Pittsburgh’s hilly geography spawned at least 460 sets of steps that connect its neighborhoods and lead residents to access transit and much more.

Unfortunately, those steps also become dumping and trash magnets, and taking care of that problem — as well as their vegetation overgrowth and structural issues — poses a huge challenge.

Allegheny CleanWays and Landforce have worked together with help from community volunteers to start moving toward a solution. The Garden Club of Allegheny County awarded the two nonprofit organizations a $25,000 grant last year to “clean, beautify and establish a stewardship program” for five sets of those steps in North Side neighborhoods: Basin Street in Troy Hill/Spring Garden, Carrie Street in Fineview, Kenwood Avenue in Perry South, Faris Street in California-Kirkbride/Perry South, and Arch Street in Perry South/Central North Side.   

Lauren Pearman, education director and dumpbuster crew leader, said Allegheny CleanWays has weekly cleanups in the city and the county, and the nonprofit and its volunteer crews started working on the steps 2½ years ago. But it became a full-fledged program last year with the grant.

“Landforce came in and handled invasive weed control, painted railings and planted some species along the steps,” she said. “We organized cleanups with community groups to get all the big junk out. Now we’re in the process where we are training stewards, and they come in once a month and cut back overgrowth.”

A big issue to tackle is those ever-growing weeds, especially knotweed, and people dumping tires and other large items that must be hauled away. Allegheny CleanWays’ staff and volunteers spend about three hours during each cleanup on the steps, and Pearman said Landforce spent two workdays on each set of steps this past year.

Ken Duerig, of Ross, volunteers at a cleanup of the Kenwood Avenue steps and walkway in Perry South last month. (Matt Nemeth/Allegheny CleanWays)

The statistics for this work include five Allegheny Cleanways 3-hour cleanups with 34 volunteers. Allegheny Cleanways staff and those volunteers removed 4,197 pounds of garbage, 17 tires, 7 televisions, and one mattress from the 5 staircases. Landforce eliminated 25,571 square ft of invasive plant species, mostly knotweed, and planted 25 trees and painted 2,710 feet of railing.

Part of Landforce’s model is to engage and train adults with barriers to employment, and 14 of its crew trainees worked on this project.

Getting enough help for the project initially posed a challenge for Allegheny CleanWays. “The hardest thing for us was finding stewards,” she said. “First, we reached out to community groups, and they are already doing good work [in the neighborhood], but we found they are really stretched thin.” So the nonprofit turned to social media and a push for media coverage to raise awareness.

“We did have support from the Troy Hill Citizens Council, and they shared one of our cleanups,” Pearman said. “And the Fineview Citizens Council.  The other person who was a really helpful resource was Laura Zurowski, known as Mis.Steps on social media. She is a friend of the organization who really helped us a lot and connected us with people who care about steps. She helped us ID the steps to be included in the program.” 

Once those North Side steps were chosen, the work began in earnest, especially in finding those needed volunteers. “We knew they were out there. People in Pittsburgh love the steps,” she said. “They want them to be clean and inviting to use. We just had a hard time finding them and those who could realistically commit to taking care of those steps on a regular basis.”

The city is not directly involved in the project, but what Allegheny CleanWays and Landforce, as well as the volunteers, do is report steps’ structural integrity issues. Pearman said on some of the city steps they found treads no longer attached to them, foundation issues and broken railings. Landforce leaders worked with the city on the required permits to do its work. A city engineer has been helpful, she said, who offered the groups a pedestrian counter for one of the steps to track use. But someone stole it.

Allegheny CleanWays crew leader and education coordinator Lauren Pearman, right, instructs Pressley Ridge Day School students before a cleanup of the public steps at Brighton Road and Wing Way in Brighton Heights on April 14, 2023. (Matt Nemeth/Allegheny CleanWays)

Allegheny CleanWays’ hope is that the stewards can report the major issues to the city faster than the nonprofits can. “That is work the city has to complete,” Pearman said. “Trees fall on the steps, and the soil under the steps starts to move.”

Now she is working on steward training for 2024 work on the steps, and those sessions are being held to get ready and work on those steps before the vegetation starts to grow this spring, plus just to keep up with the trash on those steps. She is also prepared to step up the volunteer recruitment requests if some of the volunteers have to back out. Right now all the slots are full.

The Garden Club grant ends in June, Pearman said. The hope is to find a new funding source to continue the effort and possibly expand it to other city neighborhoods.

It won’t be hard for Allegheny CleanWays to find more steps to work on. Yes, the city website — which notes that Pittsburgh has more public steps, built on structures and others into sidewalks known as “jumperwalks,” than any other U.S. city — lists those 460 sets of steps. Pearman and others have found that the count could be much higher: Estimates run up to 800 and can reach 1,300 if city parks steps are added to the total, she said.

Pearman has been a Pittsburgh resident for 3½ years and has worked for Allegheny CleanWays for the past 18 months. She said she fell in love with the city through its steps, and that drives her in pushing this project. “They’re one of the best things about this city,” Pearman said.

Sleds sit full of litter collected around the Kenwood Avenue steps and walkway in Perry South on Dec. 16, 2023. Once collected, litter is weighed for documentation, loaded into Allegheny CleanWays’ truck and transported to the nearest public works site. (Matt Nemeth/Allegheny CleanWays)

Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at hfallon@unionprogress.com.

Helen Fallon

Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at hfallon@unionprogress.com.