Skip to main content


A sepia-toned image of a large colonial style home with a front entrance with columns that offers steps down to a sidewalk that runs right along the street. A second entrance to the right is less ornate and disrupts the home's symmetry.

The Underground Railroad in Southwestern Pennsylvania

By Blog

Washington County Historical Society’s LeMoyne House represents an important part of southwestern Pennsylvania’s rich history. The National Park Service states that the LeMoyne House is one of six NPS-recognized Underground Railroad sites in Pennsylvania—and it is the only one of these six located west of the Allegheny Mountains.

The Underground Railroad in Southwestern Pennsylvania

Guest Contribution by Washington County Historical Society

Every year, Black History Month invites us to view the tapestry of American history a little differently— through the lens of the African-American experience. While we rightly celebrate Black excellence in familiar fields—from business and academia to the arts, sports, and modern era civil rights activism—it also offers an occasion to explore lesser known stories. One such narrative is the pivotal role African Americans played in the formation of our nation’s first civil rights movement: abolitionism and its practical arm—the Underground Railroad.

Free Black Communities, Religion, and the Origins of the Underground Railroad

In the decade following the War of 1812, free Black communities began to lay the tracks of what later became the Underground Railroad. To understand how these communities helped initiate the Underground Railroad in southwestern Pennsylvania, one must look back to colonial times. Settlers from Maryland and Virginia brought enslaved individuals to the region, and while slavery did not take root as firmly in Pennsylvania as in other colonies, its presence loomed large, particularly in pre-revolutionary Westmoreland County (from which the counties of Washington, Fayette, Allegheny, Somerset, and Greene were later formed). In this way, African Americans were among the earliest settlers and contributed significantly to the early economic growth of the area.

Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery

A yellowed with age document written in formal script.

The Pennsylvania General Assembly’s “Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery” was adopted in 1780.

The age of slavery in Pennsylvania began to recede in 1780 with the passage of the “Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery,” heralding a new era of hope for enslaved African Americans. Though not an immediate emancipation decree, the Act ensured that future generations would be born into freedom, marking a significant step toward the eventual abolition of slavery in Pennsylvania. Children born after the passage of the Act became the first generation to gain full freedom in the years prior to the War of 1812. Additionally, some enslaved people born prior to the Act’s adoption would ultimately attain their freedom in Pennsylvania through individual emancipations or through legal challenges of an enslaver’s compliance with the Act. Thus, painfully slow as it was, slavery’s ultimate demise in Pennsylvania was set into motion.

Religion Aides Community Organization

Religion had served as a cornerstone of Black communities, offering solace and solidarity amidst the trials of slavery. During the 1780s, Baptist and Methodist churches began to draw the religious interest of many African Americans. As years passed, especially within Methodism, unresolved issues of slavery and inequality began to divide some of these congregations—and Black congregants began considering alternatives. In Philadelphia, the first African Americans left St. George’s Methodist Church in 1787 to form independent congregations offering a path to spiritual autonomy and equality. One of these became Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded by Rev. Richard Allen in 1794. By 1816, Rev. Allen and others led the formation of the African Methodist Episcopal Church conference as an entirely independent denomination. Within a few short years, the influence of this new A.M.E. denomination grew and attracted attention in southwestern Pennsylvania.

In Washington County, a local Black barber and Methodist class leader named George Boler wrote to A.M.E. leaders in Philadelphia in 1818 requesting support in formating a new Black congregation in Washington, PA. Rev. David Smith of the A.M.E. church came west in 1820 to help Boler complete this effort. With Rev. Smith’s support, George Boler led a concerted exodus of Black congregants out of the First Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington and into a new society that would later become St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church.

“I then proceeded to open the doors of the (new) Church, and forty-eight persons came forward and joined the A.M.E. Connection.” – Rev. David Smith on founding the A.M.E. church in Washington, PA. – Biography of Rev. David Smith of the A.M.E. church, 1881.

A document listing names written in script on lined paper with columns for additional information.

As members of the First Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, PA, George Boler, Benjamin Dorsey, Betcy Philips, Cloe Warfield, and others formed a new society between 1818 and 1820 that would later become St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Rev. David Smith and George Boler soon replicated their success in Washington by helping establish new A.M.E. churches in Brownsville and Uniontown. In other towns along the National Road and elsewhere in the region, new Black congregations were founded within the A.M.E. and A.M.E. Zion denominations. Ties among congregants and between congregations strengthened in the region. Trusted networks were formed. These networks served a dual purpose: not only did they support the congregants and their churches, but they also provided aid to those in dire need—freedom seekers making their way into southwestern Pennsylvania from the depths of slavery in Maryland or Virginia, as well as those who escaped while in transit on the National Road.

By the late 1820s, these networks, anchored by religious ties, became a lifeline for freedom seekers. They offered more than just spiritual support; they provided practical assistance such as meals, places to rest, and guidance to the next safe house. As the 1830s unfolded, radical white abolitionists in the region, including Dr. Francis Julius LeMoyne of Washington, PA, grew increasingly frustrated with the limitations of their efforts to combat slavery through “moral suasion” and shifted their focus to a more pragmatic form of abolition—direct aid to freedom seekers. Through this collaboration across traditional racial, social, and religious divides, the “friends of freedom” formed a broader decentralized network dedicated to helping those seeking liberty. This collective effort against slavery, characterized by everyday acts of kindness and occasional acts of heroism, would become the Underground Railroad in southwestern Pennsylvania.

The upcoming exhibit entitled Arcs of Freedom, to be completed by the Washington County Historical Society later this year, offers an opportunity to explore the story of the Underground Railroad in southwestern Pennsylvania. Through primary funding from the National Park Service’s Network to Freedom program and the Rivers of Steel mini-grant program, the exhibit seeks to remember the voices of all those involved in the movement, including the freedom seekers themselves. In commemorating their courage and resilience, Arcs of Freedom invites us to reflect on the enduring legacy of the Underground Railroad and its indelible impact on our region’s history.

A logo that reads Arcs of Freedom with a line that dips then rises.
A color image of the same colonial home.

The LeMoyne House today.

A multi-ethnic group of elders gathers around a docent in a historic home.

An Underground Railroad tour group learns about the activities that happened in and around the LeMoyne House, a National Historic Landmark in Washington, Pennsylvania.

All images are courtesy of the Washington County Historical Society. 

About the Washington County Historical Society and the Arcs of Freedom Exhibit

The Washington County Historical Society (WCHS) is a center for preservation, research, and education that inspires the discovery and sharing of Washington County’s remarkable history. Central to this mission is WCHS’s administration of the historic Dr. Francis Julius LeMoyne House, an enduring beacon of freedom and social reform, for the benefit of the public.

The LeMoyne House, constructed in 1812, is a National Historic Landmark and a site on the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. The upcoming Arcs of Freedom exhibit, created by WCHS under its Waller-McDonald Collection of African American History, will be presented at the LeMoyne House. WCHS is grateful for the efforts of the Arcs of Freedom steering committee that includes historian and author Dr. W. Thomas Mainwaring, historian and author Marlene Bransom, freedom seeker descendant and author Lorraine Walls-Perry, and others.

Inquiries about WCHS, the LeMoyne House, the Arcs of Freedom exhibit, and the Network to Freedom program may be directed to Tom Milhollan, Director of Operations & Development for WCHS, where he also leads WCHS’s study of the Abolitionist Movement and the Underground Railroad.

Four white people rest along a trail amid an art installation composed of green poles protruding vertically from the ground.

Art. Works.

By Blog

Artist Carin Mincemoyer, shown here second from the right, is seated amidst her 2023 installation Trail Meander. Located under the new Fern Hollow Bridge, the artwork welcomes trail goers to dwell in the space and be attuned to their surroundings. Photo by Sean Carroll.

Art. Works.

Shifting Expectations for What is Possible

Logo reads Shift Works Community plus Public Arts

This week we are excited to share how one organization supports artists, communities, and organizations through public arts. Shiftworks Community + Public Arts, formerly known as the Office for Public Art (OPA), recently reorganized as an independent nonprofit, and while their name has changed, their mission has not.

Sallyann Kluz, executive director of Shiftworks, and Ashley Anderson, marketing and communications manager of Shiftworks, reflect on how the organization collaboratively shapes public space through the arts—aiming to shift not only landscapes and cityscapes, but also expectations and perspectives for what is possible.

By Sallyann Kluz and Ashley Anderson, Guest Contributors

It’s time for a pop quiz! Which of the following is a public art project?

  1. Artist-designed postcards, illustrating works by Black artists in the city of Pittsburgh;
  2. A play that reflects the oral histories of Afghan refugee women who have settled in southwestern Pennsylvania;
  3. A visual history of the waters of what we now call Fern Hollow etched on the infrastructure of a newly constructed bridge;
  4. A residency program to support Black artists who m/other;
  5. An artist-led meditation on the Explorer riverboat, accompanied by investigations of the microscopic organisms living in the waters of Pittsburgh’s three rivers;
  6. All of the above

If you answered all of the above, you likely view public art as something that extends beyond what many see as its traditional definition—a mural, mosaic, sculpture, or monument in public space. You understand public art as the way artists and their creative practices can help shift our perceptions and expectations of shared spaces and stories. You experience public art as not only the product of the work of artists, but also as the process through which they engage community members to create the work.

Shiftworks Community + Public Arts works to broaden the understanding of what public art is or can be. We view public art as inclusive of the practice of engaging artists to collaboratively shape public spaces and experiences—physically, socially, and culturally. We believe that the process of creating the artwork is just as valuable as the final artwork. In fact, the process of creating the work may actually be the artwork.

Two pedestrians cross a bridge with fall trees in the background and art embedded in the sidewalk.

400 Million Years of Water is an artwork on the new Fern Hollow Bridge by artist John Peña, 2023. Photo by Sean Carroll.

Who is Shiftworks?

Shiftworks Community + Public Arts, formerly the Office for Public Art (OPA), is a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit organization working across southwestern Pennsylvania to collaboratively shape public spaces and catalyze community-led change. Established in 2005 as a one-person part-time office to advance the role of public art in the region, we have grown to a team of seven full-time staff that is stewarding public art projects across southwestern Pennsylvania. Our team has worked behind the scenes on numerous public art projects for nearly 20 years. In that time, we have supported the creation of more than 70 temporary artworks, 30 permanent installations, and 20 artist residencies, in addition to creating 325 events celebrating the work of artists in public space throughout the region.

As our capacity has grown, so has our ability to be more actively engaged in a broader spectrum of public art projects. In our early years, we focused on building the knowledge of what public art existed in the region and facilitating others to commission new artworks. Over time, we have greatly expanded our work to increase support for both artists and communities interested in working in public space. We do this through a range of projects that:

  • Support artists seeking to connect their studio practices to public space;
  • Commission artists as part of design teams for infrastructure and other large-scale projects;
  • Facilitate social and civically engaged works that bring community members and artists together as cocreators.

Through it all, we are guided by the following four key principles that we strive to engage in all aspects of the organization.

Artists are agents of social, civic, and cultural change.

Yes, public art can physically enhance public places, making neighborhoods and shared spaces more beautiful. And yes, public art can be revitalizing and entertaining, and bring economic opportunities. But the process of developing public art projects can also provide unique pathways and engage communities in critical conversations about their visions, hopes, and aspirations.

Artists working in public space can create platforms that amplify the voices and talents of community members who have been disenfranchised, overlooked, or ignored in civic processes.

