One interesting consequence of Pittsburgh’s mad professor topography is the manner in which even the most mundane constructions can be made interesting if they are placed properly. For example, I generally hate malls and outlets, particularly in other cities where the stores are simply a large, ugly mass of commerce placed off of an interstate in a flat, boring tundra somewhere untouched by features that would make for interesting photography.
However, even the more generic malls in the Pittsburgh region (the Waterworks, the Waterfront, the South Side Works) are at least partially redeemed by their proximity to our infamous rivers (note their names). All three offer easy access to trails that border the rivers (and ultimately, these trails are planned to connect outlying areas to the downtown region, which will, with luck, be another step in revitalizing downtown Pittsburgh). These trail systems offer a welcome respite from the teeth-gnashing-inducing frenzy of parking lots and drivers who seem incapable of grasping the concepts of stop signs, pedestrian crosswalks, and the necessity of using one’s headlights, particularly when it is dark outside and one is piloting a black vehicle (or when the grounds are snowy and one’s automobile of choice is painted a well-washed white). Shopping expeditions borne out of necessity (food, clothes, etc) are made slightly less painful when one feels that the experience is not completely divorced from a more pleasant alternative (fresh air, intoxicating views, exercise…).
In general, none of the aforementioned malls offer up any particular surprises in regard to store selection. A familiar array of chain stores is present, although the South Side Works at least adjoins East Carson Street, which boasts a variety of independent stores. The Waterworks, in O’Hara Township, however, is essentially a long string of chains with a few surprises (an Uncle Sam’s Subs, one of only four locations). However, access to a terse riverfront trail is available; the trail can be accessed by parking at Fox Chapel Plaza, a complex adjacent to the Waterworks (or one can simply walk over) and then crossing Freeport Road and walking down Old Freeport Road to the redundantly named Chapel Harbor At The Water. Passing through the at times depressingly monochromatic housing structures (the same style as those found at the Waterfront) leads to one of the best riverside walks I’ve encountered. It’s far enough away from the city proper to be free of annoying traffic or a graceless backdrop of impassive buildings, but close enough to contain trademark views of bridges so close they’re almost touching, as well as a slew of boaters (it doesn’t hurt that the Fox Chapel Yacht Club is nearby). In at least one area, enough trees have been left on the banks of the Allegheny to permit a delightfully innocent view of the river; even the concrete pier/balcony seems less stony when one is actually out near the end and gazing out at the river (the direction probably to be determined by the position of the sun).
The trail at the Waterfront can be accessed from virtually any parking lot on the river’s side of West/East Waterfront Drive. If one is already parked in the “main” section of the mall (where the “town square” is), the trail can be accessed via a pedestrian bridge that crosses over West Waterfront Drive. Although recent property developments on the other side of the Mon have compromised the view somewhat, the trail remains a wonderful, terse walk as a diversion from the bustle and impersonality of the shopping complex proper. For maximum enjoyment, keep your head turned towards the Mon and away from the parking lots and housing developments; in doing so, you might notice people hiking or fishing from a trail on the other side of the river, but access to that trail is a bit iffy, and by the time you’ve crossed the Homestead Bridge towards the city, you probably just want to get home, rather than hang around the heavily trafficked area, but if you must, take a right onto Old Browns Hill Road and follow the road to the parking lot down by the river.
At present, the two aforementioned trails are relatively short affairs, existing unconnected to the rest of the Heritage Trail system, but the trail from the South Side Works already connects to downtown Pittsburgh. The trail’s pretty easy to find; just wander through the South Side Works towards the Mon, and you’re bound to stumble upon it. Granted, this region feels far more industrial than the other two areas (ironic, considering that the Waterfront was once the site of a steel mill), but perhaps no view is as quintessentially Pittsburgh as that of a row of bridges cutting out of hillsides and into tunnels, and, of course, bridges in the downtown region are all but spaced every few blocks, so…enjoy!