A Natural Playground

As Frick Park nears 100, planners and users seek to balance recreation with environmental awareness
Photos courtesy of John Moyer A Natural Playground
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It’s a sunny summer Sunday afternoon and everybody’s out there. Pittsburghers in pairs and groups and alone, walking or running or being pushed along in strollers, with or without dogs of every size and breed — they lace the trails from Homewood Cemetery to Duck Hollow. An Ultimate Frisbee game electrifies the Fern Hollow playing field, while high on the ridges above them, the screeching of brakes announces the exertions of mountain bikers. Down by the croaking wetland along Nine Mile Run, a bird enthusiast with binoculars scouts the sky for the source of other screeches, as the beat of a drum circle from up toward Blue Slide Playground reverberates everywhere through the verdant woods.

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Welcome to Frick Park, Pittsburgh’s natural playground. At 561 acres, it’s not just the largest of the city’s four parks, but by virtue of its geographic range, geological diversity and active civic and volunteer oversight, it seems to offer something for everyone. Rippling streams and cliffside caves? Check. Picnic shelters and swing sets? Check. Flat, open paths and secluded single-​track trails? Check. Baseball fields and tennis courts? Check.

Parks such as Frick, “are the most democratic spaces in our culture,” says Susan Rademacher, curator for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. “They really are democracies in action.”

But today, at nearly a century old, Frick is also an endangered democracy. Not only has increased and more diversified use brought added stresses, both on the environment and on visitors, but, more critically, the park faces challenges ranging from invasive species to the proliferation of deer to the contamination of waterways by overflowing sewage. Now, as the Conservancy, Citiparks, and a handful of other partners prepare for an ambitious redesign of the Frick Environmental Center and the park’s historic Beechwood Boulevard entrance, Frick is poised to become more popular than ever. But will it continue to serve the many interests of the citizens of Pittsburgh’s East End and beyond while conserving the natural beauty that brings them there?

A park is born

Local legend has it that Frick Park was conceived in 1908, when industrialist Henry Clay Frick responded to his debutante daughter’s gift request by designating a large tract of woodland south of his Point Breeze mansion as a place where the city’s children could enjoy nature.

What is known for certain is that, upon his death 11 years later, Frick bequeathed 151 acres to the City of Pittsburgh, along with a $2 million trust fund intended to create and maintain a park in perpetuity. But it wasn’t until 1925, when the executors of his will purchased another 190 acres, that the creation of a park truly got under way. Two years after that, when Frick Park was officially “opened,” a master plan, including the layout of its main trails, was in place.

In the early 1930s, John Russell Pope, a nationally prominent architect then remodeling Frick’s New York City home as a museum to house his art collection, unexpectedly took on a side job designing what would become the park’s most distinctively built elements: a pair of gate lodges forming the main Beechwood Boulevard entrance; a small entrance gate and shelter on Forbes Avenue at the Pittsburgh end of the Fern Hollow Bridge; an arched gateway at Homewood Avenue and Reynolds Street, near the Frick mansion; and a copper-​topped cairn, now mint-​green with age, at the corner of the park where Beechwood and Forbes abut.

Plans for the park’s growth and organization proceeded aggressively from there, with the conversion of the Pittsburgh Country Club’s 84-​acre property near the present-​day Blue Slide Playground into parkland in 1936, and the hiring of Innocenti and Webel, among the nation’s most respected landscape architects, to design more trails, plan additional structures, and order green spaces and plantings over the course of the next 20 years. It was during this period that the park’s emphasis on nature was formalized under a deliberate policy of pushing recreational facilities to the periphery. Such uses would thrive there, inviting generations of families from Squirrel Hill to Wilkinsburg to Regent Square and beyond to picnic, slide down a brightly painted slab of slick cement, sign up for little league baseball, take tennis lessons, play bocce, and much more.

As for the interior of the park, it would be another 40 years before significant changes would occur. In 1996, when developers proposed a residential community atop the slag heaps that for decades had greeted parkway travelers at the inbound entrance to the Squirrel Hill Tunnel, a dream once envisioned by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead but long thwarted by the demands of the steel industry would finally become possible. The complicated, decade-​long process involved the Urban Redevelopment Authority, private developers, the federal Environmental Protection Agency, Carnegie Mellon University, the Army Corps of Engineers and more. But ultimately, not only would an industrial brownfield be transformed into one of Pittsburgh’s most sought-​after neighborhoods, but Nine Mile Run — a toxic, brush-​covered stream — would be cleaned and reopened, and another 106 acres added to Frick Park.

