Mac Miller made it famous, but ‘Blue Slide Park’ has a long history

Some called the playground on Beechwood Boulevard “Crazy Park.” To others, the Squirrel Hill landmark was “blue slide Frick.” But to Mac Miller, it was “Blue Slide Park,” and after he released his debut album under that name in 2011, it’s hard to imagine the playground being called anything else.

Miller, born Malcolm McCormick, died on Friday, Sept. 7, at the age of 26. In addition to the park’s role in his early career, the blue slide has provided mourning fans a tangible connection to Miller’s story. When his record label scheduled a vigil, the park was the obvious choice, and thousands of mourners gathered at the top of the slide to remember the Allderdice graduate. And a petition has circulated calling on the city to rename the park in his honor. Mayor Bill Peduto said he wouldn’t oppose the name, though he said the request should come from the community.

“Sometimes I just wanna go/ Back to Blue Slide Park, the only place I call home/ I hope it’s never all gone, don’t think it’s ever all gone,” the Point Breeze native sings on the album’s opener, “English Lane,” named after the street at the entrance to the playground. “Blue Slide Park,” which didn’t receive the level of critical acclaim as Miller’s later work, features the slide as a blue streak of paint on the cover. Miller said the opening track was meant to simulate walking into the playground.

Officially called Frick Park Playground, the playground makes up just a portion of the larger Frick Park, the biggest in the city at 644 acres. If not for Hellen Clay Frick, the playground could’ve been the site of Henry Clay Frick’s mansion, according to Michael Ehrmann, president of the Squirrel Hill Historical Society.

When Hellen was becoming a debutante, Henry asked his daughter what she wanted as a present. “A park for the children of Pittsburgh,” she said, according to the historical society’s records. So in 1919, Frick gave the 131-acre site — which the blue side area currently occupies part of — to the city, along with $2 million for a maintenance fund. Frick was reportedly not thrilled with the whole idea.

Plans for the playground were approved in 1959 as part of a city-wide initiative to build several new parklets. The Frick parklet was said to be the “most imaginative” of the new parklets, according to a 1962 Post-Gazette article. Thinking beyond the typical playground features, the park’s designers used the hilly terrain to their advantage.

“What child doesn’t like to roll down a hillside,” asked John O. Simonds of Simonds and Simonds, the designers of the playground. In an April 1962 Pittsburgh Press story, Mr. Simonds described how they coated a hillside in cement and plastic to create a slippery hill. “We just decided to do away with the grass stains and mud.”

April 22, 1962: “A modern approach to the time-honored custom of rolling down a hill. This gentle slope is coated with slippery plastic.” (Pittsburgh Press)

The coated hill, which designers called the magic carpet, is placed on the same slope as the concrete slide, connecting the “tot play yard and the intermediate level.” Though the records are incomplete, a chain of memos housed in the John Ormsbee Simonds Collection at the University of Florida sheds some light on the slide’s construction.

The letters show a fraught relationship between the Simonds design firm and contractor M.G. Mosites. In a letter to the director of the Parks Department, Philip Simonds said the contractor was the most inefficient and uncooperative he’d worked with in his 22 years in the business. And Mr. Mosites charged the parks department for overtime when employees from Simonds were late in approving the slide’s slope before he poured the concrete.

Two experts on the park’s design — John Nemmers, associate chair of UF’s Special and Area Studies Collection, and Susan Rademacher, parks curator at Pittsburgh Parks Conservatory — haven’t been able to track down the exact date the slide opened.

The Post-Gazette also never reported on the opening of the slide — but a photo of kids enjoying a slide built into the hillside, made of a slippery concrete, appeared in August 1962 on the front page.  A similar photo appeared the next year. A few years later, in 1967, the PG’s front page carried another scene of kids smiling on the slide — but this one was for a story about a protest.

“Kids went to protest but stayed to cavort,” the headline read. North Side children, brought to the park by an anti-poverty organization to stage a “play-in,” put down their picket signs and decided to play on the popular slide instead. The North Side didn’t have a playground, and activists alleged that the city was failing to provide poor areas with playgrounds.

“It’s too bad they don’t have a playground on the Northside,” the article quotes Point Breeze resident Louis Landy as saying. “If the city doesn’t give them one, they should come back here.”

