[Photo courtesy of MWCDC]

It must rain in Emerald View Park sometimes, but for my fifth consecutive visit, sun filtered through the canopy onto the trail that led Thomas Guentner and I into the secluded, restorative woods of Mount Washington.  As we rounded a turn in the trail shouldered into a hillside, I heard from somewhere down below, “I’ll give you fair warning, something died down here.”  It was the voice of Shawn Taylor.  “I don’t know where it is, but I think the wind is bringing it in.”

Thomas called back, “I smelled it as soon as we got on the trail.”  Personally, I hadn’t noticed, but now that they mentioned it, something was lingering.  From their jovial tone and my general obliviousness, I guessed squirrel or some other woodland creature. Unlike these two men, I don’t spend the majority of my days in the woods, reminding me that city life has a way of heightening certain senses at the expense of others.

As Thomas and I neared a switchback, he asked, “Did I tell you about the Volkswagen?”  He directed me to patch of brush, now thinned a bit by early fall, where a rusty engine, still attached to part of its chassis, rested just a few feet from the trail.  I looked around and saw nothing but the splendor of the woods in every direction.  “I have no idea how it got all the way down here,” he mused.   “Obviously it’s been picked over for scrap.”

This is the last of many cars for which these woods became their final resting place.  The others have been removed the old-fashioned way – dragged with ropes. Thomas wants to leave this relic just as it is.  “It’s a reminder how little value a place like this used to have, compared to the community asset it’s become,” he said.  He described what amounted to private landfill – refrigerators, construction debris, garbage – for people near and far.

Coal Hill. Source: Brookline Connection

Coal Hill. Source: Brookline Connection

That era – one we’ll call The woods are a good place to hide unwanted things era – is a relatively new one.  Long before then was the Coal Hill era, where there were no woods to hide anything at all.  An ice box or a Model T, discarded over the edge of Coal Hill, would have tumbled hundreds of feet before splashing into the Monongahela River.  As one of the richest coal seams in the country, mining for black gold left the place as barren as Century Square Mall is today.  And in between was a nameless era in which the first attempts at hillside restoration were made, including the planting of pollution-resistant trees, like Norway maples and ailanthus, which are now regarded as hard to control invasive species.

The Emerald Trail Corps – run by Thomas, the Project Manager, and Shawn, the Crew Leader, for the Mount Washington Community Development Corporation (MWCDC) – has built ten miles of trails within the park over the past several years.  They were kind enough to allow me to put in a couple of stints doing trail maintenance, while lending me their stories about building and maintaining this park, and what it means for the Mount Washington community.

This is one facet of a larger story about a 257-acre park that is being built – by a community organization – on the steepest terrain of a city known for its steep terrain.  Of the many functions performed by such organizations throughout the city, building parks of this scale has not been one of them.  What MWCDC has done so far is an enormous feat, but how they’ve done it is even more so.

A Catalytic Twister

In June of 1998, the tornado that spun like a top across the ridge line of Mt. Washington and beyond not only battered houses and livelihoods, but brutalized forested hillsides as well.  While relegated to the backdrop of residents and businesses that were picking up the pieces, many residents immediately recognized the serious impacts felt by the environment.  Compromised hillsides could lead to erosion, and eventually, landslides.

In an area known as the “saddle,” one such group, calling themselves ‘Green is Good’, coalesced in defense of the hillsides.  As if a gift from beyond, the partially denuded hills had opened the door to a proposed housing development on that site.  The group advocated that additional development would degrade the hillsides further, and that restoring them was critically important.   Meanwhile two other unrelated groups had convened.  One helped to care for the existing Grandview Park, and the other investigated land ownership of all the pubic and private parcels that connected to existing park spaces in the neighborhood.

“Restoring the woods and restoring lives.”

It wasn’t long before all the groups, along with the MWCDC, joined forces to advocate for permanent protection for much of the forested areas in Mt. Washington and surrounding neighborhoods.  A vision emerged: utilizing existing parks as anchors, a contiguous band of neglected woodlands encircling Mt. Washington would be become Pittsburgh’s newest regional park.  By 2005, the groups partnered with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy to create a master plan for the park’s creation and future maintenance, and former City Councilman Alan Hertzberg introduced legislation to designate the new park, which was unanimously approved.

