Pittsburgh and the Resurrection of Public Space

Katherine Peinhardt
Sep 28, 2017
Dec 22, 2017
‍Artist Njaihmeh Njie interviews people at a Pittsburgh bus stop. Photo Credit: Hill House Association.

Everyone loves a good comeback story. Public space in Pittsburgh recently had its own version, when a group of students in Pittsburgh sparked the revival of a long-gone park. Their fight to revive a piece of the city’s history led them on a placemaking journey; one that took them from workshops to bus stops in search of a community vision.

In the late 1960s, Carnegie Mellon University students dreamt up a new public space for their city. What they came up with was the Court of Ideas, a gathering place meant to spark conversation in the neighborhood. But only four years after its inception, it disappeared, and for more than forty years, its location behind Pittsburgh’s New Granada Theater lay dormant. So when another group of students from Carnegie Mellon, who graduated last spring, heard about the historic spot, they decided they had to uncover the space. Beyond placemaking, these students were place re-making; bringing culture back to a corner of their city that had once been a great place.

Resurrecting Public Spaces

The students’ vision of a resurrected space was community-driven, highlighting the local arts scene and the sparking of conversations within the Hill District neighborhood. The students consulted the local Hill District Master Plan, which emphasized showing off the history of the neighborhood, and building up green spaces. The next step was to take their vision of a new Court of Ideas to the community.

The students put up posters for locals to share their opinions about the revival of the historic space. Youth organizers also held a brainstorming session, focusing on ideas like hosting performances and providing educational resources in the dynamic open space. Soon, however, they realized that conversations in Pittsburgh were happening elsewhere; bus stops around the city were where people engaged with each other. The Carnegie Mellon students saw that these stops were primed for a discussion of the new Court of Ideas, and joined the conversation.

More than a Place to Wait; A Place to Talk

The front porch has historically been the site of neighborly communications. Now, in Pittsburgh, the front porch has been replaced by none other than municipal bus stops. In 2014, bus stops became active spaces for conversation and a demonstration of local arts. Instead of the noises of traffic, Pittsburgh’s bus stops were filled with storytelling and the beats of local drummers.  

‍Photos from throughout the history of Pittsburgh and drummers bring new life to a bus stop. Photo Credit: Hill House Association.

Previous to the rediscovery of the Court of Ideas, PPS teamed up with local partners to ensure that these bus stops would always be buzzing with activity. Local partners arranged activities ranging from music, to book sharing, to health outreach: Partners as varied as the Thelma Lovette YMCA, the City of Pittsburgh, the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, the Hill House Association, and the Duquesne University Pharmacy tuned into the local Greenprint Plan, aimed at making the area healthy and inclusive. The bus stops increasingly became lively neighborhood hubs. Terri Baltimore, Director of Neighborhood Engagement at the Hill House Association, noted that; “All of a sudden you went from sitting at a bus stop to seeing the culture of the neighborhood in a different way. People were surprised, but you can change how people experience the space.”

The bus stops also became a natural place for the Carnegie Mellon students to dig into the history of Pittsburgh. Young artists brought local history and storytelling to the bus stops, documenting the people of Pittsburgh in everyday places. Projects like that of self-taught artist Chiaka Howze, who painted people passing through the bus stops, highlighted day-to-day life in the Steel City. Charles Harris of the Pittsburgh Courier displayed his portfolio from his time as a photographer of black life in Pittsburgh. When Njaihmeh Njie received a commission for a public art project in the neighborhood, she placed photos, mostly portraits and family photos, on the sides of buildings. She used the bus stops as a space to continue this work, taking photos and recording stories and conversations of passers-by. Njaihmeh not only created a dialogue between new and old photos, but also between the people and public spaces of Pittsburgh.

As noted by Terri Baltimore, the city bus stop became locals’ “new front step.” The stops were more than a place to wait; they were a place to talk about Pittsburgh’s past. Naturally, the Carnegie Mellon students were drawn to the space; informally workshopping their vision of the new Court of Ideas as one filled with greenery and art projects like Njaihmeh’s. By following the history-driven example of the bus stops, and considering input from the community, the students made big plans for an old space.

Court of Ideas

A look into Pittsburgh’s rich history revealed a deep sense of character in the Hill District; the neighborhood was once the musical “crossroads of the world,” halfway between the flourishing jazz scenes of Chicago and NYC. This theme of being a crossroads permeated the vision of the new Court of Ideas. Beyond the bringing-together of the past, present, and future, as artists at the bus stops around Pittsburgh had done, this new space could once again fulfill its role as the intersection of various neighborhoods.

In their final, phased development plan, the students prioritized green space and accessibility in a space that would allow the arts to come alive again in the Hill District. Multiple murals, a temporary art installation with a chalkboard for public participation, as well as a performance area put the “ideas” back into the Court of Ideas. Space for food vendors would bring life to an area that could just as easily serve as a safe, well-lit meeting place for local organizations, an outdoor movie theater, or the site of new city-wide holiday traditions.

Pittsburgh is learning how to breathe life back into a forgotten public space. Whether it’s in an arts-driven space forty years overdue for a revival, or an often-overlooked bus stop, the history of the Steel City is re-emerging in its public spaces.

Katherine Peinhardt
Katherine Peinhardt
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