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A small town in Western Pennsylvania attracted global notice a century ago for its unusual birth and trendsetting features. Now, in partnership with Pitt, that same town—which declined in the steel bust—may once again become a model for innovation.

The Greening of Vandergrift

Cara J. Hayden

Past and present views of Vandergrift come together at a main thoroughfare, Grant Avenue. The vintage illustration is held by Shaun Yurcaba of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, which is working with Pitt and other partners in the renewal effort. (Tom Altany photo)

During the late 19th-century, a steel tycoon envisioned a desirable homestead for his mill workers. In his vision, the laborers would own custom-designed homes, walk tree-lined paths to work, and stroll those same paths on their way to church services with their wives and children. The streets would be named after American statesmen—Washington, Franklin, Lincoln—to instill patriotic pride. Unlike communities where steelworkers lived in row-house slums and rioted against the management, this new town would offer comfort and encourage loyalty. The tycoon, George McMurtry, was president of Apollo Iron and Steel, a company some 40 miles east of Pittsburgh. He wanted his new mill and town to be “better than the best,” a place that would have the finest amenities of the day, even newfangled electricity. McMurtry hired the firm of Frederick Law Olmsted—a landscape architect known for designing New York’s Central Park—to conceive an idyllic industrial town on a farm site downstream from the company’s factory.

The Kiskiminetas River, a swift tributary of the Allegheny River, hugged the 650-acre farm site on three sides, flowing around it like the Greek letter omega: . On the bulb of land, Olmsted and his firm designed meandering streets that followed the natural slope of the hills, as well as an expansive village green. Infrastructure was installed—paved avenues, electrical lines, and “modern” street lamps. In 1895, the Pennsylvania town was christened Vandergrift, in honor of Jacob J. Vandergrift, a prominent shareholder in McMurtry’s company. It was the first-ever planned town based around an industry and designed to be sold to that industry’s laborers.

Before long, Vandergrift captured the world’s attention as a model industrial community. In the early 1900s, a delegation from the British parliament visited to study Vandergrift’s inner workings, and the town’s design won two gold medals at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Iron Age magazine described the town as a “working man’s Paradise” and raved about the “architectural graces” residents had implemented in their private homes. City planners around the country were impressed that the town’s infrastructure, including electrical lines, was installed before any homes were built, and Vandergrift became a prototype for how to build a new town. In many ways, Vandergrift achieved McMurtry’s vision and was a dynamic community for years. Eventually, though, the demise of the local steel industry brought hard times to the once-thriving locality.

Now, more than a century after the town’s birth, Vandergrift is hoping to impress the world again. With help from the University of Pittsburgh, the community intends to become a new-fashioned town, one of the nation’s first “green” municipalities—an environmentally sustainable community.

On an autumn afternoon, Pitt student Tim Bagatti steers the wheel of a red truck as it rolls into Vandergrift. He’s the team leader of a group of University of Pittsburgh students on their way to attend a meeting with Vandergrift officials. The truck cruises downhill along the curvaceous streets designed more than a century ago, as Bagatti, a senior mechanical engineering major, punctuates the group’s conversations with his whistling. All semester he has been fully engaged in the team’s meetings, excitedly drawing diagrams on scrap paper to illustrate his ideas about how to capture electricity from river currents. He has also been leading the group in campus laboratory research, during which he has repeatedly drenched his clothes while trying to rig up water pumps and pipes in his efforts to test the group’s ideas. Tonight, Bagatti is eager to present the team’s progress to Vandergrift officials. The students’ work could actually help the people living in the Victorian-era homes they’re trucking past.

This “electric energy team” is part of a collaboration between the Vandergrift Improvement Program Inc. (VIP) and the Mascaro Sustainability Initiative (MSI) in the Swanson School of Engineering. The two groups first connected in 2005 when Pitt engineering professor Eric Beckman read a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article about Vandergrift’s efforts to become a green community focused on “reducing humans’ impact on the land.” Beckman is codirector of MSI, one of the nation’s first academic centers to focus on green engineering and sustainable water-use technologies. He had been seeking out communities interested in collaborating with MSI on real-world projects, so he was thrilled when he read in the newspaper article that Vandergrift community leaders were planning to “contact universities to find people interested in living and working in a kind of laboratory of sustainability.” Beckman and his MSI codirector, Gena Kovalcik (GSPIA ’00), took the cue and contacted the Vandergrift leaders. It turned out to be a perfect match, especially with added support from other partners: Sustainable Pittsburgh, the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, and the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.