MWCDC commenced fundraising and implementation of the Grand View Scenic Byway Park, as the park was first known, around the time that Ilyssa Manspeizer was hired as Park Director. With a unique background (including a Ph.D. in Anthropology), Ilyssa held that position until being named Executive Director in 2014.  In 2006, her first challenge was to identify the most strategic starting point in the densely comprehensive master plan, and the path forward became clear.  “For people to be able to reimagine this place as a park,” she said, “pedestrian linkages were the highest priority.”  To further this, a two-year public process led to the creation of the 2010 Master Trail Plan.  Not only would easily accessed trailheads and initial trail segments get people into the park, they would facilitate access to clear illegal dump sites, junked cars, and vast tangles of invasive species that had spread.

As that work was underway, Ilyssa and her cohort at Leadership Pittsburgh visited with inmates at the Allegheny County jail, where she was “struck by the loss of all the human potential in that room” – the employment hardships and the lack of opportunity they’d carry with them throughout their lives.  She then imagined a new way to build the rest of Emerald View Park.

Barbershop in the Woods

Thomas worked at the Student Conservation Association (SCA) in 2011 when they contracted with the MWCDC (along with GTECH and the A. Philip Randolph Institute) to assemble a crew that would build the first lengths of trails.  A grant that supported this effort required participation from the 18-24 age group.  Prior to joining the SCA, Thomas worked for Children and Youth Services in his native Butler County, making him the ideal fit for overseeing young adults.  After more than a year working as the crew leader (while also managing another business, Peddlin’ Pierogies), Thomas was hired by the MWCDC to serve as a project manager for the Trail Corps.

Trail Corps. Thomas (left), Shawn (third from right)

Trail Corps. Thomas (left), Shawn (third from right)

Shawn joined the Emerald Trail Corps later in 2011.  Like most Trail Corps workers employed by MWCDC, Shawn was hired through an apprenticeship program called Breaking the Chains of Poverty, run by the A. Philip Randolph Institute (APRI) in partnership with United Steelworkers.  Through it, APRI trains non-violent ex-offenders and other hard-to-employ populations, and empowers them to find quality job opportunities.

Ilyssa thought that the Trail Corps could provide such opportunities.  After interviewing candidates, APRI and MWCDC selected those who were qualified and committed to the challenging demands of trail building.  Ilyssa believed that a “good job with an organization with a great mission” was a kind of opportunity often unavailable to underserved populations.  Shawn was hired near the end of the first season, returned the following year, and was then promoted to crew leader in 2013, allowing Thomas to move into the project manager position.   Now, Shawn participates in the interviewing and selection process for new hires during the winter, and oversees the crew during their six months of seasonal employment.

When I joined him for a second time on the trail in early October, Shawn handed me a pick mattock.  As I cut away at the hillside to widen a trail segment, he followed behind grading the path. When I asked him what it was like to work out there all day, Shawn said,  “It’s like a barbershop in the woods.”  I looked back to see his eyes light up.  “It’s a place where we can talk and bond with people with similar backgrounds,” he continued, “while doing a real job.  A hard job.  But there’s an immediate sense of accomplishment.  That’s important.”  As to what they talk about: “Sometimes the news.  Sometimes things going on in their lives.  Sometimes their lives aren’t where they want them to be.”

These men and women are not performing community service or day labor – they are employees of the MWCDC, and the organization’s commitment goes well beyond issuing paychecks for seasonal wage labor.  Many workers return back for a second or third season, and while that has its benefits, Thomas explained that the ultimate goal is for crew members to move on to better full-time job placements.  To facilitate that, MWCDC provides myriad forms of assistance, ranging from resume writing to simulated interviews conducted by local employers.  Capacity Developers Incorporated donates a collection of sharp dress suits for ‘Interview Day.’  “When the crew comes out of the dressing rooms in their business suits, and they check themselves out in the mirror,” Thomas smiled, “that’s the best day of the year for me.”

DIY projects like this help to alleviate the burden on the city’s stormwater infrastructure.

I asked Shawn what he has learned from the job, and in a word – leadership.  “My mom…she always told me to be a leader, not a follower.  Once I had a couple of months under my belt as the Crew Leader, I knew, for the first time, I was doing what my mom taught me.”  Later in the day, he added, “I know that I have to be an example for the crew.  If they see me working hard, they work hard.”

