In the McKinley Park Community Center in Beltzhoover, Richard Carrington stood before some 30 people sitting on metal folding chairs. His bass voice resounded against cinder block walls as residents, nonprofit staff, contractors and consultants waited to hear the latest on renovations planned for McKinley Park, one of the oldest and largest – though one of the lesser known – major parks in the city. Carrington, the first of three presenters, wasn’t talking about the park, though.
“No disrespect to our other brothers and sisters here, but we’re tired of watching people with color not having [jobs],” Carrington said. “You’re doing projects in our community, but you haven’t found a way to give us any jobs.” Carrington has a light beard and long salt-and-pepper hair, having earned that salt while directing the nonprofit Voices Against Violence (VAV) for 22 years and acting as “father” to hundreds of community youth.
It was June 5, 2017, and this was one of numerous public meetings designed to gather community input while reporting on a series of renovations planned for the 78.5-acre park. The meeting was convened by staff of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, which is partnering with the City of Pittsburgh to spearhead renovations. During the first phase of construction, park entrances and trails into the area known as Chicken Hill are to be excavated and repaired. Stormwater runoff will be captured, kept out of the city’s overburdened sewer system.
Community meetings similar to this led to the 2016 McKinley Park Master Plan, which calls for refurbishing entire swaths of a park that had, over the last few decades, fallen into a state of disrepair. The plan includes play structures and picnic shelters, new football and baseball fields, better hiking trails, maybe even a modernized community center. Improve the park, the thinking goes, and you’ll spur revitalization in the adjacent hilltop neighborhoods of Beltzhoover, Knoxville and Bon Air.
But at a community meeting in March 2016, one man from Beltzhoover heard "revitalization" and raised his hand to speak.
“With new people moving into the area to enjoy these new amenities,” Terrell Thomas said, “it’s going to raise the property value up even more and it’s going to be a thing where people are being forced to move out, which has happened in our city and other cities.”
Thomas, 33, was summarizing concerns about development in the park and the neighborhood that have been expressed by many community members: longtime residents may not be able to afford higher rents, homeowners may struggle to keep up with rising property taxes, retiring seniors may have few ready buyers except for outside investors.
Like a real-life Venn Diagram, these community discussions reveal sets of priorities that overlap in some moments (Who doesn’t want a safer, well-designed, well-maintained park?) but then diverge in others (Once our neighborhood is improved, will outsiders start snatching up vacant lots and houses? How does ‘green infrastructure’ built by outside experts help our community’s need for jobs?). With so much at stake, these community processes can be just as important as the end product.
And with major work beginning this autumn and projects rolling out over the next few years, McKinley Park may well serve as a case study in whether park improvements yield benefits that stay with local residents, or prompt displacement.
A McKinley story
Everyone in Beltzhoover seems to have a McKinley Park story.
As a 10-year-old in 1940, Dorothy DeVaughn McCoy ice skated in McKinley Park on tennis courts that had been filled with water and left to freeze. Then, though she’d later regret following her “dumb” brother’s example, she and her friends plunged down the icy streets of Beltzhoover on skates – along cobbled Michigan Street, down Bernd Street, then down Bausman Street through the middle of the park, and nearly all the way to the Liberty tubes. They’d slowed at the turns and sped down straightaways. But neither Dorothy nor that dumb brother of hers realized how hard it’d be getting back to the park wearing ice skates.
“We had a heck of a time,” said Dorothy, who is now 86. “It wasn’t so bad going down, but coming back was awful.”
In 1970, Dorothy’s son, Marc, would ride his tiger-striped, 5-speed off-road BMX bike down McKinley Park’s Chicken Hill – that steep, grassy slope off Michigan Street that only non-chickens dared to bike or sled. He usually hit all of his jumps, too, but years later he’d have the scars to show just how dangerous Chicken Hill could be.
“We’d get our bikes and go on our little adventures,” said Marc, who is now 57. “Tried to be little daredevils.”
Dorothy and her son still live in the heart of Beltzhoover, in the home on Gearing Street where Marc was raised, just blocks from McKinley. Dorothy visits the park’s senior center almost daily and has been attending community meetings about renovation plans.
“I like to see [plans] moving along. I don’t think we should just go back and say, ‘Oh well, years ago we did this, and we don’t need to change.’ I’m not like that,” Dorothy said. “The economy changes. The weather changes. Everything changes. And I think that’s good.”
When Beltzhoover was annexed by the City of Pittsburgh in 1898, land that would become today’s park had already been a community gathering place. Swings hung from poplar and chestnut trees, and neighbors picnicked while competing in nine-pin bowling. Decades later – and after it was named for President William McKinley, following his assassination in 1901 – the park would remain a hub of community activity. Dorothy and her friends would watch Officer Frank, the mounted police officer, shoe his horse. Families listened to big band music every Friday night at the park’s rotating bandshell.
But by the late 1970s and through to the 1990s, neglect of the the park paralleled neighborhood decline and the city’s loss of steel manufacturing and population.
“This is a neighborhood that’s seen basically 40 years of solid disinvestment and decay,” said Aaron Sukenik, executive director of Hilltop Alliance, a consortium of 11 hilltop neighborhood community-based organizations.
