This article originally appeared in Parks & Recreation magazine.
Deservedly, Pittsburgh has been 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.
In 2016, as Pittsburgh celebrates its 200th birthday, its parks system is gaining national recognition as a vital part of both its proud past and current upward trajectory. And the latest park renovation offers striking evidence of progress in the heart of the city’s Hill District. 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 Billy Strayhorn, Art Blakey, Ahmad Jamal, and Mary Lou Williams, who all grew up in or around the Hill.
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 atop the ridge overlooking the Allegheny River, Wilson wrote extensively about his beloved hometown community. Now, a beautiful park named in his honor has been completed. The park is fully compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), featuring a switchback trail that leads to a breathtaking view of the river and city. August Wilson Park 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 -- recently restored and re-imagined through a partnership of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, the City of Pittsburgh, and Hill House Association -- means to the city and the community in which it nestles, some context is needed. The Hill District – a group of culture-rich neighborhoods that occupy the widening eastward triangle of the city – was a beacon destination for both those leaving the Deep South in the Great Migration and European immigrants in search of a new life in the 1900s. The Hill produced some of the era’s best baseball players, winning the 1935 Negro National League championship with James “Cool Papa” Bell, Oscar Charleston, and Satchel Paige going on to be inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame. The jazz scene was one of the country’s liveliest, putting Pittsburgh on the music scene map from the 1920s through the 1960s. 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, with inspiration from community leaders and advocacy groups, have 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 was then known as Cliffside Park. Throughout the next three decades the park was well used, but city funding difficulties caused upkeep to suffer, and by the start of the new century the park was 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 the City of Pittsburgh’s Public Works and Planning Departments, and community groups including Hill House Association and the Cliff Street Block Club. Environmental Planning & Design (EPD) provided the landscape architectural design and construction administration services.
The Parks Conservancy – which in the past 20 years has raised over 93 million dollars to restore, improve, and preserve Pittsburgh’s parks – joined with partners in holding public input sessions that identified priorities for the park. “Community input is key in all of our projects,” says Parks Conservancy founder and CEO Meg Cheever. “Listening to the community’s hopes and dreams for their park is a guiding principle. It’s magic to see the ideas and priorities that surface in the earliest neighborhood design meetings come to life in a new park. It is why we love the work we do.”
Accessibility was a key 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 proved a challenge in meeting ADA guidelines. “The site drops steeply from the street entrance to the cliff side below. It took creative thinking to devise a plan that made the entire park accessible to all. Our goal was to bring as many of the community ideas as possible into the plan while keeping it accessible to everyone.” The existing path from the sidewalk entrance down into the park measured at a 17% grade. The solution to keeping within ADA guidelines was a switch-back trail that winds easily through the park at grades of under five 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 is visible to all.
Nearly all involved with the park’s design and planning pinpoint a moment when the park’s potential impact was made crystal clear. For Schwartz, it was his frequent visits to the park for many of the project team’s multiple site meetings during the design process. “One neighborhood boy who was nine or ten years old was always at the park, which was then in serious disrepair. He was interested in every aspect of what we were doing, and had endless questions. One of those times I asked why there wasn’t anyone there with him, and he said ‘Because no one wants to come down here with me.’ That stuck with me, and solidified my aim to make the park a space where his friends and family would want to be… to make a space they would consider their outdoor family room.”
While the steep geography of the site drove many of the design decisions, the personal connection that the park would have with those who used it was a constant inspiration.
The Hill District’s artistic heritage is well represented in the park, including the name change that was announced mid-way 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 ten plays in the American Century Cycle – are installed on a wall at the park’s lower landing. Wilson’s word installations are in very good company, as the work of renowned photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris is close by. Harris’s photographs are printed on windscreen material and mounted on the fencing of the half-basketball court that hugs the lower edge of the park. From the mid-1930s through 1975, Harris chronicled life in Pittsburgh for the Pittsburgh Courier, one of America's oldest black newspapers. His parents owned a hotel in the Hill District, giving him a front-row view of the neighborhood’s fascinating visitors. Both the quotes and the images were selected to provide a rich cross-section of local wisdom and community life in public places. August Wilson Park also welcomes present-day art, with an intimate performance space for readings and music, with the cliff’s treetops and skyline as its backdrop.
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 nearly 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 they would have final approval of any plan,” remembers Baltimore. “We had honest discussions with the community, and used their 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 that 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 had some twists and turns. 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 community’s resilience and commitment to this project infused the project with the energy it needed to keep moving forward,” says Rademacher.
The access road became a beautiful design element, made from checker-block pavement stones that create a green and white-checked swath through the park 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 have high absorption ratios and low maintenance needs.
The joy that the newly reimagined August Wilson Park brings to the neighborhood is palpable. 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 the park’s opening in summer of 2016, all who took the park’s journey know that 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 August Wilson 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. Through the design’s deft use of this challenging space, park-goers can have multiple experiences in this little August Wilson Park, and end the day watching the sun set from one of the city’s best viewing spots.
The health and economic benefits of dynamic green spaces and parks are well documented, with Parks Conservancy and City of Pittsburgh projects like the recently-completed Mellon Square spurring significant new development around its downtown location. Indeed, increased property values, as well as the Pittsburghers that the park may draw to the Hill District, are among the hopes for the carefully-considered park. The close partnerships that made the park possible have given all involved a particular sense of joy in seeing it come to life. As August Wilson wrote about the Pittsburgh he saw from the Hill District in his introduction to Joe Turner’s Come and Gone: “The city flexes its muscles. Men throw countless bridges across the rivers, lay roads, and carve tunnels through the hills sprouting with houses.” The quote is included in those installed at the park’s lower landing, a few steps from the cliff’s edge that overlooks the spectacular view. Park users enjoy the experience of reading these words just a block away from the childhood home of its namesake, with several of the city’s renowned bridges and the powerful river in view.
The magic of a vibrant, well-planned park space designed for all -- with the community’s input taking center stage -- is alive and thriving in Pittsburgh’s August Wilson Park.