City Scenes: Cycling to East Liberty, Oakland, and back again

Ever since my roommate got his new road bike a couple weeks ago he’s been tearing up the road and trails. He rode 12 miles out to the town of Duquesne this week just because he had the afternoon free. And he’s now completely switched from commuting via public transit to cycling. I had been pleased with my modest outings after arriving in South Side this summer, and especially just enjoying going out on the river trail just for the hell of it. But now my friend has a fancier (and faster) bike, he’s putting in significantly more miles in the saddle, and he’s thrown down the gauntlet regarding daily commuting via bike. So for the past two weeks he’s been asking me nearly every day if I’m going to ride into campus with him, and I’ve replied that I don’t feel up to it yet, that I still don’t feel confident riding in traffic, that I want to build my stamina up. But this past Sunday I decided to finally bite the bullet: when he asked if I wanted to ride into Oakland, I said “OK.”

We rode down Carson and crossed over the river on the Hot Metal Bridge. We went through Panther Hollow into Oakland but my friend wanted to get breakfast first, so we transitioned onto Ellsworth and traveled through Shadyside into East Liberty. East Liberty–and in particular the Highland/Centre nexus–remains one of the significant neighborhoods for my experience of Pittsburgh. Not only as a major hub when I lived in Friendship and Bloomfield, but also through my research in urban change, and all the transformations I’ve seen and studied in and around East Liberty in the past seven years. As we locked up our bikes I expressed relief that Patron was still there. It’s not the greatest restaurant, not the greatest Mexican food I’ve had, but it is truly one of my comfort spots in the city. There was a time I went so often that the wait staff recognized me, and would even ask where I had been if I missed a week. It was my go-to location for both celebrating good times and getting through bad times. It was where I went after my dissertation defense, and one of the first places I went this summer when I came back to Pittsburgh.

My roommate and I were both gobsmacked at the scale of the development going up at the former Penn Plaza location in East Liberty. It is massive: totally out of proportion with the existing neighborhood. Our destination was another marker of change since I had last lived in the city: Square Cafe, which took over the location previously occupied by the stalwart local restaurant Spoon.

It was a beautiful Fall day, clear and cool. We had to wait out front for nearly half an hour before getting a table and the rays we were soaking up had me wishing I had brought sunscreen. It was my first time to Square, although I had patronized the former restaurant. We were seated by a window with a view of our bikes locked up across the street. Overall I was super impressed by the Square menu, and although I was faced with a lot of good options I decided to stick with the Fall vibes and ordered some of their seasonal specials: pumpkin walnut pancakes and a Jack-o-lantern latte.

The streets in the East End neighborhoods were mostly easygoing on this Sunday morning. The most excitement involved coming upon a car accident at Ellsworth and Aiken: two cars had collided in the intersection with one ending up rolled over on its side, the horn persistently blaring. Soon we were at the base of the Cathedral of Learning. Bigelow Boulevard between Forbes and Schenley drive was blocked off for Pitt’s Fall Fest; as we locked our bikes to the rack we heard the soundchecks coming from the temporary stage.

I spent most of the afternoon working in my office and I assumed that my adventure for the day was mostly finished. But my friend got a wild hair to go see the Riverhounds game that evening, and suggested that we might as well just ride down to the stadium after crossing back over to the South Side. So that’s what we did.

This was my first time cycling to a sporting event, although this summer I did walk to Highmark Stadium as well as to PNC Park for the first time. It was a great capper to a beautiful autumn day; a Goodyear blimp drifted overhead amongst cotton ball clouds, and the downtown skyline glimmered with the fading final rays of daylight.

After the game it was nice to avoid all the chaos of the parking lot and the lines of traffic as cars headed for the exits. We took the river trail east to go home; it was my first time riding on the trail after dark, because it is unlit. I followed my friend because he has bike lights and I don’t. It was sort of exhilarating: in the darkness of the evening, exacerbated by the overgrowth and trees lining the trail, the only thing I could see clearly was my friend’s silhouette against the small cone of path and trees illuminated by his bike lamp. I pedaled hard to keep close as that was my only hope of getting my bearings amongst the tangle and murk. We made good time through the shadow and dusk until we hit the train tracks at 18th st and were delayed by the passing of a CSX Coke Express freight. All-in-all a rather welcome expenditure of energy.

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