Most streets in my neighborhood end either at the cliff with its spectacular view of the Ohio River valley or, at the other end of the mountain, in the woods. They peter out into crumbling asphalt and are choked down by Japanese knotweed before losing themselves – as what is called a “paper street” hereabouts – into the wooded, now uninhabited hillsides and valleys. Paper streets exist only on maps. A long ago urban planner laid out the grid of city streets but forgot that the cliff was too steep, or the woods were too dense, or a creek cut up the landscape. Sometimes a lonely street sign points into the wilderness, or you find a telephone pole marking the intersection of two deer paths. Once there were houses and even farms further down the paper streets, and you can still find vaulted cellar entrances, mine shafts, decades old rusted appliances, and contractor debris which has been illegally dumped for more than a century. Sometimes, if you follow a deer track though the dense undergrowth, you come across the fins of a 1950’s Chevy sticking out of the loam — I was told that the kids in the 50’s used to steal cars, drag-race them along Grandview Avenue, and finally push them over the hillside to make them vanish in overgrown valleys and deep gulches. There are “bald spots” in the landscape where nothing grows, and we do not know if the small creek that snakes down to Saw Mill Run valley is a clean spring or polluted water run-off from an abandoned coal mine. There are few paths besides deer trails crossing this landscape. The woods have been left to themselves and nature has reclaimed the spaces which people abandoned when Pittsburgh’s luck ran out and the population dropped by 2/3rds. No one walks down the hills to the steel mills in the valleys; no one forages for blackberries or elderberries in the clearings or knows where the mushroom patches are; no children build play forts in the trees anymore.
At the end of some streets you find a dilapidated wooden fence which tells you that the “Duquesne Heights Greenway” begins here, and all you see is green wilderness. These fences are remnants of a 1970’s neighborhood initiative to protect the wooded slopes by declaring them a “greenway”, but there are no traces and no stories among my neighbors of the people who worked on this and no trails to show off their efforts. Behind the fence: wilderness. There are no signs that tell you that this is public land, that it belongs to all of us, that it is part of our neighborhood, that it is our commons, and that you are allowed to go there.
My children played baseball at Dilworth Field for many years, and I had no idea that there were actually hiking paths in the woods behind the baseball diamond. The trails were built in the 1920’s and 30’s, and the WPA had a hand in the construction of walls and stairs. I never realized that I was allowed to go into those woods, that there were paths through the forest, and that all of it even had a name: Mount Washington Park. Later I found out that Mount Washington Park has an interesting history: it was created in the wake of the social reformist Olmsted City Beautiful movement by a neighborhood initiative in 1908 — against some resistance from the City parks staff — as a park overlooking “the beautiful panorama of the Sawmill Valley”, as a the city councilman put it upon the dedication of the flagpole in 1923. In his 1870 essay, “Public Parks and the Enlargement of Towns,” Frederick Law Olmsted wrote: “We want a ground to which people may easily go after their day’s work is done, and where they may stroll for an hour, seeing, hearing, and feeling nothing of the bustle and jar of the streets . . . We want the greatest possible contrast with the restraining and confining conditions of the town, which compel us to walk circumspectly, watchfully, jealously, which compel us to look closely upon others without sympathy”. Urban green spaces were created as a psychological and moral balance to the alienating influences of capitalist cities. The beauty of nature was thought to heal the soul. But no one in the neighborhood today remembers this grand vision of social reform through beautiful nature spaces for the benefit of working people. By the middle of the 20th century, the neighbors withdrew from their shared front porches and spent their recreation time inside. Blue light began to flicker from every single living room in the evenings. Urban picnics and Sunday afternoon hikes became a thing of the past. Families became afraid of the woods.
As a native German, I have always been surprised that when Americans do hike or bike for fitness in their urban parks, they stay on the paved thoroughfares and few venture of the beaten track into the wilder parts. Nature is mysterious, dark, and confusing, and people fear the “bums, rapists, and murderers” who potentially hide behind the bushes or around the next bend, as the urban legend goes. The irrational fear of nature is so pervasive in our culture that I often have to convince even myself that, in my rambles through the woods, I am not very interesting to human predators, and that it is highly unlikely that one of them is waiting for me crouched close to the muddy ground or in the cold shadow behind the pines. I am trying to teach myself not to be afraid.
Nature at the end of my street and behind the ball field had become invisible by the end of the 20th century. The woods were slightly menacing because there were rumors about prostitution, drug dealing, and homeless encampments, and there was plenty of evidence of partying teenagers who left empty beer cans around burnt out campfires. No one wanted to live next to the woods, and the closer you got to the trees, the cheaper and run-down the houses became. Appalachia began at the end of our streets. The paper streets led into no-man’s land and became access roads to illegal dump sites for the unwanted debris of our civilization.
A decade ago I began exploring the woods. Eventually I discovered a new neighborhood initiative connected to our Community Development Organization who imagined all the parks and wooded slopes surrounding our mountain connected into one large “Emerald Link”. In 2005 the city officially granted it the protection of a regional park. Now we are working on establishing a trail system, managing invasive species, cleaning up dump sites, and changing the perception of urban wilderness at the end of our streets. Emerald View Park, with now over 260 acres of woods and meadows, is slowly becoming a reality.