The Magic Garden: A Visit to Pittsburgh’s Central Park

sculpture with many bowling balls on long rods
A galaxy of wonders awaits you in Pittsburgh’s Central Park, West Oakland

In what was once an overgrown hillside, there is now an inviting oasis of beauty, love, creativity, and wonder. A lovely tree canopy shades maybe a half-acre of lush green grass, glowing groundcover, sculpted walking paths, and picture-perfect spots for repose.

The park is centered around a fantastic constellation-like sculpture created from repurposed bowling balls suspended on metal rods. The space offers educational placards, an outdoor cooking and dining spot, and the most impressive little free library you’ve yet seen. It’s also right in the heart of the city and almost no one knows about it.

entrance to Pittsburgh's Central Park with ornamental gate and flower garden
Central Park entrance gate and flower garden

Even the most hardcore of Pittsburgh’s many ramblers, nature freaks, and urban explorers can be excused for never having visited Central Park. The tiny off-the-books greenspace has no directional signage from nearby Fifth Avenue and exists at the back of a one-way-in/one-way-out single block of row houses.

The neighborhood is technically West Oakland (at least, that’s what a D.I.Y. welcome sign tells us), but it’s really in the void. The area does have the claim to fame that Andy Warhol was born here–the house has since been demolished–but it’s still not on anyone’s way to anywhere. Just past the tail end of Uptown, downhill from The Hill, and around the bend from (West) Oakland proper, little Moultrie Street exists in a world of its own.

sign for West Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh reading "This ain't Uptown! Welcome to West Oakland: birthplace of pop artist Andy Warhol"
This ain’t Uptown! West Oakland neighborhood welcome sign on Fifth Ave. near Moultrie Street
little free library modeled on Pittsburgh's Carnegie Library
Central Park’s little free library, modeled on the Oakland/main branch of the Carnegie Library

“This is an illegal art exhibit,” says Joseph Szabo about the vision-turned-reality he’s worked on for the last eight or ten years. The ambitious project converted overgrown vacant land across the street from his home into the magical pocket park it has become. “Central Park in New York City is my favorite place in the world. I created this as an homage to it.”

Indeed, those familiar with that more famous Central Park can have a bit of fun matching some of its well-known features to Szabo’s landscaping work. As Szabo explains it, the plot of grass along the street, as well as an adjoining lot freshly planted with fruit trees, is The Great Lawn. Twisty pathways make up The Ramble. A D.I.Y. brick oven/grill and its nearby picnic table allow the visitor to simulate Tavern on the Green‘s al fresco dining and cooking experiences. Likewise, a mosaic garden feature with the word Imagine references a similar element of New York’s Strawberry Fields and Belvedere Castle is recreated through a cobblestone stairway leading up to an elevated veranda overlooking the full expanse.

handmade brick over/grill in Pittsburgh's Central Park
The brick oven/grill at Tavern on the Green
large ceramic piece reading "Imagine" surrounded by lush green groundcover
Strawberry Fields

As to the “illegal” nature of Central Park’s creation, it’s certainly true that Szabo began hacking away at the undergrowth without formal permitting or any of those pesky property ownership concerns. By now, though, it’s drifted into a much safer legal gray area.

Community group Uptown Partners provided huge assistance connecting the project with the city and grant funding. Szabo specifically cites U.P. former director Jeane McNutt as instrumental to the process. “Without her help and enthusiasm, Central Park would not be what it is.”

The city, in turn, removed the original jersey barriers that bordered the space and installed large stones used as seating around the central sculpture. City works crews also donated 1500 retired Belgian block paving stones that went into the creation of Belvedere Castle (and elsewhere).  

tiled outdoor veranda spelling the word "RENT"
Tribute to the musical RENT in Belvedere Castle

“This is the best thing I’ve done in my life,” says Linda Lewis, Szabo’s longtime next-door neighbor and partner in the project. The informal team of two doesn’t use titles, but Lewis describes herself as “A concerned neighbor of Moultrie Street who worked to develop and maintain the area for children to play; for families to have their annual Easter egg hunt; and for mothers to bring children to get a book or game from the free library. And, I love hearing the birds and seeing the deer.”

Beyond the zillion hours of hard work–after their full-time day jobs–Lewis says, “Joe and I developed this area and spent thousands over the years.” We can also verify that Lewis acts as the unofficial archivist tracking progress on the park. Linda produced way more photos than we can include here, but they show the development of Central Park from an out-of-control/nature-without-man thicket to its gradual clearing, sculpting, and building-out. It’s even become a venue for community events.

Central Park Pittsburgh creator Joseph Szabo
“The whole thing is an homage to New York’s Central Park,” Joseph Szabo in Belvedere Castle
Central Park Pittsburgh gardener/caretaker Linda Lewis
“This is the best thing I’ve done in my life,” Linda Lewis

“The Central Park project is never done, I’ll keep working at it for as long as I live, God willing,” says Szabo on whether the park is ever complete, “I would like to replace the main entrance with something more substantial. I’m thinking about the arch in Washington Square Park. The Romans built arches just for the hell of it–works for me.”

“I’ll hopefully connect the park to the hillside on Orr Street as Central Park East,” Szabo says of future plans, “This is where Andy Warhol was born. My idea is for a sitting area in a outdoor homage to his studio in SoHo, The Factory. I’m thinking a picnic table by the wall under Kirkpatrick Street, painted silver, and of course many of his silk screens hung on this wall. Andy Warhol’s family lived at 72 Orr Street for his first three years.”

pages from wild animal field guide mounted in Pittsburgh's Central Park
“We wanted to park to be educational too.” Szabo says they’ve never seen an American bison in Central Park, but visitors will be prepared to identify one if and when the time comes. One of several field guides in The Ramble.

To see Linda Lewis’ before pictures of the space after having experienced it in person is a shocking and awe-inspiring revelation. How could a person look at that untamable mass of bushes and trees, poison ivy and knotweed and think I could turn that into a mini-replica of Central Park?

Ms. Orbit, just as enthusiastic about Szabo’s grand vision, says of this thought process, “That’s the creative spirit in all of us–in order to create magic, sometimes you have to have preposterous instincts. It helps to let go of common sense and reminds us of what any of us can do: we can create magic.”

thick stand of small trees and brush with jersey barriers separating it from a residential street
Pre-magic. Before Joseph Szabo started work in 2013, Central Park was a hillside thicket bordered by jersey barriers [photo: Linda Lewis]
early work on Pittsburgh's Central Park including beginnings of footpath
The beginnings of The Ramble, 2015 [photo: Linda Lewis]
young girl cutting ribbon to open Central Park, Pittsburgh
Ribbon cutting, 2017 [photo: Linda Lewis]

The term hero gets thrown around a lot–probably way too much; visionary, slightly less so. But to this blogger, no one deserves those descriptors more than folks like Joseph Szabo and Linda Lewis. They’ve spent their precious free time, not to mention money, on a hard, physical, labor-of-love open for all of us to experience. That action converted a neglected hillside into a free-to-all public space virtually from thin air … er, from thick jaggers and stinging nettles. That creation is one full of nature, art, relaxation, and yes, magic.

Szabo’s use-what-you’ve-got aesthetic turned discarded bricks, leftover bathroom tile, and post-renovation kitchen cabinets into a Willie Wonka-goes-back-to-the-land-style fantasy world. If this isn’t the work of real American heroes, you show me what is.

small model ducks in pool of river stones
Ducks!

Getting there: Central Park is at the end of Moultrie Street in West Oakland/Uptown. Moultrie can only be accessed from Fifth Avenue. It’s very close to the north end of the Birmingham Bridge and even has a marker on Google Maps.