Tribune-Review  July 15th, 1999
Art in the Environment

     The Nine Mile Run Project considers a plan first outlined in 1911.


     Nine Mile Run is one of the mysteries of Pittsburgh. It is a small watered valley which trickles down to the Monongahela River, meeting it at Duck Hollow in the East End. Part of it borders Frick Park and a good deal of it creeps underneath the parkway near the Squirrel Hill Tunnel. Old photographs of the area suggest a picturesque little landscape, a private little space where kids might fish and maybe swim, inhabited with a body of wildlife and a good deal of natural vegetation. In the 19th century part of the Run was owned by Jane Swisshelm, who sought to keep the environment in its natural state. Some of that property was acquired in the early part of this century with funds left by Henry Clay Frick for the support and maintenance of Frick Park. Near the old Foodland building on Braddock Avenue is a blocked off entrance which at one stage was intended to be a main entrances to the Park itself.

     When the city began to concern itself with the greenspaces of the city, it invited Frederick Law Olmstead Jr, the son of the great park designer, to consider those sections of the city which could be part of a larger plan to enhance the amenities available to its diverse communities. Olmstead's main recommendations were concerned with sites such as Schenley Park and its grand entrance in Oakland (beside the Carnegie, where there is now a car park), but in his survey he singled out Nine Mile Run as "perhaps the most striking opportunity of a large park ... the long meadows of varying width would make ideal playfields; the stream, when it is freed from sewage, will be an attractive and interesting element in the landscape; the wooded slopes on either side give ample opportunity for the enjoyment of the forest, for shaded walks and cool resting places." That was in 1911, and already, as Olmstead noted, the valley was polluted with sewage that flowed there as the result of the haphazard plumbing policies of the various authorities and developers in the catchment area of the valley.

     Olmstead's prophetic words may have been enough to encourage the trustees of Frick Park to secure some of the land from the Swisshelm Estate in 1922. But at the same time the upper reaches of the valley were purchased by a steel industry slag disposal firm, which dumped, over the course of some 50 years, some 17 million cubic yards of slag on the top of the valley and along its upper sides. It seemed that any notion of a public amenity could not survive.

     The upper reaches of Nine Mile Run, after being considered as a site of a supermarket complex, are now being developed as upscale private housing. But the valley sides and the narrow valley floor itself is represented as a major opportunity to improve the environment. The Nine Mile Run Greenway Project Team was founded in 1996 with the help of a grant from the Howard Heinz Endowment and is a project of the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry, an interdisciplinary center in the College of Fine Arts at Carnegie Mellon University. It is run by a group of artists who, in line with the policy of the STUDIO, have interacted with the proper authorities (the Pittsburgh City Planning Office and the Pittsburgh Urban Development Authority) to explore the potential that these "brownfields" offer. A park-like environment remains a possible dream.

     "Conversations in the Rustbelt - Brownfields to Greensways" is an inspiring exhibition at the Wood Street Galleries that makes visual a report produced by the STUDIO and published in 1998 ("Ample Opportunity: A Community Dialogue," the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry, Carnegie Mellon University, 1998). The co-directors of the project are Bob Bingham, Tim Collins, Reiko Goto, Richard Pell and John Stephen, assisted by a vast range of collaborators. It's clear enough that this exhibition is not simply an exercise in inspirational aesthetics, a Capability Brown-like project in landscaping of the kind that prevailed in the past. Since Nine Mile Run is described as a "post-industrial landscape" and its problems are complex and technical, much of the researches involve sophisticated scientific analyses that the STUDIO has co-ordinated. Ecology and pollution are obvious topics. But whereas earlier park development in the Pittsburgh region has been described a "top-down," the variety of meetings that have taken place indicate that the processes of analysis have been much more democratic. The exhibition continues this theme with chalk-boards set up on the wall for people to write their own comments, as well as the usual forms and documents for people to express their opinions.

     One floor of the Wood Street Galleries puts the history of the site into context in a linear form, utilizing a number of old photographs (blown -up) drawn from public and private archives, as well as historic botanical specimens loaned by the Carnegie. On the other floor of the galleries the present is more particularly indicated. Pressed plant life from a recent survey shows the current state of the habitat, and a slag-garden makes an unexpected appearance. The various installations are models of interactivity.

     If you felt inclined to visit Nine Mile Run itself, the project team has created "Slag Radio," with short-range transmitters around the site accessible with a portable FM radio, which will broadcast stories, audio clips and sound art compositions. A community resource trailer is located at the site.

     A community workshop will be held at the Wood Street Galleries July 23-25 where the range of community-based design options will be presented.

     The Nine Mile Run Project is nearly three years old now, and the exhibition at the galleries gives a real insight into the formidable range of considerations that community planning involves. It is a complex show, so try and set some time to view it.

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     "Conversations in the Rustbelt: Brownfields into Greenways"

     Wood Street Galleries, Downtown.

     (412) 471-5605.

     Through Aug. 15.

     Philip Pavely photo