In this, public art can be a catalyst for community change, advancing social, civic, and cultural goals. Engaging artists opens up opportunities for creative problem-solving and encourages new kinds of interactions among participants. Through public art projects and programs, communities become more deeply engaged in shaping the future of our region, and become more connected, resilient, and innovative through the process.

A white man listens to a black man standing by a freestanding window like structure.

Artist Jason McKoy, right, discusses his We Are Windows installation, 2023. Photo by Ishara Henry.

Community members are highly valued collaborators with expertise in their neighborhoods.

In community development terms, we take an assets-based approach to our work. As Ives Garcia writes on the American Planning Association blog, we believe that communities have existing yet often underrecognized resources at hand—abilities, skills, and lived experiences—that can be mobilized to address the critical issues facing them. Artists are not invited to identify problems and offer solutions for the community, but rather to engage their creative practices to collaboratively catalyze these existing assets. In the process, new skills and approaches to problem solving are fostered.

While the artists engaged bring their expertise in their respective fields and practices, community members contribute their own expertise as equal partners in the collaboration. They have deep knowledge of the histories, memories, and traditions of their places, and understand what community members perceive as their greatest strengths as well as their greatest challenges. We believe that by working together, artists and communities can identify new and innovative ways to mobilize and engage the existing assets to create new futures that were previously unimaginable.

Equity and social justice are the foundation of our work.

We believe that public art’s impact is its capacity for catalyzing social change, building cohesion, and amplifying shared knowledge. To achieve these outcomes, we center equitable and just practices throughout our work—both for our public-facing programs and our internal organizational structures. This means acknowledging that, for far too long, many of our community members have been disenfranchised, overlooked, and ignored in civic processes. In particular, Black artists, Global Majority* artists, Disabled artists, and Queer and Transgender artists have been excluded from working in and shaping public space in our region. This can lead to some difficult conversations that challenge us as an organization and as individuals to recognize our missteps and mistakes, and challenge us to do better.

This work is never done. As an organization, we remain committed to listening, learning, and growing. We seek feedback from the artists, communities, and other collaborators with whom we work, and strive to share what we have learned in creating an organization that honors the multicultural realities and lived experiences of our region.

Five black people practice yoga in a park

Artist Noa Mims Steel Smiling series seeks to bridge the gap between Black people and mental health support through education, advocacy and awareness. Photo by Ishara Henry, 2023.

A successful public art landscape depends upon a thriving network of public art practitioners.

In order for southwestern Pennsylvania to have resilient and flourishing communities that are engaged in creative practices, our artists, creative workers, and collaborators must also be flourishing. Shiftworks provides tools and resources for artists and others to develop their public practices, and we also advocate for investments in their work, their development, and the health of the arts community.

Shiftworks provides training and professional development for artists and others seeking to work in public space, and connects them to both local and national resources that can further their practices. We facilitate opportunities that would be out of reach for many independent artists, and guide clients and partners to provide fair compensation.

For many artists in the Pittsburgh region, a project with Shiftworks is their first professionalized public art experience. Through our processes—including artist selection, contract administration, payment procedures, and project management—we aim to build their capacity to grow their practices and expand their opportunities. Our goal is not merely having a successful public art project, but supporting the development of a public art practitioner whose practices will positively impact the region.

A larger than life size puppet of a young girl engages with an actual young girl while a crowd surrounds them.

Artist Cheryl Capezutti’s Little Amal; Play in peace was an event in September 2023. Photo by Renee Rosensteel.

What’s Next: New Name, Same Mission

As a result of our 2020 strategic plan, we recognized that our original name and identity as the Office for Public Art were holding us back from telling the fullness of our story. This, in turn, hampered our ability to support others in telling their own stories.

Originally established as a partnership between the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council and the City of Pittsburgh’s Department of City Planning, in its early days OPA provided capacity to support the City’s public art program through technical assistance and educational programming. Today, the City’s public art collection, Public Art and Civic Design Commission, and the Percent For Art program are all managed by our colleagues in the Public History, Art, and Design division at City Planning.

As a result of our original partnership, many people erroneously believed that we were part of the City of Pittsburgh rather than an independent organization that works with artists and communities across southwestern Pennsylvania. To remedy this, we engaged Pittsburgh-based design and communications firm Little Kelpie, which helped us to more clearly define who we are and tell the story of our work.

Shiftworks Community + Public Arts is not a change in mission, rather a recognition of who we are, what we do, and where we are headed. It signals a years-long shift for the organization, which has gone from a behind-the-scenes collaborator to a leading agency in our region. Shiftworks tells the story of how public art, as creative work, can shift experiences, systems, and relationships. These shifts can be sudden and require an immediate response, such as the ground-shaking changes brought about by COVID-19, which catalyzed our team to build Artists Bridging Social Distance in the early days of the pandemic. Or these shifts can be slower, resulting from the continued application of subtle but firm pressure, such as those from our continued work with municipal and other governmental agencies to include artists in their processes.

Today, Shiftworks pursues new initiatives, builds systems, and develops the resources necessary to create a sustainable and diverse ecosystem for public art for southwestern Pennsylvania. We accomplish this through delivering four key public-facing program areas: Civically Engaged Public Art, Artist Services, Public Programs, and Client Services. Each of these programs generates broader understanding and enthusiasm for engaging artists, prepares artists with the skills and tools necessary to undertake community-led projects, and actively develops partnerships and collaborations that lead to further opportunities. In addition to our own programs, we partner with artists who are leading community-engaged projects to provide administrative and planning support, providing them with the capacity to focus on being artists rather than administrators.

Throughout the next year, we will tell more stories about the artists, communities, and organizations with whom we work, sharing what we learn along the way and building more pathways for connecting our work with our region’s communities. We hope that you will join us on this journey.

Five people in costume pose with a boat captain on the bow of a vessel with a river in the background.

Artists Celeste Neuhaus and Heidi Wiren Bartlett presented their work Conflux on the Explorer riverboat in September 2022. Photo by Beth Barbis.

About Shiftworks

Shiftworks Community + Public Arts envisions a region in which the creative practices of artists are fully engaged to collaboratively shape the public realm and catalyze community-led change. Shiftworks builds capacity for this work through civically engaged public art, artist resources, public programming, and technical assistance.

Sallyann Kluz is a Pittsburgh-based arts administrator, architect, and urban designer whose practice is situated at the intersection of art and community development. With over 20 years of practice in the Pittsburgh region, her work is focused on the public realm and the people who inhabit it. Her practice includes public art programs and strategies, community engagement, design education, public space design, and neighborhood development strategies.

Ashley Anderson has over 10 years of experience working in customer service, hospitality, event planning, and sales, which has informed her ideas of community engagement and how to create welcoming experiences that leave a lasting impression. In her role as Marketing and Communications Manager for Shiftworks Community + Public Arts, Ashley is focused on developing strategies to effectively communicate the projects and programs of the organization. Ashley also works with artists to create marketing strategies for their individual projects.


*Shiftworks uses the term Global Majority, coined by Jamaican-British educator Rosemary Campbell-Stephens, to describe people who are Black, Asian, Brown, Latino/a/e/x, Indigenous American, dual-heritage, and people indigenous to the Global South, and/or have been racialized as ”ethnic minorities.” As Campbell-Stephens has written, “Globally, these groups currently represent approximately eighty percent (80%) of the world’s population making them the global majority.”

Shiftworks recognizes that no term used to broadly describe race or ethnicity is comprehensive or adequate. Language and the discussion around race and ethnicity are forever-evolving. As a result, Shiftworks continuously discusses the ethnic and racial terms we use as an organization.

We will continue to use specific terms that refer to race, ethnicity, or nationality as they apply to individuals and/or groups (e.g., Chinese American, Black, Chicano). Community feedback is encouraged and will be implemented into staff discussions about organizational language. To provide feedback, contact Dominique Chestand, Shiftworks operations manager, at

Three arts patrons are dwarfed by the scale of the art installations around them.

Community Spotlight—Patterns of Meaning

By Blog, Community Spotlight
A group gathers around part of the Patterns of Meaning installation at the Energy Innovation Center in Pittsburgh.

Community Spotlight—Patterns of Meaning

The Community Spotlight series features the efforts of Rivers of Steel’s partner organizations, along with collaborative partnerships, that reflect the diversity and vibrancy of the communities within the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.

By Gita Michulka, Contributing Writer

Patterns of Meaning Project Bridges a Century of Craftsmanship and Artistry

Cory Bonnet is an oil painter and sculptor by trade, known for utilizing salvaged materials as his inspiration. He also is the director of the arts corridor project for Pittsburgh Gateways, a business accelerator based at the Energy Innovation Center. Thanks to his reputation for reuse and two chance discoveries, he can now add “preservationist of some of the region’s oldest steel-industry foundry patterns and blueprints” to his repertoire.

Foundry patterns are stacked floor to ceiling in a barn. A man looks around in the middle of the image.

Cory Bonnet surveys the foundry patterns discovered in an Ohio barn.

The Hoard from Ohio

The discovery of a barn full of wooden foundry patterns in Ohio led to the formation of Patterns of Meaning, an ongoing, wide-scale preservation project based in the Energy Innovation Center studio that serves as Bonnet’s home base.

Bonnet explains, “There is a scrap metal dealer, Chip Barletto, who really appreciated some of the industrial artwork I was creating. Through Chip, we got access to this collection that was found in a barn in Youngstown. To buy it, it was an all-or-nothing situation—and I said yes, sight unseen.”

It turns out that collection consisted of ten twenty-six foot long box trucks full of materials, including foundry patterns,  blueprints, and drawings. But there was a catch: the wooden forms were massive and were stored on the upper level of the barn.

“I quickly realized that when you’re dealing with people that work in the steel industry, their concept of scale and size is completely distorted from normal people,” laughs Bonnet. Inspired by the thought of the folks who built and moved the materials by hand in the first place, they were able to remove and relocate the whole collection to Pittsburgh.

Two men stand in a room surrounds by wooden wheels and other industrial foundry patterns.

Chip Barletto and Cory Bonnet surrounded by foundry patterns.

Patterns Transformed

For their initial industrial use, the foundry patterns consisted of wooden forms that were pressed into sand. The wood form was then removed, and iron or steel was poured into that void to create a part. After that, it was machined, and each part was assembled with other parts to run boiler rooms, power stations, rolling mills, or a myriad of other industrial and transportation uses.

“These patterns were just this really new, inspirational project that drew a whole group of artists together,” says Bonnet. “The patterns are just so beautiful—they’re utilitarian, they have a purpose . . . when you look at the design, the construction—understanding that they were all created by hand—in many cases electricity wasn’t even used. The processes to create one part that then fits into the larger scheme and mechanism just to power the steel mills that built everything, it almost seems impossible what past generations built from nothing.”

Bonnet was joined by a team of artists for this project, including A.J. Collins, Brian Engel, Nate Lucas, Andrew Moschetta, Mia Tarducci, and Angela Tumolo-Neira. Using a variety of mediums that included glass, woodworking, sculpture, oil painting, and ceramics, the team set forth to transform these patterns into artworks that celebrate the craftsmanship and industrial forces behind their original creation.

Adorned foundry patterns are groups in collections.

Patterns of Meaning at the Energy Innovation Center.

A display of the artwork the team has created so far is now on permanent display at the Energy Innovation Center.

