Maybe it was the headless torso carved from wood in Perry North or the “flying carpet” in a Knoxville tree or the pet pig in a Brighton Heights yard.
There has been a lot of weirdness on Meghan Snatchko’s quest to walk every street in Pittsburgh, an odyssey that started in January and one that has touched 1,490 streets, 51 neighborhoods, and covered more than 156 miles and 20,220 feet of elevation since then.
Asked to name the weirdest of the weird, Snatchko pauses and disappears into the recesses of her memory bank. She re-emerges a minute later with an armload of possibilities. Turns out it’s hard to choose just one.
We recently tagged along with Snatchko in Point Breeze as she checked a number of streets off her to-do list and kept an eye out for new oddities to add to her collection — and to her blog posts.
Every single day there’s something that makes me go “What in the hell is that!?”
Snatchko, a former librarian, said after exhausting every street in her hometown of Hopewell, she decided to take on the big city to the southeast. She has set out to walk some portion of every street in Pittsburgh. (There are more than 4,600, for those of you keeping track.)
She’s not the only one. Others, like Lisa Valentino, are going even further, intending to step on every inch of every street the city can claim. (Snatchko said she might try this the next time around.)
All are the keepers of a new trend, that of the urban explorer on foot armed with a camera and an eye for granular and unusual detail.
Naturally, we had some questions for Snatchko about Pittsburgh’s walkability, its eccentricities, its neighborhoods, and its denizens. If walking is the best way to discover a city, we wanted to know what she’d learned.
So, we decided to tag along and ask her.
Our conversation — lightly edited for clarity and to remove any references to the sound of my labored breathing — follows here.
Q: Why did this all start?
A: It was kind of like a New Year’s resolution. I wanted to start walking. I’ve been a runner in the past, but, you know, you kind of fall off the wagon, and it’s hard to get back on. I don’t really like it, running. I love the calorie burn of it and how I feel afterwards, but it sucks. Whereas walking, you can see things, take pictures, explore areas.
Q: How long do you expect this project to take?
A: I’d say a little over a year. It’s gonna be three months next week, and I’ve done almost 1,500 streets.
Q: How many streets do you hit on an average day?
A: It actually goes by mileage, so I get about 10 streets per mile. But I don’t like these streets here (in Point Breeze) because they’re too long. We’ve only hit like five different ones so far. Allentown has these little, like, quarter streets, and it’s so easy to hit a bunch of them at once.
Q: How much time do you spend walking each day?
A: I usually walk for around 2 hours a day.
Q: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen?
A: In Perry North, we saw a tree trunk that was carved in the shape of a male torso. I can’t explain it. It looked kind of like a White Walker from Game of Thrones. It was in an alley, which is why I love alleys. People hide the most interesting things behind their houses.
Q: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve found while walking?
A: I’ve seen all sorts of stuff that I will not pick up. You know, like syringes, gloves. I saw a carpet in a tree, like a flying carpet. Every single day there’s something that makes me go “What in the hell is that!?”
Q: What’s the weirdest animal you’ve seen?
A: A pig in Brighton Heights. He was in a yard like a dog. And then I saw turkeys the other day. I’ve seen a couple of turkeys, but the most recent was in Perry North. Two wild turkeys just hanging out in someone’s yard. I’ve seen deer, too.
Q: Do you wear headphones?
A: No, never. I listen and look at my surroundings. I try to figure out what kind of people live in the houses I’m walking past.
Q: Does Pittsburgh have a sound?
A: I’d say the smells are more what I notice. I don’t know if you know the ozone smell. It’s like when you’re on a busy road, it’s not necessarily car exhaust, it’s like this acrid smell. That, you know, and mud, mulch. Oh, yeah, and dog poop. Lots of dog poop.
And in Perry North recently, we smelled the trees before we could see them.
Q: What do you map with?
A: I use Google Maps and Apple Maps and the Hopkins maps, which are from like 1923, to see what it used to be like. I don’t do this in every single area I walk, but if I’m confused about something I will.
Q: Have you found mistakes in the mapping of Pittsburgh?
A: It doesn’t even shock me anymore. My friend Amy went with me in Perry North, and I was like, “If I got paid every time I found a mistake, I’d be rich.”
Q: Do you report them to Google Maps?
A: I reported one and they changed it on the map. It was Carnival Way in Allentown and they said there was a Carnival Way in Highland Park, but there isn’t. It’s Carmine Way in Highland Park. So, I got them to change that one.
Q: Which neighborhoods have the worst sidewalks?
