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Hazelwood’s play trail grows as volunteers build KaBOOM! playground

Christopher Keough
September21/ 2016

More than 160 volunteers braved a nasty forecast Saturday to kick off the next phase in the ongoing economic revitalization of Pittsburgh’s Hazelwood neighborhood.

The thunderstorms never materialized, but a new playground between Lyle Street and Roma Way did. The recreational area is the main attraction of the growing Hazelwood Play Trail, which comprises a number of kid-focused, community-building areas in a 1-mile radius of the Hazelwood Branch of the Carnegie Library on Second Street. The planned 10-attraction trail already has a large gardening area tended by a local resident, and next up is the Elizabeth Street Parklet, an open space and community area to be created this fall.

“It’s not necessarily hiking through the woods, but it is like walking through the neighborhood and walking from one place to the next place with the concept of play in mind,” says Cara Ciminillo, executive director of Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children (PAEYC).

The playground is a collaboration among PAEYC, KaBOOM!, Playful Pittsburgh Collaborative and the Hazelwood Initiative. It is the ninth such playground built by The Heinz Endowments, who funded the effort, and KaBOOM!

Teresa Pizzella, play advocate at Playful Pittsburgh Collaborative, says Hazelwood has been something of a “play desert” in recent years. The specific part of the neighborhood, between the railroad tracks that run parallel to Gloster Street and the Monongahela River, hasn’t had a usable playground in five years.

Sonya Tilghman, executive director of Hazelwood Initiative Inc., agrees the targeted area was bereft of play opportunities.

“There are other play spaces in the neighborhood, but there aren’t any below the tracks,” Tilghman says. “Topographically, we’re a big hilly neighborhood and kids below the tracks have trouble getting to those other playgrounds.”

KaBOOM! worked with the Hazelwood community through community meetings over the past year to develop a playground the neighbors and kids wanted. Children created pictures of their dream playground at a block party in July, which decided the final design.

Ciminillo says Pittsburgh does a pretty good job of creating destination play spots such as Kennywood or the many attractions on Northside.

“One of the important elements about the play trail is making sure you can play everywhere, underscoring the fact you don’t have to drive somewhere to play,” she says. “Play is important to development, whether you’re 2 years old or 92 years old, so it has to be embedded in a community.”

The heavy neighborhood involvement in the play trail coupled with the rehabilitation of the nearby Mill 19 on the former Hazelwood Coke Works is indicative of the strong sense of community in this former steel town on the rebound, according to PAEYC spokeswoman Becky Brindle.

The play trail is a vibrant addition to the revitalization of Hazelwood; Ciminillo says she believes the community is the first to create one.

“I’m thinking we sort of made it up,” Ciminillo says. “The idea was to really link these seemingly disparate parts of the community together with something that builds on a community strength. The tie between all those places is really the notion of play.”

Everyone’s idea of play differs. Some consider reading to be play. Others find their play as stewards of nature. Aside from the playground built last weekend, Ciminillo says other “play-based opportunities” in Hazelwood include the library, community-empowerment organization Center of Life and the Hazelwood YMCA Community Garden.

While the trail is now coming together with little signage, PAEYC and community officials are discussing appropriate ways to mark the trail. Ideas include stenciling on the street or sidewalks, more traditional signage or a mobile app directing visitors to the different play areas.

Christopher Keough