“For us to figure out a narrative and a way to express our appreciation for the infrastructure that [these patterns] created and the level of comfort that has been granted to us because of all that sacrifice and hard work—it just opened up the creative possibilities,” notes Bonnet. “We can showcase the beauty of these objects, but also push it a little bit further and add our own design and our own creativity to them to kind of continue that story.”

Two images of a foundry pattern. The inside of a hinged mold has been gilded and a light installed within it.

Cory Bonnet gilded and lit the inside of a hinged mold, creating a glow that recalls molten steel in a cauldron.

The Collection in McKeesport

More recently, Bonnet also gained access to a second large-scale collection of foundry patterns and steel industry artifacts from U.S. Steel—a collection that had been under the stewardship of Regional Industrial Development Corporation (RIDC), who worked with Rivers of Steel, in conjunction with the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office to determine the significance of the artifacts.

Ron Baraff, director of historic resources and facilities for Rivers of Steel, had previously identified select patterns—ones designated to be historically significant to our region’s industrial heritage—which were donated to Rivers of Steel’s archives by the RIDC. For the remaining patterns, Rivers of Steel and RIDC were looking for an opportunity to save the rest of the lot. After being notified by Baraff, Bonnet jumped at the chance to grow Patterns of Meaning.

“When we got to this warehouse in McKeesport, everything was stored on the third, fourth, and fifth floors—and there was no power, no windows, no elevator. They walked us in and said, ‘Can you get this stuff out?’” laughs Bonnet. “I was like, ‘Yeah, absolutely. We’ll figure it out.’”

A curved arm emerges from a base. The wooden foundry pattern is lit by flashlight on a shelf in a dark building.

Presumably a lever, this foundry piece is just one of a wide variety of shape used to cast parts for the National Tube Works in McKeesport.

With the help of funding from the Rivers of Steel Mini-Grant Program, the team is working to remove the collection for storage and cataloguing at the Energy Innovation Center studio. In the process, they are identifying additional items that are destined for the Rivers of Steel archives.

Two uniquely shaped molds sit in the studio space with art and other patterns lined near the walls around them.

Patterns from National Tube Works in the EIC studio space.

The patterns found in McKeesport come from the National Tube Works, which was part of U.S. Steel. They helped create and maintain the mill, making this find an exciting piece of our regional history.

“Rivers of Steel’s goal for the remarkable collection of patterns from the National Tube plant in McKeesport has always been to preserve the patterns to educate the public about the important role that southwestern Pennsylvanian patternmakers and foundry workers played in the development of the steel industry and industrial crafts in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries,” said Baraff. “Additionally, Cory’s unique adaptive reuse of these historical artifacts highlights the aesthetic side of the patterns, further illuminating the rich industrial legacy of the region. His project, in conjunction with our partnership, allows the craftsmanship and artisanship of the past to be reinterpreted and enjoyed by current audiences throughout the region and beyond.”

Foundry patterns and artworks installed in a museum setting.

The exhibition at the Grohmann Museum includes artworks by Cory Bonnet, A.J. Collins, Brian Engel, Nate Lucas, Andy Moschetta, Mia Tarducci, and Angela Tumolo-Neira.

Beyond the Steel Valley

For Bonnet, these discoveries reflect a broader interest as well. “Our industrial heritage is unique to Pittsburgh, but it’s also universal to any town that relied heavily on manufacturing or steel in the nineteenth and twentieth century,” he explains. “I talk to people in the United Kingdom, Spain, Germany, Australia, Czech Republic, Mexico—there is a universal spirit of ingenuity and sacrifice that took us from having nothing to having an infrastructure.”

Bonnet and the other Patterns of Meaning artists are eager to continue transforming parts of these collections into artwork that celebrates the history of industry and ingenuity that define our region. Given the size of the collection, he points out that there are also opportunities for archivists to join the team to help catalogue the blueprints and drawings.

Sharon Place, development officer with Pittsburgh Gateways Corporation, recognizes Bonnet’s transformative work within the arts incubator through Pittsburgh Gateways Corporation.

“PGC takes great pride in having Cory Bonnet as an integral part of the Energy Innovation Center ecosystem, celebrating his outstanding contributions and dedication to supporting local artists,” says Place. “It’s a perfect synergy—a preservationist and LEED-certified artist situated in a historically renovated, LEED Platinum building. Through his remarkable work, Cory brings the mission of the EIC to life, leaving a lasting impression on everyone who experiences it.”

Recently, Bonnet and the Patterns of Meaning team were invited to set up a showcase of pieces from the collection at the Grohmann Museum at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, a space that houses “the world’s most comprehensive art collection dedicated to the evolution of human work.” The show will run from January 19 through April 28, 2024, and Bonnet hopes it is just the beginning for nationally showcasing this work.

“This is the first full museum show that Patterns will have, but it’s the model for what we want to do,” he says. “Our goal is for this to be a traveling exhibit of artifacts and artwork to honor the shared industrial heritage of the U.S. and the world.”

To learn more about Patterns of Meaning, visit Read more about Cory Bonnet’s work at

All photos courtesy of Cory Bonnet / Patterns of Meaning.

About the Mini-Grant Program

Rivers of Steel’s Mini-Grant Program assists heritage-related sites and organizations as well as municipalities within the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area to develop new and innovative programs, partnerships, exhibits, tours, and other initiatives. Funded projects support heritage tourism, enhance preservation efforts, involve the stewardship of natural resources, encourage outdoor recreation, and include collaborative partnerships. Through these efforts, Rivers of Steel seeks to identify, conserve, promote, and interpret the industrial and cultural heritage that defines southwestern Pennsylvania.

The Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area is one of twelve supported by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). Funding is provided via DCNR’s Community Conservation Partnerships Program and the Environmental Stewardship Fund to Rivers of Steel, which administers the Mini-Grant Program.

Gita Michulka is a Pittsburgh-based marketing and communications consultant with over 15 years of experience promoting our region’s arts, recreation, and nonprofit assets.  

If you’d like to know more about community projects supported by the Mini-Grant Program, read about the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum.

A carved panel depicts the events of July 6, 1892.

Educator Opportunity: Exploring the Homestead Strike

By Blog

A relief sculptural panel located on the grounds of the Pump House depicts the events of July 6, 1892.

The Homestead Strike & the Growth of America as an Industrial Power

This summer seventy-two educators from across the country will convene in Pittsburgh for a National Endowment for the Humanities-funded Landmarks of American History and Culture Workshop presented by Rivers of Steel and the Archives & Special Collections Department at the University of Pittsburgh. Entitled The Homestead Strike & the Growth of America as an Industrial Power, the workshop will be offered to two cohorts of thirty-six educators each during the weeks of July 7 – 13 and July 14 – 20, 2024.

The Battle of Homestead is considered the most famous event in American labor history. This workshop will provide educators with a comprehensive look at circumstances that led to the armed conflict and what its lasting impact has been in the United States. Participants will immerse themselves in the battle from both sides by examining primary sources related to Carnegie and Frick’s business practices, worker conditions, the direct aftermath of the battle, and what came in later years as U.S. business took stock of the relationship between management and labor.

An older white man stands at a podium in a brick room, in front of a slideshow projection for a group of people.

Les Standiford, author of Meet You in Hell,  addressed the 2022 cohort at the Pump House.

Suzi Bloom, Rivers of Steel’s director of education reflected on the program, which was first offered to educators in 2022. “My favorite aspect of this workshop is the opportunity for educators to visit the actual sites of the Battle of Homestead and watch them light up with lesson plan ideas as they comb through the ephemera and artifacts in the Rivers of Steel archives and the University of Pittsburgh Library System’s Archives & Special Collections.”

The seven days of programming and research includes extensive discussions and lectures with visiting scholars, along with faculty and staff from the presenting organizations. Daily site visits to relevant historic landmarks and museums, including to the Carrie Blast Furnaces and to Clayton, the home of Henry Clay Frick, will help educators to explore the details and consequences of the Homestead Steel Strike, expanding their insight into these impactful events.

A white man in a work shirt gestures towards archival images on a table adressing a small group of women.

Interpretive specialist Ryan Henderson shows part of the 2022 cohort items from Rivers of Steel’s archives during the visit to the Bost Building.Kelsie Paul, Manager of Interpretation at The Frick Pittsburgh, is excited to welcome everyone to the Frick this summer.  She says, “Working with Rivers of Steel is such a valuable partnership for us. Our work and our sites are inextricably linked, and we always love the opportunity to come together to tell our city’s story. We are really looking forward to sharing that story with the 2024 cohort.”

As noted above, this is the second time that Rivers of Steel and the Archives & Special Collections Department at the University of Pittsburgh are offering this workshop. It was first offered in 2022, when the program hosted sixty-seven teachers from across the United States for a weeklong immersive experience. Divided into two cohorts over two weeks in July, the educators explored the circumstances that led to the 1892 Battle of Homestead and its lasting impact on the United States. To learn more about the 2022 offering read our story, Immersed in the the Battle of Homestead.

To learn more about the 2024 workshop, visit the website for the workshop.

Fireworks in downtown Pittsburgh

Heritage Highlights: Local New Year’s Traditions

By Blog, Community Spotlight
Fireworks at the Point of Pittsburgh.

Heritage Highlights—Local Ways of Celebrating the New Year

Like so many others at this time of year, we are considering the past as we look toward what the new year will bring. For today’s Heritage Highlights story, we examine some popular local new year’s ethnic traditions and their origins, while welcoming a new perspective on this holiday’s traditions—that of the local Turkish community.

By Julie Silverman, Contributing Writer

Hundreds gather around a well lit new years ball as snow falls in front of historic, columned buildings and a clocktower.

In Harmony, fireworks go off at 6 p.m. after a countdown and ball drop, orchestrated by a local tree trimmer who donates the use of his bucket truck to lower a sparkling ball in the middle of the town square.

Embracing Long-Held Traditions

Pittsburgh is a city filled with shared traditions from the many communities that arrived here from other countries. Industry enticed immigrants to the three rivers area, and foods and customs of those who traveled here found their way into our kitchens and holiday traditions.

German traditions have sweetened the New Year’s Day breakfast with soft cinnamon pretzels topped with icing, glazes, fruits and sprinkles. In Pittsburgh, this good-luck pretzel is often eaten just after midnight for luck in the coming year. Perhaps the snack is eaten at midnight to make room for the hearty meal that takes center stage on New Year’s Day.

A tradition that began in Germany fills Pittsburgh homes with the pungent aroma of sauerkraut, and the savory smells of pork or kielbasa. Eating pork and sauerkraut is believed to bring luck and good fortune in the upcoming year. Pork symbolizes positive progress in the new year based on the fact that pigs move their snouts forward as they forage for food. Green cabbage represents money and good fortune, and finding long strands of cabbage in your sauerkraut portends long life.

A full German celebration takes place in the small town of Harmony, in Butler County. The Silvester New Year’s Eve celebration begins at 6:00 p.m., when clocks are striking midnight in Germany. Visitors from all around the area gather to participate in the festivities organized by the Harmony Museum and the Harmony Parks Board.

If you celebrate in the Irish tradition, you may find yourself banging bread on the walls and doors of your home. If you hadn’t baked fresh bread, pots, pans or wooden spoons will do. The noise will frighten away the bad spirits and bad luck and invite in the good spirits to protect the home in the upcoming year. Another Irish tradition is to begin the new year with a clean slate, symbolized by a clean home. And after midnight, you enter your home through the front door exit through the back door for good luck. Less about luck, and more about honoring those who are no longer present, many Irish families set an extra plate at the table on New Year’s Eve for their missing loved ones.

