Conservancy group puts down roots in community

by Andrew Hornak

A bearded conservancy volunteer holds a young London Plane tree firmly with strong hands and look of concentration as his partner explains the best ways to guarantee the roots spread and hold the tree upright.

The growth of urban communities has destroyed or degraded much of the natural beauty of neighborhoods, and the Gateway Project of Squirrel Hill aims to reverse some of that damage.

Mardi Isler, an environmental activist and the leading force behind the Gateway Project, is the main voice in an effort to revive the natural beauty of Squirrel Hill. He organizes tree plantings through the Urban Forest Committee and Gateway Project to improve aesthetics and to provide residents with a sense of nature as they wander suburban streets.

The plantings range from a span of one or two trees to lining an entire street. Volunteers from the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy teach community volunteers how to correctly handle the trees so they reach their full potential.

The Gateway Project headed by Isler has spread in a similar fashion to a tree’s roots, starting with the entrance to Squirrel Hill at Murray Avenue and Forward Avenue and crawling up the street to Darlington Road and the Jewish Community Center, a location that is deeply rooted in the culture of the neighborhood.

The project “works to establish, maintain, and protect the shade tree canopy on every street in the Squirrel Hill residential and commercial areas,” Isler says.

Photo by Alyssa Kramer

Though the help of the volunteers makes the plantings go smoothly, Doug Shields, who served on the Pittsburgh City Council from 2005 to 2010, said in an article for Squirrel Hill Magazine that the success of this program is due to the “remarkable dedication and tenacity” of Isler.

The community volunteers have shown equal dedication in their efforts to bring back a healthy ecosystem of trees in the area. As volunteers plant trees on Phillips Avenue, a singular sapling causes a few problems for the volunteers. It shifts one way, its roots breaking apart with the slightest adjustment, and the branches reach towards parked cars instead of the sky.

After much work and shedding many layers of clothing, the stakes used to hold to tree upright are driven into the ground, signifying the end of a battle to ensure the health of the newest edition to the foliage in Squirrel Hill.

Future plantings are always being scheduled throughout the neighborhood. However, it is difficult to keep up with the demands of the community. “Trees are being cut down as we are putting them up,” Isler says. “The neighborhood was bleak and barren. We’re trying to fix that.”

Combined with improving the environmental aspect of the neighborhood, the Gateway Project and Urban Forest Committee aims to boost aesthetics for the local businesses that line Murray Avenue.

“We want to provide a pleasant atmosphere that will make people shop more and help the merchants on Murray,” Isler says. “In the end, we want thriving business that has at the core a friendly, beautiful pedestrian experience that attracts visitors and enhances the experience of our neighborhood.”

The beginnings of this goal are apparent during both the plantings and a stroll through the neighborhood. Take, for example, the corner of Murray and Phillips: a large concrete area the storefront of Jerry’s Records and a clock inscribed with “O’Conner’s Corner,” after the late mayor of Pittsburgh, who was born in nearby Greenfield. The clock is the start to the master plan of the Squirrel hill Urban Coalition through the Gateway Project to remake the street corner.

According to Isler, the SHUC looks to incorporate benches and tables to accommodate patrons of local businesses as well as give the now bleak concrete corner personality.

Recently, the corner of Murray and Forward was remade, and now features energy-efficient streetlights as well as colorful murals on the walls along the sidewalks. Since then, the project has snaked out toward Murray and Beacon Street, which now boasts a mural of leaves and the green hues of nature in order to represent the importance of the environment to the community.

Since the mural has been completed, the plantings have stretched to all corners of Squirrel Hill with more on the horizon to restore the natural beauty of the neighborhood.