Let My Rivers Go


Landscape Architecture Magazine Ι May 2018 

On May 31, 1889, the South Fork Dam east of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, gave way after a day of heavy rain. The dam had hemmed in the waters of Lake Conemaugh, a weekend retreat for western Pennsylvania’s Gilded Age industrial barons (the Carnegies, the Mellons, the Fricks). Despite their means, the dam was neglected and mistreated. Its height had been lowered to make way for a carriage road. A screen meant to stop fish from escaping was clogged by debris, which inhibited drainage from an already inadequate spillway. Porous clay, a cheap and ineffective material, had been used to patch it. Once the earthen levee was overtopped in 1889, it rapidly eroded, which led to a massive structural failure.

In just 45 minutes, 20 million tons of water poured forth from what was the largest man-made lake of its time into Cambria County’s Little Conemaugh river valley. A 60-foot wall of water going 40 miles per hour completely erased the entire river valley’s settlements before finally smashing into the thriving steel mill town of Johnstown.

The damage was explosive; upturned houses were stacked like discarded toy blocks and impaled by trees. Four square miles had been leveled. A wire factory was swept away in the chaos, adding tons of barbed wire to the swirling water, which worked to churn bits of debris into a hellish conglomeration 40 feet high and 30 acres across. The mass caught fire and stalled at a stone bridge, where the flames raged for three days. Dozens of people caught in the wire died, burning and drowning.

All told, with 2,200 dead, the flood made front-page news in the New York Timesfor nine days. But the ironworks were operating again within two weeks. Newspapers denounced the dam’s owners for their negligence but never called them out by name. The Johnstown Flood became a proper noun and a mythic folktale, inspiring songs and books. But this recognition didn’t do much to make Johnstown more flood-proof.

That had to wait till the aftermath of another flood, in 1936. That spring, melting runoff from snow and ice washed across hillsides stripped of trees and killed two dozen more people. Residents sent President Franklin Delano Roosevelt 15,000 letters, urging federal action to control flooding. FDR delivered with a plan to deepen, enlarge, and create concrete channels for each of Johnstown’s three rivers (the Stonycreek, the Little Conemaugh, and the Conemaugh) to increase their carrying capacity.

In a history of Johnstown flooding, FDR’s WPA Federal Writers Project described the town’s sunny times ahead thusly: “From the ruins of two major floods and the debris of innumerable minor ones, a bigger, better, and friendlier Johnstown has emerged. It stands today a monument to the courage of its living inhabitants and a memorial to the dead.” FDR himself, in the aftermath of the 1936 flood, was a bit more succinct: “The federal government, if I have anything to do with it, will cooperate with your state and community to prevent further floods.”

But Johnstown wasn’t done mustering courage in the face of tragedy. This concrete entombment wasn’t enough to contain an even deadlier flood in 1977, when upstream, a foot of rain fell in 10 hours. It caused six dams to fail and killed 84 people.

Johnstown’s concrete river walls are still a defining landscape feature for this town of about 20,000 people, long-since atrophied by the retreat of the domestic steel industry. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says the river walls have prevented flooding, but there’s a long trail of documentation to support the stance that channelizing rivers exacerbates flooding downriver and is ultimately counterproductive. It’s clear to all, however, that the walls are a blight on the city’s connection to its rivers. A Pittsburgh in miniature, Johnstown’s thin slip of land carved out where the Little Conemaugh River and the Stonycreek River join to form the Conemaugh River is about 10 blocks at its widest. The downtown core is red brick, dotted by five- to 10-story buildings, easing out into struggling neighborhoods that march up steep hillsides. On top of the hill are affluent, elm-lined suburban towns, developed for Cambria Iron Company managers and executives. They can be reached with the aid of the Inclined Plane, one of the steepest funiculars in the world.

