With disheveled gray hair sprouting from his head like Pittsburgh hillside shrubs in winter, 79-year-old Bob Regan, the “Godfather of Steps,” looks every part the eccentric retired professor that he is. He’s come to meet me in a local library, wearing an old, stained sweatsuit, to preach his gospel of stairways and share his inspiration for writing the bible on the topic.
Regan’s fascination with Pittsburgh’s steps began 20 years ago as he rode his bike around town and saw them everywhere, wondering where they all went. He says he soon “became obsessed” with the topic, and with the compulsive focus of someone with a Ph.D. in geophysics, he decided he was going to map, climb, and count the city’s stairways. Every. Single. Step.
At the time, in the late 1990s, nobody—including the city of Pittsburgh—had an idea how many stairways there were in town. Many had collapsed; others were overgrown with greenery or covered in muddy landslides. In the days before Google Maps, this search for lost stairways on the hills and in back alleys was almost like an urban, modern-day version of rediscovering Machu Picchu.
So Regan took two months’ leave from his work as a professor at the University of Pittsburgh and set off on his bicycle with some paper maps to search for steps. He mapped them, including their location and additional details, using geographic information system technology.
But it was still a low-tech process, Regan recalls. “One day, I had the insight that bus stops tended to be correlated to the endings of stairways, so I followed the bus routes around and discovered new sets of stairs.” In a way, the joy of discovery was similar to 1860s Scottish explorer David Livingstone following the Nile to its source.
“I think this was the happiest time of my life,” Regan says.
He cataloged and counted as he went, first compiling his work in notebooks and then publishing a book in 2004 with the comprehensive results. His Pittsburgh Steps (revised in 2015) is considered the definitive guide to a new generation of Pittsburgh stair-climbing enthusiasts, not to mention city planners, historians, and visitors.
Still, there’s debate about exactly how many stairways there are. Regan says 739; the city government count is more than 800. Given the difference, I ask Regan a philosophical question: “Just how many steps does it take to make a stairway?”
He smiles and pauses, and like a Zen master replies, “If the setting is right, all you really need is a single step.” He reminisces about a hill in town rising from the South Side’s Eleanor Street. Someone had installed a single concrete step in the middle of a slippery slope, creating a “stair along the way.” That was enough, in his mind, to call it a stairway. For Regan and other urban step enthusiasts, a public stairway is defined as an open thoroughfare with stairs connecting public areas (versus, say, steps to someone’s porch or backyard, or a stairway to a building entrance).
Showing that, despite his science background, he’s still a bit of a romantic, Regan recommends I go see one of his favorite stairways. At the secluded intersection of Romeo and Frazier, two streets transformed into stairways meet in the woods like secret lovers, whispering the true story of the city’s past.