In the Heart of Oakland Beats Schenley Plaza

City of Play’s festival of games was a big hit.

City of Play’s festival of games was a big hit.

words: Seth Culp-Ressler

photos: Seth Culp-Ressler

Micaela Murcar gazed up at the long row of towering trees lining the east side of Schenley Plaza, draping the earth below in a blanket of shade.

“These are actually my favorite trees,” she says. “I don’t know what they’re called, but I love them. It’s beautiful here.”

Murcar, a student at the University of Pittsburgh, was lounging out on the Plaza’s lawn with her family. Maura Murcar, Micaela’s mother, says that the surrounding area struck her as being a “miniature Washington D.C.”

Schenley Plaza, then, must be Pittsburgh’s little Mall.

Colorful umbrellas dot Schenley Plaza’s open-air eating areas as the skies open up.

Colorful umbrellas dot Schenley Plaza’s open-air eating areas as the skies open up.

The four-and-a-half-acre Plaza recently celebrated its 10th anniversary at the corner of Forbes and Schenley Avenues, right in the heart of Oakland. Over the past decade, the space has become a home for families, students, restaurants and, on Saturdays like today, endless amount of fun.

On this day, that sense of fun can be attributed to Adam Nelson, the founder and creative director at City of Play. The organization took over the Plaza for its Come Out and Play Festival, an event built on outdoor social games. For Nelson’s purposes, Schenley Plaza stands out as a perfect location for his gatherings.

“One of the best things about Schenley Plaza is that it’s a very central point between parts of the city where people are accustomed to walking,” Nelson says. “There aren’t a ton of places in Pittsburgh where people walk habitually from one place to another; Oakland is one of the neighborhoods [in which] that happens quite a lot.”

The benefits of the Plaza’s location are immediately apparent. An eclectic mix of young children, college students and older adults wander around the one-acre lawn, catapulting beanbags at each other in games of modified cornhole, bellowing battle cries in a match of pirate dodgeball or chasing around an eight-foot-tall beach ball.

Shift your gaze off the lawn, however, and more mundane scenes appear. Long lines collect behind the serving windows of the Plaza’s food vendors, no doubt drawn in by the enticing aromas wafting from the kitchens within.

An older gentleman enjoys a novel among the gardens adjacent to Forbes Avenue. Students with laptops catch up on schoolwork under the large conical tent. The soft murmur of conversation is intermittently pierced by the shriek of a playing child, a distant siren or the clinking of glasses from The Porch’s outdoor dining area.

Pitt students Minah Chapell (left) and Ayesha Sesay (right) lounge on the Plaza’s lawn.

Pitt students Minah Chapell (left) and Ayesha Sesay (right) lounge on the Plaza’s lawn.

Schenley Plaza hasn’t always been the social hub for the greater community of Oakland. Up until 1912, the area was a large ravine spanned by the imposing stone Bellefield Bridge — a stark contrast to the growing city around it. Plans for a grand entrance to Schenley Park were hatched, however, and the gully was slowly filled in, bridge and all.

By 1921, the simple, symmetrical design was completed. Two groves of trees flanked twin boulevards and an oval island of grass, leading the eye straight to the Mary Schenley Memorial Fountain. Slowly, though, the area became much more accustomed to parking than to pedestrians. In 1949, the Plaza was officially declared a parking lot, and the plot of land became home to nothing more than hot asphalt and slumbering cars.

The early 2000’s saw an effort to reclaim the space for the community, and in 2006, a $10 million renovation project culminated in the creation of the Plaza as it sits today. Gone was the once symmetrical layout, replaced by open grass, cool shade, plentiful food options and the ever-popular PNC Carousel.

On a beautiful Saturday like today, that carousel sees its fair share of patrons. A young girl, resplendent in her ornate periwinkle blue dress, runs up to the ride and thrusts her tokens into the hands of Saul Wells.

Harper (left) has a go on the PNC Carousel.

Harper (left) has a go on the PNC Carousel.

“I like your dress!” Wells exclaims, all while reminding the budding princess that, for her, this ride only costs one token, not the two she initially offered.

Wells is a “visitor experience associate” with the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, and Schenley Plaza is where he spends most of his working hours. Self-described as wearing “a hat of many colors,” there isn’t much that Wells doesn’t do at the Plaza. He can run the carousel. He assists with coordinating events. He keeps the space looking tidy.

In between helping parents and children onto the carousel, Wells explains there isn’t much to dislike about Schenley Plaza. The community is always friendly, the food always delicious. And he gets to live in the thick of it every day.

“It’s an awesome place to actually be because you’re outside,” he says. “There’s always events down here; there’s always things to do.”

To prove his point, Wells, laughing, mentions that he would even be bringing his own kids down to the Plaza later in the afternoon. With the Come Out and Play Festival — and the Oakland Forever Movie Night on the lawn later in the evening — how could he not?

Ian Gray takes a crack at modified cornhole.

Ian Gray takes a crack at modified cornhole.

For Wells, the near-constant stream of events is the best part about Schenley Plaza. A close second, however, is the draw the space has for visitors, regardless of what’s happening on any given day. In the warmer months, that allure is what creates the “green beach.” Coined by one of Wells’ coworkers, that term refers to the college students who lay out on the lawn sunbathing for hours on end.

On a crisp, early October day like today, though, no bathing suits are to be found. Of course, that could be a result of the afternoon spattering of rain, not that some inclement weather stops any other Plaza activity. Umbrellas go up, but spirits don’t seem to go down.

And what of Micaela’s beloved trees, now offering protection from the rain in addition to shade from the sun? “London planetree” is their name, and for decades they’ve been grown in and around Pittsburgh as hearty, urban shade trees. The ones found in Schenley Plaza, though, are unique from most. As it turns out, the space is home to a strain notable for its genetic diversity.

In Schenley Plaza, that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.