On a recent weekend stroll at Point State Park, in Pittsburgh, visitors sunned themselves in the grass and along the low walls of the park. The park is a triangle of green at the very place where the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers meet to form the Ohio River. At the tip of the Point kids splashed in a fountain, and a rainbow shimmered through the spray. Looking east along the rivers bridges stitched the city together with yellow seams.
The fountain at Point State Park came on in 1974. Then, it was the first waterfront development in Pittsburgh. A bird’s eye view over the heart of the city today shows parks, stadiums, museums, and marinas all built up along the picturesque waterfronts.
But the emphasis on developing waterfronts for recreation and admiration in Pittsburgh — and other Pennsylvania cities large and small — is a relatively new idea. Or at least a return to an old one.
Rivers as commercial assets
In the mid-1800s people went to the Pittsburgh waterfronts to have fun. The rivers hosted rowing competitions with rowdy keg drinking, and people fished and swam there. The rivers were also important transportation routes; the Ohio as a gateway to the west.
This didn’t last. As railroads took business from river shippers, big industry grew on the banks of the city’s rivers. The steel boom turned the rivers strictly commercial. “They were a source of water for industry, they were a source of dumping waste for industry,” said Ted Muller, a historian and professor at the University of Pittsburgh, who has written about Pittsburgh’s rivers. He said a few people still swam in the rivers, but “they had to essentially trespass, cross railroad tracks, cross businesses, industries, to get to the water…very dangerous, not terribly healthful.”
This idea of the rivers as purely industrial was official city policy. Muller said in the 1920s the city plan basically said as much. “It says boldly there: these rivers are commercial assets and the commercial uses have the priority and only with land that is not being used and is left over can the city use it for public amenity,” he said. “It’s clear as a bell.”
As industrial river use grew, domestic use did, too. People dumped their waste — sewage — into the rivers while also using them for drinking water.
About the turn of the 19th century, out of all the big cities in America, Pittsburgh had the highest death rate from typhoid fever — about three times the national rate. The first drinking water treatment facility went up in 1906, but sewage didn’t get treated until later.
Just after World War II, city leaders and private investors put together a bold 25-year “Renaissance” program, focused on improving quality of life. The goal was to address environmental issues in the city, diversify the economy, redevelop the downtown, and build infrastructure projects, like sewage treatment.
Point State Park was born out of the Renaissance plan and as the city’s first waterfront project it played a key role in bringing in the high-rises and complexes you can see downtown today.
But the change of perspective to maximize waterfronts was gradual. Case in point: the new convention center, which opened on the banks of the Allegheny River in 1981 had city views, not water views.
A pivot to the waters born of need
Dan Hennessy has been coming to the rivers for 50 years and he remembers the Point’s transformation from a railroad yard full of warehouses to the postcard-ready park of today. He said all along the rivers things have changed. “It looked nothing like this,” Hennessy said. “It was industrial, it was depressing, it was dirty. There were factory-type businesses all around here.”
On a summer weekend, Hennessy sat with his girlfriend on his 32-foot Bayliner, docked directly across from the Point. The boat is called Tranquilo, which he translates as “be cool, calm down,” from the Spanish. He brings his friends, his coworkers, his family out on the boat.
“This is what we do all summer!” he said.
He said he cheered on the city’s initiatives to redevelop the waterfronts.
There wasn’t much else to cheer. Rethinking waterfronts was driven by the sharp decline of the city’s industries in the 1970s and 1980s. Closing steel mills and factories freed up lots. The city turned lemons into lemonade by reclaiming those areas.
Perhaps the most perfect illustration of the change in perspective is the convention center that faced away from the water. It was redesigned in the 1990s — this time with giant windows, to maximize the waterfront views.
The 1990s also brought planning for two stadiums on the Northshore, and in 1999 a task force formed to work on more comprehensive waterfront plans for the first time.
By the turn of the new century, the city was well on its way to the waterfront Hennessy enjoys today.
But it’s not the end of the story. Many people say there’s still not much to do on the city’s waterfronts: they want even more from their water.
But also, the city’s ongoing challenge is to replace the economic engine that was the waterfront industry. Hennessy, for one, said to secure Pittsburgh’s economic future, rivers still have an industrial role to play.
He just hopes the rivers can stay pretty.