In January, when I visited, with a light snow falling, a river seemed to be around every corner. Yet these same rivers are mostly inaccessible and hidden, topped by waist-high concrete parapet walls and steel guardrails. It was too cold to expect any greenery, but I got the distinct feeling that a midsummer visit would show the same result. The rivers are dead, denuded, and tamed. Johnstown’s latest deadly flood occurred within living memory, and the sense of dread and need for protection is still evident. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers installed four ramps down to the river in 2010. And Point Park, at the tip of Johnstown’s riverine peninsula, is one of only a few public spaces to actively address the river. With the river walls, these bodies of water became a barrier, not a point of connection and shared space.

“If humanity were to disappear today, these walls would stay for 500 years,” says a local landscape architect, Ryan Kieta. “The rivers are the lifeblood that connects everything…or should connect everything.”

Connection is just one goal Kieta has with Vision 2025. It’s a grassroots initiative he’s facilitated with Wally Burlack of the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group to address the physical, environmental, and economic development of Johnstown. With Vision 2025, Kieta is working at the intersection of landscape design, planning, community engagement, and public–private partnerships. Kieta’s and Burlack’s task is to get community leaders asking, “How do we all pull in the same direction, talk the same message, agree on big-picture priorities, and allow this community to plan for its own growth and development?” Kieta says. He’s assembled volunteer teams focusing on blight abatement, green infrastructure, hiking trails, park spaces, streetscapes, the relationship to the rivers, and more.

Kieta is the rare landscape architect who’s been handed the reins of a major urban redevelopment initiative—touching every facet of public life—just around his 30th birthday. He’s from, and of, Cambria County. His father’s family were coal miners, and his mother’s family worked in the steel mills. After graduating from Penn State with a landscape architecture degree in 2011, he found no work in western Pennsylvania. He settled in the New York area before moving to Annapolis, Maryland, to work for a small firm that did strip malls, casinos, and residential work. But he wanted to use his design skills to form a more organic connection to people, and he knew of Johnstown’s needs. So he founded a firm, Real Design, Inc.,and went to work for Johnstown Area Regional Industries, an economic development nonprofit. Vision 2025 is now 80 percent of his work.

“I don’t think there are a whole lot of [landscape designers] across the country who are doing [this] now, especially in a community like this, of this size and demography,” Kieta says.

“Wally and I have recognized we have really no authority in Johnstown, other than our ability to convince people to participate,” Kieta says. It’s worked so far. Up to 1,500 people, many from surrounding towns, have engaged and volunteered. “That is certainly the largest volunteer movement in Johnstown in the past 30 years.”

Vision 2025 will also coordinate its work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has been working on a new plan for rivers involving upstream reservoirs, land-use changes, and sedimentation. Its three main goals are to protect Johnstown from flooding, allow more access to the riverfront, and, in a notable change from FDR’s 1936 plan, improve the aesthetic appearance of the rivers.

Kieta imagines Johnstown as a hub of outdoor ecotourism. Moving from extraction and production economies into a preservation and service economy is a transition that can’t happen without intensive landscape and urban planning. But there has been no budget for a city planner in Johnstown since the 1990s, and Kieta is the only landscape designer in town. The town is working through an entire arsenal of contemporary Rust Belt reinvestment strategies: business incubators, maker spaces, and community- and education-based adaptive reuses. A shuttered blacksmith shop will become a blacksmith school, and there are plans for the town’s sumptuous train station to become a food hall and culinary center. Vision 2025’s mission is to capitalize on the natural drama of the mountains that hem in the city, weaving in hiking trails, riverwalks, and whitewater rafting, all anchored by downtown’s historic architecture. The city’s flood control infrastructure will have to accommodate this vision.

“A river that becomes recreational changes the whole face of this town,” says Johnstown Mayor Frank Janakovic. The 1977 flood pushed him to go back to college for another degree when the warehouse where he was working was inundated. He’s now the president and executive director of a mental health agency. If the Mellons and the Carnegies understood the recreational draw of Johnstown’s alpine environs, it’s time for the rest of the world to get reacquainted. “We’re trying to go back to the past with the rivers,” he says.

