Oil painting of the LTV coke plant in Pittsburgh, by Noel Hefele

Lyrical Greening of a Brownfield I

A field turns from brown to green, while a forested hillside faces destruction. A city there lies between.

How do we shape our collective future? How do we interpret our collective

In this work, the former LTV coke plant and Hays Woods Forest are diametrically opposed, portraying Pittsburgh as a city with conflicting ecological values.

The LTV site is a 168 acre brownfield within the city limits that is currently under consideration for ecologically and socially sensitive development with trails, greenspace, low-income housing, and a specific clause for no big box stores. It intends to restore the post-industrial landscape to a point of integration with Hazelwood that echoes the importance the land once held for the community.

The Hays Woods site is a 635 acre forested hillside that is also within the city limits. It is the largest undeveloped tract of land in Pittsburgh. Some estimates claim it is larger than Frick Park. It is currently under consideration for development that would involve logging and stripmining. This would effectively level the mountaintop and fill the adjacent stream beds. The flattened and treeless site, is then ready for development as an amalgamation of hotel/casino/racetrack land uses.

The LTV coke plant closed in part because of violations of the Clean Air Act and the expense that compliance would bring. Hays Woods is one of the largest “bio-lungs” in Pittsburgh, a city that has consistently been ranked in the worst air quality regions in the nation. The public health costs of this have been estimated at $200 million a year. How is it that a city can attempt to right one wrong, while ostensibly committing another directly across the river? Whose interest is represented here?

Who in their right mind, would strip mine a green forested hillside, creating a new urban brownfield, when we have so many vacant post industrial roperties along the rivers? This is a discourse of land use that is awash in the color of green, the speculative pursuit of financial gain.

Installation Shot of Lyrical Greening of a Brownfield, by Noel Hefele

The 2 paintings are presented as a panorama. The Hays site is painted in an explosion of green that comes with spring. The LTV site is painted in a wash of browns that come with a desolate winter brownfield. They are the left and right side of the same view. Between the paintings are representatives from the “other” green, one that has a voice if we only learn to listen.

The 4 plants presented in terracotta pots are:

Japanese Knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum)

An invasive species in Western PA, it was made illegal to spread Japanese knotweed by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 in the U.K. It’s broad leaves and dense growth create a monoculture that drastically diminishes native biodiversity once established. The young spring sprouts can be harvested and cooked, much like rhubarb. It is a source of resveratrol, reportedly a substance with anti-cancer, anti-viral, neuroprotective, anti-aging, anti-inflammatory and life-prolonging effects.

Common Mullein (Verbascum thapsus L.)

Common Mullein is an introduced natrualized species that is a heavy source of pollen when flowering. It has the status of noxious weed in Colorado and Hawaii. The seeds are a source of food for some birds (such as the goldfinch) and the leaves are for various insects. An old french expression says that “to plant mulleins” was to “work for nothing.” The flower can provide green and brown tints and the fuzz on the leaves was once woven into candle wicks. A widespread belief was that burning it protected you from evil spirits and demons. Flowers and leaves from the common mullein are used for their strong mucilaginous (sticky and viscous) content against all forms of throat and lung irritation. Leaves can also be used topically on dry skin. An oil made from mullien flowers is used for earache. The seeds contain a sapotoxin called rotenone which impedes cellular respiration and is used to intoxicate fish for fishing or
population control

Goldenrod (solidago)

Goldenrods can be used for decoration and making tea. Goldenrods are, in some places, held as a sign of good luck or good fortune; but they are considered weeds by some. Thomas Edison experimented with goldenrod to produce rubber, which it contains naturally. Edison created a fertilization and cultivation process to maximize the rubber content in each plant. His experiments produced a 12 foot tall plant that yielded as much as 12 percent rubber. The rubber produced through Edison’s process was resilient and long lasting. The tires on the Model T given to him by his friend Henry Ford were made from goldenrod. Examples of the rubber can still be found in his laboratory, elastic and rot free after more than 50 years. However, even though Edison turned his research over to the U.S. government a year before his death, goldenrod rubber never went beyond the experimental stage. It is also an excellent diuretic

Crown Vetch: (Securigera varia, formerly Coronilla varia)

Crown Vetch is a low-growing legume vine. It is native to Africa, Asia and Europe and is commonly used throughout the United States and Canada for erosion control, roadside planting and soil rehabilitation. It has become an invasive species in many states of the US. Crown Vetch is a tough, aggressive spreading plant that will crowd out its neighbors but is well suited to a sunny bank, where it will grow indefinitely with little maintenance. Its deep, tenacious roots and thick, fern-like leaves provide excellent erosion control where it is used as a ground cover. Crown vetch is toxic to horses because of the presence of nitroglycosides. If consumed in large amounts, it can cause slow growth, paralysis, or even death. Legumes are capable of replenishing nitrogen in soil due to a symbiotic relationship with a certain bacteria that grows in its roots. Crown Vetch is Pennsylvania’s state beautification plant.

“We’ve always been concerned about how our riverfront is developed. And
here was this large, valuable piece of land. How many times do you have an
opportunity to take that many acres within city limits and make sure it
gets developed properly?” – Michael Watson, director, vice president, and
trustee of the Richard King Mellon Foundation, speaking about the purchase
of the LTV site several years ago.


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