Shawn has an easy-going way about him.  He speaks softly, with assuredness and without hesitation, which prompted me to ask him about confidence.  He had it, I could see, but I wondered more about the new recruits.  “It’s the run-walk theory.  A little kid starts walking.  He’s shaky at first but then you know there’s nothing stopping him from running. It’s the same out here,” he said with a laugh.  “Guys, and women too, they see right away that this is hard work to do all day, and maybe they struggle a bit at first.  We pick each other up.  We work hard, but we have fun.  Once they know they can do it – show up every day and do the job – it gets easier.  It’s all about confidence.”

To that point, Shawn was an on-stage co-presenter as part of the Green Building Alliance’s Inspire Speaker Series.  In addition to showcasing the Trails Corps’ work, he said, “I used to destroy communities, now I help rebuild them.”

Photo: Brian Cohen

Photo: Brian Cohen

Ilyssa spoke to the heart of this opportunity:  “Restoring the woods and restoring lives.”

Shawn doesn’t mind the quiet days he puts in on the trail after the rest of the crew’s contracts are completed for the year, finding the woods therapeutic.  He described a newfound appreciation for the landscape, and having the skills to sculpt and change the land so that it can be used in new ways.

Shawn said the greatest reward, especially for his crew, is to see other people out in the woods enjoying the trails.  “When the crew sees people out here, or when people stop to say how much they love it, it gives them a sense of worth.  It’s like they can say, ‘I’m somebody.’”  Moments later, two men walking the trail stopped to express their appreciation for the trail, and then snapped a few pictures of the Volkswagen.

I was regretting having scheduled something else for the afternoon, as I wanted to hang out with Shawn and Thomas for the rest of the day.  I got a last question in before heading out, asking about what might be next for Shawn.  “I know I should never be satisfied with what I have, and should always try to do more.  If I could be a college professor and still do what I’m doing, I would, but right now…I want to keep doing what I’m doing.”

The Next Pittsburgh

Most of the trail building and maintenance, along with ongoing needs such as controlling invasive species, is done by the Corps.  Yet, a significant amount of additional work is done by volunteers, ranging from park cleanups to special projects, such as building a rain garden.

In August, I arrived at the end of Republic Street to find twenty volunteers already at work doing just that.  Cascading rain from Fingal Street had been washing out the Republic Trailhead throughout the summer, and the rain garden was an attempt to manage stormwater in a manner suitable for Emerald View Park.

Rain garden volunteers. Photo: MWCDC

Jess Friss, a young, native Mt. Washington resident now working towards a degree in environmental science at Robert Morris University, initiated and led this project to earn her Gold Award – the Girl Scouts highest achievement – which requires a scout to make a positive impact on her local community.  “The environment was always a big part of my life,” Jess told me, and added that she wanted to give something back to the community that would also positively impact the environment.

The environment was very much on our minds as the temperature surpassed ninety degrees.  From high schoolers to seniors, these volunteers dug ditches and moved several tons of baseball-sized rocks uphill in wheelbarrows to create a channel that would divert stormwater to a rain garden.  Emerald View Park’s Manager, Judith Koch, along with Maureen Copeland, of StormWorks Pittsburgh, were on hand with their labor and expertise.  Judith noted that DIY projects like this help to alleviate the burden on the city’s stormwater infrastructure, and lessen the amount of sewage that is discharged into the rivers when the system becomes overwhelmed during rain events.  She noted that the beautification efforts at trailheads also prevent erosion, minimize illegal dumping, and with properly selected plants, enhance the wildlife habitat for birds and butterflies.

Jess’s story is emblematic of the spirit of Emerald View Park.  Her parents were committed to civic events in Mt. Washington, and her brother led a trail-building project in the park as an Eagle Scout.  Through the park, the community is finding new connections with nature, and with the MWCDC as well.  “Judith and I knocked on every door nearby to let them know what was happening, and to invite them to join us,” Jess said.

Jess and the volunteers returned a month later to install plantings, but this time heavy rains had turned the garden into mud, which Jess cited as one of the most difficult aspects of the project.  “Planting is a challenge when you’re trying not to lose a shoe,” she commented.  For Jess, the desired impact was two-fold: first, to remedy the stormwater-related environmental impacts; and second, to encourage others in the community to make a difference.

Judith Koch and Jess Friss (right). Photo: MWCDC

“I hope that people see that if they have a project in mind, no matter the size, there are always people willing to help.”  Jess recently returned to inspect the rain garden and reported that it was performing as intended, and that she’s excited for the spring, when the plants grow and the garden performs at its peak.

The park is helping to drive private investment in the neighborhood.

