Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Innovative Community Celebrations in an Urban Green Space Pittsburgh's Schenley Plaza Is Programmed for Fun

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Innovative Community Celebrations in an Urban Green Space Pittsburgh's Schenley Plaza Is Programmed for Fun

Article excerpt

A visit to Pittsburgh's Schenley Plaza gives a colorful glimpse into how lively, diverse, complex and fun the world can be. On any given day, students of all ethnicities, professionals of every stripe and young parents with their kids all weave through the green space that has become a city centerpiece for unique celebrations of culture and the arts. A project of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and the city of Pittsburgh, the 5-acre Schenley Plaza is home to intimate gardens, an expansive Emerald Lawn, a landmark tent and profit-sharing food vendors that feature local produce and a kaleidoscope of tasty fare from around the globe.

One of those vendors--Conflict Kitchen--has brought Schenley Plaza international acclaim. Featuring cuisine from countries with whom the United States is currently in conflict, Conflict Kitchen's goal is to humanize the citizens from these countries through the celebration of their food and culture. Every few months as Conflict Kitchen's food changes, new informational handouts are given to each customer and colorful panels on the building's exterior are switched out with new ones, often featuring the colors from the featured country's flag.

"Conflict Kitchen is a great way to start a conversation about cultures that may be foreign to us and to celebrate our common humanity with food and nature," says Parks Conservancy Senior Manager of Visitor Experiences Shawn Fertitta. Recent Conflict Kitchen events in Schenley Plaza have furthered its cultural outreach and have included outdoor screenings of Iranian, Palestinian and Cuban films, contemporary African music with a communal Congolese dinner and Lunch Rush Hour trivia questions for those standing in line at the popular spot. The fusion of the culinary, educational and cultural aspects of Conflict Kitchen--all in a beautiful park space--has been wildly successful.

Indeed, Schenley Plaza has been the center of public gatherings of support for a wide range of headline issues, from the Standing Rock Sioux Dakota Access Pipeline and Black Lives Matter, to solidarity with France after the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks. The recent Doctors Without Borders "Forced From Home" interactive exhibit recreated portions of a refugee camp in Schenley Plaza, drawing thousands over a five-day period. Escape rafts, camp tents and a heartbreaking interactive component that replicates the decisions refugees must make about what to leave behind made for a powerful and deeply personal encounter. "It was amazing to see attendees of every background, ethnicity and age all bringing their own ideas to the event. It's beautiful to see them arrive at a place of empathy together by the end of the experience," says Fertitta.

Each June, the annual summer concert series with public radio station WYEP kicks off a Summer Music Festival that draws several thousand revelers. Final Fridays concerts on the last Friday of each summer month round out the festival and include nature art, animal track and scat identification, and other fun kid-oriented activities. Schenley Plaza hosts music from around the world for all ages, drawing crowds of listeners to Japanese Daiko drummers, Irish folk music, a cappella ensembles and jazz. A roaming jug band--complete with washboard and homemade instruments -plays impromptu performances throughout the warmer months and organically draws park users to them, often resulting in a crowd clapping along to the Appalachian-influenced tunes.

Adults aren't the only ones grooving to music at Schenley Plaza. The Parks Conservancy and its programming partners have made kid-friendly activities a lynchpin of the space. Five months of the year, the space is host to weekly afternoon-long Kids Day events that include storytelling musicians, face painting, balloon artists and games that get kids up and moving. One event includes a massive 8-foot-tall inflated beach ball that can often be seen rolling across the Emerald Lawn with a crowd of laughing children chasing after it. …

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