Vision 2025 is mostly privately funded, having received $475,000  from the local Community Foundation for the Alleghenies, and has about $45,000 in the bank now. Next year it hopes to issue an RFP for the riverfront. This is an ambitious order for any small town, especially one as pummeled by deindustrialization and depression as Johnstown.

Just beyond downtown, the grim and gargantuan Gautier Steel (formerly owned by Bethlehem Steel) facility, one million square feet of factory sprawled across 37 acres, looms over the city. Its repetitive pitched roofs and clerestory windows set the visual rhythm for blocks. In Brooklyn, it would be worth many millions: red brick loft apartment and art studio gold. The city is working on a redevelopment plan for the adjacent neighborhood of Old Conemaugh Borough, a picturesque place dotted by decaying wood frame houses up its mountainside. Moss grows on the porch roof of abandoned buildings, and foreclosure signs are plastered across broken windows.

Kieta says the Gautier factory is often a convenient set piece for out-of-town media. “It’s a day trip for guys from D.C.,” he says. “They stand in front of these mills, which maybe from the outside look abandoned, and talk about abandoned facilities, but do not mention that every square foot of this facility is occupied with some of the highest-tech manufacturing in the world.”

But businesses making these high-tech metal alloys employ only a few hundred people, a fraction of those who worked in the steel mills of the past. When Vision 2025 began in 2015, Johnstown was the poorest city in the state, with a poverty rate of 27 percent and a median household income of $26,000.The steel industry’s retreat was hastened by the 1977 flood. When one mill shut down for nine months during the 1980s, the town’s unemployment rate spiked up to 26 percent. The Bethlehem Steel plant shuttered permanently in 1992. In the middle of the 20th century, there were three times as many people living in Johnstown as now.

In 2015, the Carnegie Mellon Remaking Cities Institutestudied Johnstown and issued a report that underpins much of Vision 2025’s work. After talking to people leading the city’s civic institutions and nearly 100 residents, Stefani Danes, an architecture professor and lead researcher, concluded that “the biggest problem was hopelessness.” The town experienced a huge uptick in drug addiction starting in the 1990s. In 2016 in Cambria County (population 137,000), 94 residents died of opioid overdoses, and the 2017 numbers are likely to be higher. A café in the town square has signs advertising free training in the use of Narcan, a drug to revive people in the throes of an opioid overdose. Employers told Danes that they had trouble filling open positions because they couldn’t find qualified applicants, or those who could pass a drug test. “It was the florist who said, ‘I can’t get somebody to deliver my flowers,’” she says. The report pointed to a “culture of dependence,” a “weakening work ethic,” and a reliance on “white knight solutions.” The report concluded: “[I]t became clear that Johnstown’s future cannot depend, as it did in the past, on a large employer or a source of federal grants, but instead on the energy, creativity, and hard work of Johnstown’s citizens.”

For Johnstown to find a way forward, it would have to coordinate a grassroots effort with wide buy-in from the public and private sector. And that would be a radical change. “Johnstown was, up until very recently, a command-and-control culture. ‘You tell me what to do, and I will do it,’” says Burlack, Kieta’s partner in Vision 2025. City planning, likewise, had been very top-down. “Changing that dynamic, where people are moved toward self-reliance, has been a difficult thing,” Burlack says.

“The explanation is that you have Bethlehem Steel with all these great benefits, that someone’s supposed to take care of them, and it’s not their fault they’re where they’re at,” says Bill Polacek. He’s the founder of metal fabrication company JWF Industries, one of Johnstown’s post-steel mill bright spots. Polacek employs 450 people and has contributed $100,000 to Vision 2025, he says. “We have to pick ourselves up by our bootstraps. We’re not victims here. The last victims were in the 1977 flood. That’s part of the culture change.”

The other part of this culture change is getting past the fear of a river system that has flooded catastrophically every generation and a half. Some older residents are still hesitant to embrace the river, but younger neighbors are more optimistic. Vision 2025’s task is to curate the experience of older Johnstownians while still forging ahead.