Beyond the rain garden project itself, Jess gained invaluable insights into civic engagement.  “I had never done a project of this scale,” she said.  “If it weren’t for the immense help of Judith and the MWCDC, the project wouldn’t be where it is today.”  Jess worked with MWCDC on raising money and volunteers, and promoting it through social media and the Mayor’s Office.

“Jess was very passionate about the project and was able to engage over 30 volunteers,” Judith said.  “She is a fun person to be around, so I am very happy that she plans to keep working on maintaining the rain garden even though her project is finished.”  Judith also told me that Jess’s work helped earn a grant that can be used for educational signage and a stormwater monitoring system.

Jess left me with this last thought: “I learned what it means to take initiative, to see something in the community that needs improved and help push to fix it. People are sometimes afraid to change something because they think they are just one person and they can’t do something on a large scale. It’s the exact opposite, people are always willing to help.”

Park Psychology

Building a relationship between the park and residents has not been without its challenges.  “It didn’t happen overnight,” said Kathryn Hunninen, Director of Park Development and Conservation for the MWCDC.  But after being in the job for five years, she sees the positive impacts of a community that now embraces the park.

Kathryn shared two community surveys with me, and of the 150 respondents (more than half of which use the park at least once a week), the majority indicated high levels of support for the park.  One commenter wrote: “I love the trails! It’s wonderful to have a place to escape city life…they are a unique aspect of our community that not many urban neighborhoods can offer…thank you for building and maintaining these trails. Keep up the amazing work!”  Many comments echo these sentiments, sometimes adding constructive suggestions; there are a number of passionate detractors, too.  Based on those that completed the surveys, the Olympia Dog Park is the second biggest draw for visitors to Emerald View (behind walking/hiking), and the most controversial.  It, along with litter, vandalism and safety, have remained as concerns from both residents and park users alike. (I reached out to park critics but did not obtain any responses.)

Between fifty and seventy-five percent of MWCDC’s staff is devoted to park-related projects which, needless to say, is unprecedented for a community-based organization in this region.  Both Ilyssa and Kathryn acknowledged that finding the right balance is a challenge, knowing that there are a lot of other needs in the community, including housing development, commercial district improvements, public safety, and so on, and the organization does actively work on these issues.

Eva Simms, a Mt. Washington resident for nearly three decades offered another point of view: the park is helping to drive private investment in the neighborhood.  Beyond anecdotal evidence of new residents choosing Mt. Washington, at least in part because of Emerald View Park, Eva noted that the park is featured in marketing materials for new housing, including a 26-unit development called The Woods at Bradley Street.

Photo: Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation

Photo: Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation

Kyle Stewart is one such resident, and described the park to me as a vital quality of life amenity.  As a civic-minded Millennial, Kyle was elected to the MWCDC board of directors shortly after moving to the neighborhood a few years ago.  “As a young person out of school, what is it you want?” he asked rhetorically.  Describing his interest in biking and running trails, he added that Emerald View “is becoming one of the city’s premier parks. I can walk out my door and do what I like to do in my own community.”

Eva grew up in Germany, where communities are connected by woodlands, which inspired her to get involved with park development efforts.  Now, as a developmental psychologist (she jokingly referred to herself as a ‘park psychologist’), she knows first-hand the benefits that come with access to quality woodlands, and sees those benefits in every age group, especially seniors and children.  As a volunteer, Eva leads bird hikes and works with organizations like MWCDC and Venture Outdoors, where she meets people from all over the city, including the south hills suburbs.  “We deserve a good city park,” she said unabashedly, and added, “The variety of birds and vegetation, and the real woodland trails, all within five minutes from downtown, is an incredible experience.”

Kathryn pointed out that at ten-years old, the park is still young, but one day will be ready to be stewarded by some other entity dedicated solely to parks.  Holding the primary responsibility of fundraising for the park, she’s hopeful that it will one day be funded with  sustainable financial sources similar to other parks in the Pittsburgh area.

Another Fine and Private Place

With all this in mind, I set out to form my own impressions of Emerald View.  Accompanying me was my longtime friend, Britta, who was visiting from out of town.  We set off on the Wyola Street trail, blanketed with newly fallen golden maple leaves.  Aside from occasional vistas of civilization and the hum of traffic somewhere in the distance, the park felt secluded and serene.  Not unlike other Pittsburgh regional parks, visitors will abruptly happen upon some imposing human-made thing or another.  Emerald View is no different in this regard, yet the iconic views it affords distinguishes it from the rest.

