Unique Streets: 6
Miles Walked: 6
Street Names (italicized have been walked on another day): Casino Drive, Reedsdale Street, N. Point Drive, Belmont Street, N. Franklin Street, Metropolitan Street, Columbus Avenue, Branchport Street, Preble Avenue, Island Avenue, Doerr Street, Beaver Avenue, Eckert Street, Cantril Street, Westmar Street, Pennsylvania Avenue, W. North Avenue.
Chateau is a neighborhood in Pittsburgh with a split personality. The neighborhood was literally cracked down the middle by route 65 in the 1960s and what remains is a dichotomy of worlds. A Gentlemen’s Club sits a block away from a homeless encampment overlooking the river. The defunct Town Talk/Wonderbread headquarters is down the street from various corporate offices in the Cardello Building. The Rivers Casino bookends the neighborhood in partnership with the idle Western Penitentiary.
A quote about Pittsburgh, often misattributed to Charles Dickens, describes a view one could have from Cliff Street in Crawford-Roberts as being “…hell with the lid taken off.” Boston writer James Parton wrote about Pittsburg(h) for The Atlantic Monthly and penned this famous description in 1868. If Mr. Parton were to see the burgh today, he probably wouldn’t paint such a bleak picture. Even so, our story is certainly a Tale of Two Cities.
I started my walk at the Rivers Casino and beelined for the Three Rivers Heritage Trail that journeys along the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio Rivers. Two Rivers flow into One. I wasn’t terribly interested in walking streets yet because there were only a few remaining in this neighborhood for me to walk. Those could wait while I indulged my morbid curiosity for the river’s bounty of discarded items. At least that which is lucky enough to get caught in the branches and docks that function like a fisherman’s bloated net. The part of the trail I was walking on paralleled the Ohio and I made sure to scan the riverside for interesting things. A TV, a few bicycles, Allegheny Whitefish (condoms.) No dead bodies. Damn.
On my first detour off the trail and closer to the river, I found a path that went through the joints of a bent chain link fence. The opening wasn’t visible from the wide public trail and I couldn’t resist exploring. The chain link fence was hastily put up to protect a deserted rectangular two-story building.
The windows that weren’t boarded up were shattered and graffiti decorated every reachable surface. In the area between the building and the river I saw tarps, tampon applicators, plastic bottles, shoes, blankets, and various items of damp clothing.
I tried not to linger in this area because I felt like I was walking through someone’s house. Legally, I’m sure I was trespassing, but I didn’t care about the absentee owners of the building. A feeling of panic started to build like wind through the tall weeds and I quickly turned on my heels when I saw several tents erected 100 feet from the building.
For years I’ve wondered what this building used to be. My first impression was that it looked like a 1990s nightclub that would offer guests a view of the river when they weren’t downing jaeger bombs and hitting on honeys. Now my curiosity was piqued even more by the condition of this structure and I had to research its history. A look at the 1923 Hopkins Maps showed that this building was there 97 years ago but was attached to a long warehouse. On the map, the warehouse is labeled as the Pittsburgh Annealing Box Company. The company was founded in 1893 and moved to Vanport in 2005. Apparently, the building has been vacant for 15 years.
Back on the trail that runs between the river and large warehouses, I found myself being drawn to the bank. A cement boat ramp kissed the river like a slobbery dog covered in garbage and wooded planks instead of viscous spit.
Boat slips jutted out on either side and served to keep the garbage monster from venturing downriver. The resulting conglomeration reminded me of a rat king so thick an adventurous person could walk on it like an island. Even though I am up-to-date on my tetanus shots, I didn’t dare.
My boots edged the muck and eventually I got close enough to see a small yellow teddy bear face peaking up between the splinters and oily sludge.
I left Pooh bear and kept walking, soon seeing my first Pittsburgh Protractor of the day affixed to a graffitied transformer box.
My year of walking has trained my eye to spy two things: Port-a-pottys and Pittsburgh Protractors. Someone has been adhering these geometry tools to surfaces in Pittsburgh for years and no one knows who it is. I think there must be multiple people because some are numbered, and others are not. The shape of the protractors mimics a bridge and in fact, I have seen most of them on bridges. The juxtaposition of the protractor and the graffiti on a piece of electrical equipment strikes me as the epitome of Pittsburgh itself. Art imitating life, life imitating art, and the spectacle of it.