Artist Benjamin Aysan with First Lady Frances Wolf and Governor Tom Wolf

Artist Benjamin Aysan, seen here with former First Lady Frances Wolf and Governor Tom Wolf.

Celebrating in the Turkish Tradition

Given Pittsburgh’s demographics, which for much of its history has ranked German and Irish ancestry as the two most populous ethnic groups, it is not surprising that the aforementioned traditions have become commonplace. However, this got us thinking—how might some more recently arrived immigrant groups celebrate New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day?

So, we looked to our friend and frequent collaborator Bunyamin Aysan to share Turkish cultural traditions around the holiday. The Turkish community is a relative newcomer to Pittsburgh and Bunyamin, who also goes by the name of Benjamin, took a moment before teaching an evening mosaics art class at the Turkish Cultural Center to discuss Turkish new year’s traditions. The Turkish Cultural Center located in Pittsburgh’s Banksville neighborhood. Benjamin is also the outreach coordinator for the Turkish Cultural Center’s City of Bridges Foundation, a facilitator of interfaith dialogue across the many cultures of Pittsburgh.

Turkish traditions for the new year include wearing something red at midnight to usher in good luck. In Turkish culture, pomegranates symbolize prosperity and luck, and by smashing and eating the seeds of a pomegranate, Turks hope to invite good fortune into their homes.

Benjamin talks about those in the Turkish community celebrating the new year in different ways. Some embrace more of the western culture’s festivities, some groups don’t celebrate at all, and some, like his family, mark the evening by gathering together and sharing of their expectations for the new year.

Within the Turkish community, speaking of hopes and dreams for the upcoming year becomes an important discussion. Each person takes a turn sharing their expectations. Benjamin says, “When you look to start the new year, you have new schedules, new programs, and you also have new hopes and new expectations.” Benjamin talks of checks and balances from year to year. “Maybe we can look at new relationships with our neighborhood,” he said, “We can look toward what we might have done wrong last year and then look at our expectations for the new year.” The tradition of asking each other what their prospects are for the upcoming year is shared among family, friends, and neighbors.

Part of the family celebration may be watching TV or listening to Turkish traditional music. There are many different types, from soft background music, Turkish cultural music, and Turkish art music. “Turkish traditional music depends on what you like,” Benjamin says. “Today the culture is mixed all around the globe. Kids listen to the music that is trending, like Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga.”

Gifts are a part of the Turkish new year tradition. Benjamin is careful to note these gifts are specifically for the new year, rather than for Christmas. Turkey is a primarily Muslim county, and Turkish-Americans do not typically celebrate Christmas. Benjamin says his children will drop hints for new year gifts, like a new computer or online games. Gifts are also exchanged with neighbors as foods are prepared and shared.

A box filled with dozens of Turkish baklava.

Turkish baklava, photo by Engin Akyurt.

Foodways Traditions

Eating with family members and with neighbor friends is part of the New Year’s Eve tradition. Dinner usually includes well known Turkish dishes from traditional Turkish cuisine, including kabobs, barbecue, and certainly Turkish pastries like borek, a pastry made of a thin flakey dough that may be filled with meat, cheese, spinach or potatoes.

A classic Turkish dinner would include soup, a main dish of meat or chicken, salads, and juice, like orange, apple, or lucky pomegranate juice.

In Turkish culture, a meal isn’t a meal without bread. Benjamin says, “So much bread! In Turkish culture, bread is very important. Turkish culture may be one of the most bread eating cultures on the globe. Oven breads and white breads. There are so many kinds of Turkish breads.” Leavened and unleavened breads, known as yufka, pide, bazlama, and the aforementioned borek are among the many breads found in Turkish culture.

Benjamin says that on special days, New Year’s Day being one, when you get together with your friends, the big Turkish dessert is baklava. “If you celebrate anything, you bring baklava,” he says. “Everyone is looking forward to baklava, it is so good. There are mainly two kinds of traditional baklava, pistachio, and the other is walnuts. Pistachio is the main one. Baklava is what we call ‘the king of the desserts’.” It’s not for every day, he says, just for special occasions.

In Turkey and around the world, fireworks lighting up the sky at midnight is another tradition. So here in Pittsburgh, Benjamin’s family and neighbors will often drive to view a fireworks display and count down together to midnight.

New Year’s festivities are more of a western tradition in Pittsburgh. As technology and social media make different traditions accessible around the world, traditions are shared and often adapted. Still, family and community remain the center of many Turkish celebrations as the calendar turns to January.

About Heritage Highlights

Rivers of Steel’s Heritage Arts program strives to represent the region’s diverse cultural heritage—from ethnic customs and industrial arts directly linked to the Heritage Area’s past to contemporary folk arts and cultural practices emerging from the region’s diverse urban and rural experiences. Usually passed down from person to person within close-knit communities, these traditions are as varied as they are unique, each representing another part of southwestern Pennsylvania’s rich ways of life.

A white woman with coily hair in a blue shirt smiles in front of a white background.

Julie Silverman is a museum educator, tour facilitator, and storyteller of astronomy and history for various Pittsburgh area organizations, including Rivers of Steel.  A Chatham University 2020 MFA graduate, her writing is most often found under the by-line of JL Silverman. Occasionally, under the name of Julia, she has been seen on TV.

If you’d like to read more of our Community Spotlight stories, click here.

An orange trolley with an open door is decorated for the holidays with lit garlands.

Community Spotlight—Pennsylvania Trolley Museum

By Blog, Community Spotlight
The Crafton Ingram trolley decorated for the holidays at the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum. Photo by Gita Michulka.

Community Spotlight—Pennsylvania Trolley Museum

The Community Spotlight series features the efforts of Rivers of Steel’s partner organizations, along with collaborative partnerships, that reflect the diversity and vibrancy of the communities within the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.

By Gita Michulka, Contributing Writer

Pennsylvania Trolley Museum Expands for Year-Round Visitor Experience

For the first time since it was established in 1954, the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum will be open to the public during the winter.

Two significant campus upgrades—a new 21,000 square foot Welcome and Education Center, and tube heating units inside the Trolley Display Building—now allow visitors the chance to explore and interact with the trolleys and displays even during the coldest months in western Pennsylvania.

Education kiosks are freestanding in a large carpeted space.

A view of the new Welcome and Education Center. Photo by Gita Michulka.

The Welcome and Education Center, opened to the public on November 10, boasts two spacious galleries for historical displays and interactive exhibits, a movie screening room, a STEM-focused classroom, a gift shop, a bank of restrooms, and upgraded parking. The interactive exhibits, including a simulator that allows even the youngest guests to “operate a trolley,” were created in partnership with the Carnegie Science Center and The Magic Lantern.

Inside the Trolley Display Building, rows of trolley cars dating back as far as the early 1900s line the aisles. Guests can learn more about different eras in trolley transportation from interactive video monitors installed throughout the area and can climb aboard most of the displays to get a view from within.

The heating units, funded by the Rivers of Steel Mini-Grant Program, now allow for a more temperate experience inside this uninsulated warehouse no matter the weather outside—a perk for guests and the volunteers who oversee the space alike. Though they were only recently installed, this upgraded climate control has already proved to be a big asset.

Four older white people post on or near the ramp.

Members of the Trolley Museum Team: Trustee Rev. Jack Demnyan, Executive Director Scott Becker, Director of Annual Giving and Marketing Jeanine DeBor, and Education & Interpretation Manager, Mike Ziviello.

“Our Santa Trolley event, held every weekend from Black Friday through December 17, has been so much more enjoyable,” says Jeanine DeBor, director of annual giving and marketing. She notes that visitation during these special events has doubled since the building has been heated, but that the size of the new Welcome and Education Center, including upgraded parking and restrooms, allows guests the space to move about without it ever feeling crowded.

The Trolley Display Building now also includes an ADA compliant high-level platform—modeled as a replica 1920s elevated station platform—that makes some of the cars accessible to visitors in wheelchairs.

Executive Director and CEO Scott Becker is very pleased with how these upgrades to the museum enhance the overall visitor experience. “When you walk through the Welcome and Education Center and out onto the trolley line, it’s like stepping onto a movie set from another era,” he notes. “You really can spend a whole day here exploring all that we have on display, and now guests can do that year-round.”

Two adults stand beside a young child on a stool that is operating a virtual trolley.

Even the youngest visitors can try operating this trolley. Photo by Gita Michulka.

Since its founding, the museum has received donations of artifacts from area residents, the Pittsburgh Regional Transit (formerly the Port Authority of Allegheny County), and Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation. Items range from rail line signs, photographs, insulated milk canisters, and old telephones to maps of the city and state rail lines and benches from the original Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad Station (now Station Square). Volunteers of the museum have meticulously restored them.

Though some of these items were already on display, most notably inside the Wexford Station that now sits between the Welcome and Education Center and Trolley Display Building, the expanded space allows for more of these items to be included in the experience.

The addition of solar panels on the rooftops of both buildings now produce enough electricity to power the operation of all the trolleys on site. This technology, paired with a study of how trolley cars operate, makes the museum the perfect hub for STEM learning too. DeBor points out that the museum facilities can now be used for school field trips and corporate retreats, as well as weddings and showers. “We recently hosted a school field trip of three hundred kids—two months ago we wouldn’t have been able to do that.”

Even while reveling in the new, upgraded experience at the museum, Becker is already looking to the future for additional ways to preserve the past, especially as they head into their 70th anniversary year. “We are currently fundraising for the fabrication and installation of seven new interactive displays, designed in partnership with the Carnegie Science Center. And we, of course, are always on the lookout for additional donations of materials that can be preserved at the museum, to expand on the story being told.”

 The Pennsylvania Trolley Museum will be closed from December 23 through January 4. Beginning January 5, the museum will be open on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through May, then Tuesday-Sunday during June, July & August. For more museum admission details, visit

About the Mini-Grant Program

Rivers of Steel’s Mini-Grant Program assists heritage-related sites and organizations as well as municipalities within the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area to develop new and innovative programs, partnerships, exhibits, tours, and other initiatives. Funded projects support heritage tourism, enhance preservation efforts, involve the stewardship of natural resources, encourage outdoor recreation, and include collaborative partnerships. Through these efforts, Rivers of Steel seeks to identify, conserve, promote, and interpret the industrial and cultural heritage that defines southwestern Pennsylvania.

The Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area is one of twelve supported by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). Funding is provided via DCNR’s Community Conservation Partnerships Program and the Environmental Stewardship Fund to Rivers of Steel, which administers the Mini-Grant Program.

Gita Michulka is a Pittsburgh-based marketing and communications consultant with over 15 years of experience promoting our region’s arts, recreation, and nonprofit assets.  

If you’d like to know more about community projects supported by the Mini-Grant Program, read about the Fiberarts Guild of Pittsburgh.

A rusting metal wheel crisscrosses the image revealing mosaic artwork in a fall landscape, viewable through its spokes.

The Wandering Wall at The Ruins Project

By Blog, Community Spotlight
A peak through The Wandering Wall to the artworks installed beyond. All images courtesy of Rachel Sager.

