2006 Fall Guide: Signal Changes | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

2006 Fall Guide: Signal Changes

A feet-first guide to fall

Taking a walk is more than simply placing one foot in front of the other. Walking lets us explore new neighborhoods, learn some history, take a leafy break in Penn’s Woods … or just slow down to enjoy our surroundings.

While walking is a year-round activity, fall is a particularly great time to hit the streets and trails of Pittsburgh. The mugginess of summer has passed, and days toggle between pleasantly warm and refreshingly brisk. The leaves are turning, and the autumnal colors are splashed across the region’s hills.

Since fall is a traditional time to reflect and assess, let me suggest contemplating how fortunate we are to reside where we do. We take for granted our city’s rich history; the sprawling wooded parks in the heart of the ’Burgh; easily accessible recreational facilities throughout Allegheny County; and the expansive countryside that surrounds our region.

From Downtown Pittsburgh to the idyllic parks out in the suburbs, CP offers a sampler of opportunities to get out walking and see our region from the ground up.




Click on the links below to see events coming your way this fall.

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Tales of the City

A Downtown walking tour with Pittsburgh’s History & Landmarks Foundation

One of the missions of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, a nonprofit historic preservation group, is to educate people about the historical and architectural treasures around us. Toward that goal, PHLF offers several short walking tours. These are easy walks, more about dispensing information than getting exercise, but nonetheless they reinforce a feet-first mentality: When you walk through a city, you’re immersed in it. You notice more and make connections between buildings, spaces and history. And on a PHLF walk, you absolutely learn to look up.

The current Fifth and Forbes Walking Tour, for example, is an hour-long walk that makes a lazy loop of those two streets between Market Square and Wood Street, with particular emphasis on what’s happening now in those blocks. This tour will not task any walker — it moves at a gentle pace, with plenty of stops. The primary risk is being jostled on Downtown’s narrow sidewalks.

On a recent lunch hour, a group of nearly two dozen set off across Market Square. Our guide, Dorothea Thompson, a former reference librarian at Carnegie Mellon and a PHLF volunteer for eight years, directed our attention skyward. “One purpose of the tour is to encourage people to look up all the time, regardless of the mess below,” she said, referring to the empty storefronts and often cheaply re-constructed street-level facades. Such interest can be contagious; passers-by craned their necks when they saw our group dutifully peering upward.

Often the exteriors of the upper floors are the most lavishly decorated. Among the prevalent architectural grace notes are reliefs of birds, flowers, cornucopias and lion heads. “If you see lions on a building,” suggested Thompson, “it was probably once a bank.”

The tour is a narrative of booms and busts: fraught times in the 1990s when the wrecking ball hovered over 62 buildings here; lost battles, such as the Lazarus and Lord & Taylor projects; and the area’s potential future. Thompson hopes that current developments — of luxury apartments, retail and office space — will enhance the whole corridor, and that the vitality will spill over, helping to preserve existing historical buildings.

Despite her headset microphone, Thompson had to raise her voice to be heard above the babble of Downtown; on the upside, in a city, noise means life. As we turned onto the 200 block of Fifth Avenue, a large-scale demolition added to the din: Thirteen buildings are being knocked down here to make way for a 23-story PNC building, the city’s first new skyscraper in over two decades. Someone in our group tut-tutted the news, but Thompson pointed to progress: Rather than wholesale destruction, some of the architectural salvage from those buildings went to the nonprofit salvage emporium Construction Junction for reuse.

Occasionally, Thompson pointed out buildings that look particularly forlorn above their retail level, such as 214-18 Fifth Ave., which she noted has an unusual cast-iron front. “If it was your building, what could you do to save it?” Even from the sidewalk, the exterior wood looked rotten. It was just one building, but already my shoulders were heavy with the imaginary challenge. (The PHLF is not so daunted, having purchased three buildings in disrepair at Fifth and Market that it hopes to fully renovate.)

Our tour ended back where we started, under the clock in Market Square. Thompson sent us off with a reminder: “In other cities, the centers have nothing but a few tall office buildings, and everybody leaves at 5. To maintain the lifeblood of Pittsburgh, some history needs to remain.” And we should take time to appreciate its silent gifts.

