Photographer Eugene Smith's iconic portrait of 1950s Pittsburgh brought "Dream Street" to life. Where is Dream Street located? | Pittsburgh City Paper

Photographer Eugene Smith's iconic portrait of 1950s Pittsburgh brought "Dream Street" to life. Where is Dream Street located?

Question submitted by: Stephen Willing, Mars

As you'd expect, Dream Street is located in the realm of myth. And in the vaults of the city's Public Works department. 

Some background for readers who aren't fascinated by images of mid-century Pittsburgh: During the 1950s, former Life magazine photographer W. Eugene Smith was commissioned to photograph the city for author Stefan Lorant. (Some of those photos appear in Lorant's book Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City, which is probably sitting on your coffee table.) But the city captivated Smith, and he returned here on his own. In 1956, he took a photo titled "Dream Street" -- which became the title of a museum exhibit and book based on his "Pittsburgh Project."

"Dream Street" is an oddly rustic image for mid-century Pittsburgh. It features a 1950s-era convertible beneath a canopy of trees, parked beside what looks like a country lane. Next to a mailbox is a black-lettered street sign reading, simply, "Dream."

The image is both hopeful and strangely bleak, and I wanted to see what Dream Street looks like today. So I popped its name into Google Maps. There it was, lying just off Saw Mill Run Boulevard in the Brookline/Overbrook area -- an easy drive. 

Chasing a dream, though, is never simple. 

On the maps, Dream lies just off of Harmony, which is right off Edgebrook Avenue. But there is no Harmony -- there's only a private drive with a "no trespassing" sign.

So I spent a couple of hours exploring Dream, working harder than a psychoanalyst with a rich client. But this is one of those forgotten corners of Pittsburgh, where third-growth forest springs up beyond homes with exposed insulation. I circled the place where Dream Street must lie, but all I found were old real-estate signs, discarded home appliances and a squirrel eating in the middle of the road. I wended my way along Timberland, Edgebrook, Ferncliff and Abstract Avenue -- presumably the one street in Pittsburgh you can visit in your mind. And as far as I could tell, Dream and Harmony only existed in the abstract. I was chasing a phantom.

I probably looked like a vision from a Coleridge poem myself ... driving around in an ancient Mazda Protégé (it dates back to the Clinton years, pre-impeachment) and asking passers-by, "Have you ever heard of Dream Street? Do you know where Harmony can be found?" 

No one did, not even the guys at an auto-repair shop nearby. ("There's no Dream Street back there," one told me, with the gruff, accidental poetry that makes me love Pittsburgh. "I grew up here.")

Finally, I consulted the city's Public Works department, and its vault of maps and street registries. According to those records, Dream and Harmony lay in what was once West Liberty borough; they were part of an 1893 development given the suitably phantasmal name of "Bailey and Moon Plan #3." Originally named Ridge Street, Dream took its new name in 1910: West Liberty had merged with the city of Pittsburgh, which already had a street named Ridge. 

Without that name change -- which is just noted as a line of text in a barely opened file folder -- Smith would never have taken his photo. It would never have been the title of a book, or a major museum exhibit at the Carnegie. Yet the name change seems to be the only thing of note to have happened there. 

Today, Dream is what the folks at public works call a "paper street." Such streets show up only on maps. The hoped-for development never occurs, or it dies away. Weeds spring up, and the street recedes into myth. Much of Harmony was acquired by the Port Authority in 1974 to build the adjoining South Busway. A map related to that acquisition shows that the rest of Harmony was already a "paper avenue"; Dream isn't mentioned at all. 

But it still exists, at least according to Google, whose cutting-edge technology can direct you to streets that haven't existed for decades. And it still exists in government records. Otherwise, though, it's as much a fantasy as it was when Smith captured it. The county's real-estate Web site does list three properties there, but all are vacant. Only one parcel, owned by the Port Authority, even has an address. It's 1517 Dream -- the same number on the mailbox in Smith's photo.