Community Spotlight—The Wandering Wall at The Ruins Project

The Ruins Project is a long-term collaborative mosaic art installation amidst the ruins of a former coal mine in Fayette County, Pennsylvania. Its creator is Rachel Sager, a frequent Rivers of Steel collaborator who operates the Sager Mosaics Studio located near mile marker 104 on the Great Allegheny Passage. The Ruins Project is an exceptional attraction in the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, a destination for art lovers, trail-goers, and the heritage-curious. The Wandering Wall is the latest addition to the outdoor gallery space.

By Julie Silverman, Contributing Writer

Artful Divisions of Space

I walk over The Jeffrey Luce Sager Memorial Bridge, my focus on the grey wall ahead of me. It is adorned with a circular mosaic to the left of where there was once a door. The empty frame remains, punctuated in yellow mosaic. A circular mosaic (crafted by Mercer artist Deb Englebaugh) on a distant wall echoes the circular design by the door. To the right it reads: The Ruins Project.


Rachel Sager at the doorway into The Ruins Project.

This locale was once the booming coal town of Whitsett, Pennsylvania. Train tracks zippered the flat strip of land between the hillside and the Youghiogheny River. Now, cyclists pedal by on the Great Allegheny Passage trail, which begins in Pittsburgh and stretches 150 miles to Cumberland, Maryland.

These walls are the remains of Pennsylvania Coal Company’s Banning #2 coal mine. Mining began here in 1893, and this site became the most productive of the eighteen mines dotting the Youghiogheny Valley. As I walk through the ruins, coal crunches under my feet. It permeates the site, as do the mosaics of more than two hundred and fifty artists.

At a far wall, I find Rachel Sager with Wendy Casperson, paint brushes in hand, with welcoming smiles. Rachel is the owner and creator of The Ruins Project. Her mosaics studio, Sager Mosaics, is just across the road near marker 104 of the Great Allegheny Passage.

Rachel explains the piece they are working on. “Normally, this would be the last piece of art you would talk about if you were taking a tour. It’s a symbol of everything that is happening here, a Venn diagram of The Ruins Project.” She gestures toward the mosaic. “This circle is the artists. This circle is the coal miners. And this,” she points to the intersection of the two circles, “is The Ruins Project, where those two kinds of people overlap.”

The overlap is where past, present, and future converge. A time machine, if you will, of the land itself in which the coal formed, of the men who mined, of the artists bridging gaps on a concrete canvas renewed, and of those who pass along the stories. The idea of time is imperative in Rachel’s work.

Rachel Sager's Studio

Rachel Sager’s studio along the Great Allegheny Passage.

We are on the bike path side of The Ruins, which is exposed to the public view. The bridge I crossed, which is now the formal entrance, was named in memory of Rachel’s father. He had plans to build it and passed away before he could. Hundreds of donations in his honor, and the hands of Dave Svonavec of Somerset, completed the bridge in 2022. A chain can be placed across the bridge, along with a “Do Not Enter” sign, to clearly separate The Ruins from public spaces. Where we are standing is within easy sight of the cyclists. The hill sloping to the bike path has been used by those climbing up to work and was the previous route for guests, but curious wanderers also find their way in. The Ruins has become a much more visible presence.

“The longer The Ruins is here and the more notoriety it gets, the more people want to sneak in and take a look,” Rachel shared. “When you think of places like Fallingwater or other museums, they have entrances and boundaries. It’s clear it is a place that you have to get in to, you don’t just wander in to. That’s why it’s called The Wandering Wall. It keeps out the wanderers, but it also wanders itself.”


Large stones are interspersed with vertical metal wagon wheels.

The Wandering Wall in progress.

The Wandering Wall, A Work in Progress

A white man with a white beard holds a trout and beams for the camera from his small fishing boat on a river.

Steve Guinn

Rachel’s inspiration for The Wandering Wall came from her friend and mentor of twenty-five years, Steve Guinn. He was an industrial psychologist, but also an artist, writer, poet, and avid fly fisherman, among many other interests. Steve Guinn, about the same age as her father, passed away in 2021, just one year after Rachel’s father. His mentorship propelled her to do the colossal project, The Wandering Wall. “We talked philosophy for years and how to see the big picture, just like my Dad did. I think about him with every little step of the wall that we build,” Rachel said. Steve’s wife Kathleen and daughter Shanan began the early sponsorship of the wall, while Rivers of Steel provided administrative support to assist in the project’s development.

As The Wandering Wall aims to make the site look more official, it is solving several problems. “The Ruins are just full of problems that are fun to solve,” Rachel laughs. There are issues of safety, protection of the arts, and the fact that this is private property. “Robert and I live here. Our home is here. That presents us with a challenge to have a life amidst this semipublic place that I’ve created,” she says.

There was the challenge of what the wall would look like. Rachel continued, “I didn’t want to put up barbed wire. That would not have been in keeping with the arts and the character of the whole place. I wanted to have a beautiful barrier that is inviting and also keeps wanderers out. It’s a double message. Robert says that it’s not going to keep people out, it’s going to make them want to come in!”

A black and white, sketched diagram of the vision for the wall, showing the bridge stones, the big wheels, and the mosaics inside the negative space of the wheel's spokes.

The design vision Rachel came up with was a wall of giant stones and giant wheels. The Wandering Wall construction began with arranging nine enormous Stonehenge-sized stones weighing about two tons each. Her brother’s industrial sized tractor strained to lift and move the behemoths. Looking down from The Ruins above, the granite rocks appear like stepping stones, meandering along the shrub line. From eye level they are majestic titans. The gaps between them are being filled with big metal wheels and gears, engaging with the stone and metal gears that appear layered within the art of The Ruins. “The circle metaphor is repeated everywhere. It is an archetypal image that I keep returning to in my art,” Rachel said.

Every aspect of the wall aims to aesthetically mesh with The Ruins. The stones were once part of an old railroad bridge. The metal represents the industrial history of the region. Agricultural equipment will find its way among the wheels and rock. All materials are chosen to be site specific, representing the mine operations and the industry that the coal supported.

Two large metal "wagon" wheels are perched between large bridge stones.

With the hardest part of the wall complete, the stones set in their places, next steps are to pour concrete around each stone. Then wheels will be nestled in between, with some of the wheels being stacked higher than the stones. Future ideas include installing mosaic inside wheel spokes. By conscious design, The Wandering Wall is a work in progress. A piece that, as Rachel says, “Will take us years to finish. I hope to have the wheels installed before the snow flies.”

Honoring What Was

A project coming to fruition brings us back to Rachel’s first rule of The Ruins, to Honor What Was. As the entrance bridge and The Wandering Wall honor those who came before, so, too, is a list of two-hundred-plus miners who worked at Banning #2. An artist in Florida, Janis Nunez, created color-coded name plates for the miners. Each plaque designates where the miner was from, how old they were, what their job was in the mine, and if an injury or a fatality occurred.

We walk, crunching over coal, to the Memorial Chapel where Erika Johnson, the tour program director for The Ruins, and Wendy are looking at the ceramic tiles. The project has been in the works for years. The pieces have finally arrived. Rachel sighs as she looks at the tabletop of names lined up by color-coded categories. “It’s one thing to look at that list on a computer. You don’t see what two-hundred-plus names looks like until you see it physically in front of you.” She lightly touches the plaques.

A list of mosaic names on a wall.

Roll call for the miners of Banning #2.

“These are the deaths,” she says. “The ones in white are the ones who were killed in this coal mine.” Rachel points out the laborers. The miners, who were in the mine digging the coal. Loaders, with the job of shoveling into the coal cart. Machinists, with the higher-paid jobs. Shot-firers, who dealt with explosives. I wonder that the category of loaders has more fatalities than the others. “I expect this would have something to do with loading the cars on the rails. I think legs got cut off a lot. Maybe they would lose their leg and then die,” she contemplates. A hope is that the list will help find the families of the miners—to honor what was and help research what may have been.

It is beautifully done and organized, exquisite and sad and celebratory . . . we are quiet looking at the tiles. I am reminded of Rachel saying, “The power of mosaic, pieces and pieces of lives. The stories that we’re telling here are timeless, human, and geologic.” Woven through this day and woven through The Ruins is remembrance and rejuvenation, voice given to those who came before.

About The Community Spotlight Series

The Community Spotlight series features the efforts of Rivers of Steel’s partner organizations, along with collaborative partnerships, that reflect the diversity and vibrancy of the communities within the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.

A white woman with coily hair in a blue shirt smiles in front of a white background.

Julie Silverman is a museum educator, tour facilitator, and storyteller of astronomy and history for various Pittsburgh area organizations, including Rivers of Steel.  A Chatham University 2020 MFA graduate, her writing is most often found under the by-line of JL Silverman. Occasionally, under the name of Julia, she has been seen on TV.

If you’d like to read more of our Community Spotlight stories, click here.

Art installed on a fence surrounding the Hazelwood Community Garden depicts three sunflowers below the word Hazelwood.

Hazelwood’s Community Artworks

By Blog, Community Spotlight
This installation in front of the Hazelwood Community Garden is one of many artworks in the community. Photo by Heather Mull Photography.

Community Spotlight—Hazelwood’s Community Artworks

Public art, by definition, is intended to be for the people. However, even when it is considered site-specific, it is often not of the people.  That is not the case in Hazelwood, though. Over the last several years, newly-created public artworks have been shaped by the views of Hazelwood’s own residents. Now, on the eve of a new sculpture’s installation, Julie Silverman takes a look at the constellation of community stakeholders who are working together to beautify their neighborhood.

By Julie Silverman, Contributing Writer

A white man with shorter brown hair that's style to have some volume wears a demin shirt and welding jacket. He stands with a metal sculpture in a workshop or garage.

Artist Ben Grubb stands with his in-progress sculpture that is currently being installed in Hazelwood. Photo by Hank Malone.

Crossing Beacon, Illumin-Ave, and Hazelwood Alive

Old and new have a tradition of residing side by side in Pittsburgh. Alexander Jozsa Bodnar was the owner and chef of the beloved restaurant that anchored the corner of Hazelwood and Second Avenue. The ordinary building housed an extraordinary cross-section of guests at the restaurant, from Hazelwood neighbors to the late Anthony Bourdain.

An upcoming public art piece at 4800 Second Avenue, the former home of Jozsa Corner, will encapsulate old and new in its design as a cross section of art, architecture, and history, and will wrap the second and third floors of the building with a sculptural art installation called Crossing Beacon. Artwork sponsor Hazelwood Local and project partner Hazelwood Initiative are hosting an event on December 9 in celebration of the community-driven art project.

With broad community support and organizational collaboration, art has thrived in the community of Hazelwood. And for this latest project, a call for artists was released, encouraging Hazelwood artists or artists with ties to the community to bring their ideas for consideration. Community members were invited to meet the group of artists selected to produce design proposals for the artwork and brainstorm community-centric themes or motifs to be represented in their work. The integration of community engagement led to the selection of artisan sculptor and steel fabricator Ben Grubb.

Crossing Beacon is an amalgamation of what we see now, our capacity to imagine the past, and our ability to let that inform our future,” said artist Ben Grubb. “The city, this building, the land where you are now standing, were once under water. As we imagine that time before us, may we also reach forward with our minds and our hands towards a healthful relationship with one another and the life that surrounds us, knowing we have been here but a moment’s time.”

