fixing the sidewalks and burying the utility poles.
Toni Geyer, 52, lives a half block from the bronze sculpture of a young George Washington and Chief Guyasuta, a site called Point of View parklet. On this day she takes a walk with Bolt, her husky-collie mix, on the city-owned side of Grandview rather than her usual route on the residential side. She has used a power wheelchair since being injured in a traffic accident 25 years ago.
“It’s a great view, but I can’t access it,” she tells City Paper, noting the difficulty of riding her 34-inch-wide wheelchair on the broken sidewalk past utility poles. “Up here at the statue this is our president, George Washington, and Chief Guyasuta, and it looks like crap. This should be a respected place.”
Last year, the Mount Washington Community Development Corporation encouraged residents to contact the city with the complaints about the sidewalks along Grandview. The city last fall fixed the sidewalks of eastern Grandview Avenue from McArdle Roadway to Wyoming Street.
The next target is western Grandview from McArdle to Republic Street. Here, a mix of pricey houses and restaurants flank the Duquesne Incline, while a stalled development, whose cyclone fence juts out over the sidewalk, creates an eyesore and restricts access.
The corporation last summer created a task force on undergrounding utilities. It will also examine the condition of sidewalks. The corporation wants to get money for a preliminary engineering study to identify ways that would help people better enjoy western Grandview.
“We just don’t know how much it would cost, how to secure money for it, and how to secure buy-in from the adjacent property owners,” Gordon Davidson, executive director of the corporation, tells CP.
One section of the city-owned sidewalk contains 14 broken curbs, 12 holes, and numerous cracks. Some holes in the sidewalk are two inches deep and a foot and a half wide. The cracks in the curb can span up to a foot and a half in places.
Pat Gianella has led the charge of residents who want to improve the streetscape since about 2005. He has lived in Duquesne Heights for all but one of his 67 years.
“You take a poll of Pittsburghers, and the number one place they talk about is Mount Washington, and it’s a crime that the city has allowed their property to deteriorate to this point,” he tells CP. “If it was a residential property, we’d be cited and fined for the property."
Data from VisitPITTBURGH, the city’s travel information center, confirm the popularity of the locale.
The Monongahela and Duquesne Inclines rank as the city’s top tourist attractions in a 2019 survey administered by VisitPITTSBURGH, according to group spokeswoman Shannon Wolfgang. The poll found that 45% of visitors to Pittsburgh ride one of the two inclines. That's 10 percentage points more than the city’s second most popular attraction — a professional sports game.
If visitors ride an incline, it’s a safe bet that they walk down Grandview to take in the scenery.
Another survey suggests that Mount Washington could bring in tourist money. Wolfgang said a 2022 study by Arrivalist, a travel research firm, found that 75% of visitors to the Duquesne Incline were from out of town.
The Davises fit that description. The Lima, Ohio, family was visiting Pittsburgh to watch the Polar Plunge when they took the Duquesne Incline and sauntered along Grandview. “Going down’s a lot easier than going up,” Aaron Davis said as he pushed his son uphill.
Riding a wheelchair on Mount Washington can be hazardous.
In the past two decades, Marty Link, 79, was hit and injured twice by trucks as he rode his power wheelchair, according to Tracy Link, his daughter-in-law. She discussed the incidents because he has difficulty hearing. In the first accident, he said he was trying to cross Grandview but was struck because the city at that time had no wheelchair ramp, forcing him to ride in the street.
“He was often ridiculed for riding in his wheelchair in the street because the sidewalks were not conducive to wheelchair accessibility,” Tracy says. After the second accident, her father-in-law gave up the electric wheelchair and let his family push him.
But concerns about the accessibility of Grandview are not unanimous. Tom Reinheimer, who’s in charge of tours and marketing for the Duquesne Incline, tells CP he has neither received a complaint about the Grandview sidewalks nor noticed a problem. “There are other sidewalks in the city that are in worse condition,” he says.
Maria Montaño, press secretary for Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, says the city recently improved sections of sidewalk near the sculpture, cut out the curb for a ramp, and removed overgrown weeds to improve access. She conceded, however, that the protruding fence near the stalled development and the presence of utility poles present a problem.
“Sidewalks are a major concern, and it’s a challenge when it’s a mix of city-owned and privately-owned sidewalks,” she says.
Mount Washington falls within District 2 of City Council President Theresa Kail-Smith. She says she is most concerned about stabilizing the hillside but has been talking to community groups about the accessibility of Grandview. She says the cost of fixing the avenue, particularly burying the poles, is expensive, and finding the money for repairs is the key.
“I care about the disabled community,” she says.
Aaron Davis would like to see the city fix the sidewalk for other people who have to push someone in a wheelchair.
“I’m a strong 55-year-old,” he said. “If they can fix the sidewalks, that would be good for the next person.”