Pittsburgh, known for its industry, culture and winning sports teams, as well as its recent reinvention as a city with abundant technology, medical and green amenities, is celebrating its 200th birthday this year. As it celebrates, its parks system is gaining national recognition as a vital part of its proud past and current upward trajectory. The latest park renovation offers striking evidence of progress in the heart of the city’s Hill District, a vibrant group of neighborhoods occupying the widening eastward triangle of the city that have been a beacon for African-American culture for more than 100 years.
Once described by Harlem poet Claude McKay as “the crossroads of America” for its rich and diverse cultural heritage, the “Hill” has launched jazz musicians, such as Billy Strayhorn, Art Blakey, Ahmad Jamal and Mary Lou Williams, and has produced some of the best baseball players, such as James “Cool Papa” Bell, Oscar Charleston and Satchel Paige.
Perhaps best known of all the Hill District’s creative progeny is Pulitzer-prize-winning playwright August Wilson. Born and raised in this storied Pittsburgh neighborhood overlooking the Allegheny River, Wilson wrote extensively about his beloved hometown community. And now, a beautiful park named in his honor has just been completed. August Wilson Park, which features a switchback trail that leads to a breathtaking view of the river and city, is fully compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It represents modern urban park design, deliberate inclusiveness and community involvement at its best.
Putting It in Context
To get a sense of what this park means to the city and this community, a geographical and historical context is needed. Pittsburgh’s eastern portion, including downtown, is triangle-shaped, bordered by rivers that join at the apex to form the mighty Ohio River. The Hill District was a beacon destination for blacks leaving the Deep South in the Great Migration and European immigrants in the 1900s. Its jazz scene was one of the country’s liveliest, putting Pittsburgh on the music scene map from the 1920s through the 1960s. Some current-day residents recall seeing a young August Wilson, always impeccably dressed, strolling along the block where his namesake park now sits.
The Hill District had a rough go of it in the latter part of the 20th century, with urban renewal efforts in the city spurring redevelopment that severed the community from the rest of the city, causing dramatic economic decline. The Hill’s residents never failed to believe in the beauty and value of their neighborhood. In the mid-1970s, they worked tirelessly to turn a narrow sliver of steeply inclined land into what, until April 20, 2016, was known as Cliffside Park. Throughout the next 30 years, the park was well used, but city funding difficulties impacted its upkeep, and by the start of the new century, the park had seriously deteriorated. The idea for a major reimagining of Cliffside Park began to take shape in 2011, led by the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy in partnership with Pittsburgh’s Public Works and Planning Departments and community groups, including Hill House Association and the Cliff Street Block Club. Environmental Planning and Design (EPD) provided the landscape architectural design and construction administration services.
The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy — which in the past 20 years has raised more than $90 million to restore, improve and preserve Pittsburgh’s parks — joined with its partners in holding public input sessions that identified community priorities for the park. “Community input is key in all of our projects,” says Parks Conservancy founder and CEO Meg Cheever. Accessibility was a main wish that surfaced in the earliest input sessions and a requirement of the state funding awarded to the Parks Conservancy. Andrew Schwartz of EPD says that accessibility “was a guiding force from the earliest days of the design process. Our aim in design was to capture the essence of the incredible view of the overlook, and to ensure that the finished park was universally accessible.”
A Steep Challenge
Schwartz notes that the site’s precipitous topography, measured at a 17 percent grade, proved a challenge in meeting ADA guidelines. “The site drops steeply from the street entrance to the cliffside below. Our goal was to bring as many of the community ideas as possible into the plan while keeping it accessible to everyone.” To keep within ADA guidelines, the solution was a switchback trail that winds easily through the park at grades of less than 5 percent. The trail has carefully considered landings at each angled turn, with benches, plantings and resting spaces. The site’s slope, landing placements and the choice of landscaping elements ensure that sightlines are kept open and the stunning vista remains.
The Hill District’s artistic heritage is well represented in the park, including in the name change that was announced midway through the construction process. “August Wilson’s esteemed place in the history of the Hill District makes him a natural to be honored with a park that speaks to the future of this community,” says Parks Conservancy Curator Susan Rademacher, who led the park design process. Ten quotes — one from each of Wilson’s 10 plays in the American Century Cycle — adorn a wall at the park’s lower landing. Wilson’s word installations are in very good company. The work of renowned photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris, who chronicled life in Pittsburgh (from the mid-1930s through 1975) for one of America’s oldest black newspapers, the Pittsburgh Courier, is mounted on the fencing of the half-basketball court, also located at the park’s lower edge.
A Reimagined Space
August Wilson Park’s spectacular river and downtown view have special meaning to Terri Baltimore, the director of community engagement at Hill House Association. She has been an advocate for the Hill District for close to 24 years and remembers the early days of the park’s redesign planning process. “Planning for the park always included a promise to the neighborhood that it would have final approval of any plan,” remembers Baltimore. “We had honest discussions with the community and used its input as the guiding force for what is now August Wilson Park.”
The importance of the park to individuals in the community was underscored by conversations Baltimore had with park neighbor Tyian Battle, whose son Amon passed away seven years ago from a heart ailment. “Tyian relayed that the park was Amon’s favorite place, and that they had many good memories of being outdoors together,” she said. “That impressed on us how important greenspaces are to those who use them, and it kept us focused on making August Wilson Park the best that it could be.”
The journey to bring the reimagined park to life mirrors the switchback trail that winds through it. The steep elevation, unrelated sewer repairs on the cliffside below the park and working a maintenance access road into the design without interfering with the entry path added additional time to the project schedule. The access road became a beautiful design element, made from checker-block pavement stones that create a green-and-white-checked swath from the upper entrance to the lower landing. Green infrastructure installations help control stormwater, including a paved and planted runnel and planting features that function as large French drains, and no-mow red fescue grass that has a high absorption ratio and low-maintenance needs.
From sitting in the old park space on dilapidated benches with neighbors and talking about what they imagined the space could be, to the public celebration of August Wilson Park’s opening in summer of 2016, all who participated in reimagining the park know they have had a hand in creating a special place. Baltimore says that working with individuals and groups both inside and outside the community to make the park a reality has been positive for the Hill District. “The park brings the community pride in this thriving greenspace,” she says, “and helps reframe perceptions of the Hill as an incredible space where love and determination can build beauty.”
Park programming builds on these hopes, with visual art, literature readings, basketball and a playground with two age levels all meshing together at the edge of one of the city’s most historic neighborhoods. Through the design’s deft use of this challenging space, all park-goers can have multiple experiences in August Wilson Park, and end the day watching the sun set from one of the city’s best viewing spots.
Scott Roller is the Senior Manager, Communications and Creative, for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.