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Stair City East and Stair City West

By Frank Gruber

I spent the holiday weekend in Pittsburgh with my wife's family. The weather was good for Pittsburgh for late November: cold -- in the 30s -- but mostly clear. We took advantage of the sunshine and did some sightseeing.

It's hard to think of Pittsburgh as anything like Santa Monica, especially when it's cold. Santa Monica has the beach, and has been a major tourist site since its founding, and is famous for movie stars and skateboarding, among other things.

Pittsburgh has the Steelers, is a place where more tourists come from than go to, and is famous for robber barons and blast furnaces, among other things.

Funny though, but the more I hung around what is still called the Steel City, but which isn't so any longer, the more similarities I noted between the two cities.

For instance, both cities have beautiful natural locations alongside water: Santa Monica on the evocative crescent of its namesake bay, and Pittsburgh at the confluence of two noble rivers, the Monongahela and the Allegheny.

Here's the Monongahela as it passes through the city, approaching the "Golden Triangle" where it and the Allegheny meet to form the Ohio.

(The Monongahela River passes through Pittsburgh--Photo by Frank Gruber.)

There's another similarity between Santa Monica and Pittsburgh that this photo calls to mind, although it may not be obvious: namely that both cities were once blue-collar industrial cities that lost their industries in the 1970s and then remade their economies.

Until the 1970s, the banks of the Monongahela in Pittsburgh were lined with steel mills and foundries. There's a still a narrow bridge over the river called the "Hot Metal Bridge"; it got that name in the old days because it was used to transport molten steel from furnaces on one side of the river to finishing plants on the other.

Now there are no steel mills within the City of Pittsburgh.

It's true that Santa Monica was never as famous for industry as Pittsburgh, but until the 1970s the economy of our town, a much smaller city, revolved around the Douglas Aircraft plant on Ocean Park Boulevard -- at one time one of the largest factories in the world. The plant closed in 1975.

Both Pittsburgh and Santa Monica have reconstituted their economies since losing their big industrial plants, although the going was easier in Santa Monica because it's part of a region that has been growing. The population of the Pittsburgh metropolitan region has stagnated; the population of the city itself, about 315,000, is less than half of its former peak.

While Santa Monica's population has remained the same, Southern California's population has increased hugely since 1970, and the Westside is now the locus of the second largest concentration of jobs in the region.

In Santa Monica, because of the region's growth, the closing of the Douglas plant caused hardly a hiccup in the economy. Much of its site was quickly turned into an office park. Offices produce more jobs per acre of land than factories, and as more of the old industrial areas in Santa Monica were converted to offices and media production facilities in the 1980s, Santa Monica became even more of a jobs center than it was in its industrial heyday.

Pittsburgh has had a harder time converting its economy, but with increasing success it has turned to healthcare, education, technology, and financial and business services.

While the problems of growth are what make Santa Monica's politics go round, as seen in the recent battle over RIFT (the Residents' Initiative to Fight Traffic), it would be hard to argue that the problems prosperity have caused us for the past 30 years are worse than the problems Pittsburgh has had dealing with industrial decline.

Because it was ground zero in the first wave of the industrial debacle that began to hit 30 or so years ago, Pittsburgh may provide an important example for areas of the U.S. that are now suffering a decline in manufacturing.

As it turns out, there's another thing that Santa Monica and Pittsburgh share: famous steps.

The steps Santa Monica is famous for are those of the two flights of stairs that connect Adelaide Drive at the top of Santa Monica Canyon to Entrada at the bottom; they are a Mecca for exercisers from around the world. Last week they became even more famous when the New York Times wrote a front-page story about the disputes that have increased recently between the exercisers and the nearby residents, who have a lot of complaints about their neighborhood being turned into a gym.

At Tuesday's City Council meeting the council will be discussing alternatives for resolving the dispute. ("Council_Tackles_Exercise_Problem," November 28, 2008.)

I've never before written about the steps in a column. I could say it's because the steps themselves are in Los Angeles, but the fact is that I'm not much of an exerciser and the trials and tribulations caused by the runners seemed confined to just a few nearby residents.

I've probably missed an opportunity, however, because one of those residents happens to be a friend and he has regaled me for years with tales of the outrageous conduct of those who are physically fit and proud of it.

While Santa Monica's approximately 320 steps may be worth fighting over for some people, they would be less than an afterthought in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is ringed with and crossed over by steep hills and ridges, and as a result its neighborhoods are covered with "paper streets" that look like regular streets on maps but are actually stairways.

One source I read said that there are 712 sets of stairs in Pittsburgh, comprising 44,645 treads and 24,090 vertical feet -- that's nearly the height of Mt. Everest.

Pittsburgh may no longer be Steel City, but it's still Stair City.

I did some sightseeing in what are called the Southside Slopes, which overlook the Monongahela, and which were originally home for workers who worked in the steel mills along the river. They commuted by stairway. Here is a picture.

A stairway in the South Slopes of Pittsburgh
(A stairway in the South Slopes of Pittsburgh--Photo by Frank Gruber.)

And just to make the connection with Santa Monica and its current crisis, here's a picture of your dutiful columnist doing sit-ups at the top of one of the flights of stairs.

(Frank Gruber-- Photo by Janet Levin.)

Maybe Santa Monica and Pittsburgh could learn from each other. Pittsburgh, which would like more tourists, could market itself as a stair-climbing alternative for exercisers looking for a challenge.

And Santa Monica could steal an idea from Stair City: build more steps.

I don't know about the feasibility from an engineering or financial standpoint, but what if the City built a set of steps that extended from Palisades Park down to PCH? The exercisers could then take their stair-climbing feet to a real park at one end and to the beach at the other. (Yes, I know there is already a set of stairs at Arizona, but for whatever reason it doesn't attract the same crowds.)

How about new stairs at Georgina that could connect with the new Annenberg Community Beach House that the City plans to open in April?


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The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
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