A: Hazelwood’s bad. People put carpets on the sidewalks so grass doesn’t grow through. But really it’s anywhere. Everyone wants a tree-lined street but the trees f*ck up the sidewalks. Honestly, the more desirable parts of town, they usually have the worst sidewalks for that reason.
In Wilkinsburg, right by Regent Square, somebody made a sidewalk out of tires. It’s supposed to allow the water to soak through, so you don’t have the runoff and flooding, but also the trees don’t disturb it with their roots.
And then there’s Pittsburgh’s stairs … I’ve been on some where it says: “These steps are closed.” Like on 57th Street in Stanton Heights, it says “closed” but we went on them anyway, and it was OK. But there are other steps that aren’t closed, and you’re like, “these should be closed.”
Sometimes the GPS lies and says there’s a staircase where there isn’t one, and other times there is something there and the GPS doesn’t know.
Q: Have you had any close calls where the lack of a sidewalk has forced you into the roadway?
A: I walked on North Canal Street in Deutschtown and I didn’t realize it was the onramp to 279. But it was also a street and I was like, “Well, I have to walk on it.” My husband goes, “Are you going to walk on 376, too?” and I thought, “I guess I’m going to have to.” And some streets have different sections named after different people, so I’m gonna have to hit all those, too.
Q: Do you like more congested or less congested parts of town to walk in?
A: I like neighborhoods like this (Point Breeze). I haven’t really done any densely populated areas yet. I’m saving those for the summer. When school’s out, this will be a very different experience.
Q: Which neighborhoods have the friendliest pedestrians?
A: I want to say Fineview. Mexican War Streets for sure. I feel like it also depends on the weather. If it’s rainy, I don’t see anybody.
People sometimes find me suspicious, like, “Why is this person walking down this street?”, especially if it’s a dead end. I actually have these little business cards that I can give people with the link to my website to show them it’s legit.
Usually the only people I tell are the people who look at me weird and I can tell that they would be open to a conversation. And then I usually tell the people in the businesses I visit after I’m done walking.
A: I try to stop in local businesses after my walk or maybe during. And sometimes I’ll shout them out. Pear and Pickle in Troy Hill. 802 Bean Company in Brookline. Muddy Cup in Beechview.
Q: Do you walk in all seasons?
A: Yes. There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad preparation. My car is filled with every sort of jacket and glove. That’s my gear.
Q: Do you walk alone?
A: I have friends who will come with me. My friend from high school comes with me like once a week.
Q: Do you walk shapes?
A: I’ve thought about it. I don’t have that much planning in my life. But in Bloomfield I made a heart by accident. (Her tracking data revealed this afterward.) It was right around Nico’s Recovery Room.
Q: Is there a fitness component to this or just curiosity?
A: There’s a fitness component. I lost like 17 pounds so far.
Q: What’s proper sidewalk etiquette? Walking on the right side or left?
Right side. Obviously.
Q: Pittsburgh thinks of itself as a very walkable town. Do you agree?
A: Maybe not in the winter because of the shoveling and ice but also because it’s just so cold. It’s beautiful in the summer, though.
Q: What have you learned about Pittsburgh on your journey?
A: The whole idea of “You can’t get there from here” is definitely the case in Pittsburgh in terms of geography. Or you don’t even know that “here” exists. People tend to stay in their area, and if they do travel, they’re traveling in a car. If you walk it, it’s completely different. And the views. Since there are so many hills and valleys — I was in Perry North, and I’m walking down the street and there’s two houses at the end of the street and between them I could see the observatory and behind it Mount Washington. And I said there is nowhere else that that view exists.
Q: “Can’t get there from here?” Is that a yinzer-ism?
A: Yes. (It’s also the name of the website where Snatchko is documenting and blogging about this project.) If you ever ask a yinzer for directions, if it’s somewhere far or complicated, you’ll get, “You can’t get there from here.” Obviously you can, but sometimes … We were on Veteran Street in Perry North or Perry South and there was a street that was down over the hill and there was no way to get to it. I called out to my friend and said, “Hey, you can’t get there from here,” and I meant it.
Also people don’t realize they can get there from here because sometimes you don’t even realize what’s in your city because it’s all so disjointed.
Q: Do you look for certain things on your walks? Some people spot things like playing cards or Q-Tips or etchings on bricks.
A: I see those dental picks a lot. Just other random things. What I find is, I call it synchronicity: When you’re on a walk, you’ll see like three things that have something to do with wolves and you’re like, “Huh.”
Retaining walls. I love a good retaining wall. But I just look at everything. For example, you see that bag of soil on that porch? They’re gonna plant something soon. And I see that and start to craft a narrative in my mind.