Diana Nelson Jones' Walkabout: Aspinwall Riverfront Park a testament to tenacity
September 22, 2015 12:00 AM
Diana Nelson Jones/Post-Gazette
Artist Tom Otterness' sculpture/slide "Playground" in use at the Aspinwall Riverfront Park opening Sunday.
By Diana Nelson Jones / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In just five years, 10 acres of land between the Allegheny River and Freeport Road in Aspinwall have gone from a concept to an extraordinary amenity for the borough. That’s an amazingly quick turnaround and can be explained in large part by an all-for-one mentality that gripped its populace when in the summer of 2010, resident Susan Crookston proposed a use other than a UPMC parking lot.
The place attracted thousands who turned out on a gorgeous day to take it all in. A playground covered with mulch was crawling with kids. Blackened railroad trestles looked sculptural in the setting, like majestic ruins straddling a loop of trails. The trails do not link yet to the regional heritage trail, but Ms. Crookston said that connection is a goal.
Several stormwater retention gardens show us beautiful solutions to our sewage overflow problems. A large part of the park is a nature reserve.
Allegheny Riverfront Park Inc. is an independent 501(c)(3) that owns the park, which is meant for passive use, with dawn to dusk hours.
“Isn’t it amazing what a dream can become?” Ms. Crookston said on Sunday. “My husband heard a little boy say, ‘Look what I bought!’ ” The boy was referring to the birthday money he had donated to the park during the fund-raising drive. “What I love about that is how people think about what they can accomplish.”
From atop a steep mound of grass that was formed by a pile of debris from excavated foundations, Aspinwall’s main street and the background layers of dormers and rooftops from homes on parallel streets spread out like a Norman Rockwell panorama.
A child ran wildly down the slope when John Hook was there with his mother, Pat.
“I wish I’d had a sled-riding hill like this when I was a kid,” Mr. Hook said. “I never knew this was back here or how bad it was until Susan asked us to come look.”
“I’m overwhelmed, and I’ve lived here all my life,” Pat Hook said.
At the end of 2010, eight acres belonged to the Aspinwall Marina and two belonged to the borough. The marina’s owner, David Kushon, wanted to retire and sell, and UPMC sidled up to him quickly. Ms. Crookston was right behind, proposing a community park.
When I visited the site with Ms. Crookston in 2011, the site surrounding the marina was a huge gravel parking lot and an enormous expanse of overgrowth.
Mr. Kushon said he favored Ms. Crookston’s idea, but he wanted to get a move on, and he was asking $2.3 million.
He gave Ms. Crookston’s dynamic little band of dreamers eight months to raise the money.
Kids sold lemonade and T-shirts and mowed lawns. Eight-six women and their mates donated $20 each to recreate a high school prom.
There were bake sales, car washes, parties to raise money. Businesses donated proceeds, money boxes were posted at community events and people delivered jars of change to Ms. Crookston’s house. A landscaper donated his services for early designs.
Childrens’ gifts totaled $12,000.
The borough donated its two acres.
The only significant chunk of public money was a $250,000 Allegheny County Infrastructure and Tourism grant.
By July 2011, the park organizers had raised all but $256,000. By the first of September, Highmark supplied the last big chunk — $200,000 — and they were ready to start digging.
At the time, Tim Inglis, president of the Colcom Foundation, said it was this old-fashioned, unified spirit that inspired the foundation to give $250,000 as a matching grant to nudge other big players. The Hillman Foundation came in with a matching grant of $150,000.
The park has support from the R.K. Mellon, Grable and Benedum Foundations and Heinz Endowments and “and many corporations and individuals,” Ms. Crookston said. “Many many many individuals.”
The marina remains private but Ms. Crookston said there may one day be public water access.
A lot of people think something this big has to be done by government with a lot of public money. The chronic responses to the big dreams of our peers are often cynical: Pie in the sky. Get real. I won’t live to see it. The people of the Aspinwall area had a life-affirming response: We can do this.
The truth is, a few dogged visionaries with persuasive grass-roots support can move faster than the plodding vehicles of government.
Never underestimate the power of unified enthusiasm.
Diana Nelson Jones: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1626.
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