“I’m of the first generation who doesn’t remember steel mills being open the whole time here,” says Mike Cook, 38, one of Kieta’s volunteers, who works on the trails team. “We want to move forward without forgetting where we came from, but we can’t constantly be looking back at the past.”

Johnstown treaded water for years with the help of Rep. John Murtha, the powerful Democratic chair of the House defense appropriations subcommittee who steered defense contractors to the area. But Murtha died in 2010.“Murtha’s passing,” says Kieta, “was in many ways the impetus for Vision 2025.”

The death of Murtha also opened a vacuum for another Johnstown political darling: Donald Trump. Trump, according to the media narrative, harnessed Johnstown’s dejection into votes. He ruptured GOP orthodoxy by campaigning hard to sponsor the sort of public infrastructure spending that Johnstown craved (and that could add rocket fuel to the Vision 2025 plans).

Flanked and introduced by adviser and immigration foe Stephen Miller (whose own immigrant great-grandfather settled in Johnstown), Trump campaigned there, proclaiming: “This was the town that people flocked to from around the world to make their American dreams come true.” He decried the “third-world” state of America’s infrastructure and pledged to fix bridges, drinking water, roads, and transit infrastructure. He was going to “rebuild our inner cities.”

National media outlets noticed the town’s apparent fervor for Trump and began to use the city as a hunting ground for members of the aggrieved white working class, driven into brutish populism by economic dislocation. And they found them. But these portrayals often missed a few key facts, such as that Hillary Clinton narrowly won the majority of votes in the city. In a mirror of national trends, Trump’s support was legion in more affluent suburbs such as Westmont, Richland, and Upper Yoder, where he often won precincts by 30 or more points. Those in Johnstown—most battered by tides of global trade, automation, or the crass self-interest of any politician—didn’t elect Trump.

In fact, the infrastructure plan Trump has floated is entirely divorced from Johnstown’s needs. It contains no new spending (it’s actually a net cut) and requires states or local governments to have 80 percent of funding for a project before they can access any federal money. It’s an impossible order for cash-strapped localities like Johnstown. Johnstown’s congressman, Rep. Keith Rothfus, who is a Republican, says he wants any new infrastructure plan to deal with the maintenance of existing investments, but Trump’s plan makes no accommodations for maintenance. “I continue to work with this administration to make sure that communities like Johnstown are going to be participating in that infrastructure funding,” he says.

But local leaders have no illusions. “We have to take care of ourselves, because nobody is going to do it for us,” says Mike Kane, the president and executive director of the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies. “I have no expectation at the federal level.”

Broad civic reinvestment in disadvantaged cities is often led by private universities with deep roots in the community, such as Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. But these arrangements almost always involve fights between residents and learning institutions over the direction of the neighborhood. Johnstown’s best hope is that a tight alignment of civic bodies with grassroots support can supplant the need for one dominant and moneyed player. And the small scale of the town means that everyone knows everyone, and all relevant business, public, and institutional interests can gather in a single conference room. There’s a sort of barn-raising spirit among them. “The scale [of the community] lends itself to this work,” says Kane.

This sensibility was on display at the third annual Vision 2025 celebration, when volunteers and civic leaders gathered at a banquet hall in Cambria City, Johnstown’s nascent arts district. There were 50 or so project boards on display, and 200 to 300 people on hand to check them out: plans for a main street greenway, youth engagement programs, trail development, and tree planting, but also blight demolition and opioid overdose prevention.

Barry Gallagher, who works in real estate and sits on the city planning commission, has lived in Johnstown most of his life. “We wish this was here 30 years ago,” he says of Vision 2025, “when there was more to save.” He’s a booster now, but he was reluctant to get involved at first. “I said, ‘I’m going to go to this, but I’ve been going to these for 40 years, and there’s always great talk, and then nothing happens.’ The difference here is that it’s not asking anyone or any group, or any government, to do something and say, ‘If you want this to happen—you do it.’ That’s such a difference, because people feel invested, and they feel empowered.”

