Discovering Pittsburgh’s Parks: Then and Now


When I was growing up in a suburban community south of Pittsburgh, there was a large swath of woodlands across the street from my home that stretched along a steep valley. Eventually, it encountered a four-lane road about one and one-half miles downstream of the creek that bisected it. These woods also occupied the space between the terminus of my dead-end street and its companion a few hundred yards away. This area seemed huge as my childhood friends and I explored it during our days of summer vacation, and sometimes even in the fall and winter.  

Over the years, we “mapped” this area as if it was some mysterious and heretofore unexplored land. Most of the time, this was done inside our heads as we connected with the various features and trails in the woods. We would come up with our own names for these spots and would sometimes argue over them after a game of kick-the-can in the Traficante’s back yard.  We would also occasionally draw and update paper and pencil maps in the basement of the Poole household while drinking pop and eating chocolate chip cookies, as if we were each a junior version of John Wesley Powell or Sacagawea. When I was eleven, I became fascinated with watersheds and named the creek “The Ohio Express” because I found out that it eventually joined with Chartiers Creek and that the same water made its way to the Ohio River. 

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Fast forward a few decades: the two dead end streets have been joined and what I had long ago named the “Grand Canyon” has been filled in. Much of the creek is now underground and the “Alphabet Tree” has been removed to accommodate a home. Still, I can remember this area as it was, and feel connected to it. I am certain that my connectedness is due at least in part to the meanings that my made-up names and maps have given it. 

Fortunately for me and many others, the woodlands of Frick and Schenley parks are likely much the same as they were 30 years ago. They have given me a new opportunity to explore, name, map and connect with nature. In Frick there are “The Cabbage Patch,” “Red Fox Run,” “The Green Wall,” “The Bluebell Patch,” and “The Cone of Silence.”  

photo by Troy Gavazzi

Schenley has “The Big Bend,” “Icicle Draw,” “The High Step,” and “Duck X-ing.” Some of these are obviously named after the plants, animals, and geologic formations I’ve encountered, while others are named for the experiences, feelings, and moments I’ve had there. You may have your own interpretations or ideas. My “Cone of Silence” might be your “Dark Path.”  

I hope that some of you who spend time in other parks like Highland, Riverview, and August Wilson have made your own connections, names and “maps.” If I see you looking like you’re lost on a trail in Frick and you need to get to the soccer field where Fern Hollow Meets Nine Mile Run, I might tell you to go to the bottom of Falls Ravine trail then turn right and follow Tranquil Trail. Still, in my head I’ll be thinking, “go to the Cabbage Patch, then go right and walk past Swamp Island.” 

I’m happy to have places in the middle of an urban area where I can play my mapping game, whether or not others find it frivolous. The important thing for all of us is to enjoy and connect with these places, whether “mapping,” wildlife-watching, exercising, reading, or playing. Find your own way of connecting. Volunteer to help with gardening, donate according to your means, come to a community meeting and share your ideas for the parks, or let the city and county politicians know how much you value these places. Who knows? Maybe I’ll run into you while mapping the as-yet uncharted wilderness of Hays Woods in a few years. 

Written by Troy Gavazzi 
Troy enjoys exploring as many parks and monuments as possible, 
both local and national.