This story was originally published on May 12, 2021.
UPDATE: Nine Mile Run Viewfinder was installed in the summer of 2021. The Whitney Park Viewfinder had to be removed because it was damaged. The other two sites—Hunter Park and West Street—will remain installed until Fall 2023.
Three projects are taking shape under the Environment, Health, and Public Art Initiative, a program of Pittsburgh’s Office of Public Art. Artists are collaborating with local organizations to create temporary works of public art that will draw attention to the environmental health issues of water pollution, air pollution, and lead toxicity in the soil.
Nine Mile Run is a stream that flows underground in Wilkinsburg, through culverts, then makes its way above ground in Frick Park, before it empties into the Monongahela River. All told its watershed is 6.5 square miles.
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“I started to think about periscopes. Is it possible to drill down and create these periscopes that people could look at the stream?” Brooks Takahashi asked. “And then doing the first site visit, I realized quickly that the periscopes already existed. They’re the manhole access. So then I started thinking about how do you redesign a manhole cover that’s for viewing?”
Hunter Park, with its basketball courts and ballfield, is part of the headwaters of Nine Mile Run in Wilkinsburg. Brooks Takahashi said it took two people with shovels to lift a manhole cover there so that she could scope out what was down below.
“It really felt like it was like opening a portal to another place,” she said. “There’s such a difference in temperature. Immediately I heard rushing water. There was this warmth that came up, and the shaft is lined with bricks and stones. It’s gorgeous.”
The solid manhole cover will be replaced by Brooks Takahashi’s viewfinder, which she’s been working on with designers from a Pittsburgh-based company called Clear Story.
The concept has been through many iterations, but the final design incorporates ADA accessible subway grating so that the public can see into the opening. Two sets of solar cells will collect energy to power batteries that will light the shaft. The viewfinders will include text, including the question: “How do you connect with the underground stream?”
What’s a Watershed, Anyway?
One of the biggest problems that Nine Mile Run has faced over the decades is combined sewer overflows. The combined system of pipes to manage sewage and rainwater becomes overwhelmed and spills into waterways. Brooks Takahashi partnered with UpstreamPgh, formerly the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association, to learn more about the stream and its watershed, the land that drains into it.
Actually, the nonprofit was born out of an art project through Carnegie Mellon University’s STUDIO for Creative Inquiry in the late 1990s. Artists and designers reimagined the brownfield that the Nine Mile Run had become near Frick Park because of the slag heaps left behind from the steel industry. They engaged the community and developed a plan that led to a massive restoration project, completed in 2006.
Lindsey-Rose Flowers, Community Engagement Manager at UpstreamPgh, said though the name has changed, the organization’s mission has always been to engage the public around stormwater and environmental issues. It operates stewardship programs in the watershed and builds infrastructure, like rain gardens, to slow down stormwater before it overflows the combined sewer system and gets into the stream. .
Flowers said they worked with Brooks Takahashi to identify sites for the viewfinder project.
“I was really excited that she was doing this project because we talk to people and, you know, their eyes start to glaze over,” she said. “It’s a really great way to connect the public with a less than desirable topic in a really creative, engaging and fun way.”
She said that’s especially true in upper Wilkinsburg, where the buried stream might be out of sight and out of mind.
Brooks Takahashi also worked with the Center for Civic Arts (CCA) in Wilkinsburg to develop the viewfinder project. Jody H. Guy, the center’s director and a member of the Wilkinsburg Chamber of Commerce, said the public art project dovetails with a recent CCA partnership with Wilkinsburg Borough to redevelop a vacant lot in the heart of the business district where stormwater management strategies play a role.
“We are reaching deep into the community to shed light on how pollution can make its way into our air, soil, and water,” Guy said.
Both CCA and UpstreamPgh are planning programming around Nine Mile Run Viewfinder so the general public and kids can learn more about the water system, the health of the stream, and how it impacts community health.
Brooks Takahashi said she researched the viewfinder project by consulting maps, talking with the original artists of the Nine Mile Run Project, and reading about watersheds, and history, too.
“One of the things that I learned about early on was that in the 1820s to the 40s, people in Pittsburgh were drinking unfiltered river water from the Monongahela,” she said. “People died of cholera and typhoid.”
She said she hopes the art will help people to connect the underground stream with the water above ground, and even get them asking questions about the source of the water coming from their own faucets.
“I realize that providing all the answers is not really what I need to do,” Takahashi said. “As an artist, with this project, it’s interesting to present the questions to people and let people kind of feel that sense of wonder, as well.”
Brooks Takahashi has written scores, something like poems, for each of the three sites, which will be accessible on a website. The scores include practical information about how to find the locations with longitude and latitude, as well as landmarks. They also include more questions, like the score for the Hunter Park site, which asks: “Are you a spring bubbling under this football field? What rocks are under there with you?”
“I’m hoping to learn more from people as the piece evolves,” Brooks Takahashi said. “And I hope that it produces questions for the viewers, as well.”
Nine Mile Run Viewfinder will be installed this summer and will remain in place for two years.
The Environment, Health, and Public Art Initiative is funded by The Heinz Endowments, which also supports The Allegheny Front.