Picnic in the park

Pittsburgh isn?t all concrete Wean-esque wasteland. Anyone in the area behind Hunt Library can see that peeking over the hill are signs of plant life. Not just a patch of grass helping to keep a city tree alive, either, but a great expansive area. It?s fairly certain that Flagstaff Hill is a familiar point for many students on Carnegie Mellon?s campus; however, they may not be aware that Schenley Park is not just a great place to picnic or toss a frisbee. It is a historic location dating back to 1890, a 452-acre park with a variety of activities for the nature buff, the music aficionado, and anyone interested in history. Pittsburgh has four major parks ? Highland, Frick, Riverview, and Schenley ? but Schenley is the most accessible of these from the Oakland area. It has recently undergone comprehensive renovation and gotten a new pathway near Panther Hollow Lake.

The park is not just an observer environment; it can be used as a learning experience too. For those who love nature, or those who love to escape their books for a few hours now and then, the historical or nature-based walks can be an excuse to see the sun, even during the most grueling times of the year. Of course, anyone can walk the pathways and soak the outside world in, but for those easily bored, guides are eager. The Venture Outdoors program sponsors the historical and guided walks.

Linda Binstock is one of these guides. As she led last Wednesday?s tour, Binstock was exuberant to find that her group was so large. Walking along, the mixed-age group, ranging from those in their sixties to several children, was guided and summarily informed as to the origins of several types of fauna. The trees are well known by Binstock; she discussed several with the group, including those that were imported from other regions. The path along which the guide takes her group winds down to the ?wetlands,? Binstock?s own term. The lake may not strike one as particularly beautiful, but yet the surrounding willows can create a sense of peace.

Binstock?s tour gave a rudimentary idea of the plant life, with a little occasional history mixed in. As she crossed the various bridges she told a bit about each one. The bridge near the lake was a WPA project created in 1939, while other bridges were constructed in the 1890s. Though the history is intriguing, it is not the main focus of the tour; there are specific historical tours that serve that purpose. The ?Weekly Walks in the Woods? are exemplified by the young girl who picked up a feather only to have Binstock praise her for having ?possibly the most exciting find of the day.?

Both Binstock and the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy can lend a basic idea of the park?s history. However, some of the same information can be found in the Visitor Center kiosk, which is more or less an interactive display with information on a range of Schenley topics.

The history of Schenley, as well as that of Pittsburgh?s three other large public parks, can draw people to the locations, but for those who are more concerned with the park?s future, it would be good to look to the restoration projects. The future of the park would be a decidedly bleaker one were it not for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, of which Abbie Pauley is a member.

Pauley is the Director of Institutional Advancement and has been with the organization since the creation of the board of directors in 1998. Her function on the board includes being the chief fundraiser, and she is involved in the newsletter (The Voice) and marketing for the PPC. Fundraising is one of the main necessities for the parks, and the PPC has raised many millions of dollars to do so, as Pauley indicated. ?At the turn of the century the parks were at their height ... in Highland Park there was a grand Victorian Garden ... [there was] the boathouse at Schenley. We [PPC] formed with an eye to bring these historic places back,? said Pauley.

She explained that the PPC is a nonprofit organization, as is the Venture Outdoors program, which organizes some of the events that take place at Schenley and the other three parks. The PPC, she said, was modeled after the Central Park Conservancy, which was created to help make the New York landmark of the same name safer.

In terms of restoring the parks, Pauley expounded on several efforts to create new projects to help Schenley remain aesthetically pleasing. They have started ?showcase projects,? of which the Schenley Park Visitor Center was the second. (The Frick Gatehouse was the first.) Pauley described how the center came about. ?[The Visitor Center] was shuttered up for 10 years because the city could not afford to maintain it.?

The Visitor Center guidebook describes how the building was once called the Pittsburgh Civic Garden Center. ?It was a popular nature museum, housing snakes and other creatures. It then fell into disrepair and closed....? After the PPC came into existence, and park-goers were surveyed, ?people said: ?Schenley?s great but there?s nowhere to go to the restroom.? ? Now, Pauley said, there is an area to meet, grab some food and use the facilities.

Still, the great outdoors are the main concern of the PPC, and recently a new trail by Panther Hollow Lake was restored. The difference between Panther Hollow and other trails in the area is noticeable. While far less treacherous, the trail has yet to be overgrown and hence takes on a manufactured look. However, Pauley emphasized that all the changes that are done to the parks are done with the ecosystem in mind. The visitor center is a green building, and there are volunteers who work their ways around the four parks trying to remove the many invasive species that have begun to destroy the biodiversity in the parks, explained Pauley.

The park restoration is far from over. Pauley mentioned that the area around Panther Hollow Lake needs more work, but that it is a very delicate area to work with because of the plant and animal life around there. Along the guided tour, Binstock mentioned that the concrete steps around the lake, which were placed there in the 1950s, are almost definitely going to be removed. In addition, the parking lot area in front of the University of Pittsburgh?s Hillman Library will be turned back into Schenley Plaza. The project?s fact sheet, available from the PPC, explains that the Plaza was ?originally intended to serve as a grand entrance plaza to the park.? However, the space became a parking lot over time. Eventually the Plaza is slated to hold food kiosks and, of course, flower beds, according to the fact sheet. [See The Tartan, ?Schenley Plaza plan stalled?, 6 October 2003].

Of course, Schenley Park, and specifically the Visitor Center, has housed many events since the space was created. Pauley explained that the way the musical performances found their way to the Center was that people had asked to use the area as a venue. Educational programs are also provided; teachers are invited by the PPC to ?learn certain things and bring them back to the classroom as curriculum,? said Pauley.
With Binstock and other guides, one might explore the outdoors in this enormous space. With Pauley and other members of the PPC it is possible to get involved with the more regimented events. Just for the moment, though, while the work is stacked high and the outdoors seems a foreign world, perhaps Pauley?s suggestion will work: ?Everybody needs a break from studying, and there?s nothing like a walk in the trails to help you clear your mind.?

Getting to the Schenley Park area takes almost no effort in terms of distance or accessibility. As Pauley mentioned, ?This space is great because it is in the backyard of the universities ... We have live music out on the patio ... they [the students] can come and volunteer for a community service project.? Those who decide to visit the space may find themeselves more involved than they might expect, and the atmosphere will hopefully induce those who spend too much time indoors to get into the woods at Schenley Park.