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.

Humble Pei: A Pi Day Salute to I.M. Pei’s City View Tower

City View (originally Washington Plaza Apartments) designed by I.M. Pei, Pittsburgh, PA

Golden hour on the lower Hill: City View (neé Washington Plaza) Apartments, Centre Ave.

It must have felt like a dream. At the crest of Centre Avenue, mere blocks above the hubbub of downtown Pittsburgh and the still-smoldering remains of the lower Hill, twenty-four stories of clean, sharp concrete and grid-patterned windows shot from of the earth like a dramatic rock formation or the liftoff armature of a rocket ship, just launched into space.

City View (originally branded Washington Plaza) wasn’t Pittsburgh’s first large-scale, post-war modernist building–there are a handful of big office towers built downtown in the 1950s that meet that description–but its position standing alone, at the top of its hill and with eyes cast out in all directions, had to have felt like something completely different. The future–whether Pittsburgh really wanted it or not–was here right now.

exterior of City View Apartments building, designed by I.M. Pei, in Pittsburgh, PA

City View Apartments, southeast side

This speculative journalist has driven and/or biked past the City View towers a hundred times and seen its cold concrete form from every direction imaginable–it’s hard to miss if you’re anywhere nearby. But I’ll be honest here, if you’d asked me a year ago, I would have just considered it the anonymous big ugly apartment building uphill from the hockey arena.

signage for City View Apartments featuring simplified graphic version of the building's shape

City View Apartments signage with abstracted/graphically-simplified version of the building’s design

And thenI.M. Pei died.

Pei, if you’re not a design geek or a regular crossword-puzzle-doer, is one of the giants of modern architecture who planned marquee office towers and airline terminals, art museums and corporate headquarters all over the planet. In his long career–he was 102 when he passed last year and worked most of those decades–Pei designed projects from Beijing to Bloomington, Doha to Denver, Paris to … well, you guessed it.

exterior of City View Apartments building, designed by I.M. Pei, in Pittsburgh, PA

Old vs. … not quite so old. City View Apartments, seen from Fifth Ave.

The Washington Plaza Apartments arrived in 1964 at the height of Pittsburgh’s urban renewal efforts, the tail end of the razing of the lower Hill District,[1] and just a few years before the real boom in downtown glass-and-steel skyscrapers would hit. With its climate-controlled interiors and uninterrupted 360-degree views, moving from a cramped city row house into a brand new Washington Plaza apartment, mere steps from downtown, must have satisfied many a jet-age urban fantasy.

On this come-for-the-pun, stay-for-the-dessert Pi/Pie Day, we thought we’d add Pei Day to the ramshackle who’s-driving? feel of the occasion. (Just know that the name is actually pronounced PAY.[2]) In this version of the “holiday” we celebrate the master architect’s sole Pittsburgh project and give ourselves the opportunity to really take a good long look at the building, from a bunch of angles across different seasons, and see if its tan concrete and wall-of-windows would whisper its secrets of the modern age to us.

exterior of City View Apartments building, designed by I.M. Pei, in Pittsburgh, PA

City View Apartments, north face

And … I guess it worked out that way. Perhaps it was because we’re so easily swayed by star power or maybe it was just taking the time to actually look at the place–to set aside a bunch of prejudices and commune with Pei’s big apartment building at street level[3]. Either way, we found that enough time spent walking around the place, looking up, picture-taking, and photo-editing made all that concrete warm up, wave back to us, and glow against several different impossibly-blue skies.

exterior of City View Apartments building, designed by I.M. Pei, in Pittsburgh, PA

City View Apartments, east face

Look: there are no plans for us to leave our decidedly old-world row house with its boxy quarters and interior windows looking straight out on the neighbor’s brick wall. But there are times–up on the ladder, re-patching cracks in the same 140-year-old horsehair plaster one “fixed” not that long ago–that the mind wanders to an easier, simpler, more modern existence–big on sunlight and small on crumbling sandstone foundation dust. Yesterday’s modernists may have really had something there, and that’s how we ended up here, at Pei Day.


[1] The story of the destruction of the Lower Hill and forced displacement of its (largely black) resident/business community in the name of “urban renewal” is an extremely important one, but not the subject of this piece.
[2] The temptation to call this piece Pei Day Loans or Pei The Man or some such foolishness was strong, but for everyone (like me) who previously thought the name was pronounced PIE, that just wouldn’t make sense.
[3] The Orbit was escorted from City View’s lobby by security before we could either get a good look at the interior or any photographs. We’re not holding a grudge.

Italian Colors

Two rowhouses in the Bloomfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh: one green, one red

Green house, red house, white snow, Bloomfield

Even the most casual student of the classics will recognize the names of great Italian painters. Botticelli, Caravaggio, Verrocchio–the list goes on and on.  Their descendants made their way in droves to Pittsburgh, settling largely in Larimer, Bloomfield, South Oakland, and other parts of the city.  And they continued to paint.

The medium of choice is still oils (albeit exterior enamel) and they’ve simplified their color palette to the trinity of green, white, and red.  Boldly eschewing the staid canvas and gallery presentation, these artists work large and for the world to see: on cement walls and park benches, street lights and entire houses.

Garage wall in Italian red, green, and white

Garage (detail), Uptown

It’s curious to me that while Pittsburgh’s great expansion in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was famously from eastern and southern European immigrants, it seems that only the Italians felt the need to reproduce the flag over and over again.  Why don’t we see crude renderings of the white eagle on garages in Polish Hill and Lawrenceville?  Why no black, red, and gold telephone poles in Deutschtown?  We’ve got (people who identify as) Croats and Slovaks out the yin yang.  Who’s representing?

Street light pole in Italian colors

Street light pole, Bloomfield

Flower pot with red and white flowers and statue of Jesus

Jesus Planter, Bloomfield

While only a fraction of the population of those other neighborhoods, the tiny neighborhood-within-a-neighborhood of Panther Hollow has possibly more Italian colored things per capita than anywhere else.  There’s a bi-lingual war memorial with the flags of The United States, Italy, and Pittsburgh, an Italian-colored park bench and picnic table, the flag rendered graffiti-style on a retaining wall, and one abbreviated stretch of picket fence.

Park bench and picnic table in Italian colors

Park bench, picnic table, Panther Hollow

It was there, at the very end of Panther Hollow, that we had the great fortune to run into lifetime resident, local historian, and maintainer of the terrific pantherhollow.us website, Carlino Giampolo. “Everyone should have a fence to hide their garbage,” Carlino told us as explanation for the curious freestanding set of tri-colored fence at the edge of his property, the last plot in the Hollow as the dead-end Boundary Street trickles into Schenley Park bicycle trail.

Retaining wall with Italian flag

Retaining wall, Panther Hollow

Carlino went on to tell us about growing up in Panther Hollow, when what is now Pitt’s lower parking lot was a ball field, community park, and cow pasture.  When there were as many as six different operating businesses in the Hollow (today there are none, nor any obvious former retail spaces).  He showed us where the hotel once stood in what is now his side yard, the community oven that would cook the neighborhood’s bread, and how self-sufficient the whole place once was (and not that long ago)–butchering their own animals, making cheese and butter from the small herd of cows they kept, etc.

Picket fence in Italian colors

“Everyone should have a fence to hide their garbage”, Carlino’s fence, Panther Hollow