Here: In Beechview

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Photos by Martha Rial ~ Story by Bob Batz Jr.

Longtime residents Dolores and Ed Love trudge up Canton Street in Beechview.
Click photo for larger image.

Despite the twin "Do Not Enter" signs at its midpoint, Canton Avenue isn't a one-way street.

It's a no-way street.

No way you're going to drive up it. Not this time of year, when it's covered with ice and snow.

This Beechview byway is way too steep -- even to plow.

It's the steepest street in this hilly town and, probably, the region, with a grade of 37 percent -- that is, rising 37 feet per 100 feet of run. So confirm records from the city Department of Engineering and Construction.



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Canton could be the steepest street anywhere. Figures can be fuzzy, but the best San Francisco can do are grades of 31.5 percent. The world's steepest claim is made by Baldwin Street in Dunedin, New Zealand, but its steepest part, according to the town's own Web site, is only 35 percent. Could Pittsburgh have a world record hidden in the trees high above Banksville Road?

Whatever the case, over a distance that would be about two blocks in a normal city, Canton goes from almost flat to free-fall. The bottom half is so steep, you're not supposed to drive down it any time of the year, and in winter, the cobblestones aren't cleared.

That doesn't stop people from trying to drive up it.

Not many make it.

So says Dolores Love, who lived in one of two houses on the precipitous part of the pathway back in the late 1970s and stayed in this roller-coaster neighborhood, which can boast several of Pittsburgh's most upright roadways.

Now she lives at the very base of Canton, on the other side of Coast Avenue (also in the Top 20, with a grade of nearly 18 percent). The view from her living room is straight up Canton, and she and her husband, Ed, are in the process of improving that vista while improving their house.

"Part of the reason we put these big windows in is so we can watch the goofballs try to drive up the hill," she says. "I'm serious. ... I live for it."

Sure enough, the first big snow this month brought the first fools attempting to conquer Canton.

She watched the car climb about a third of the way up, then slide back and over a curb, where it teetered like something out of a cartoon.

Last Sunday, the Loves were heading out to watch the Steelers game when they witnessed the spectacle of three guys in a four-wheel-drive pickup trying to muscle up the street -- because, you know, it's there.

The truck slid all the way back and into a tiny guardrail next door.

The Loves have never seen a serious accident, but the slippery slope could be dangerous.

"It's tough to get clear," says Bob Palmosina, supervisor of the city Public Works hill-humping Division 5. One of its full-size trucks is too big. One guy who drove a pickup down it once, steering with the plow, will never forget feeling as if the rig were going to flip, back over front. Now they might send a tractor down, or just "banjo" it -- hand shovel salt out the back of a big truck from the top or bottom.

The handful of households up top are supposed to drive out on Hampshire Avenue (a mere 23 percent grade). The two families who live on the sheer stretch know to park down on Coast when it snows and walk up the steps that are Canton's sidewalk. This adds a new dimension to unloading groceries and other tasks.

Love recently saw a Duquesne Light bucket truck try to back up the street to reach a broken streetlight. "I guess they gave up till spring." That's when Canton becomes a peak challenge for masochistic bicyclists.

Meanwhile, she guarantees that this winter will provide more slick thrills.

"Is that you?" she asks a visitor, pointing to an unfamiliar car at Canton's base.

"That's not a good place to park ..."

Click photo for larger image.

(Martha Rial can be reached at 412-263-1688 or Bob Batz Jr. can be reached at or 412-263-1930.)