Public art is an integral part of Pittsburgh's newest neighborhood park
“Public art” isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when most people think of city parks. Sure, parks across Pittsburgh house sculptures, murals and plaques. But most of those works were later additions, or at the least secondary to the park’s main purpose.
An exception is Frankie Mae Pace Park, which Mayor Bill Peduto and other local elected officials opened with a ribbon-cutting in November. Pittsburgh’s newest neighborhood park, situated in the shadow of the U.S. Steel Building, was designed with its artworks in mind, and as integral to the park’s very reason for being: reconnecting the Hill District to Downtown, a link violently severed generations ago by an “urban renewal” scheme that uprooted a whole Black neighborhood.
It’s a big responsibility for a 3-acre park. But planners and advocates say Pace Park is a start. And the art tells much of the story, from an installation honoring the park’s namesake to the young Black cartoon character who acts as visitors’ tour guide through the space.
The park is a “cap park,” meaning part of it — roughly the middle third — serves as a roof for the formerly exposed roadway I-579. It starts at the eastern edge of Downtown and runs uphill between Centre and Wylie avenues. The $32 million project is part of a 28-acre redevelopment scheme on the former site of the Civic Arena and its surrounding parking lots — those being the very projects that displaced some 1,300 structures and more than 8,000 residents starting in 1956. The land is now owned by the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Design work started in 2015, said Fred Bonci, a founding partner of LaQuatra Bonci Associates, the landscape-architecture and urban-design firm that led the effort.
“The whole idea of integrating public artwork early into the design is the preferred method because it engages the artist into a better way to tell their stories instead of just having a piece of artwork that may have been in their warehouse and plopped down later,” said Bonci.
Community meetings made it clear that Hill District residents wanted artists and designers with connections to the neighborhood. Three of the four did, including artist, educator and urban gardener Amir Rashidd; writer and scholar Kimberly Ellis; and design consultant Lakeisha Byrd. The fourth artist was Jann Rosen-Queralt, a Baltimore-based artist with international public-art credits. Rosen-Queralt said it was vital to the project to learn the history of the space the park would fill.
“It was a scar in the landscape done in the 1950s, and it broke a neighborhood from the city and so this park is intended to in a way make reparation and rejoin or create a union once again,” she said.
Rosen-Queralt’s contributions to the site include some deep history — even “deep” as in geological. A series of cast-iron plaques she created use collaged and overlaid images of local topography, waterways, and coal seams, as well as references to the Underground Railroad routes in the Hill used by escaped slaves before the Civil War. The plaques also incorporate pertinent quotes by such writers and poets as Langston Hughes, Aldous Huxley, and this one, by Audre Lord: “As a diamond comes into a knot of flame I am black because I come from the earth’s inside. Take my work for jewel in your open light.”
“What I was trying to do was poetically relay influences on the land,” she said.
Conceptually, Rosen-Queralt’s biggest contribution to the park might be how it handles rainwater. In keeping with requirements for green infrastructure that doesn’t burden the city’s aged sewer system, the Downtown edge of Frankie Pace Park is marked by an extensive, terraced rain garden. The garden is fed by water gathered uphill, starting in a paved plaza encircled by a narrow gutter covered by a decorative iron grate. The gutter is partly uncovered as it runs downhill through the park; its course includes a pretty concrete spiral drain.
However, the single most ubiquitous image in the park is that of Keisha, a hand-drawn Black girl with long braids. She’s the invention of Kimberly Ellis, working with artist Vanessa Brantley-Newton.
“I want her to be vibrant, vivacious, exciting, fun, thoughtful,” said Ellis of Keisha. Most of all, she wanted Keisha to be “unapologetically Black” and to represent the Hill’s present and future. Images of Keisha and narration in her own words welcome visitors at many of the park’s entry points, and she also interprets features like the rain garden.
Moreover, Keisha’s braids provide the park’s main visual motif. The braids, an important symbol of African heritage and Black culture, are visible throughout, from those storm grates to the six 15-foot-tall stainless steel “totems” that help establish the park’s presence along Centre, just a couple of blocks from PPG Arena. The totems were designed by consultant LaKeisha Byrd.
Ellis, who has lived most of her life in the Hill, also researched and wrote the “story wall” installation (erected in December) honoring two historic Hill residents.
Martin Delany was a physician, journalist, and abolitionist who is sometimes called the father of Black nationalism. He lived much of his adult life in a section of the Hill known as “Little Hayti” in pre-Civil War Pittsburgh and is internationally recognized.
Less well known, but even more rooted in the Hill, was the park’s namesake, Frankie Mae Pace, a community organizer who died in 1989. Pace was active during the period of the Lower Hill’s demolition and is credited with not only preventing further damage to the neighborhood but with helping to preserve affordable housing there.
“I know that most people who come into the park have never probably heard of Martin Delany and Frankie Pace, and that is the point,” said Ellis. “Frankie Pace was someone who actually nurtured the neighborhood, and so it was an honor to honor her.”
Steps from the story wall, at the park’s center, sits the Children’s Garden, designed by Amir Rashidd as a place for hands-on learning. It includes an herb garden — Rashidd is an advocate for the healing properties of herbs — and a small amphitheater. Also prominent are 11 tall poles that function as musical chimes, to be struck with mallets attached to them by chords. The area also includes several shiny metal cajons — foot-high cubes that can be played like hand drums by someone sitting on them.
“It’s a live-and-learn exercise. It’s full of life lessons, ideas,” said Rashidd.
Some of the lessons are in African proverbs transcribed on plaques. “Milk and honey have different colors, but share the same house peacefully,” reads one. Another says: “Wealth, if you use it, comes to an end. Learning, if you use it, it increases.”
Technically, the park’s single largest artwork is one most visitors might never notice. The walking paths are paved red to create the outline of the Sankofa bird. Drawn from African folklore, it’s a creature that walks forward while looking backward. As Rashidd put it, “You have to know where you come from to go forwards to where you’re going to be.”
But how much will Frankie Mae Pace Park do to reconnect its namesake’s old neighborhood with Downtown? The park in winter looks a bit bare, something that will surely change come spring as the trees and other plants come back to life. Still, the overall 28-acre site remains a work in progress, with a couple of hundred yards of current or future construction sites separating the park from the Hill’s nearest buildings.
Rashidd sounded hopeful about the park’s promise. “I think it has great potential,” he said.
Ellis was enthused as well, if a bit more guarded. “I felt it was all symbolic,” said Ellis. “And I was happy it was happening, but the reality in terms of connecting it to Downtown, it just wasn’t that direct connect that you would think of.”
However, she added, the work to come will only help.
“For so long, we literally just had the parking lot and then the Civic Arena, and then more parking lots,” she said. “And now you have a park.” She noted that the plan for the rest of the site includes not only office buildings, but also more open space along Wylie Avenue that will be designed by some of the same team, including herself, LaQuatra Bonci, and Lakeisha Byrd. “So we get to extend that beauty up Wylie Avenue.”