Yellow signs let me know that Bicycle Heaven was THIS WAY and I followed them. I’ve never been, and I could use some warming up. I made my way to 1800 Preble Avenue and as soon as I walked in, my eyeballs were assaulted by a kitschy blitzkrieg.
Bicycle Heaven is indescribable. There is too much to look at and it made me dizzy trying. Glass cases filled with trinkets and baubles line either side of first floor. This case is filled with dozens of bike horns. Another holds Heinz pickle jars bedazzled with found items.
The walls are lined from floor to ceiling with gears, frames, tires, seats. In between the cases are hundreds of bicycles. Some for sale, others not. Motion detectors throughout the building trigger light shows, groovy music, and bike videos. Even though I was the only person inside the museum, it felt like there were people around every corner. It was unnerving. Then I went upstairs. A zombie butler mannequin greeted me with a sign requesting donations.
He stands next to the Elvis, Steelers, and Beatles sections. There is a bicycle for everyone here. Before I find the way out, I get lost a few times in the psychedelic tunnels of transportation engineering.
My senses are overloaded but the crisp air outside smacks me back to reality.
The riverbank offers visual gifts like the fine silt the Nile leaves after every rainy season. A family of ducks, another garbage island, a reappearing 4X4 that float races down the river when I stop to goggle.
Near a car ramp for a ferry to Brunot’s Island a red visor perches on a tree, shading a piney knot from the non-existent sun.
The wind is coming at me and I ask myself why I keep walking this direction. I’ve been here before. Nothing new to see. But there is. There always is. My lizard brain knows where I am going, and it overrides my legs. Finally, nose red, snot running, I come to the prison. A stony fortress that guards lonesome ghosts.
“No space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused” – Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol.
The original Western Penitentiary was built in 1826 a few blocks east of the current location. Charles Dickens visited that prison in March of 1842, and it is believed that he based A Christmas Carol on the living conditions. While James Parton couldn’t make the same claim of Pittsburgh today that he did in 1868, a feeling of desperate hopelessness still surrounds this area. The current prison building was built in sections with the first being erected in 1882. That turreted brick building still stands behind the iron gate on the river side of the tall stone walls.
It is a Bleak House of despair. The prison was closed in 2005 and reopened in 2007. It was closed again in 2017 and inmates were transferred to facilities across the state.
Walking around and looking through the iron gate I recall how John Edgar Wideman described visiting his younger brother in this very prison in the late 70s. The sheer power that the guards had over the inmates and in turn, their visiting families was absolute and absolutely abused.
“Prison is more perverse. Inside the walls nothing is certain, nothing can be taken for granted except the arbitrary exercise of absolute power.” John Edgar Wideman, Brothers and Keepers.
He also described his brother’s life in prison as
“…an experience of death by inches, minutes, hours, days.”
The madness and powerlessness felt by the men inside these walls radiates off the limestone blocks like the smell of rotting cabbage.
The chill of this imagined experience permeated my bones further than the wind. I walked to the front of the building and saw a USPS mail drop box. I wondered, Is that still picked up daily? If not, what messages of hope or despair are locked inside.
A grilled cheese and hot soup from Don’s Diner in Marshall-Shadeland were calling my name and I thanked the random circumstances in my life that allowed me to walk away from the prison as a free individual. We are all one bad decision away from being stuck behind tall walls like these. Black, white, rich, poor, prison is the ultimate equalizer before death.
Belly warmly filled and the cold memory of the pen fading behind me, I walked back to the Casino. Route 65 towered over me on the left and I struggled to imagine this community before it was lobotomized. Now, brownfields left by industries of yesteryear sit behind chain link fences right next to premium gated parking lots. Spaces rented to Steelers fans who don’t mind a chilly walk to Heinz Field. In 1940 the population of Chateau was 11,797. In the 2010 census only 11 people called it home. Did they count the homeless in that number? I didn’t see a single dwelling on my walk, but I saw evidence that someone lives nearby. For a two block stretch of Beaver Avenue piles of dog poop of various ages left a trail like breadcrumbs. I walked around the forming coprolites and wondered if the dog’s name was Hansel.
If I lived in Chateau would I let my dog shit wherever he pleased? I can’t say for certain that I wouldn’t.