Brian Oswald is pretty familiar with the steps of the South Side Slopes.
He can rattle off statistics about the number of stairways, how that total compares to other city neighborhoods (it has the most), and even how many individual public "stair treads" the South Side stairways contain.
He's particularly proud of the set of steps we’re standing on on this day -- Oakley Street -- which ascend from Josephine Street, near the bottom of the Slopes, to eventually become a paved road farther up the hill.
Stretching up across the risers of the first flight of steps is a mosaic of a woman. Oswald and many other neighborhood residents put it together themselves over the past year. It’s just one of many ways that Oswald has been helping maintain and improve the neighborhood’s steps since he moved here ten years ago.
“I do a lot of walking and biking in the city, and I just kind of found the steps after moving here as a great way to get around," Oswald said. "It’s chutes and ladders. You can find a new way of getting to the same place any time you want.”
Oswald is now in his sixth year as the chairperson for StepTrek, a unique urban hike held each year by the South Side Slopes Neighborhood Association. The exact length changes annually, since there are so many different stairways to choose from, but it's always between two and three miles.
Oswald has put in countless hours for the hike over the years -- not only preparing for it logistically by planning routes and gathering sponsors, but also clearing the steps of trash and overgrowth. He said keeping the steps clean is often more than the city can handle, so he usually keeps a pair of snippers in his pocket to trim back any wayward vegetation when he goes out.
“So, if a concrete step is broken or a handrail is broken off, the city comes out, and they’re very responsive when we request these types of repairs," Oswald said. "But the rest of it falls on volunteers. It’s more than the city can do to clean up all the trash and paint the handrails.”
Oswald says Pittsburgh’s annual budget for steps, sidewalks, fences and retaining walls is $250,000.
“That is not a lot for this city," Oswald said. "So, if we want to keep these steps around, we need either a bigger budget number from the city or private investment into the infrastructure of these neighborhoods.”
Oswald’s friend and South Side Slopes Neighborhood Association board member Cara Jette said Oswald "dove right in" to a leadership position when he moved to the hillside community.
“He became president of the association for four years, and he’s just been a great leading force in the neighborhood," Jette said. "I don’t know where we’d be, at this point, without him.”
The steps are the “infrastructure of a bygone era,” as Oswald puts it, once ushering thousands of workers down to Pittsburgh’s riverside steel mills. They’re not carrying that volume of traffic anymore, but he said their usage is on the rise, thanks to more exposure and inclusion on Google Maps.
"I don’t know if there’s a true destination that I always head. The steps themselves are the destination," Oswald said. "It’s a hike and it’s enjoyable. You can find areas of the neighborhood that you wouldn’t know about if you didn’t take the steps.”
The 17th annual running of StepTrek takes place Saturday, October 7, with runners and walkers setting off from South Side Park on Josephine Street at 11 a.m. Proceeds from ticket sales support the South Side Slopes Neighborhood Association.