A lot of people think that Frick Park is a natural wilderness the way God made it and that the city grew around it,” says Meg Cheever, the Conservancy’s director, “but actually it has a much more complicated design history. It’s a cultural artifact as well as a piece of nature. A lot of people think, ‘Let it go green and God will take care of it.’ But at this time in the world, we know that’s not necessarily true.”

Pittsburgh’s “nature park”

Long perceived as Pittsburgh’s “nature park,” Frick is arguably best known and loved for its extensive vegetation, diverse topography, intersecting waterways and, increasingly, vibrant wildlife. With dense woodland of some 150 acres at its core, the park offers a sort of urban sanctuary to visitors, a quick and easy escape from the bright and noisy world just beyond. Walking up or down the gorge known as the Falls Ravine Trail, one is sheltered by a towering canopy of sugar and Norway maples, elms, black cherries, red oaks and others. One might not immediately appreciate the services these two dozen tree species provide, but they are many — from stabilizing hillsides and controlling storm water, to cleaning and cooling the air, to providing habitats for a range of wildlife.

As Cheever observes, “Not so many cities have large natural parks right in the city limits that allow you to be immersed in nature so quickly.” Or, to put it in the words of longtime Regent Square resident and park user Matt Kambic, “the woods are like padding. I can’t really get away the way I can in Frick Park.”

One group of park users who readily appreciate the park’s benefits are the aficionados of our feathered friends known as “birders.” On a recent stroll up Clayton Hill, long considered one of the most productive bird-​watching areas, Jack and Sue Solomon of Squirrel Hill, charter members of the Three Rivers Birding Club, pointed out the sights and sounds of a flourishing avian population: the eerie screech of a high-​flying red-​tailed hawk, the flutter of a rare yellow-​tailed warbler, a huge Cooper’s hawk nest high in a tree, the rolling song of a Carolina wren. Since the Nine Mile Run restoration, says Jack Solomon, even shore birds such as solitary sandpipers and kingfishers have joined the roster.

It’s an island of green in one endless urban landscape,” he says, imagining the bird’s eye view of Frick. “They see it, feel it, sense it, home in on it. Because it’s the place most likely to have what they need: food, rest, shelter.”

Birds, of course, aren’t the park’s only wildlife. Stroll down a quiet trail, especially in the early morning, and chances are good you’ll meet up with anywhere from one to a half-​dozen equally curious white-​tailed deer. Chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits and raccoons abound, and it’s not uncommon to come upon a several-​foot-​long black snake or a tiny green garter snake. In Nine Mile Run, a few hearty species of fish have returned, bringing with them the occasional muskrat or beaver.

Biker’s paradise

Another group long enamored of Frick’s vast woodland and diverse topography, albeit for very different reasons, is the mountain bikers who have transformed much of it into an extensive network of trails. On a weekend morning last summer, Jeff Chetlin, an orthodontist from Point Breeze, had just enjoyed a ride on a relatively new, unnamed trail not far from Nine Mile Run. Featuring tight switchbacks over roots and rocks, ramps of clustered tree limbs and a chicken-​wire-​covered boardwalk running the length of a fallen tree, this “work of art,” as he termed it, is not for the faint of heart.

People really into it will call it a challenging park,” says Chetlin. “It’s not for a beginning rider.” Even so, there’s no shortage of mountain bicyclists willing to take it on, many of whom live within a few-​mile radius and regularly visit through much of the year. Though some may choose to stick to the broad gravel and powdered limestone paths, most come for such challenges as “The Iron Grate,” a long, meandering, single-​track descent from the back side of the park maintenance building near Blue Slide to the park’s Firelane Trail entrance down on Commercial Road.

Part of a group that meets weekly in the park, Chetlin helped start some of the trails more than 20 years ago. He’s seen a lot of change, not just to the trails, but to the acceptance and behavior of cyclists. Once frowned upon as destructive to, or, at best, disrespectful of the natural world around them, many of these users have banded together in recent years to improve both the quality of the riding experience and the ecological health of the park. Today, the Pittsburgh Trails Advocacy Group (PTAG) — established in 2001 in response to concerns about the closure of park trails to cyclists — works with the city’s Department of Public Works to enhance biker education and grass-​roots sustainable trail management.

According to Dick Wilford, park foreman for the past 19 years, PTAG “stewards” and their work crews handle much of the day-​to-​day maintenance of remote single-​track trails that his staff would not be able to take on. So while his team focuses on repairing washed out paths, removing fallen tree limbs and carting out as much as a ton of garbage a day, his volunteer partners pitch in by replacing erosion-​prone ruts along fall lines with gently graded switchbacks, eliminating “blind Ts” to enhance public safety, and policing themselves to avoid the creation of “rogue trails.”