Dana Wall, director of Hazelwood Local, a creative, community programming initiative, said of Ben’s design, “Ben’s motifs give a thoughtful nod to the river, the steel industry, and the community. The building was chosen because it is uniquely situated at the location of the once entrance to the Jones and Laughlin Steel mill and was a part of a formerly bustling neighborhood block—a corner that is a welcome transition into the neighborhood of Hazelwood.”

Originally a Native American territory, the area of Hazelwood was settled by Scottish immigrants in the 1780s and less than a century later grew with industry and glowed with the production of steel from the Jones and Laughlin Steel Company. At peak production, the neighborhood population reached thirteen thousand residents. Second Avenue was a robust commercial corridor of restaurants, bars, grocery stores, retail stores, and a movie theatre. As the steel industry declined and operations slowed, eventually closing in 1997, the resident population decreased to the approximately five thousand current residents living in Hazelwood today.

A multi-generation group of people of color pose with artist Ben Grubb in front of his sculpture that now has color on it.

A group of Hazelwood residents visit the studio of artist Ben Grubb with Arts Excursions Unlimited. L to R: Nita, Denise, Aceton, Ben, Nyron, Harry, Maleaka. Cassandra, Ocean, and Keyvion. Photo by Edith Abeyta.

Edith Abeyta is an artist who works with the Hazelwood residents through Arts Excursions Unlimited. In addition to collaborating with other community organizations on the development of art projects and providing arts excursions for local youth, she facilitates conversations about creative initiatives with Hazelwood community members. She looks at Crossing Beacon as merging of many topics within the neighborhood. “It combines the notion of pre-settler colonial time frames, referencing the river, referencing the mayfly, but using steel and some of the shapes that I see in the neighborhood and definitely the colors, like the green color that references the steel industry, the same color as the uniforms that people would wear in the mills.”

Crossing Beacon is the third public art project implemented by Hazelwood Local that brought together neighborhood residents and artists. In 2021, five art installations were placed in the interior of storefronts along the Second Avenue corridor. Dubbed Illumin-Ave, these installations illuminated everyday businesses and spaces with brightly lit original artists’ works. The following year, Hazelwood Alive arrived at the intersection of Lytle and Eliza streets. Situated near Hazelwood Green Plaza, an artistically designed shipping container welcomed passersby with a joyfully painted display of native flora and the words “Hazelwood Alive”—a phrase credited to Hazelwood neighborhood historian JaQuay Edward Carter.

A shipping container is painted white with the word Hazelwood in orange, the word Alive in green, and foilage painted in orange, green and yellow.

The Hazelwood Alive installation. Photo by Hank Malone.

Now, in 2023, Hazelwood nights will once again light up with Grubb’s installation at The 4800 Gateway. The creative design of Crossing Beacon will shine with solar-powered lights, illuminating facets of the art from in front and casting light through other panels from behind. The lighting will be mounted to the work, and the entire sculptural piece will be carefully affixed to the building to maintain the integrity of the architecture. It is anticipated that the artwork will remain in this location for one year. After that, aspects of the artwork are designed to later become part of the community. Large panels can be converted to raised vegetable-bed planters that could contribute food to the community.

Two men stand on a scaffold in front of a multimedia wall mural. Depicted is a woman with braids. Her face is painted by the braids are three-dimenional welded metal.

Team members with the Industrial Arts Workshop are installing welded metal braids to complete the Braids of Hope artwork. Photo by Heather Mull Photography.

Braids of Hope

Recently, Abeyta was one of several collaborators in Hazelwood that supported the creation of the Braids of Hope multimedia art installation that appears at the corner of Tecumseh and Second Avenue and was dedicated on October 13, 2023. The project, which was a partnership between Arts Excursions Unlimited, Hazelwood Initiative, Industrial Arts Workshop (IAW), and Elevationz, a local building that is home to four small business, resulted in a vibrant collaboration engaging community input and student welders, whose collective design melded a painted mural and the tactile power of braided metal.

“Braids of Hope came directly out of community ideas,” said Maura Bainbridge, assistant director with the Industrial Arts Workshop. “Edith Abeyta, of Arts Excursions Unlimited, conducted a series of meetings with Hazelwood residents over a few months about their ideas for public artwork at the site. She compiled these ideas into word clouds about artwork themes and data around preferred colors and art styles that we then shared with our Summer Welding Bootcamp students.”

“IAW’s Summer Welding Bootcamp students, ages 16–18, were tasked with interpreting this community feedback and developing ideas for the piece. They worked individually and in groups to refine their ideas, present them to each other, and ultimately to combine them into one cohesive piece,” Bainbridge continued. “Visiting artists and Hazelwood community members also provided feedback at various points during the summer. Summer Welding Bootcamp students were not only empowered by learning to weld and exploring their future possibilities, but they also understood their work in the context of the neighborhood. They considered how people might feel seeing Braids of Hope every day and how their piece fit into community visions. It was clear to me that our students were proud of this impact and took it seriously. The feedback that we’ve heard from Hazelwood neighbors since completing Braids of Hope also reflects this, as folks seem to feel that our students created something meaningful on that corner, and that feels like success to us!”

A woman with salt and pepper hair poses with two black teens, who are sitting on the rocking cradle.

Abeyta had help with the Rocking Cradle project from two high school students enrolled in the Start on Success program. Photo by Lake Lewis.

Rocking Cradle

Nearby, a walk through Hazelwood Green, the former steel mill site, will find you among multiple pieces of art. Under the artistic guidance of Abeyta and led by professor Dana Cupkova of Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Architecture, the team partnered with Center of Life, a local nonprofit in Hazelwood that provides afterschool and summer programs to students, families, and community members in the areas of education, the arts, family strengthening, athletics, enrichment, and social justice. Collectively, they produced the Rocking Cradle—Urban Furniture for Environmental Justice project.

Seats in a cradle-rocker shape were created through 3-D printing. The seats can be used to perch or as planters for native species plants. Their dark winged shapes dot the surrounding green. Students participated in workshops that were held through Center of Life’s Fusion afterschool program. The team generated text to embed on the rockers, having sought inspiration from written text found throughout the neighborhood. The result is a combination of art, ecology, and the voices of Hazelwood.

“Hazelwood built a large portion of Pittsburgh utilizing the former steel mill on the Hazelwood Green site,” said Center of Life’s Patrick Ohrman. “Visiting the site to see this installation and all of the new development is an opportunity for people to really understand the history of Hazelwood. This project is a testament to the power that can be created when nonprofit organizations and universities work together to transform the ways in which others think about development.”

A brightly colored green and orange staircase leads to the entrance of a garden that is surrounded by a wire fence that is decorated with brightly painted sunflowers. Above the fence metal letters spell out Hazelwood Community Garden.

Hazelwood resident Heather Mull appreciates the entrance to the Hazelwood Community Garden. Photo by Heather Mull Photography.

Community Voices

Abeyta has questioned “Whose vision moves forward?”—a notion echoed by neighbors who feel parts of their community are being redeveloped without their input. For Abeyta, it is a question that relates to collaborative art projects and environmental issues. It is one that encompasses art embedding itself in a community and finding durability with a community’s resilience. Murals thrive in Hazelwood along the Second Avenue corridor and on the Elizabeth Street Bridge with design and fabrication done in collaboration with Hazelwood residents.

A mural with a black background, a strand of colored blocks and black and white historical depictions show the history of the community through words on the blocks and images. A pollinator garden is in the foreground.

The Elizabeth Street Bridge mural. Photo by Heather Mull Photography.

Photographer Heather Mull is one of those residents, having moved to the neighborhood in 2005 and been witness to the slow march of redevelopment in the nearly two decades since.

“Public art can be an early bellwether for transformation in a neighborhood, especially one that contains buildings in need of renovation like ours,” stated Mull. “I think that’s why it is often viewed as “controversial,” because response to art is so subjective and personal. There is always an inherent tension brought up by conspicuous change within communal spaces.”

An intentionally rusted tree grate has radiant lines and hazelnut leaves in the negative space for water to flow.

Carin Mincemoyer’s design for the tree grates at Hazelwood Green. Photo by Heather Mull Photography.

“For me, the best pieces make me notice, all of a sudden, some feature of a building or a street that I’d never really thought about before,” Mull continued. “Like how the brightly painted steps and fence decorations on the entrance to Hazelwood’s community garden at the former YMCA building (at the top of Minden Street) took some really plain and unattractive infrastructure and made it look cheerful and welcoming. Similarly, Carin Mincemoyer embedded the shapes of the hazelnut tree’s leaves and seeds into the metal planting grates around the new sidewalk trees at Hazelwood Green. But not all public art needs to be cheerful, either. I love the caring way Marce Nixon-Washington’s painted her friend Tonee Turner, who has been missing since 2019, onto that dingy, boarded-up window along Second Avenue. The message of that piece is so important and deserving of attention.”

A portrait of a missing girl along with her birth date and missing date cover over a piece of plywood on a building.

The Tonee Turner installation. Photo by Heather Mull Photography.

“Hazelwood residents that I know do really like art and like to see art in their neighborhood,” Abeyta reflected. “It also operates on a timeline that they’re involved in.” Residents are part of the decision-making in the beginning. The art has been selected and informed by community members. They see it through the process in the middle.” And by the end, Abeyta states, “It didn’t take ten years or five years to make it happen. It’s more immediate. It’s one of the powerful things about it. It’s the arts’ ability to connect people.”

Community Opportunities

People in Hazelwood will have had the opportunity to walk by and see the new Crossing Beacon installation as it is being built the week of November 27th. Being lit at night, it will continue to catch people’s eye, or they can watch the progress on Hazelwood Local’s Instagram. Ben’s design “is pretty formal,” Abeyta says. “It has a lot of conceptual ideas behind it. It’s not illustrative. I’m curious to see how people respond to it.”

Join Hazelwood Local and Hazelwood Initiative on December 9 to see the completed Crossing Beacon for yourself and enjoy a celebration of past and present filled with stories of how the artwork came to be, family-friendly craft activities, and refreshments.

About The Community Spotlight Series

The Community Spotlight series features the efforts of Rivers of Steel’s partner organizations, along with collaborative partnerships, that reflect the diversity and vibrancy of the communities within the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.

A white woman with coily hair in a blue shirt smiles in front of a white background.

Julie Silverman is a museum educator, tour facilitator, and storyteller of astronomy and history for various Pittsburgh area organizations, including Rivers of Steel.  A Chatham University 2020 MFA graduate, her writing is most often found under the by-line of JL Silverman. Occasionally, under the name of Julia, she has been seen on TV.

If you’d like to read more of our Community Spotlight stories, click here.

A youthful black woman with a big smile in a blue hoodie with colorful graphics holds up a " Vendor / Talent" ID badge and beams at the camera.

2023 Community Collaborations and Beyond

By Blog

Braddock artist Latika Ann, shown here at the Festival of Combustion, is one of more than seventy community partners that Rivers of Steel worked with in 2023. From site-specific art,  like the Mini Greens 2 installation that Latika helped create, to Mini Grant projects, co-programed events, and multiyear community residencies, Rivers of Steel’s joint efforts this year are setting the stage for a dynamic new initiative in 2024 and beyond.

Recent Collaborations with Rivers of Steel . . .  And What’s Next

By Carly V. McCoy

When your mission is to support the economic revitalization of an eight-country region, collaboration with community partners is essential—and at Rivers of Steel, it is part of our organization’s DNA.

