Pittsburgh Stories and Tips

Take a Walk on the Wild Side!

Shade Garden on Sampsonia Way Photo, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

You remember the song: "Hey, Babe! Take a walk on the wild side!" I couldn’t help thinking of it as we roamed the Mexican War Streets on the north side of the city. Isn’t this what every tourist is looking for—something different, colorful, wild? You might ask, "What is wild about Queen Anne, Greek Revival, Italianate, French Second Empire, and Richardsonian Romanesque?" After all, this residential neighborhood adjacent to the Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh’s facility for installation art, has some buildings that have been preserved or restored, according to directives from the Historic Review Commission of Pittsburgh.

Visitor’s information centers can supply a walking map of the neighborhood, and even some interiors are open to the public. We didn’t have the map! Instead, we decided on an impromptu walk after we exited the Mattress Factory, and a "local guide" who had nothing better to do volunteered to show us his version of the historic neighborhood founded in 1840 as Allegheny City, home of Stephen Foster, Gertrude Stein, Willa Cather, and Dr. Felix Brunot’s mansion, a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Our guide didn’t know Gertrude Stein. He repeated, "Hey, Babe, you’re in the ‘hood now. Don’t come here after dark." His cool walk skipped a beat as he unlocked the gate of his friend’s little courtyard garden on Sampsonia Way. As we admired it, he knocked on the door, but nobody was home. The shade garden was peaceful.

On up the street, he led us to colorful murals painted on the sides of buildings, more gardens at other "friends’" houses, and corner bars where locals hang.

What we viewed could be called "the folk tour." I’m not sure that any of our stops are the ones on suggested walking tours, if any of the colors represent authentic reproductions of any folk culture, or if any of them ever passed historic review. My guess is that this African-American "‘hood" makes its own statement, independent of any design-review authority but that of the neighborhood’s own improvement councils. (There are several of these.) It’s a bold statement in bright colors that speak of post-industrial Africa—my architect friend tells me that authentic African colors must be made from natural dyes. (These aren’t!)

Buildings that are painted so vividly are not necessarily actual documented stops on the Underground Railroad, but they certainly remind us that this neighborhood was an important stop for slaves. (Some may wish that they did so in the colors of pre-industrial Africa!)

If you want to see more historically-correct scenes, look here. On my next visit, I will "walk this way!"—follow the "suggested" walking tour to see the site of Avery College, originally Allegheny Institute and Mission Church and the first post-secondary educational facility for African-Americans in the country, established by abolitionist and philanthropist Charles Avery for transplanted slaves. The basement of the structure was a documented hiding place for runaways from Southern plantations. (Avery also established Oberlin, the first college in America to admit black students.)

The municipally designated historic district is comprised of 335 buildings and begins on Sampsonia Way, home of the Mattress Factory. Besides nostalgic architecture, the neighborhood that was once Allegheny preserves a great amount of history. Gertrude Stein’s birthplace is on Beech Street. Willa Cather and other, lesser-known writers made the city their home. Stephen Foster was born and lived on Union Avenue, where he wrote "My Old Kentucky Home," and his father was mayor of Allegheny in 1842. In 1901, President McKinley’s funeral procession made Allegheny the center of national attention. Before that, trolleys traversed the fashionable city, where President Lincoln and other notables were entertained on Millionaires Row in the parlors of wealthy philanthropists, who discussed abolition and whose attitudes fashioned laws that lead to the end of slavery. In the late 19th century, the street that is now Ridge Avenue was thought to have more millionaires per square foot than any other place in the world.

Many of Pittsburgh’s famous "Firsts" originated here. The first wire bridge in the world was built across the Ohio River. Experiments in aerodynamics produced a propeller on the site of Observatory Hill. Aerial photography—with cameras attached to kites—captured views of Allegheny and "the Point" of downtown Pittsburgh, a rival city at the time. The first World Series was played on the north side at Exposition Park in 1903, while fashionable ladies in plumed hats and gentlemen in Charlie Chaplin-style "bowler" hats watched the game from their blankets spread on Monument Hill. All seemed well.

Local attitudes drooped a bit in 1907, when the city of Pittsburgh annexed Allegheny City—or, as some residents claimed, "stole" the historic neighborhood. Major renewal projects destroyed much of the former glory before restoration and preservation began. Still, enough history remains for an interesting walk among buildings that have been faithfully preserved or restored according to authoritative design review. This home is more sedate than the ones our guide was determined to show us.

A suggested walk also includes many churches, the old Market House, a post office museum, and more.

Our walk was an interesting lesson on changing attitudes and landscapes of city neighborhoods where individual ethnic identity is paramount. You are certain to see a great deal of color on any walk through the Mexican War Streets, laid out in 1848 by returning General William Robinson, Jr., and named after generals and battles of the Mexican War. Remember Henry David Thoreau, who went to jail in Massachusetts when he refused to pay his poll tax to protest the addition of Texas, another slave state, to the Union? That spirit of civil disobedience seems to still pervade this neighborhood. It’s part of its legacy.

Mexican War Streets is close to most north side attractions.

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