The Woman on a Quest to Walk Every Pittsburgh Street
by Brian O'Neill, columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 20, 2017
Lisa Valentino left some of her coffee behind at Kelly O’s diner and we set off Tuesday morning to slice another healthy piece from her quest to walk every street in Pittsburgh. She’s two years and one month into it. She has walked hundreds of miles. The exact count of unique miles is hazy because she does a lot of backtracking, but she figures she’s knocked off a third of the city.
She unfolded a worn and torn Bike Pittsburgh map to show hundreds of streets blacked out by her pen, but many a Strip District street between Liberty Avenue and the Allegheny River was still untouched. So there we walked. “I feel like Pac-Man, connecting the dots.” Ms. Valentino grew up in Pleasant Hills but was remade into a city girl after she graduated from Penn State in 1988 and moved to San Francisco’s Mission District. After moving back to Pittsburgh 12 years ago, she finally settled in leafy Point Breeze. It’s not far from Frick Park, but long walks in the park aren’t satisfying. “I need to see things change, so I prefer walking the streets.”
We walked down 23rd Street toward the river, the Cork Factory Lofts and the Strip District trail. On Railroad Street, she got down on one knee to shoot a picture of the freight tracks there. Her Facebook photo album, Walking All The Streets Of Pittsburgh (WATSOP), is peppered with photos she has been taking since this project began in May 2015. She had gone through a couple of major surgeries in the months before these walks began. She was born with tetralogy of fallot, a congenital heart defect that alters the normal flow of blood. In December 2014, she’d had lung tissue removed, and the following April she had surgery to insert a valve to widen a pulmonary artery.
She had open-heart surgery at age 6 in Children’s Hospital, and she was referred to the congenital cardio team at the new Children’s when adult problems arose. “Superman washed the windows of my room,” a good sign if ever there was one, and she left with the encouragement to do a lot of walking. A couple of years before, she’d seen an exhibition in the University of Pittsburgh’s Alumni Hall of the photos of Felix de la Concha. Over two years in the late 1990s, the Spanish-born artist painted 365 scenes around the city — always with the Cathedral of Learning somewhere in the painting. She walked Mission Street on the South Side Slopes to see what the Cathedral looked like from there, and she found herself not just wondering where else in the city she could see it from afar. “I wondered what else I’m missing by sticking to the same neighborhoods.” The lion’s share of her strolls have been between the Allegheny and the Monongahela, and 10 neighborhoods, mostly in the East End, are thoroughly trod. Once our morning walk was done, there wouldn’t be much left to walk in the Strip either.
It’s no race. We took our time. She’s an artist who makes mosaic windows when she isn’t walking in one of her three pairs of running shoes, and she must have snapped two dozen photos, of murals, folk art, you name it. After we walked Railroad Street under the 31st Street bridge and into Lawrenceville, Jeremy Raymer’s murals had me snapping photos, too. “I say we get to some alleys because it’s getting hot,” she said. We walked back on Mulberry Way for a few blocks but, finding the buildings too short to block the sun, switched over to Penn Avenue. Klavon’s Ice Cream Parlor sat waiting at the corner of 28th Street, and at 11:45 a.m., I dived into a root beer float.
I’d walk four miles for a root beer float, evidently. It hadn’t seemed that far but, before we parted, Ms. Valentino gave me the honor of blacking out the streets on her map. I could understand her endless satisfaction with that post-walk chore. She doesn’t know when her mission will be complete, but she knows “I don’t want it to end.”
“Except for shoes, I live pretty simply.” I’d told her about Tom Murphy VII (no relation to the former mayor), whom I ran with in 2013 on his quest to run every street in the city. He’d run 4,500 miles by then, but they weren’t all unique miles because one of Mr. Murphy’s cardinal rules was to begin or end each run at his Shadyside home. When I checked with him last week, he said he still had a few hundred miles left but maybe this competition will give him the incentive to finish. Ms. Valentino felt no more threatened than the tortoise was by the hare. “If he has to start from home every time,” she said, “I’ve got him beat.”
Brian O’Neill: email@example.com or 412-263-1947 or Twitter @brotheroneill.