Formed at a time when southwestern Pennsylvania was suffering from the worst economic and social effects of the collapse of the steel industry, our founders set out to improve the economic opportunities of former mill and coal towns, while also securing the unique cultural heritage of those communities.

These efforts began by establishing connections throughout the region—collecting oral histories, accepting archival donations, assessing the needs of specific towns and boroughs, and finding resources to support economic development, often through heritage tourism and outdoor recreation initiatives.

In the decades since, the ways in which Rivers of Steel supports local communities has only expanded. In 2023 alone, we have worked with more than seventy nonprofits, small businesses, local governments, cultural centers, and individuals on an array of partnerships designed to uplift and engage our neighbors throughout the eight counties of the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.

A woman of color views the exhibition title panel

A Mini Grant awarded to the Society for the Preservation of the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka help to fund their exhibition Gledaj! The Gaze of Maxo Vanka, which was displayed at the Bost Building in partnership with Rivers of Steel.

The Mini-Grant Program

Rivers of Steel’s Mini-Grant Program is one of our organization’s longest-running economic redevelopment efforts. It assists heritage-related sites and organizations as well as municipalities within the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area to develop new and innovative programs, partnerships, exhibits, tours, and other initiatives.

Funded projects support heritage tourism, enhance preservation efforts, involve the stewardship of natural resources, encourage outdoor recreation, and include collaborative partnerships. Through these efforts, Rivers of Steel seeks to identify, conserve, promote, and interpret the industrial and cultural heritage that defines southwestern Pennsylvania.

Earlier this year, Rivers of Steel awarded mini grants to seven nonprofits and communities, including ones supporting Grow Pittsburgh, the Fiberarts Guild of Pittsburgh, and the Society to Preserve the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka.

In addition to providing project funds, Rivers of Steel supports grant recipients through additional coaching as needed, and by helping to promote their events and share the stories of their accomplishments through our Community Spotlight series.

Rivers of Steel administers the Mini-Grant Program with funding provided by the Community Conservation Partnerships Program and the Environmental Stewardship Fund from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

The deadline for the next round of grant funding closed earlier this week. However, interested parties can learn more here or sign up to be notified when the next application window opens.

A Chinese dragon dance is performed in the brick-walled Pump House for a crowd seated in folding chairs.

JADED, an artist collective celebrating AAPI art and culture in Pittsburgh, hosted their event Wildness at the Pump House in August.

Historic Preservation and Shared Spaces

Historic preservation has been one of Rivers of Steel’s pathways to regional economic redevelopment through heritage tourism. During the last three decades, Rivers of Steel has stewarded numerous preservation projects, helping organizations and communities determine which of their assets are historically significant.

While not every building needs to be saved, records and objects are often important to understanding our region’s heritage. Sometimes Rivers of Steel becomes the repository for these items, while other times Rivers of Steel is the organization that secures the resources needed to preserve important historical sites for future generations.

The largest of those sites, and arguably the most notable, is the Carrie Blast Furnaces National Historic Landmark. Securing landmark status was only the first step in Carrie’s preservation story, a journey that is ongoing.

Rivaling Carrie for historical significance are two locations that help tell the tale of the 1892 Battle of Homestead and the subsequent Lockout and Strike—the Bost Building in Homestead, which was the headquarters for the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers during the conflict, and the Pump House in Munhall, where the actual battle took place.

Today, the Bost Building is the headquarters for Rivers of Steel, as well as the Visitors’ Center for the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area. It hosts exhibitions in its gallery spaces and is home to Rivers of Steel’s archival collections. The Pump House serves as a trailhead for the Great Allegheny Passage, in addition to hosting public art, picnic facilities, a labyrinth, and a variety of events.

Key to the success of each of these locations is their ability to be used, often creatively, for multiple purposes. This includes leveraging those spaces to help meet the objectives of our community partners.

For the past two years, Rivers of Steel has partnered with the Pittsburgh Irish Festival to host their annual weekend event at the Carrie Blast Furnaces. While supporting our cultural heritage preservation goals and inviting new people to the landmark, it provides the nonprofit with a culturally relevant space that is large enough to host the thousands of visitors they receive each year.

In 2023, Quantum Theatre also returned to Carrie. For this year’s event, they presented Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the Western Courtyard to critical acclaim. The play was a follow-up to their 2019 production of King Lear, which was housed in the Carrie Deer Courtyard and the Green Room of the Iron Garden, two other locations on the Carrie Blast Furnaces site.

At the Pump House, Rivers of Steel helped support several community happenings by offering use of the space, including to Tree Pittsburgh for a tree adoption event, to the Mon Yough Area Chamber of Commerce for their Tour de Mon cycling event, and to JADED, an artist collective celebrating AAPI art and culture in Pittsburgh, for their Wildness event.

Rivers of Steel also extends a discount to nonprofits who are looking to host their events on the Explorer riverboat, which Three Rivers Waterkeeper did for their Celebrating Clean Water event this past October.

In the Carrie Deer courtyard, a 100-person crowd gathers in around and interacts with a 12-foot puppet representing an immigrant Syrian girl.

In September, the Carrie Blast Furnaces hosted the world-traveling puppet Little Amal for a performance called Little Amal and the Ghosts of the Furnace, presented in partnership with Real Time Arts.

Collaborative Programming

In addition to sharing spaces, Rivers of Steel also works collaboratively on the programmatic level.

A special highlight of 2023 was the Gledaj! The Gaze of Maxo Vanka exhibition at the Bost Building offered in partnership with the Society to Preserve the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka and curated by Steffi Domike. The show expanded the understanding of this unique artist by offering a window to his process and providing context for themes seen across his creative life.

Throughout the year, Rivers of Steel gave community talks at local libraries, including presentations on Carrie Clark at the Mt. Lebanon Public Library and Northland Public Library, and a workshop on Preserving Your History at the Carnegie Library of Homestead.

For their first in-person Be My Neighbor Day last March, WQED brought in Rivers of Steel to help provide family programming at the event at two locations in Homestead.

In May, Rivers of Steel had the opportunity to partner with Green Building Alliance to present a sustainability-focused tour of the Carrie Blast Furnaces, as well as with the Pennsylvania State Education Association for a year-end experiential celebration for local educators.

During the summer, Rivers of Steel Arts partnered with Rankin Christian Center, Propel Braddock Hills High School, Propel Andrews Street High School, and the Art in the Garden program to offer metal arts, graffiti arts, and blacksmithing workshops to area teens.

Rivers of Steel also recently concluded a yearlong heritage arts program with the Pittsburgh Center for Arts & Media that brought together three cultural centers, four traditional artists, and three trained teaching artists on a project called Currents. The goal was to help immigrant artists, who are already skilled in a cultural practice, learn techniques to become just as skilled at being a teaching artist. Then each newly trained artist led a workshop at their own cultural center.

On the regional level, Rivers of Steel Heritage Tours launched a new itinerary for the Rebellious Spirits tour that pairs visits to historical attractions—all associated with the Whiskey Rebellion—with tasting experiences at Washington County whiskey distilleries.

Beyond the events mentioned above, Rivers of Steel collaborated with several schools on customized graffiti arts residency programs and with the Heinz History Center for History Day. Additional educational collaborators in 2023 included Remake Learning, the Waterways Association, Commonwealth Charter Academy, Carnegie Mellon University, and Duquesne University, among others.

Three young white girls display their cast aluminum artworks as they stand on a newly-installed, artistically-designed light post.

In 2023, community collaborations were central to the work of Rivers of Steel, including the partnership behind the debut of a new pocket park in Monongahela, shown here during opening festivities on the Fourth of July.

Embedded Community Programs

In recent years, Rivers of Steel has expanded its collaborative footprint by working on multiyear projects with individual communities. First among these has been a live music and entertainment series created in partnership with Homestead Borough and Steel Valley Accelerator. Homestead Live Fridays was comprised of six events in 2023 that brought together small businesses and nonprofits to present live music, arts experiences, and community camaraderie.

Creative placemaking is sometimes a term used to define this type of intentional work when / where the arts are used to create vibrancy in a location, and it is also a tenet of how Rivers of Steel works with communities in our National Heritage Area.

Earlier this year, Rivers of Steel launched a new effort called the Creative Leadership Program, borne out of the creative placemaking concept, that resulted in a new parklet in the City of Monongahela. And while Rivers of Steel is committed to working with its partners in Mon City for at least two more years to help increase vibrancy in their downtown corridor, we’ve also just launched a three-year program with partners in Brownsville, Pennsylvania.


A massive machine in a former industrial building is semi lit by the setting sun.

The 48-Inch Universal Plate Mill from the Homestead Works is being reassembled as part of a workforce development program that is part of the Partners for Creative Economy initiative.

Partners for Creative Economy

Rivers of Steel’s collaborative work in Monongahela and throughout the Heritage Area sets the stage for its newest initiative: Partners for Creative Economy, which was announced this fall with support by a POWER grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission.

By bringing together artists and designers with community groups, local governments, and heritage tourism organizations, Rivers of Steel aims to build creative leadership, provide career opportunities in historic trades, and turn towns into destinations for visitors.

Five key strategies, including the creative leadership program, joint program partnerships, collaborative marketing efforts, a new workforce training initiative, and an expanded Mini-Grants program, will advance the community-based work that Rivers of Steel is already engaged in.

It’s a dynamic new vision for the region, one that builds on the foundation created through partnerships and collaborations like those we just shared.

Food vendors mug for the camera.

A community barbecue during Homestead Live Fridays brings residents together around brisket and pasta.

2024 and Beyond

With support from Rivers of Steel’s efforts over the intervening decades, the City of Pittsburgh has changed what it means to be a post-industrial community. However, for too many places up and down the river valleys, communities are at risk of being left behind.

Rivers of Steel is committed, now more than ever, to work collaboratively and creatively with partners to help build whole, vibrant, livable communities.

As we chart the ways in which we will support this community work in the coming years, we recognize that none of these efforts happen without community support.

Be a part of this work by making a donation to Rivers of Steel today, or make a gift during Give Big Pittsburgh on Tuesday, November 28, 2023.

When you support Rivers of Steel, you are not just supporting one organization; you are supporting communities throughout southwestern Pennsylvania.

Thank you for being a part of the Rivers of Steel community.

Carly V. McCoy is the director of marketing and communications for Rivers of Steel. Carly V. McCoy

With a passion for lifelong learning, Carly’s role as director of marketing & communications for Rivers of Steel allows her to draw from her experiences, both professional and personal, to amplify the many assets of the Pittsburgh region—celebrating its history, heritage, artistry, and innovation of its residents to encourage heritage tourism, community engagement, and economic revitalization.

Her previous articles include The Historic Preservation of the Carrie Blast Furnaces and A Decade-Long Journey for a 120-Year-Old Building.

A diverse group of eight people stand and sit around a table, looking and smiling for the camera.

Heritage Highlights: Currents

By Blog

Collaborators with the Currents program: (Top row from left) Alison Zapata, Lindsay Huff, Jon Engel, Katy DeMent, Til Gurung, and Chitra Gurung. (Seated from left) Benjamin Aysan and Gulay Baltali. Participating, but not shown here, is artist Jennie Reyes.

Heritage Highlights

Rivers of Steel’s Heritage Arts program strives to represent the region’s diverse cultural heritage—from ethnic customs and industrial arts directly linked to the Heritage Area’s past to contemporary folk arts and cultural practices emerging from the region’s diverse urban and rural experiences. Usually passed down from person to person within close-knit communities, these traditions are as varied as they are unique, each representing another part of southwestern Pennsylvania’s rich ways of life.