Kids stopped riding down those hills, or using the park much at all.
‘It’s really their park’
Jamil Bey, founder and director of the UrbanKind Institute and a key voice in discussions about McKinley Park, led the March 2016 community meeting. He challenged his neighbors to see park revitalization as an opportunity.
Bey, who grew up in Beltzhoover and returned after earning a doctorate in geography from Penn State University, understands the tensions ingrained in any kind of community development. Residents worry about being pushed out, unwelcome to enjoy the new amenities and economic boost, but, Bey asks, “Can folks afford not to have their property values increased when they’re so low?”
Beltzhoover’s median household income is $31,649 (compared to $40,715 for Pittsburgh). The median home sale price is $47,000 ($94,700 for Pittsburgh).
Residents participating in these kinds of community processes want to share in the decision-making and seize opportunities for themselves and their neighbors. But with so many factors, from zoning codes and tax abatements to the razing of buildings and construction of new ones, community processes can be fraught. Gauging success – or even accurately defining problems and solutions in the first place – becomes incredibly difficult.
The Parks Conservancy’s Erin Tobin said she’s committed to “meeting with community members and building trust and relationships with people.” As a community outreach coordinator, Tobin serves as the primary liaison between the Conservancy and numerous neighborhood groups and leaders.
“If we just showed up, people would be upset, if they weren’t involved in the planning process. It’s really their park. We exist to make these improvements so that they can benefit from them.”
Tobin added, “Otherwise there’s no point in us doing it.”
Carrington, who also grew up in Beltzhoover, highlighted one of the tensions related to park redevelopment – plans to hire outside contractors and the community’s felt need for employment. At the June 5 community meeting, he pointed to a $437,500 grant that the Parks Conservancy received in August 2016 through the Great Urban Parks Campaign, sponsored by the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) and American Planning Association (APA). Speaking before his neighbors, Carrington said the grant was earmarked upon arrival for consultants, designers, materials and contractors.
“When we started asking, ‘What’s the process to get involved,’ there were opportunities for [general] contractors, but not the everyday laborer, not the person in the community who had basic skills.”
Then Tim Duggan spoke, a man who’s similarly bearded as Carrington, but white. He’d flown in from Kansas City.
Founder of Phronesis, the company providing green infrastructure and landscape expertise, Duggan used Powerpoint slides to describe a laundry list of renovation priorities in Chicken Hill. Dead trees will be removed, a playground slide built into the hillside, steps and paths will be installed. Rain gardens will absorb the stormwater.
Duggan pointed to slides listing more than a dozen community-member comments alongside corresponding responses from Phronesis and the Conservancy. “Provide multiple areas for picnics,” read one comment. The design now includes three small gathering areas.
Responsiveness to community concerns is key to equitable development, Bey said. UrbanKind Institute has established seven principles for ensuring that these processes are fair.
“If we invest in McKinley Park through the lens of equity and justice, that is, bake that into our plan,” Bey said, “if we’re doing that, then we’re including residents, not only in the design of the plan, but in the benefits, including employment, and during the process.”
Ilyssa Manspeizer is the executive director of Landforce, a nonprofit that restores and maintains green assets. Manspeizer has helped lead similar projects in her former role as executive director of the Mount Washington Community Development Corporation.
“It’s very challenging to do the kind of community process that’s been happening,” she said.
Commenting generally and not specifically on McKinley Park, Manspeizer said, “It takes a long time to see an end project, so people can get very frustrated along the way. And things change enough along the way that the initial thoughts and ideas and commitments may not be the same as the final thoughts and ideas and commitments. But that’s why it’s a community process.”
Leading up to this
In 2008, a Penn State landscape architecture studio drew up designs for making McKinley Park more accessible. Then the Hilltop Alliance completed a plan for the Haberman Corridor, a nearby paper street (a street that exists on the map but was never adopted by the city) that, if developed, could connect the park to the rest of Beltzhoover and all the way to Warrington Avenue and Allentown. The Parks Conservancy finalized McKinley’s Master Plan.
For many years, the Beltzhoover Neighborhood Council, Knoxville Community Council and Bon Air Civic Association have been meeting and advocating for their residents. In 2015, the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group sponsored a community coordinator, a Beltzhoover native named Shawna Russ, to reignite community development discussions, which eventually led to the creation of the Beltzhoover Consensus Group (BCG). Their monthly meetings now serve as a primary venue for discussing park renovations.
These are mere highlights from years of work involving so many people — from volunteers who have weeded and mulched in the park to the nearly three dozen individuals and groups listed as the steering committee in the McKinley Park Master Plan.
Felipe Palomo, neighborhood planner with Pittsburgh’s Department of City Planning, said he believes these activities are building community capacity. “The public process of this park will help them to develop [other] public processes, for not just [the park], but for neighborhood planning in general.”
- But community process isn’t all about meetings and plans. Ideas have turned into action.
In 2013, the Parks Conservancy and the city’s Department of Public Works (DPW) renovated a park entrance on Delmont Avenue, resurrecting a stone wall from the 1930s and installing a porous parking lot. Funding came from the city, state and Birmingham Foundation.
