Foundations of collaboration

When your mission is to support the economic revitalization of an eight-country region, collaboration with community partners is essential — and at Rivers of Steel, it is part of the organization’s DNA. In any given year, the Homestead-based nonprofit partners with dozens of community stakeholders, just as they have done for decades.

Formed at a time when Southwestern Pennsylvania was suffering from the worst economic and social effects of the collapse of the steel industry, Rivers of Steel set out to improve the economic opportunities of former mill and coal towns, while also securing the unique cultural heritage of those communities. Heritage tourism, which is now one of the fastest-growing tourism sectors, was hardly a concept at the time. Yet the organization’s founders blended their economic and preservation objectives, in the process becoming pioneers of industrial tourism. 

On the simplest level, this approach focuses on storytelling and interpretation to create a sense of place, sharing narratives that reflect the cultural diversity of an array of immigrants and migrants who settled in hills and dales and who, over generations, defined what it means to be rooted in Southwestern Pennsylvania. 

Storytelling alone does not make a good experience for a traveler; you need attractions, so Rivers of Steel made industrial preservation an organizational strategy. The founders decided early on to focus on saving the Carrie Blast Furnaces and other key historic industrial sites. 

Well-researched storytelling paired with historical attractions would be a sufficient foundation for a museum or even a collection of museums. However, together they still fall short of Rivers of Steel’s regional objective. 

After the region was recognized as a State and National Heritage Area in 1996, Rivers of Steel worked with the resulting expanded resources and its efforts became far more collaborative. These early efforts helped change how our region’s rivers were both perceived and used by opening up riverfronts and helping to build trails along riverbanks and abandoned railroads. Rivers of Steel also established a Mini-Grant Program to help community partners with similar goals to advance projects that would support their own tourism and cultural conservation objectives — projects that would make Southwestern Pennsylvania more resilient and attractive to visitors.

Partnerships as modus operandi and collective expansion 

From those early efforts, Rivers of Steel became adept at collaborating with and amplifying the work of like-minded partners and expanded its strategies beyond preservation and cultural conservation. 

Events like 2020’s “LightPlay” exhibition at the Carrie Blast Furnaces utilize site-specific art, like artist Lori Hepner’s projection shown here, as a creative placemaking strategy. (Photo courtesy of Richard Kelly)

One initiative, launched nearly two decades ago, is the Rivers of Steel Heritage Tours. Rivers of Steel packages group tour itineraries and markets them to tour operators outside the region, enticing them to experience Southwestern Pennsylvania, supporting an economic ripple effect while building a network of tourism partners. 

Always capitalizing on opportunities to expand efforts that could benefit the Southwestern Pennsylvania region, Rivers of Steel in 2013 engaged in its first creative placemaking effort: —”Alloy Pittsburgh,” a site-specific art installation at the Carrie Blast Furnaces. From there, Rivers of Steel expanded its programming to use the arts to enhance the appeal of the Carrie Furnaces as a destination. Arts became a catalyst for Rivers of Steel to work with communities on initiatives throughout the Heritage Area, using these same principles, including projects like Murals on a Mission and Homestead Live Fridays.

“At Golden Age Beer Company, we are thrilled to participate in Homestead Live Fridays as we see them as an opportunity to showcase our Homestead community by both increasing participation from our fellow community members and increasing visibility of our neighborhood to visitors from around the city,” said brewery owner Peter Kurzweg. 

These community-building efforts not only brought together artists, but also public officials, small business owners and an array of community stakeholders, to work with Rivers of Steel in a larger regional collaborative.

2023 Collaborations

In 2023, Rivers of Steel awarded mini grants to seven nonprofits and communities, and helped to share their stories through its Community Spotlight series. 

A teen with the Braddock Youth Projects displays the onions she picked on a July morning at Grow Pittsburgh’s Braddock Farms, a project supported by a Rivers of Steel Mini Grant. (Photo courtesy of Rivers of Steel)

Rivers of Steel also hosted other nonprofits at their historic attractions, helping to make their events possible. The Pittsburgh Irish Festival’s annual weekend event returned to Carrie Furnaces for the second year in a row. Quantum Theatre’s production of “Hamlet” was also held there in August. The historic Pump House was the venue for JADED, Pittsburgh’s first Asian American & Pacific Island artist collective, to host their community festival, as well as for Tree Pittsburgh which utilized it for one of their tree adoption events

Other recent collaborations occurred on the programmatic level. One highlight of 2023 was the “Gledaj! The Gaze of Maxo Vanka” exhibition, presented in partnership with The Society for the Preservation of the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka. For their first in-person “Be My Neighbor Day,” WQED brought in Rivers of Steel to help provide family programming at the event. Rivers of Steel also participated in a career day with the Waterways Association this year, and presented talks on a variety of topics at the Mt. Lebanon Public Library, Northland Public Library and the Carnegie Library of Homestead. 

On the regional level, Rivers of Steel Heritage Tours launched a new itinerary for the Rebellious Spirits Tour that pairs visits to historical attractions – all associated with the Whiskey Rebellion — with tasting experiences at Washington County whiskey distilleries.

Partners for creative economy

Rivers of Steel’s collaborative work sets the stage for its newest initiative: Partners for Creative Economy, which was just announced this fall with support by a POWER grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission. By bringing together artists and designers with community groups, local governments and heritage tourism organizations, Rivers of Steel aims to build creative leadership, provide career opportunities in historic trades and turn towns into destinations for visitors. 

This new program has five key strategies:

  • a creative leadership program
  • joint program partnerships
  • collaborative marketing efforts
  • a new workforce training initiative
  • an expanded Mini-Grant Program.

Together, they’ll further advance the community-based work of Rivers of Steel.

“Partners for Creative Economy presents comprehensive solutions to complex challenges that have persisted for these communities left behind since the collapse of Big Steel,” said August Carlino, president and CEO of Rivers of Steel. “The foundation for this work is the relationships Rivers of Steel has built with communities in Southwestern Pennsylvania over the past 30 years. We’re looking forward to creating a new vision of the region, spurred by this initiative and underscored by creative collaboration.”

For more updates on Rivers of Steel’s community collaborations, be sure to sign up for their newsletter

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