Earlier this year, our Heritage Arts Coordinator, Jon Engel, teamed up with the Pittsburgh Center for Arts & Media (PCA&M) for a community-building project, dubbed Currents, that collaborated with new American groups in the city of Pittsburgh. Jon and several of PCA&M’s staff artists led an educational program for immigrant tradition-bearers, culminating in a series of free arts workshops for their communities. At the end of their year together, these traditional artists left with a new network of mentors and new ways to share their cultural skills with others. In this article, Jon speaks with each of the artists, as well as leaders from their communities, about why this series and these traditions are so vital and important to their people.

Currents Traditional Arts Education Training

By Jon Engel

A Reflection On Connection

It’s easy for me to take my daily life for granted—the same work, the same food, the same commute. While routine can fade easily into boredom, it is actually made up of a thousand things—traditions and value systems emanating from complex cultures and histories. I love my job because it surrounds me with people from incredibly different cultures who have unique stories to share. These individuals’ journeys are quite unlike my own, yet I consistently connect with them, understanding where our similarities converge. Recognizing that in one another has been a form of incredible awakening that for me has been enlightening.

Last April, the light shone in as I ate dinner at the home of Benjamin Aysan, a Currents artist and traditional Turkish calligrapher. We were sharing chicken and roasted potatoes, just as I would at any of my grandfather’s Christmas dinners. However, this was an iftar, a Ramadan feast. For one month, practicing Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, denying themselves sustenance so as to strengthen their own contemplation of God and their relationship to compassion. At the end of each day, they hold one of these dinners, trading food between family members. On this occasion, Benjamin and his family shared their meal with the rest of the Currents cohort and me. We ate as Benjamin spoke about the deep wisdom of his people, the things that Ramadan teaches and the people it brings together. I sat and listened, seated among engineers, bakers, and rice farmers from all around the world, artists all, and thought fondly about my dad’s potatoes.

15 people with diverse skin tones gather for a group photo, seated on an L-shaped couch, looking up at the camera.

The collaborators of the Currents project, gathered with their immediate families at Benjamin Aysan’s home in April 2023.

Traditions like this are built to foster intimacy. In part, that is why they are so valuable. Prior to that dinner, the team at PCA&M, which included Mary Brenholts, their director of artists in schools and communities, along with teaching artists Katy DeMent, Lindsay Huff, and Alison Zapata, worked with Rivers of Steel and the community artists for six months. Our goal: to translate that intangible value into a series of arts workshops, highlighting the unique traditions of the artists—and their communities—who gathered for this special meal.

In addition to Benjamin, three more artists were nominated by a Pittsburgh Area ethnic center representing their communities. They included Gulay Baltali, who also originated from Turkey, Chitra Gurung of Bhutan, and Jennie Reyes of the Philippines.

Benjamin, Gulay, Chitra, and Jennie were selected based on their expertise in traditional forms, along with their desire to share that expertise with the people around them. Under the guidance of Katy, Lindsay, and Alison, each artist created a lesson plan that communicated their skills and gave context as to why their practice was so important to their community. Afterward, they taught these lesson plans to other members of their community in a free gathering at their ethnic center.

Starting this fall, these lesson plans will available at various local libraries. For now, it is my deepest honor to introduce you to the Currents cohort of 2023.

Our Traditional Artists

Eight young girls, nearly all with long, dark hair gather around a woman with her hair covered as she looks down and demonstrates, gesturing with her hand.

A group of middle schoolers gathers around Gulay Baltali at the Turkish Cultural Center to learn the water marbling process.

Gulay Baltali with the Turkish Cultural Center

Gloria Bal, formerly known as Gulay Baltali, was born in Istanbul, the capital of Turkey, where she studied to be a teacher. Since moving to the United States to complete her Master’s degree, she has taken an interest in ebru, a traditional Turkish form of water marbling. In this art, Gloria uses natural products like ox gall to thicken a tray of water, transforming it into a fluid yet jelly-like substance. She then draws on the water with special ebru paints that float on the surface, instead of dispersing through the liquid, allowing the waves and ripples to shape the image. She uses these properties to make images like flowers and hearts, which she can copy onto paper by laying it on the water.

“In this art, the tulip shape is important,” she says, “It is a symbol for Turkish culture. Because a tulip comes from a single bulb, it symbolizes the one and only oneness of God. Ebru has a big philosophy behind it.”

A tray is filled with water with ink dripped and stylized on the surface of the water. The background is yellow . The design looks like white and purple abstract flowers with green leaves.

Midway through the process of creating an ebru artwork. The paint has been applied over the water and designs have been created within it. Placing paper over the design is the next step.

Historically, ebru was often practiced by dervishes, a kind of Islamic mystic. Echoing this, Gloria finds it deeply spiritual and calming. “This art teaches us to be patient because when you’re doing it, you can’t do it fast. You need to be slow and focused. And you can’t do the same thing with the water every time, you’re going to do it different.”

A somewhat rotund man of Turkish decent points a board with a drawing on it. It also reads "Calligraphy Lesson"

Artist Benjamin Aysan demonstrates the angles desired as he workshops his calligraphy lesson.

Benjamin Aysan with the Turkish Cultural Center

Once used primarily to decorate mosques and copies of the Quran, calligraphy has a very similar place in Turkey. “In many different cultures,” Benjamin says, “calligraphy has significant cultural and historical importance. In addition to being a beautiful art form, it is a way to celebrate and preserve that cultural history via the written word.”

On top of his calligraphy practice, Benjamin is also the outreach coordinator for the Turkish Cultural Center Pittsburgh, located just off Banksville Road. In both this role and his work as an artist, he seeks to connect Turkish culture to other cultures. “We focus on fostering cross-cultural dialogue, comprehension, and appreciation. Providing opportunities for people from all backgrounds to learn about Turkish culture, art, and customs, workshops aid in the achievement of these objectives.”

“Programs like Currents provide possibilities for visibility, teamwork, and skill development,” he adds. “That makes it easier for artists to communicate with audiences and other artists, encouraging participants to appreciate and understand one another.”

A Filipino woman stands and gestures towards two garments that are hanging behind her.

Jennie Reyes shows off various Philippine fabrics.

Jennie Reyes with the Filipino American Association of Pittsburgh

Jennie Reyes grew up in the town of Daraga, Albay, in the southeast of Luzon, the main island of the Philippines. Growing up, her family ran a manufacturing business, which produced housewares, handbags, novelties, and more from the island’s natural materials, and sold them for export. These materials included plants like seagrass, rattan, wicker, and abacá. The abacá is a Filipino banana plant, the leaves of which can be processed into an extremely strong fiber sometimes called “Manila hemp.” Jennie worked as the head of product development for her family’s company and learned a deep reverence for this material from the artisans her family employed on their production lines. She learned how to weave abacá by traveling across the Philippines and the world for trade shows and observing the local techniques these merchants brought with them.

“I have been surrounded by beautiful handmade products,” Jennie says of her work. “I would like to emphasize their importance because there are only a few small cottage industries and villages that are engaged in creative handmade weaving. In this age of technology, I think It is important to preserve and continue the traditions of hand-weaving of abacá fibers.”

Lani Mears, president of the Filipino Association, personally recommended Jennie explore teaching through the Currents program. “According to the unofficial results of the census in 2020, there are over 8,500 Filipinos in the greater Pittsburgh region,” she says. “A significant portion of the Filipino immigrants are in mixed marriages, so it’s very crucial for us to promote programs that educate the partners and the children about our backgrounds, our heritage, and our culture.”

“Workshops like the one conducted by Jennie highlight the livelihood and crafts of our people. They provide Filipinos who attend them a feeling of pride and self-identity. And, because the workshops are open to non-Filipinos, we are also providing opportunities for much deeper relationships and mutual understanding.”

Two men in hats work at weaving reeds.

Chitra Gurung, left, instructs a Bhutanese American man, sharing how to create a ghum—a woven umbrella traditionally used by rice farmers.

Chitra Gurung with the Himalayan Foundation-USA

In the past fifteen years, Pittsburgh has become home to thousands of Bhutanese Americans, many of them originating from rural villages high in the Himalayan mountains. These villagers, largely descended from groups who migrated north from Nepal centuries ago, are members of a vast array of ethnic groups and religions. Each has their own unique farming methods, ceremonies, and cultural traditions. They are unified primarily by their use of the Nepali language, as opposed to the Dzongkha language favored by Bhutan’s primarily Buddhist ethnic majority. In the 1980s and ’90s, the Bhutanese government heavily persecuted Nepali speakers and other village people, categorizing them as “illegal immigrants” and denying them their rights to property and / or their traditional religious beliefs. Many people were displaced as they lost their homes or fled oppression, leading to the establishment of massive refugee camps in Nepal, where cultures intermingled and traditions were adapted for their new circumstances.

In 2008, the United Nations began to voluntarily resettle many people in those camps to new countries, with the United States taking in around 60,000 people. Since then, Pittsburgh has become a major cultural hub for Bhutanese American communities, first as a city where many were settled and then as thriving communities as folks flocked to live alongside friends, family, and others who spoke their language. These communities vary vastly in age and experience, ranging from elders who spent the majority of their life in the homeland to young children who have never left this city. In times like these, artisans like Chitra Gurung have become vastly important to their people as guardians of memory.

Chitra was born in the village of Gairigaon in the Sipsoo area of southwestern Bhutan. He is a craftsman of many talents, including woodcarving and weaving, which he primarily used to create tools, baskets, and other utilitarian items on his family’s farm. After the displacement of his village, he lived for a while in the refugee camps. There, he applied his skills to survive in a very different reality—learning, for instance, to weave with strips of fiber torn from plastic packaging rather than split from bamboo stocks. Since moving to Pittsburgh, he has become a gardener here as well, adopting power tools and store-bought twine. His craft practices are thus more than practical but are also records of the many ways he has lived his life and the experiences these disparate peoples have shared.

Chitra also works closely with Himalayan Foundation-USA, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit that helps to preserve memories of life in Bhutan and in the camps while also working to sustain the shared community of Bhutanese Americans. They offer many social programs, particularly to elders and youth, and are working toward the creation of a museum in Pittsburgh that will honor each of the individual Himalayan ethnicities now living here. At the workshop led by Chitra, elders worked together to create a ghum—a woven umbrella for rice farmers—but also sang, danced, and discussed times gone by.

“Elderly people are isolated, even within their family,” says Til Gurung, president of the Himalayan Foundation, “because the subject of their interest—their skills, their experiences— are totally different to their children and grandchildren. They don’t have much opportunity to express their feelings, to share their experience, to tell their stories.”

“But this type of project, the workshop and the get-together, gives them this opportunity to share with their friends who really understand and have similar experiences.”

Jon Engel HeadshotJon Engel is the Heritage Arts Coordinator for Rivers of Steel and the author of the Heritage Highlights column.

To read more about local traditional artists, check out the other articles in our Heritage Highlights series, including this piece about Ukrainian pysanky in Carnegie. To see more of our work with Benjamin, you can read our interview with him from 2021 or check out this calligraphy tutorial he made with us last year. If you’d like to learn more about the process of water marbling or even try it for yourself, check out this heritage craft tutorial and kit that highlight Gulay Baltali’s practice.