There are always those who don’t want to go with most of the crowd,” says Wilford’s former boss, recently retired Deputy Director of Public Works Mike Gable. “But for the most part, they’re sticking to the trails.” Adds Chetlin, “mountain bikers are nature-​loving people. They’re mostly tree huggers who want what’s best for the park.”

All dogs go to… Frick

Bikers aren’t the only Frick users who have come under fire in recent years. A good half-​mile east of Blue Slide Park down the Riverview Trail lies the so-​called “Off-​Leash Exercise Area” (OLEA), the only place in the park where dogs are permitted by law to roam unrestrained. There, on a Friday morning last summer, an assortment of canines joyfully bounded about as their fawning owners and walkers compared notes. Sheileen McLaughlin, owner of Go Dog Go, a dogwalking and petsitting service in Regent Square, managed a pack of seven that included a couple of greyhounds and a stubborn lap dog. Having served on the working group that created the OLEA with a Regional Asset District grant several years ago, she’s watched this area grow from a small patch of grass to a football field-​sized, fenced-​in area of benches and new tree plantings.

I wanted to find a way to give back,” says McLaughlin, “because it’s such an amazing resource that we shouldn’t take for granted.” The OLEA and the “Hot Dog Dam” (a popular spot beneath the Fern Hollow Bridge that’s been discontinued as an official OLEA) grew out of vocal disputes between those who want their pets to exercise and freely enjoy nature and those who, whether from fear or inconvenience, don’t.

Dog people drive me nuts,” says Patricia Just of Regent Square, recalling an incident in which her husband’s freshly cleaned clothes were ruined by a frisky pooch. “Nobody’s child ever put muddy paws on my coat. My child never pooped in the middle of a trail.”

But like the biking controversy, this one too seems to be subsiding. Between the popularity of the OLEA and rising awareness of the safety and comfort of other park visitors, McLaughlin notes, “I haven’t heard as many complaints of dogs running off-​leash. People want to play by the rules.”

Most park users understand that it’s like a microcosm of our culture,” says Rademacher. “Every kind of person is trying to enjoy every kind of thing in a finite space. But I think most people respect other people and understand they can’t pursue their interest 100 percent, because there needs to be a balance.”

The future of Frick

The future of the park holds both promise and cause for concern. Plans to rebuild the Frick Environmental Center, which burned down in 2001, and to refashion the surrounding area into a hub of environmental education for schools and camps, volunteer activities and community outreach programs, are almost complete. At an estimated cost of around $15 million, nearly half of which has already been pledged, the work is ambitious. But if successful in meeting the Living Building Challenge, a rigorous international certification standard for sustainable development, the new design will, in the words of the Conservancy’s director of education, Marijke Hecht, “keep Pittsburgh on the leading edge of green design.” In addition, the city, the URA, and the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association are working to complete trail access from Commercial Road to the stream’s confluence with the Monongahela River at Duck Hollow, which would fully integrate that tract of land and stream into the park itself.

Frick, however, faces countless challenges. Invasive species such as oak wilt disease and emerald ash borers have either destroyed or forced the destruction of acres of trees. And as the park fights to replace this loss with new plantings, it’s up against a hungry and rapidly proliferating deer population.

It is perilous times for the urban forest in Pittsburgh,” says Phil Gruszka, the Conservancy’s director of parks management and maintenance. “Never before have we seen such a convergence of destructive insects and diseases poised to eliminate many of our native trees. Even though the task at hand is disheartening, it does not preclude us from doing our best to mitigate tree losses and restore the forest.”

Beyond that lies the fact that Nine Mile Run, for all its apparent beauty, remains, at heart, a polluted stream. As Brenda Smith, director of the watershed association, points out, until upstream municipalities find a way to control sewage overflows, that will remain the case.

It is an urban park and there’s no getting around that,” she notes, underscoring the fundamental dichotomy of this local treasure. “It will never be a wilderness. The challenge is figuring out how to manage and maintain a relatively wild area in an urban park for the benefit of everybody.”

Ben Wecht

Ben Wecht is a Pittsburgh native, Regent Square resident and fanatic of Frick Park, where he and his family enjoy running, biking and exploring nature. As administrator of Duquesne University’s Cyril H. Wecht Institute of Forensic Science and Law, he develops, hosts and distributes academic and professional education programming at the interface of science, law and public policy. A former marketing communications professional, print journalist and teacher, and co-​author of two true-​crime books, Ben is a musician, fiction writer and poet.

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