Pittsburgh’s Point enjoys an illustrious history, and an important role in the not-so-distant future. | by Leslie Hoffman | Artwork by Peter Max
[Note: This article was originally published in the June 2009 issue of WHIRL Magazine.]
Pittsburgh is the country’s second largest inland port — but there are some who see the confluence of the three rivers as a different kind of portal. Some Pittsburghers believe that the Point will serve as a spiritual portal to usher in a new age of unity on December 21, 2012, the date that the Mayan calendar ends.
One aspect of the prophecies is that the convergence of the Ohio, Monongahela, and Allegheny Rivers — and the hidden fourth “river,” the “Wisconsin Glacial Flow” aquifer, represent a sacred spot on Earth that mirrors the “World Tree” that the Maya saw at the center of the Milky Way, represented by three “rivers” of stars, and an “invisible dark rift.” In 2012, the earth would be in an alignment with the Milky Way that happens only once every 26,000 years, and the Point, in these prophecies, would be a key place that would usher in a new age of human enlightenment and consciousness.
Victoria Hanchin, a Regent Square-based licensed social worker and practicing psychotherapist, has become an outspoken representative for those in Pittsburgh who see this connection. She refers to other holy leaders from around the world that have come to Pittsburgh and see the Point as sacred, including the Dalai Lama. Hanchin cautions that 2012 is not an apocalyptic date, but rather, the “evolution” that will occur is more of a “process” that many modern Maya believe we are already in, citing a world shift in understanding interconnectedness. She cites examples of growing world interest in green energies and taking better care of the earth’s resources, as well as the breakdown and restructuring of the economy as manifestations of this ongoing transition. “We could certainly work against that, so that’s why it’s so important for people to know that this is not an Armageddon, but a huge window of opportunity for shifting our consciousness into unity,” Hanchin says.
Whether or not the Point is a spiritual portal, Pittsburgh’s rivers play a crucial role in the city’s evolution. Pittsburgh’s Point has followed an arc in its environmental development, from its untouched, natural state, to its height of industry and pollution, to the future that non-profits, city government, and citizens have been envisioning since the 1950s. Pittsburgh may, in fact, be entering a new generation of consciousness in the way that its citizens interact with the rivers.
Three hundred years ago, the Point would have looked similarly to how it looks today. “It would have been very recognizable but very different,” says Thomas Baxter, the executive director of the non-profit organization Friends of the Riverfront. “The river level would have been much lower. Depending on the time of year, you may have been able to walk across the various rivers and see ripples from the rocks, and the bottom underneath. I think you would have seen much larger trees, of course, old growth. But a lot of the vegetation would have been very similar to what we have today.”
Another description: In 1786, Hugh Henry Brackenridge wrote, describing the Point, “There is not a more delightful spot under heaven to spend any of the summer months than at this place … Here we have the town and country together. How pleasant it is in a summer evening to walk out upon these grounds, the smooth green surface of the earth, and the woodland shade softening the late fervid beams of the sun; how pleasant by a crystal fountain … with the rivers and the plains beneath.”
Pittsburgh was founded in 1758, when British General Forbes secured the land from the French, naming it “Pittsborough” in honor of William Pitt, the British Prime Minister who had led the war against France; “Pittsborough” quickly evolved into “Pittsburgh.”
Early firsts for the city were marked at the Point: The United States signed its first-ever peace treaty with the Native Americans at Fort Pitt in 1778. And Meriwether Lewis and William Clark began their American odyssey from Pittsburgh in 1803.
Pittsburgh’s rivers were central to the city’s development. According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the first steamboat, the New Orleans, was built near Pittsburgh, and by 1835, more than half of the steamboats in the country originated from this region. Increased river traffic called for changes to the rivers, which were much shallower than they are today; in deepening the water and beginning to exercise greater control of the rivers’ flow, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the first federally funded lock and dam at Davis Island on the Ohio River in 1878. The rivers also contributed to Pittsburgh becoming a center for early nascent industries, such as glass and iron work. “These early industries were not strong, but were centered here in Pittsburgh because of the region’s coal resources and because of the river access to the west,” says Ann Madarasz, the director of the museum division at the Heinz History Center. By 1840, Pittsburgh was the center of the nation’s pressed glass industry, and by 1850, it was called “The Iron City.” In the late 1800s, the city’s rivers were not only used for commerce and transportation, but were also avid centers of recreation. “In the 1860s and 1870s, Pittsburgh produced international champion rowers,” Madarasz says.