Soon, Beckman, Kovalcik, and leaders from Vandergrift began meeting regularly. During lively brainstorming sessions—which included the Vandergift mayor, local residents, and Pitt students and faculty—there was talk of implementing solar panels, ecologically restoring some of the town’s historic buildings, and exploring new energy options. Some initial collaborative ventures were born, including an effort to make sustainable-energy improvements to the town’s landmark Casino Theatre and a project to assess the town’s renewable energy resources. Beckman recruited Lisa Weiland, a Swanson School professor of mechanical engineering and materials science, to lead the assessment project during the summer of 2006.

The results showed that the Kiskiminetas River, or the Kiski, as locals call the waterway, was a significant untapped natural energy resource for the town. There also was a knowledge gap, says Weiland, about how best to harness that resource. She recognized that the situation presented a rare opportunity to close that gap by developing new sustainable-energy technology, which would likely have applications far beyond Vandergrift. So she encouraged the revival of Pitt’s student chapter of Engineers for a Sustainable World, a national organization that promotes community-oriented engineering projects. Before long, the students’ electric energy team—officially known as the Hydrokinetic Energy Harvesting Team—was on its way to Vandergrift.

With Weiland’s guidance and seed funding from MSI and the Heinz Foundation, the students are now working with Vandergrift residents to harness the Kiski River’s energy in innovative ways while also reducing the town’s energy consumption.

After Bagatti parks on patriotic Grant Avenue, he and the team head to Vandergrift’s weekly farmers’ market to pick up some freshly baked cookies. The market, too, is a newly established element of the town’s green efforts. The Pitt student team is a diverse group, including Justin Crutcher, a senior mechanical engineering and Africana studies major who has explored community-sustainability methods through Pitt’s green engineering program in Brazil; Alex Dale, a junior engineering-physics major and Nationality Rooms tour guide with a penchant for loose Hawaiian shirts and a curiosity about everything; and Ruth Helmus, a School of Medicine student who researches microbiology and infectious diseases and encourages the engineers in the group to think about how green matter like bacteria and algae affect electric technologies.

After weaving through farmers’ market stalls, the electric energy team walks past storefronts—some abandoned—in the struggling business district to meet town officials at a local restaurant. Vandergrift was one of hundreds of steel towns that slipped into a recession during the 1980s when the U.S. steel industry collapsed. The local mill closed, and though it eventually reopened, it now employs only a fraction of the workers it once did. Town leaders are hoping that their focus on sustainability and greening will help to attract new businesses and revitalize the local economy. Vandergrift Improvement Program volunteers already are renovating a building in the business district, keeping historical preservation and environmental sustainability in mind. Their decision to “go green” is in the town’s roots. In addition to the town being designed by the legendary Olmsted, a known proponent of green spaces, it was landscaped by a German forester who planted trees and flower gardens, luxuries of nature that were rare in industrial towns at the turn of the 20th century.

As the electric energy team members continue heading toward the restaurant, they stroll underneath street flags bearing Olmsted’s bearded visage. The forest-green flags are emblems of Vandergrift’s history and its hopeful future. Although the team’s walk through town doesn’t have much to do with developing electric energy technologies, being in the community rather than in classrooms and labs is giving them a sense of purpose. They’ve had notions that research is only useful if it helps communities, if it helps people, and now that concept is tangible. They can create “green”—meaning renewable, sustainable, efficient—electricity for these buildings, these people. Right here.

At a corner diner near a parking lot that the town is planning to restore to its original use as a village green, the student team and Weiland join a long table of local residents and other Pitt students who are involved in the university-community partnership. Among the group is Shaun Yurcaba, who works at the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation and manages Vandergrift’s business district revitalization program. As one of many partners, the foundation was selected by the Vandergrift Improvement Program to coordinate revitalization efforts. Over salads and ravioli, Yurcaba tells the Pitt students some fun facts about the town: Over the years, the mill has produced steel for the St. Louis Gateway Arch and the Panama Canal, and the local theater has hosted the Three Stooges as well as the first woman to survive a Niagara Falls barrel plunge. At the mention of the theater, Bagatti asks whether it has a proscenium-style stage, the kind that’s found on Broadway. He’s also a theater major, which gives him a welcome reprieve from the rigid numbers and equations of his engineering classes. Yurcaba is delighted by the unexpected question and answers that, yes, the theater has a proscenium stage. Then, the casual dinner chat turns to a more serious discussion of the Atlanta water shortage that’s making headline news. Crutcher, the student team’s community expert, says it’s a perfect example of why towns need to actively think about the environment and sustainability. It’s an affirmation of why the students and community members are meeting tonight.

