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Oak l and in Pit


Jessamyn Miller Neighborhood Atlas Pittsburgh Digital City Design Studio II Spring 2011 School of Design Carnegie Mellon University

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Streets drifted ¾¾ Dawson Street ¾¾ Frazier Street ¾¾ Child Street ¾¾ Bohem Street ¾¾ Boulevard of the Allies ¾¾ Romeo Street ¾¾ Parkview Avenue ¾¾ Swinburne Street My drifts took me to the streets surrounding my house. All are densely populated, residential roads with homes that date from the turn of the 20th century. The neighborhood is a mix of University of Pittsburgh students, young families with children and senior citizens. I walked on Sunday afternoons, when nearly everyone is inside and the streets are quiet. Only glimpses of people emerging from their homes, heading to the car gave us the occasional view of interior activity through the open front door.

Open space

Dan Marino park is a block-sized field at the end of Frazier and Dawson. Several inches of snow cover the ground, yet fresh footprints were visible. I noticed a wheat-pasted graphic on the edge of the small brick building at the entrance. It was a cartoonish funeral parade of several characters carrying a British phone booth, perhaps mourning a now-gone pay phone. The park is curtained with chain-link fence on nearly all sides. A clear view of the river is possible by standing at the edge of the field. A small playground and tiny amphitheater sit at the edge of the park. Covered in snow, do they slip out of memory during winter? Where do children play during these cold months? As I write this, I hear the squeals of young cousins playing next door. Grandma’s living room is their winter playground.


The condition of South Oakland sidewalks varied wildly. Many concrete sidewalks have shifted like tectonic plates, creating a path of tripping hazards. One section of sidewalk is covered in plywood, then in snow and ice, evidence of some unfinished city work. We noticed family business names and phone numbers pressed into the concrete, an advertisement of the laborers who poured them. On one street, the sidewalk is aged slate slabs. Small, circular erosions gracefully show decades of weathering and footfalls.

Home faÇades

South Oakland could win an award for its architecture crimes. Nearly every home showed some sign of attempted repairs or temporary modification. Porches were closed in with glass block. Wooden siding was covered with fake brick siding, which was covered with vinyl siding. One elegant brick manse had the front door suffocated by plywood, but we noticed a man coming out of the side door. Homes are humble but tall; two and three stories under a sharp roofline. Christmas decorations linger. Valentine’s Day decorations are popping up. Snow shovels and brooms lean against porch walls, ready for the next dusting. The porches themselves are like suburban garages, filled with stored items, battered furniture, tarp-covered grills. Many windows have bright striped metal awnings, a midcentury relic. At the end of Dawson, an antique sink sits in the corner of the lawn.

Street surfaces

The new asphalt on the main roads is so high that it almost reaches the top of the curbstone. On Childs Street, the road is paved in un-mortared brick, which click-clack underfoot. At the end of Frazier, nearing the Romeo Street staircase, the road is paved in granite stones. It is very uneven, but keeps you from slipping straight down the hill.


St. Regis Church sits like a brick shithouse on Parkview Street. Dark windows, no obvious entrance, the church is literally a brick wall that comes right to the edge of the sidewalk. Whatever original church once stood there must have been renovated in the 1960s. Next door is the senior citizen and handicapped housing center, a flat, art deco facade which once housed the St. Regis School. The windows have been half-boarded and painted brown, and an unsightly glass and steel entryway was added to the front door, swallowing up the front lawn with a twist of staircases. Across the street, one house with a Spanish sign and a cross indicates another religious community.


There is little in the way of shopping convenience. At the bleeding edge of Boulevard of the Allies and Ward St, a pizza shop, laundromat and auto repair garage sit too close for the cars speeding by to stop. On Dawson, a former storefront has been turned into a terrifying Christian children’s reading room, which is always closed with large metal gates. In the windows sit an old fashioned school desk and books. The view behind it is concealed with curtains. It gives me the creeps. (I’ve imagined little children chained down in the basement. It’s horrible and could really be the opening scene for a thriller).


By far my most intriguing find of South Oakland is the outdoor staircases. Intended for foot commuters to get up and down the hill to Bates Street, I imagine they replaced old dirt paths. A very large staircase at the end of Bohem Street is barred off. On the day we discovered it, almost hidden next to a lonely house at the edge of the hill, animal footprints were visible in the snow. Looking down, we saw one flight of stairs was cracked and had fallen to the ground, rendering them unsafe. The staircase was so long, we could see it criss-crossing the hillside several times before disappearing out of sight. At Frazier Street, a steep staircase descends through a patch of woods. On one side, an antique rusted refrigerator lies on its back. On the other side, a car engine. A few steps are missing, so you must take care to hop over the gaps. Halfway along, the staircase splits off to Romeo Street. There we discovered a small row of houses sitting below the streetline. One had a front porch as colorful and furnished as a living room. Next door the house was vacant and completely covered in graffiti. I noticed a Savannah-style side porch entrance. Next to that, a vintage model complete with horse-and-carriage appliques was tidy and spare. At the end, a man popped his head out and asked, “Do you like the neighborhood?� After photographing the first house, #3 Romeo Street, three young men emerged and chatted with us, then asked us to join them for pizza. We decided Romeo Street was the best place in the neighborhood to meet men.

How could residents of South Oakland improve their lives? Would superficial home remodeling be enough of a morale boost to freshen up the neighborhood? Would homeowners resent someone telling them to change their homes? Could trees be planted along the sidewalks?

Could the heavy electric wiring and utility poles be replaced with something that did not mar the skyscape? What could be done to improve the neighborhood for families? Why do students get stuck living in such crappy houses? Should vinyl siding and glass block be banned? Why so much trash?

Is that balcony legal? Did that house burn down? Why do people use roofing tile on the front of the house? When was the last time that railing was painted? Is this staircase going to fall down? Do these people have fireplaces? Who left that perfectly nice Mercury Marquis in that falling down garage?

Why the hell do people spray paint graffiti? Who boards up a window? Why can’t they order the same size window that was there before? Why didn’t the streetsweeper come at the end of fall? I wonder who lives here. Why is there an AC sidways in the window? Is that fruit punch in the snow?

South Oakland Atlas  

A psychogeographic drift through the South Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.