Throughout most of the 20th century, the Nine Mile Run stream in Frick Park was little more than an open sewer. Called “stink creek” and worse, it was such a health and safety hazard that by the second half of the century, it was devoid of aquatic life. Far from a popular destination, the southernmost end of Frick Park was often nearly deserted, except for the occasional rugby game in a muddy field. The slag dump that dominated the lower stretch of the stream below Commercial Avenue was a desolate moonscape frequented by dirt bikes and high school kids looking for a place to drink beer.
In the 1990’s, The Studio for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University spearheaded the Nine Mile Run Greenway Project, an ecological art project led by Tim Collins and Reiko Goto that focused on the slag piles and the stream; they invited the public to imagine what the area could be like if restored. Carried out in partnership with the City of Pittsburgh Department of City Planning and the URA, the project worked to:
Collins and Goto undertook a more extensive investigation beginning in 2000; 3 Rivers Second Nature addressed the meaning, form and function of public space and nature in Allegheny County, cataloguing the assets of several watersheds and brownfields around the county, including Nine Mile Run, and suggesting alternative futures for them.
The Nine Mile Run area should never have reached this degraded state. In the early 20th Century, as part of the City Beautiful movement, Pittsburgh leaders invited Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr. to survey the city and produce recommendations about how best to improve it. One in particular is of interest here:
Perhaps the most striking opportunity noted for a large park is the valley of Nine Mile Run. Its long meadows of varying width would make ideal playfields; the stream, when it is freed from sewage, will be an attractive and interesting element in the landscape; the wooded slopes on either side give ample opportunity for enjoyment of the forest, for shaded walks and cool resting places; and above all it is not far from a large working population in Hazelwood, Homestead, Rankin, Swissvale, Edgewood, Wilkinsburg, Brushton and Homewood; and yet it is so excluded by its high wooded banks that the close proximity of urban development can hardly be imagined. If taken for park purposes, the entire valley from the top of one bank to the top of the other should be included, for upon the preservation of these wooded banks depends much of the real value of the park.
Sadly, Mr Olmstead’s idea was ignored. Instead, City Council saw fit in 1922 to grant permission to the Duquesne Slag Company to begin dumping slag, a waste by-product of steel manufacturing, in the NMR Valley. They continued doing so until the early 1970s, when the company went bankrupt. By then they had filled the entire valley with 238 acres of slag, in some places 120 feet deep.
While community groups in Swisshelm Park and Squirrel Hill advocated for many years for an end to the dumping, and improvements of the stream and park, the movement for restoration didn’t gain traction until the late 1990s, with the push of the NMR Greenway Project, and the beginning of discussions about the possibility of building housing on top of the slag pile.
Participants in the NMR Greenway Project identified the need for a professional watershed organization to do outreach and education with residents of the watershed. They foresaw that even a physical restoration of the open portion of the stream in Frick Park would not, by itself, significantly improve water quality, because the stream’s problems originate upstream, in the upper watershed communities.
The Nine Mile Run Watershed Association was incorporated in 2001, at first with a part-time Executive Director. Over the years, the Association played a key role in the NMR Aquatic Ecosystem Restoration, stewardship of the completed project, outreach, education and advocacy, and the development of a variety of green stormwater infrastructure projects in the upper watershed to improve water quality in the stream. This work led to the creation of the StormWorks program in 2011, which offered green infrastructure services in the watershed and beyond, on a fee-for-service basis, to help support NMRWA’s other work.
By 2020, our work as Nine Mile Run Watershed Association was growing beyond the watershed, and our expertise was being tapped into across the region. Yet, our incredible work in the Watershed continued. Our StormWorks team was expanding its work, providing valuable services throughout the region. And our strategic plan was informing some really great work related to environmental justice and climate equity, advocacy and environmental education.
In 2021, NMRWA and StormWorks transformed into UpstreamPgh. After 20 years of work that was both literally and figuratively “upstream,” we are proud to launch our next chapter. We can’t wait to see what comes next. And we’re glad you’re with us.