Walkabout: Turning the corner in Garfield with Green + Screen

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A woman sitting on the edge of a slatted bench on Penn Avenue strained to see whether the 88 bus was approaching. Impatiently, she swiped her sleeve to read her watch. "What's taking it so long?" she said. "I want to get home."

I had sat down a few minutes before, having seen this bench at the intersection of Penn and Winebiddle Street in Garfield, a bench like no other, intriguing. It is long enough to seat four or five people and has levels like stair steps, each level more than wide enough for the average American backside. It has a shorter companion bench facing Winebiddle.

"That's it coming," the woman said, getting up and walking to the curb. I sat back and waited, comfortably, and soon Rebecca Mizikar arrived. A landscape architect with her own firm, Origin 4 Design, she designed the two-piece bench as a member of the ecoDesigners Guild -- a group of designers and architects who came together in 2008 when firms were laying people off.

If you've walked on Penn Avenue in Garfield in the past few years, you've probably noticed their contributions to the streetscape through the guild's Green + Screen project in panels, screens, sculpture and plantings that hide ugly open lots.

With the blessing of the owner of the Penn and Winebiddle property, the guild installed the first bench facing Winebiddle a year ago, the second facing Penn two months ago. It is a prominent corner that needed something more than a parking lot to signify it. A bench was an obvious remedy.

"It is a bus stop, and there would be people sitting on the curb eating pizza [from Spak Brothers nearby]," Ms. Mizikar said. "We took a trip to Construction Junction and found a pallet of red oak slats."

Between each slat in the bench is a slice of industrial bumper. A metal pipe runs through each slice as if they were contiguous doughnuts.

Garfield resident Minette Vaccariello, a co-founder of the ecoDesigners Guild, was a board member of the Penn Avenue Arts Initiative who saw "a unique opportunity" to pair needs on the avenue with professionals who had the skills and the time.

The arts initiative targeted 36 sites that needed remedies, most of them empty spaces.

A $2,000 grant from the Urban Redevelopment Authority helped launch the Green + Screen project, "green" because the designers used repurposed and recycled materials, "screen" because they were literally hiding ugly lots and weeds pending a more permanent development.

From the first grant, the project grew to $10,000 in 2010 with anonymous, foundation and public support and $10,000 in 2011. With no funding in 2012, the Green+ Screen project will end with an installation at Penn Avenue and North Aiken Street in the spring, Ms. Vaccariello said.

For her leadership in the project, she received the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp.'s Father Leo Henry Founders Award at its board meeting Monday night. The award is given every year to honor Father Henry, who founded the BGC in 1975 to fight disinvestment and decay.

"I don't want to take all the credit, because it has been an amazing collaboration among designers," Ms. Vaccariello said. "I was just the one who coordinated" with the BGC. A seven-year resident of Pittsburgh, she came from Boston to get her master's degree in product design at Carnegie Mellon University.

"When [Jason Sauer, founder of Most Wanted Fine Art on Penn Avenue, and I] first started this, he was out of work," she said. "I was kind of part time. Other designers joined the team from architecture firms that were having to cut back."

In the end, the guild didn't have to address all 36 sites -- some were developed by businesses and residents on their own. To Ms. Vaccariello's thinking, that indicates Green + Screen "has brought positive attention to the avenue. We feel like it can be a model, because Garfield is not the only neighborhood with empty lots and blight."

neigh_city - artarchitecture - intelligencer

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk


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