After dinner, the real business begins at the Vandergrift borough building just a few blocks up the road. The mayor and council members give up the plush seats they normally use, insisting that the student team members sit in them instead, and open folding chairs for themselves. Other community members have joined the meeting, too. The crowd knows the Pitt students are exploring possibilities to generate environmentally friendly electricity from the Kiski, and they’ve come to hear the latest progress.

Crutcher begins the presentation with some background. He says that, historically, electricity could only be generated from water by using powerful waterfalls, like Niagara Falls, or human-made dams like the Hoover Dam. But most regions don’t have a Niagara, and dams interrupt the natural flow of rivers and habitats, which make them impractical to build. So, he says, the student team is researching an emergent technology called hydrokinetics, which gleans electricity from fast-flowing water and doesn’t disturb the environment as much as dams or coal-burning electric plants.

Bagatti jumps in to explain the new technology the team is experimenting with. He says team members are generating electrical energy with small strips of a cellophane-like material that they put in water. Even though it looks and feels like cellophane, it’s actually a special material with electrical properties.

Then Bagatti pulls his tie over his head with theatrical flair and uses it as a model for an electric strip. “See, the water current hits here,” he says, pointing to the neck of his tie. “And it creates eddies,” he adds, while twirling his finger along the length of his tie to illustrate the small swirls of water. He goes on to say that these water swirls cause the cellophane-like strips to ripple. When the strips move, electricity is generated. Theoretically, if the team can put these strips into the Kiski River, the strips will transmit energy from the water into the power grid that lights up Vandergrift.

Besides being amusing, Bagatti’s necktie demonstration helps everyone to understand what the electric energy team is doing. One of the most enthusiastic audience members is Cindi Contie, a Vandergrift Improvement Program board member and pioneer of the town’s green movement. “If there’s a way we can create clean energy from this river out of the ingenuity of youth, there’s nothing more beautiful than that,” she says. Other folks agree and encourage the students to keep working. There’s excitement in the room, a sense that something positive, something innovative will happen from this big idea. After all, a big idea founded this community more than a century ago.

Then Weiland speaks up. “The new technology is cool and will be important in taking us part of the way toward sustainable solutions,” she says. “But society has to come the rest of the way.” She’s proud of her students’ efforts and, as an engineer who develops and leads research projects on morphing airplanes, she knows how cool technology can be. But she also believes that lifestyle changes are important when striving for sustainability and lessening human effects on the environment. She says it’s up to Pitt people and the Vandergrift residents not only to come up with technology solutions, but also to teach others how to be better green citizens.

Soon, the discussion flows into Pitt students’ research on practical ideas for how the community can transition to sustainable practices—like the work of mechanical engineering PhD candidate Rich Beblo, who has conducted a cost analysis study on solar power in Southwestern Pennsylvania. He concluded that users would ultimately break even on the costs of installing the technology. Most importantly, solar panels would result in a dramatic decrease in carbon dioxide pollution. Hearing this news, Vandergrift representatives consider installing solar panels right away on a current building renovation.

Then, Bagatti mentions unplugging cell phone chargers when not in use, and someone else says it’s important to take reusable tote bags to the grocery store to decrease the use of plastic throw-away bags. Eventually, it’s decided that the students will develop a customized list of recommendations for Vandergrift residents, another way of bringing the University and community together.

In the modern vision for Vandergrift, the town’s electricity will be generated by innovative green technologies invented at Pitt, reducing the need for energy from coal-burning plants that cause air pollution. Businesses will open offices in Vandergrift to take advantage of ecologically friendly electric energy. Residents will pedal along bike lanes to local shops, where stores will have rooftop gardens to better insulate the buildings and improve air quality. Schoolchildren will learn about sustainable living in environmental classes taught by Pitt students. In short, the goal is that the town will be energy independent, ecologically low-impact, and economically rejuvenated.

As the night wanes and the meeting ends, the electric energy team members pass out the cookies they bought at the farmers’ market. Before long, they’re in Bagatti’s red truck, zooming off the bulb of land that’s once again nurturing progressive ideas for the future.

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