The first steel mill was established by Andrew Carnegie in 1875: In fact, the Edgar Thomson Works in Braddock is still in production today. By the early 1900s, 60 percent of the world’s steel output came from Pittsburgh. And, while it’s well-known that steel’s heyday continued in Western Pennsylvania until the 1980s, Madarasz says that some historians argue that if it weren’t for World War I, the need for steel would have declined here. Instead, World Wars I and II called for major military output, for which this region ramped up production to provide; during World War II, Pittsburgh earned a new nickname, the “Arsenal of Democracy.” In the aftermath of the war, the steel industry shifted from producing for the military to supplying “pent-up consumer demand,” which called for steel for automobiles, appliances, and new homes in the 1950s and 1960s.
The reclamation of the Point had already begun by this time, and by the early 1950s, the warehouses and homes that had occupied the First Ward, were demolished.
For the city’s 200th anniversary, in 1958, it held a contest for what the new Point should look like and selected a design submitted by landscape architect Ralph E. Griswold and architect Charles M. Stotz. In addition to the fountain, the park design also notably included the Portal Bridge; construction on the park was completed in 1974.
The city’s riverfronts began their most recent renaissance with the fall of the steel industry in Western Pennsylvania.
“We had a tremendous opportunity when the bottom of the steel industry fell out to do something great with our rivers and riverfronts,” Baxter says. “It was a once-in-forever opportunity to reclaim that private land for public use.”
The Friends of the Riverfront organization was established in the late 1980s to champion the move to cleaning up our rivers and encouraging people to once more incorporate them into their lives.
Allegheny County CEO Dan Onorato recognizes the effort that has gone into taking the rivers from their steel-mill state to where they are now. “Friends of the Riverfront and Riverlife have been integral partners in the transformation of our rivers from work horses to recreational jewels,” he says.
The non-profit Riverlife formed in 2000 to encourage the collaboration in the development of recreation, commerce, and the environment. Executive director Lisa Schroeder concurs with Baxter. “There has been a very deep-seated culture here of the rivers being thought of as an industrial highway and as toxic, so two things have been happening at once,” she says. “One is that, as the steel mills left the river edges, the property has been freed up for newer uses, and that transformation has been going on. At the same time, the effort to clean the rivers themselves has been underway, and is in process now to the point that the number of species that survive in our rivers is growing rather than shrinking.” Schroeder says that Pittsburgh is at the “vanguard” of riverfront transformation the world over. One such example will be apparent this summer as the city hosts the $1 million Forrest Woods Cup, a bass fishing tournament inspired to come here by the success of the 2007 Bass Master Classic: The world’s eyes will be on the city’s rivers and their wildlife.
The shift that we are seeing in our riverfronts is one that has spanned several mayoral terms, and has required the cooperation of a dozen nonprofits, corporations, and city and county residents. “During the last nine years, we’ve seen more than $3 billion invested along our riverfronts,” Onorato says. “The results have been world-class trails, public spaces, and recreational opportunites, as well as renewed economic vitality. As we restore and develop our riverfronts for recreation, we also attract additional development and investment to our region.”
Our geography and resources have been key to Pittsburgh’s success. For example, right now, the sheer volume of water that we have is “astounding,” Schroeder says. “There are many places in the country and the world where water is scarce, and even
literally running out. We should never take for granted the fact that we have this amazing topography — even the weather we have — that provides an abundance of water. We also are blessed by having the city of Pittsburgh located right at the center of a peninsula where two rivers come together to form the headwaters of the Ohio — one of the greatest rivers of North America — because it gives us a compact Downtown that is located right in the middle of a natural environment.”
In addition to the renovations that the Point State Park has once again undergone, to commemorate the city’s 250th anniversary, celebrated last year, is the ongoing construction of Three Rivers Park. It is comprised by the linear park system that is bounded by the West End, Hot Metal, and 31st Street Bridges, spread out over 13 miles of riverfront and more than 30 property owners, and which Riverlife is overseeing and coordinating.
