Written by Margaret J. Krauss

At first, the group of six or seven people outside Artisan Tattoo Gallery on Penn Avenue on a sunny Saturday afternoon could have been a serendipitous meeting: neighbors running into neighbors, acquaintances catching up. But the clutch continued to grow, swelling to 20, then 50, then 60 people, all wearing suspiciously practical clothing and sporting tiny backpacks. A pair of hiking poles finally gave the game away—it was opening day for Urban Hike.

Urban Hike is a cohesive band of Pittsburgh enthusiasts who plan and execute hikes of three to five miles through the city’s neighborhoods, stopping at points of interest along the way. The group exemplifies the creative follow-through typical of Pittsburghers: they have no governing body, no permanent office, and no official titles, but they consistently provide a unique service to the community.

A “Short, Sweet, and Steep” exploration of Garfield would be the first hike of 2013.

Emily Keebler, a native Pittsburgher, has been an organizer with Urban Hike almost since its 2003 inception. She hopped up on a short wall and introduced the neighborhood of Garfield, encouraged hikers to ask lots of questions along the way, and then ushered everyone inside Artisan Tattoo Gallery to look at its penny floor.

The entire group crammed inside and stared in the direction of their feet, taking in the 250,000 pennies perfectly aligned and lacquered to the floor, the odd dime shining amongst the copper.

The Gallery’s owner, Mel Angst, stood on a chair and fielded questions, gesturing with a cup of coffee. When asked why she’d chosen to undertake such a painstaking labor, Angst referenced the Gallery’s soon-to-be-opened coffee shop.

“Coffee shops used to be called ‘penny universities’ because for a couple cents you could come and spend all day and learn about the issues of the day. So I thought it’d be cool to have a penny floor.”
It hit me that walking with Urban Hike is rather like turning over a ho-hum rock only to find a colony of bustling ants hidden underneath: the hikes are a means of revealing pockets of creativity lost to the casual passer-by.

“We show people that there are neat things going on all over the place that you don’t know about and you should appreciate them,” Keebler said. “Maybe people haven’t visited a neighborhood simply because it is unfamiliar, or maybe it has a stigma for them and we can help remove that.”

Leaving Artisan Tattoo Gallery, a man lingered to ask Angst about her tattoos.

“How many do you have?” he asked.

“They’re all over my body.”

“All over?”

“Head to toe.”

The group had moved out into the sunshine and smooshed into a blob outside the Center for PostNatural History, before turning like a semi onto Dearborn Street. Rick Swartz, of the Bloomfield Garfield Corporation, talked about the history of flux in Garfield as neighbors and hikers alike listened attentively.

Swartz said the corporation, in trying to maintain Garfield as a working class neighborhood accessible to working class residents, aims to strike a balance between rental housing and home ownership.

“When you have homeowners, they get more involved in the life of the community. You help to sustain the neighborhood over the long term,” Swartz said. “When you’re a tenant, you have less skin in the game.”

Debi Hill watched the scene from her porch, waiting for her three daughters to help her lift the ladders she’s using while remodeling the outside of her home.

Hill has lived in Garfield since 1975 when neighbors left their doors unlocked and all the kids played together, to the rough and tumble 80’s, to the current influx of new neighbors and younger people. “I’m glad to see all the changes,” she said, “the neighborhood’s getting really good again.”

There is a permeable boundary between a hike and the neighborhood it moves through.

“By simply going walking hikers can interact with other community members,” Keebler said. Creating a space for those interactions makes for a more cohesive city, a city in which it is OK and pleasant and important to talk with your neighbors.

Hikers fell in to trek up the steep stretch of N. Winebiddle Street. As we gained elevation, the new view helped the city to fall into place in my brain, filling in geographical gaps.

As people climbed they let their dogs out on longer leashes, debated the merits of development, and swapped notes on changes in their own neighborhoods. Penny Marshall heard about Urban Hike a few years back and has since been on six or seven.

“I figured—I’ve lived here all my life. After 50 years I should know something,” she laughed. “You’re not going to see these places by accident. You have to go there intentionally.”

As the group snaked past the Garfield water tower—taller than the Cathedral of Learning—visited Healcrest Urban Farm (where owner Maria Graziani sold handmade popsicles), and stopped at Garfield Community Farm’s bioshelter-in-progress, I realized just how true Marshall’s statement was. Urban Hike hinges on intention, asking hikers to take a close look at the communities around them. By adding layers of anecdote, fact, and experience to familiar landscapes, you begin to see life thrumming through every alleyway; the group helps residents make their own personal city map.

At each point of interest marked on the hike’s map, business owners or community stakeholders talked about their work and their goals and then fielded questions from hikers, whose curiosity was legitimized by the “official” nature of Urban Hike.

The Sprout Fund enabled Urban Hike to gain the same legitimacy that the organization now extends to its participants’ curiosity. In 2004, Urban Hike applied for and received a $1,000 Seed Award to build its website.
“If you can imagine, this was pre-Facebook, before you could create your own blog,” Keebler said. “It was crucial to have a web presence where people could find out about us. It also helps that we can say—we have a website, you can visit it; we’re legitimate.”

Eve Wider, one of the Urban Hike organizers, urged eager question-askers at Healcrest Urban Farm to start hiking to the next stop.

“There are so many interesting things going on and people are so interested in everything that we stop at,” Wider said, rounding up stragglers. “And that’s good. But it’s tough to find a balance between things to see and what makes an interesting ‘hike.’”

Keebler noted the same thing but added, “We figure it comes out right: either people know what we’re about and they’ll come back or they’ll go walking on their own, hopefully.”

Urban Hike makes the unfamiliar familiar, taking participants out of their cars, out of their comfort zones, and introducing them to the strange, quirky, endearing things their city has to offer. And in doing so, Urban Hike enables people to explore on their own.

You can join Urban Hike this Saturday on a walk through the (Sub)Urban neighborhood of Bridgeville.