Information on PHLF walking tours is available at www.phlf.org or by calling 412-471-5808 x527. Upcoming tours include Fifth and Forbes (noon-1 p.m. Fri., Sept. 22, and Fri., Sept. 29) and South Side Stroll (10:30-11:45 a.m. Sat., Sept. 23, and Sat., Sept. 30). Free for members; $5 for nonmembers.

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Q&A with Donna Ruff


As a technical writer, Pittsburgher Donna Ruff knows how to use words. An outdoors enthusiast since her college days — she hikes, climbs and cross-country skis — she reckoned that her skills would be a good match for an opportunity to add the Pittsburgh region to the “60 Hikes Within 60 Miles” guidebook series.

The 60 Hikes guides are published by Menasha Ridge Press, an Alabama-based publisher that has published 21 other city-centric hiking guides, all designed to get urbanites out walking. Featuring hikes of varying length and difficulty, the guides dispel the notion that the urban animal has no opportunities to escape the pavement.

Each of the hikes in Ruff’s guide includes a map, a chart noting change in elevation, directions from Pittsburgh and GPS coordinates. Also noted are sun exposure, how busy the trail is, estimated hiking time, trail surface, facilities and adjacent attractions. The entry for a loop hike in Raccoon Creek State Park, for example, includes valuable information regarding vending machines and a nearby swimming beach for the potentially weary and sweaty hiker.

Such snapshots are followed by detailed descriptions of the hike, including what physical challenges a hiker might expect, as well as geological features, flora and fauna, and often some history. Background information may be as prosaic as what family once farmed the land, or as dramatic as where a young George Washington led and lost his first battle at Fort Necessity.

The book also breaks out hikes into useful lists — such as hikes that are good for kids, hikes that feature certain natural attractions (lakes, rivers, waterfalls), and that all-important designation, “Hikes with Steep Climbs.”

Sixty hikes — you must have done a lot of hiking in a hurry.

I started in the fall of 2004. It took almost two years, with all the hiking, writing, mapping, and then going through the editing process.

Did you do each hike only once?

There were a couple times I had to redo hikes. For the mapping, I used a GPS for every hike. On one, the GPS dropped all the data — and that had been over six miles in deep snow, with snowshoes. I was like, “Oh great.”

How do you track down that many hikes?

I called the different county parks, and talk to the recreation manager. First, I’d find out if the trails were even maintained. Because sometimes they’re not — the counties don’t have a lot of money. There were times I was dissuaded from doing a trail which might have sounded really nice, because they’re not keeping it up anymore.

When you were writing the guide, was it a challenge to make each hike seem unique and interesting?

That’s why I tried to put in some history, to identify some of the flora or what kinds of trees might be there. I tape-recorded each hike, so I noted what I was seeing. I stopped at all the visitors’ centers. And there’s a lot to learn — like all the work that the [Depression-era] Civilian Conservation Corps did in our state parks.

Isn’t it awkward to walk in the woods talking to yourself with a tape recorder?

It is weird if other people see you and wonder what you’re doing. When I was doing the reservoir part of the Highland Park hike — there’s a lot of people up here, and I felt awfully silly carrying a GPS and a tape recorder. People were like, “What the heck does she need a GPS for?”

Do you have a starter hike you recommend?

There are some really easy ones. If people just want to get out and they don’t really want to get into the woods, they could do any of these hiking trials that are close to them. They could hike in the city parks. Todd Sanctuary is only about 20 minutes north of the city. It’s beautiful, and it seems very remote because it’s so quiet. Every hike in there is easy.

When you recommend hiking to people, what sort of excuses do you hear?

A lot of people don’t like bugs. But I almost never have any problem with any bugs. Some people are afraid of animals, but you don’t get to see nearly as much wildlife as you’d like to. If animals are even around, they typically leave because they’re afraid of you. Some people might not want to go out into the woods alone but you can take a friend or go with a hiking group (see sidebar).

If people want to get out, fall is the best time of year. The leaves are changing, it’s just absolutely spectacular. If people are looking for ways to get exercise, hiking is an easy way. One of the jokes among my outdoor friends is: It’s not that we want to be so active, we just like to eat. You can enjoy your food, because you’re gonna burn calories.

I don’t know why hiking is intimidating to some people. You can start slow, go at your pace, and there’s no equipment to buy. I hear people say, “Well, you hike” — and I just tell them, “Really, it’s walking.” There’s a trail — it’s not like I’m out there bushwhacking.

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