To do just that, Burlack and Kieta brought in a group of Harvard Loeb Fellows, multidisciplinary experts in urbanism and cities, to explore Johnstown’s history and predicament. With them was Thaddeus Pawlowski, a Johnstown native. His father is a noted local architect, and his mother started the Bottle Works Arts Center in Cambria City. Pawlowski now lives in New York and is an urban designer who’s starting a center for resilient cities at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation; he has worked with local officials in New York on the Hurricane Sandy recovery.

Pawlowski’s goal in Johnstown was “to give people an extra boost of confidence that they should take ownership of this process,” he says. The key idea was to get residents to think beyond the assumed need for the concrete shells that have entirely denaturalized their rivers. “People came to that who had never thought about the rivers or the river walls, and suddenly you put them into a room with [MacArthur Foundation Fellow] Damon Rich, and you can see their heads explode,” says Burlack. Pawlowski would love to see housing built along the rivers to attract tech entrepreneurs from Pittsburgh, a 70-mile commute each way. The Carnegies and Mellons made this trip every weekend in the 19th century. Why not every weekday in the 21st?

If Pawlowski envisions Johnstown as a bedroom community, it’s one with an authentic urbanity. The city has a significant stock of historic late 19th and early 20th century architecture, placed in a walkable, compact arrangement. Sustaining the energy and funding to keep Vision 2025 moving will depend on bringing new, younger residents to the area. Johnstown’s quintessentially urban fabric at a modest price could be vital to attracting this audience.

That’s what Katie Kinka, a planner with the Cambria County Planning Commission, thinks. At 29, she’s one of the sought-after millennial cohorts any Rust Belt town yearns for. With a nose ring and a gold necklace reading “feminist” in flowery cursive around her neck, she lives downtown and sees a lot to admire in Johnstown. There are the low barriers to entry, both economically and culturally. Besides cheap rent, “If you want to be a part of building [institutions] from the ground up, you can do that,” she says. “I see Johnstown as such a blank slate of opportunity.”

Kinka could just as easily be talking about any faltering Rust Belt town. But she says she understands that these “blank slates of opportunity” also have their own history and autonomy that have to be respected. “You can’t expect to have blossoming economic development without first serving the needs of the people who live here, and the people who have stuck it out here,” she says.

“This is a resilient community,” Burlack says. “It always manages to figure out how to come back.”

The rivers rage, the steel mills leave. But Johnstown is still here.

“The people who have survived here have survived because they still love it,” Gallagher says. “It’s not just a place to them. It’s home. It’s their future. It’s their past. It’s all of that. That’s what’s left. People who were just here to make a buck—they’re gone. We’re down to the nitty-gritty now.”

 Drive east for 13 miles into the mountains, up a subtle rise, and you can still see the gash in the hillside where the South Fork Dam failed. At the Johnstown Flood National Memorial,the rounded bulwark of the former levee is cut off with unexpected geometric precision, formed by tons of water pushing its way through.

Trails lead down to the Little Conemaugh River’s gorge, to what was once the bottom of a 65-foot-deep lake. Imagining floating down through this cold mountain reservoir brings on a feeling of peace and seclusion. In the quiet of winter, with cottony snowflakes meandering earthward, the whisper of traffic on the highway is overtaken by the purr of the river, and the trail brings you to its edge. Bare trees open the way to gray skies. Flowing water gives a subtle intimation of life, even in the January freeze.

It’s a river you can reach out and touch, a place where you want to linger. And that is an intimate, human-scaled connection to Johnstown’s history, culture, geology, and ecological context. The place where the river broke out of its clumsy restraints also offers the best lessons on how Kieta and Johnstown can make their way toward a comprehensively redesigned riverfront. Almost 130 years ago, the river set itself free, then was shackled. Lifting these restraints and renaturalizing the river would offer the city a way to grapple with its traumatic history. The question remains whether the people of Johnstown can leverage their own storied resilience into the resilience and restoration of the rivers that have tormented them.