From Fumes to Farming: Pittsburgh Sheds Industrial ‘Steel City’ Past to Open Nation’s Largest Urban Farm

 

From Fumes to Flowers: Pittsburgh Sheds Industrial 'Steel City' Past to Host Nation's Largest Urban Farm
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Pittsburgh, the western Pennsylvania city once a hub for soot-spewing steel and coke mills, is about to become home to the nation’s largest urban farm.

A 23-acre urban farm project named the Hilltop Urban Farm is set to open in 2019 just two miles from downtown Pittsburgh.

“The land was just kind of sitting there, fenced and looking very post-apocalyptic,” Aaron Sukenik, head of the Hilltop Alliance, which is building the farm, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“On top of farmland where winter peas and other fresh produce will be grown by local residents and sold in the community, the farm will feature a fruit orchard, a youth farm and skills-building program. Hillside land will eventually have trails,” Reuters notes of the project.

“I can’t imagine the last time that a mayor had the opportunity to cut a ribbon on a farm in the city of Pittsburgh, and not just a farm, but the largest urban farm in America,” the city’s Mayor Bill Peduto boasted at the project’s ribbon cutting last month.

At the center of America’s Rust Belt, which runs from Detroit up to Buffalo, Pittsburgh has made inroads in recent years to reimagine itself and shake-off much of the rust image. While once known as the Steel City, with skies black from industrial pollution, it’s also been the home to mega food brand Kraft Heinz, which is now working toward improved sustainability initiatives and decreasing its carbon footprint, including how it manufactures within its hometown city and around the world by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, energy and water usage, and decreasing its waste by 15 percent globally by 2020, it notes on its website.

Pittsburgh’s relationship with industrialist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) injected the city with world-class museums, libraries, and universities. And its association with pop artist Andy Warhol (1928-1987) who was born in the city, also lends itself to a thriving eclectic art scene (even though Warhol distanced himself from Pittsburgh and spent most of his adult life in New York City) that has come to shape much of the city’s post-industrial image.

And one can’t talk about Pittsburgh without acknowledging its spiritual life-blood, which, despite the city being home to the world’s best-selling ketchup, is not red at all, but black and gold — the colors of the city’s three major sports franchises: the Pittsburgh Pirates, Penguins, and Steelers. With 16 championship wins between them, the Steel City is  better known these days as The City of Champions, a wellspring of pride for locals. (With another Stanley Cup win earlier this summer, the Penguins became the first NHL team to win back-to-back championships in nearly two decades.)

“Every fanbase thinks it has the best and most passionate on the planet. Regardless of the city, there is a legion of fans walking around with an inferiority complex, just waiting for someone to ever question their fandom,” Tyler Conway wrote in the Bleacher Report in 2014. “Pittsburgh has those people. They’re there, they’re annoying and no one ever wants to sit within 10 rows of them at a stadium. But taken as a whole, the fans stand out for their duality between passion and rationality.”

That mix of passion and rationality sustains the city through the long, grey winters, and hot, humid summers. And for a city that’s not quite sure how to shed its 100-year-old industrial image, team spirit offers unity, a common ground and a strong foundation in visioning about the city’s future.

“Pittsburgh is the forefront for the next generation of creative connoisseurs in the Northeast,” Michaela Trimble wrote in Vogue. “Google now calls the town’s old Nabisco factory home; Uber tested its first driverless cars here; and new, community-focused hotels like Ace Hotel Pittsburgh are collaboratively beckoning in a new meaning to black and yellow pride.”

The steel mills that once lined Pittsburgh’s three rivers have long been abandoned — some retooled into trendy shops, restaurants, hotels, and lofts. Parts of the city have become artistic hipster havens with New Yorkers escaping the high rents of Brooklyn just five hours east to open restaurants, bars, coffee shops, and art galleries in the more affordable neighborhoods of Pittsburgh.

From Fumes to Flowers: Pittsburgh Sheds Industrial 'Steel City' Past to Host Nation's Largest Urban Farm
the Farm plans

Urban farms and farming projects are of course nothing new — they can be found in major U.S. cities like Chicago and New York. Twenty percent of fresh food can now be attributed to urban operations. The number of farmers markets has also increased significantly in recent years. The USDA notes that in 1994, the number of markets across the U.S. totaled 1,755. Today there are more than 8,000 farmers markets nationwide, most of which are found in densely-populated urban areas. But food deserts –areas without easy access to fresh food — are significantly more common than farmers markets or urban farm projects. According to the USDA, more than 23 million Americans live in food deserts.

It’s an issue Pittsburgh-based nonprofit The Fruit Tree Planting Foundation works to address both locally and globally through its fruit orchard-planting projects and educational programs in under-served communities. “As a Pittsburgh-based tree planting organization, we couldn’t be more proud of our city and this initiative to improve food security for our residents,” Cem Akin, FTPF’s executive director, told Organic Authority, adding that the group extends a “standing offer” to Hilltop to provide fruit trees “for any of their nonprofit efforts in the future.”

While not as dire as the burnout in Rust Belt cities like Detroit or Buffalo, Pittsburgh still struggles. For one, Pittsburgh’s layout isn’t a grid (not even close), which can leave its local communities isolated and insular. That can present difficulties when it comes to change — like adding more community gardens, farmers markets, or conventional supermarkets. There can be issues with both community interest and the logistical side of implementation. Pittsburgh also has the largest percentage of communities with “low-supermarket access” in the U.S. for its size (250k – 500k). The Hilltop Urban Farm project is aiming to not only help the city reshape its identity and embrace a food-centered upgrade, but it may also serve to solve a very real problem for thousands of residents in the city’s challenged communities, where access to fresh, healthy food isn’t abundant — particularly in the city’s Southside neighborhood where the farm will be located.

“You just have blight, just so much blight in Rust Belt cities,” Heather Manzo, a farm and food business educator for Penn State Extension, an applied research arm of the Pennsylvania State University, and co-author of a 2014 report on the Hilltop farm project, told Reuters.

“So you see the longstanding residents of neighborhoods who are used to trying to find their place in the world looking at this blight and just say ‘We can do something different, we can do something better’.”

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Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites OrganicAuthority.com and EcoSalon.com, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better. www.jillettinger.com.