In an instant, the seclusion gave way to a cliff overlooking Route 51, which itself soon disappeared, later revealing a birds-eye view of the houses, churches and library that make up the West End Village, and later still, the bridge and the Ohio River flowing out of town.  And that’s where we saw the smoke.  Solid black plumes rose, commingling with steady white clouds and a brilliant blue sky, and drifted towards downtown, prompting Britta to run ahead.  When I heard her words, said more with curiosity than alarm, “There’s a boat on fire,” many variations came to mind.  A burning barge?  Not the Majestic clipper ship?

There was a boat on fire, indeed.  A small fishing boat, perhaps – it was hard to make out, already engulfed in flames – smack in the middle of the Ohio river.  A river rescue boat was nearby; the fire department on the shore struggled as their water hoses fell short of the flames; a clipper ship paddled in and then left, and soon after, so did we.  Before long we climbed a steep switchback that brought us to the Points of View statue overlooking the city near the Duquesne Incline.  Across the river, the announcer’s voice echoed out of Heinz Field, inside which we could see a full-capacity crowd taking in the Pitt v. Notre Dame game.

Photo: MWCDC

We opted for the city streets as the most direct route back to our cars, where a long debate ensued over plucking the last remaining fig from a tree in someone’s front yard, which proved distracting enough that we mistook the Sweetbriar trailhead for the one we sought.  Again we plunged into the woods, and only much later did we realize that we were lost.  It was only after we came across the same fallen tree twice that we realized we were more off-track than we thought possible.  And this, for me, was the absolute highlight of our excursion.  In the middle of a city that I’ve lived in far for too long to ever go astray anywhere, we had ventured into a park, never more than a mile from a city street, and got completely and comically lost.

Taking nothing away from the city’s other extraordinary parks, Emerald View is one of a kind.  Regardless of which trails are followed, visitors will be handed back and forth between distinctly urban and woodland environments.  For me, it was where they blended together – surviving foundation walls of long gone residences, protruding from hillsides like ancient stone ruins –  that were the most intriguing discoveries of all.  While the topography stands out, certainly steep in many places, it’s not unlike many trails in other Pittsburgh parks.  As for litter, the leaf-blanketed ground made it impossible for me to discern, but I saw nothing in the way of vandalism, and every stretch of trail was solid underfoot.

Pittsburgh Conservation Corps

Based on Kathryn’s expectations for future park stewardship, I asked Ilyssa about the day when it can be said that the Emerald View Park is complete.  If such a day exists, she explained, it’s still a ways away.  Beyond ongoing maintenance, several more trail segments and linkages to residential streets need to be built, along with special projects, like reconstructing a park building that was damaged in a fire years ago.  I also asked if MWCDC’s experiences with creating a park lend themselves to other neighborhoods.  To date, the Trail Corps has been contracted to work in Southside Park, McKeesport, Bear Run Nature Reserve, and McConnells Mill State Park.  But in a surprising twist, Ilyssa told me that their efforts will be exported in an exciting new way, and at a much larger scale.

GTECH Strategies, an organization that focuses on productive land use as a means of economic and social development, partnered with MWCDC, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, the Allegheny Land Trust, and PGH Works to secure the needed funding to create the Pittsburgh Conservation Corps (PCC).  The PCC will be more than a spin-off of the Emerald Trail Corps. It will be a more robust and expansive form of the Corps, with an organization built around it, sufficient to oversee the construction and maintenance of greening projects citywide.

Andrew Butcher, CEO of GTECH, stressed the potential economic benefits of this work at a broader scale.  He said, “By providing a range of land stewardship services,” the PCC will hopefully “trigger a chain reaction of economic development, built upon the value of open space that contributes to overall community health.”  This notion is very much aligned with how Eva and Kyle described what they’ve observed as residents of Mt. Washington.

After nine years at MWCDC, Ilyssa is transitioning to Director of this new initiative.  When Shawn told me that he wanted to keep doing what he’s doing, he’ll now have that chance, and more. He, along with Thomas, will move to the PCC in the spring.

When I asked Kyle about the transition to a new director, he described losing Ilyssa’s institutional knowledge in bittersweet terms, and believes that the organization will come out stronger in the end.   “The Emerald Trail Corps is becoming a model for greenspaces city-wide.  That’s awesome, and something we’re proud of.”

Trail Opening Celebration. Photo: Paul Heckbert

Trail Opening Celebration. Photo: Paul Heckbert







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