“I would argue that the progress over the last 20 years has really been a Cinderella story. I think that our brownfield reclamation history is as dramatic as anywhere in the world. It’s taking a little bit longer for those of us who live and work in Pittsburgh or in the region to be able to get to the rivers every day, and to be able to think about the rivers every day as the center of community life and as a resources that are touchable, and that are really part of the lifeblood of the city,” Schroeder says. She estimates that currently, more than 80 percent of Three Rivers Park is in place or underway, and that within the next 18-24 months, it will be completed. “You’re going to see really a catalytic leap in riverfront that is available for public use, and that I think will open people’s eyes even further about what the future possibilities are.”
That’s just in time for December 21, 2012.
Artist as Medium
I call Peter Max the morning of Opening Day of the new Yankee Stadium; he is at lunch in a crowded restaurant in Manhattan, voices clamor the background, competing with the rattling of china and silverware. Max, a prolific painter of pop culture, has been chosen to be the official artist of the stadium, including a gallery and store in the great hall of the $1.1 billion behemoth. Max has painted the portraits of Aaron Rodriguez and Derek Jeter, and he also plans to paint the rest of the players on the team.
“I’ve also painted a whole bunch of very famous highlights in baseball, Lou Gherig and Joe Dimaggio, … these very iconic images.”
This is the third time I have interviewed Max, and so we are catching up on some of his greatest moments since we last talked in 2006, when he painted our expressionistic February 2006 cover featuring then-Mayor Bob O’Connor, and again for our April 2006 issue, our 50th issue, where we talked about his gallery show in Pittsburgh that month. This month, Max returns to Pittsburgh for a show at Sirani Gallery in Squirrel Hill. Barbara Krause opened the gallery only 3 and a half years ago, but has become a center for attracting the bright poppy work of widely known artists such as Pittsburgh’s own Burton Morris, Brazil’s Romero Britto, and now, Peter Max.
“Just before opening Sirani Gallery, I went to a Peter Max show in Virginia. The atmosphere was so exciting,” Krause says. “Hundreds of people came to the exhibit, and Peter was signing each and every piece and dedicating it the collectors. He also brings his own music to his shows, which adds excitement, and really a sense of joy and energy.”
Krause’s description of a Peter Max show jives with Max’s own explanations of his gallery openings. “I’ve had so many museum shows, where, in most cases, they were the most visited shows in the history of the museum,” he says. “I once had a show at the Hermitage Museum in Russia, at the invitation of [President Mikhail] Gorbachev. I thought no one would show up, and to my shock and surprise, there were 14,500 people there! You could barely breathe … it was really amazing. And I get this everywhere, in Japan, or Germany, it is fantastic.” Max sings a chorus of his work; he is tremendously busy: “One of my main activities every day is painting. I come to my studio around 10:30 or 11. My studio is filled with projects.” His prolificacy is in continuation of the career he established for himself as a painter of pop culture in the 1960s and 1970s. He famously influenced the design of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine movie — as evidenced by his “Cosmic Jumper” and “Cosmic Runner,” little leaping fellows in bellbottoms and top hat. Max’s wildly colorful and expressionistic brush strokes have also found their way to many a U.S. president’s face; he has painted every president’s portrait since Gerald Ford. His latest coup is 44 portraits of President Barack Obama, which are generating a stir, unveiled on The Early Show on CBS in January. The portraits will now be exhibited at gallery shows around the country, including four portraits and four drawings at Sirani Gallery.
“Election night was really great,” Max says. “When Obama was finally voted to become president, the whole country was teary-eyed, and so was I. It was a huge moment in America, and I decided that evening that I was going to paint a whole bunch of Obamas, 44 of them.”
When I ask Max about his own political leanings, he responds, “I love mankind, humanity, I love animal rights. I love the world to one day be one planet, practically without borders, and I think we’re going in that direction.” He adds, “I am not that political. I have certain things that I love on the planet, and I want it to be a certain way. I’m a treehugger, you what I mean, and I hope that in the next few decades we will have learned to respect other animals, like we have learned to respect people, that animals won’t be caged, and that one day, it will be a world where living beings will live together in harmony.”
We sent Max the photographs of the Point, as well as information on the role that it plays in the Mayan prophecies of 2012. I ask him if he is familiar at all with these prophecies and Pittsburgh’s role.
“Well, I do know of the date,” he says. “You know, I think everything is going to be fine. I think the planet and the world is going to be fine and the universe is going to be fine. OK, I have to go, I’m off to Yankee Stadium!”
This article was originally published in the June 2009 issue of WHIRL Magazine.