- During several summers, the Student Conservation Association has contracted local youth to rebuild park trails.
- This fall, the Hilltop Alliance and Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation will use $50,000 from the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency to improve facades on six owner-occupied homes facing the park.
As president of the South Hilltop Men’s Group, Jmar Bey (brother of Jamil) has been clearing and beautifying empty lots in Beltzhoover. When Bey talks about “what the people of Beltzhoover are doing in Beltzhoover,” and have been doing for many years before the recent meetings, he’s enthusiastic. “There are a lot of folks doing a lot of good work. We are working tirelessly.
“I am disappointed in the lack of employment opportunities for community members. However, I am hopeful that the community will benefit in the long-run from the revitalization of McKinley Park.”
Where park plans stand now
June 28, 2017: A dozen people are sitting around a picnic table and on folding chairs just outside the McKinley Park Shelter House for another community meeting. On this mild summer evening, you can hear a woodpecker tapping away in the park’s canopy.
Larry Harris, a longtime Beltzhoover resident and president of the Beltzhoover Consensus Group, speaks across the circle to Susan Rademacher, parks curator at the Conservancy.
“We keep hearing someone from the outside is going to do this, someone from the outside is going to do that,” Harris said. “...When there’s work available, with people within the neighborhood who can do the work, why wouldn’t they be the first up to the plate?”
Harris points out that several members of the South Hilltop Men’s Group have certification in maintaining green infrastructure. The Conservancy says it has discussed with contractors, community members and the BCG the possibility of contracting residents with carpentry skills to make felled trees into benches and paying youth to work on trails this summer.
Rademacher explains that this project doesn’t create any new long-term jobs, but the Conservancy is eager to discuss maintenance of rain gardens and landscaping — working with community groups as they do in Frick and Highland parks.
“We feel that the most caring kind of relationship between the park and the neighborhood includes that kinds of hands-on stewardship,” she said. “And I think it would be useful to have a dialogue about how we want that to look for McKinley Park.”
Rademacher goes on to explain that cost estimates have risen and funds set aside for two years of maintenance will likely be used for construction.
After this meeting, and as the summer progresses, the Conservancy will receive final approval from the city’s Art Commission for the park designs. Then they’ll submit drawings to the DPW and Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA); once both departments give the go-ahead, the Conservancy will release a public request for proposals to general contractors.
According to Tobin, the Conservancy’s goal is for a contractor to break ground in November, though DPW may begin prep work sooner. At the earliest, significant plantings will come in spring 2018, and then a ribbon cutting. Community leaders have been forming Friends of McKinley Park to oversee park programming and advocacy.
Much of the construction will be done in-kind by DPW and PWSA. The Allegheny County Sanitary Authority is providing some financial support. Chicken Hill renovations alone are estimated to cost $1.1 million.
This summer, while designs have been re-scoped and re-budgeted, none of the 228 youth participating in VAV’s summer programs repaired trails. No residents built benches.
“I had community parents asking me, ‘Where’s these jobs?’” Carrington said. “I ended up having to give these kids summer jobs out of my pocket because they never came through. So that put me in a rough place.”
Carrington described himself as “livid” at times over this process, which he believes is reflective of how community development often occurs. “The problem most black communities have is, you keep telling us stuff is coming but it never shows the hell up.”
But recently, as designs and costs have been finalized, the Conservancy determined that it could use $22,245 from the NRPA/APA grant to to pay adult community members to teach youth how to build benches and picnic tables and do masonry work. The BCG will coordinate fund allocation among local community groups.
The Conservancy also just received news that the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation has awarded them $35,000, of which $13,000 will be used by VAV and UrbanKind Institute to put youth to work identifying tree species and helping to survey and restore McKinley’s forest ecosystem. UrbanKind Institute has also had youth in the park learning to identify birds and creating a social history.
Tobin notes that this approach is “something that we’d like to incorporate into our projects moving forward, really figuring out a way to include a portion of the budget to include people in the community.
“It’s definitely been a learning curve for us,” she said.
McKinley Park facts
- 78.5 acres - size of McKinley Park
- 140 years - the park has served as a Hilltop gathering place
- $1.1. million - estimated cost of park’s Chicken Hill project
- 205,000 gallons - stormwater to be diverted from sewer system and Saw Mill Run Watershed
Source: McKinley Park Master Plan
In the end, according to many people shepherding changes in McKinley Park, renovation isn’t just about improving trails and picnic areas – as much as residents welcome those amenities. This project won’t just update a city’s infrastructure or advance agency missions. It’ll help determine the future of these communities. McKinley Park may be a bellwether of whether or not the benefits of renewed greenspace can be sown equitably.
“We have people who are active and involved,” said Jamil Bey, “and if it’s possible for us to get in front of this conversation around gentrification and displacement, and make sure that investments benefit long-term and low-income residents, then we have a good shot of being players in this as opposed to bystanders.”
Richard Carrington points to those active community members and emphasizes just how “persistent and insistent” they’ve had to be:
“This is a community trying to secure a community.”
Mark Kramer is a freelance writer and creative writing teacher based in Pittsburgh. He can be reached at email@example.com.