Chances are good that if you’re familiar with Rivers of Steel, it’s because you’ve been to a tour, workshop or event at the Carrie Blast Furnaces — or perhaps you’ve been on a sightseeing tour on the Explorer riverboat. If so, you’ve taken part in one of the group’s heritage tourism initiatives, a critical element of their role as a National Heritage Area [NHA]. 

However, their mandate as an NHA extends far beyond this public-facing role; in fact, most of their work supporting communities happens in partnership with an array of community stakeholders, from other nonprofits, businesses and local leaders to artists and academics. 

The objective? To support economic redevelopment in communities within the eight-county region of southwestern Pennsylvania that comprises the Rivers of Steel NHA. 

But what is an NHA? 

In short, it is a geographical area designed by the U.S. Congress as a region whose story is nationally important to the understanding of our country’s development and character. For Rivers of Steel, that narrative relates to the industrial and cultural heritage of Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Greene, Washington and Westmoreland counties. 

A graphic of the 8 counties that incorporate the National Heritage Area.
(Graphic courtesy of Rivers of Steel)

Yet what differentiates Rivers of Steel from many of the other 61 NHAs is its focus on economic development, in addition to telling their region’s story. Rivers of Steel is one of the first NHAs, recognized by Congress in 1996, and is managed by the Rivers of Steel Heritage Corporation. 

A nonprofit, Rivers of Steel was created after the collapse of the steel industry to preserve the region’s character through interpretation, historic preservation and cultural conservation, while uplifting communities devastated by the changed economy. 

Preserving heritage through partnerships

The foundation of Rivers of Steel’s work is through various community partnerships.

Rivers of Steel’s Mini-Grants Program is one of these initiatives. It provides grants from $1,000 to $25,000 to nonprofit organizations, local governments and educational institutions to develop programs, partnerships, exhibits, tours and other endeavors that are consistent with Rivers of Steel’s mission. 

One such grant, awarded to Center of Life, supported an urban furniture project at the Hazelwood Green, in collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University, Arts Excursions Unlimited and local teens.

The Urban Furniture Project Collaborators from left to right: Samuara Green, Longney Luk, Dana Cupkova, Kirman Hanson, Edith Abeyta, Matthew Huber, Tayshaun Watkins, Louis Suarez. Among them, they represent Arts Excursion Unlimited, CMU’s School of Architecture and Center of Life. (Photo courtesy of Lake Lewis)

“Hazelwood built a large portion of Pittsburgh utilizing the former steel mill on the Hazelwood Green site,” said Center of Life’s Patrick Ohrman. “Visiting the site to see this installation and all of the new development is an opportunity for people to really understand the history of Hazelwood. This project is a testament to the power that can be created when nonprofit organizations and universities work together to transform the ways in which others think about development.”

While mini-grants extend the reach of Rivers of Steel, other community initiatives originate from their arts programming, including the recent Industrial Grit and Graffiti project. 

“At Rivers of Steel, we see creative placemaking as an opportunity for us to work directly with our community partners on a project they find important,” said Chris McGinnis, director of Rivers of Steel Arts. 

“Sometimes this takes the form of a new mural, created in collaboration with local residents, and other times it might be a public workshop series or large event intended to bring people closer together,” McGinnis said. “In either case, we find that locals are the experts and bringing artists into the neighborhood allows us to work as a creative conduit, helping to channel the community’s energy into something exciting.” To learn more about the various ways Rivers of Steel supports community redevelopment, visit the Rivers of Steel Heritage Area page.

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