You may not have noticed yet, but Pittsburghers have a love/hate relationship with our past, and with the industrialists who helped define it. We'll use Frick Park on account of our kids ... but we'll decry Frick himself, on behalf of our parents.
Frick was Pittsburgh's most controversial steelmaker, largely due to his pivotal role in crushing the 1892 Homestead Steel Strike. But both he and the workers he crushed are all dead, and a kinder, gentler image of Frick has emerged in some quarters. The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy's history of the park, for example, says Frick created it because he was a "doting father": When his daughter Helen turned 17, the story goes, Frick promised her anything she wanted as a birthday present. "[S]he asked for a park where the children of Pittsburgh could enjoy nature. Her wish came true and Frick Park was born."
This story is apocryphal, and it wasn't until Frick died in 1919 -- more than a decade after Helen's birthday wish -- that the park was created. Still, his estate gave the city 150 acres adjoining his Point Breeze mansion, and a $2 million trust fund for the park's upkeep and expansion. Thanks in part to that money, the park's size quadrupled over the decades, to 600 acres. And the trust fund still helps pay for maintenance: In 2007 alone, the city budget anticipates spending about $114,000 from Frick's gift.
According to landscape historian Barry Hannegan, within Pittsburgh, Frick Park is "the only public landscape that has any kind of endowment attached to it."
But what about the historical baggage attached to it? "I don't at all mind Mr. Frick," says Hannegan. "Not being particularly interested in labor questions, I see him in a different light. Mr. Frick did give the nucleus of the park to the city and the region, and you can't deny that." Renaming the park, Hannegan says, would be "so typical of Pittsburgh: We don't like this, we don't like that, we make a lot of noise."
What would have happened if Helen had asked her father to give his employees a raise instead? Frick would probably argue that the city would be poorer ... even if his workers would have been better off.
Frick's estranged business partner, Andrew Carnegie, argued that massive accumulations of wealth were a good thing for society, because tycoons could spend the money more wisely than the rest of us. If you gave the money to your workers, they'd just spend it on luxuries like booze ... or clothing and shelter. Pittsburgh's ambivalence towards its tycoons, in other words, was more than reciprocated.
But if there were ever a time to rename the park, it might be now. In an attempt to raise revenue, city officials are pursuing naming-rights deals of all kinds -- and surely Frick himself would appreciate the impulse to award those rights to the highest bidder. Yet Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and City Controller Tony Pokora, who have both publicly embraced naming-rights deals, have also said park names should be off the table. (Individual playgrounds or picnic pavilions inside the parks are more likely candidates.)
That's probably just as well. For one thing, the park already has a naming-rights deal, and thanks to Frick's will, it still pays dividends. I doubt we'll be saying the same about PNC Park in 80 years. And as Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy head Meg Cheever puts it, the park "was a gift, so it seems unlikely anyone would want to change the name, despite one's feelings" about Frick himself.
Too, only one thing is more grating than a century-old naming-rights deal, and that's a naming-rights deal signed today. "Frick Park" may remind us of a history both painful and proud, but it's less obnoxious than driving down "UPMC Avenue" would be. Especially if you were on the way to your job at ... UPMC. Who wants to be reminded of their boss outside the office?
Most of Frick's employees, at least, are dead. The rest of us still have to work here.