People across the city seem to have taken Ms. Landy’s advice in the years since, as the playground has become a destination for parents and kids around the region. Ms. Rademacher of Pittsburgh Parks Conservatory said that when she talks with residents elsewhere in the city, “people bring up the blue slide as what they want in their park.”

Building a slide into a hill is, when you think about it, a very Pittsburgh thing to do — taking advantage of the hills and using them for fun. A quick Google image search shows that some other playgrounds have slides that follow with the slope of a hill, but few are truly built in like the blue slide — recessed into the hill with no supports other than the earth.

Blake DeJulio, 5, of Hazelwood tests the blue slide, Thursday, July 25, 2013. (John Heller/Post-Gazette)

The slide meant a lot to one of Mac Miller’s peers — Squirrel Hill resident Andrew Goleman. Mr. Goleman, 26, grew up at the park — sliding, sledding, swinging and playing baseball alongside his classmate, Malcolm. He fondly remembers the blue slide, where it “felt like you could slide forever.”

“After sliding down once, you would always get that thrill of rushing to the top of the hill to slide down again,” he said. At the top of the hill, Mr. Goleman remembered, you could look out over the park, see the baseball fields, basketball courts and all your friends climbing back up.

This feeling of looking out over the park before diving down into it is a consequence of the Simonds multi-level layout, Ms. Rademacher said. Mr. Simonds, who thought a lot about play and imagination in children, brought a new perspective to the design. The different layers, Ms. Rademacher noted, function as a way to draw people together.

“The terrain of the playground gives kids the feeling that they’re in the treetops as they start their journey down the slide,” she said. “And that’s a feeling that never gets old.”

Another innovate Simonds design was the use of berms — raised land at the border of the playground — to keep the city noise from entering, and kept screaming kids from annoying the neighbors.

And whether Miller intended it or not, “English Lane” accurately reflects the intention behind the park’s layout. The track begins with the line, “Don’t even know my schedule, levels reachin’ several.” And throughout the song children can be heard playing in the background, possibly a memory of Miller’s influenced by Simonds’ ideas. A contributor on the lyric website Genius says the last line of the song — “I hope it’s never gone, forever long” — refers to Miller’s hope that both his music and his childhood playground will live forever. That interpretation makes sense, but after hearing about how long the journey down the slide feels for its young riders, the line seems to take on another meaning.

Mac Miller brought MTV News to the blue slide in 2012. The rapper sprints up the hill and proceeds to explain to MTV how to properly use cardboard to get some extra speed. He also says that when he announced his album title some vandals threw a bucket of red paint down the slide, which you can see in photos from after 2011.

In addition to a slight color change, you’ll notice some changes between the older and newer photos — namely, a few safety upgrades.

“The park’s famous concrete slide built into the sloped terrain four decades ago will remain, but with rubberized safety surfacing around it replacing the blockstone that children had to climb to reach the top,” a May 2000 Post-Gazette article said. The slide also received a fresh batch of concrete.

Gary Rotstein, who wrote that article, had some first-hand knowledge of how kids climbed up the stone. The longtime Post-Gazette reporter remembers taking his kids to “blue slide Frick” as they were growing up, right around the time of these improvements.

Dana Liebegott, with Tony Pampena Corp., finishes the landing strip of the newly repoured blue slide in Frick Park in May 2000. (Andy Starnes/Post-Gazette)

Mr. Goleman would’ve been in elementary school when the city updated the slide. Eleven years later, he was going to college in Philadelphia when “Blue Slide Park” hit No. 1 on the charts. He remembers hearing people blast the album, singing along to references to his own neighborhood. But he was probably the only one he knew listening who had sat on his cardboard and taken what seemed like a never-ending ride down the blue slide painted on the cover.

“No matter what happens in life, no matter where you go, where you’re off to, what happens with the park, that slide will always be blue,” Miller told MTV. “That will always be Blue Slide Park no matter what.”

John is a photo editing intern at the Post-Gazette and a recent Pitt graduate. You can find him on Twitter @jham1496and send ideas for future Digs posts to jhamilton@post-gazette.com.

2 Comments

  1. Judith Fluhr
    9/23/2018
    Reply

    I spent a lot nof time at Frick park growing up. Many good memories from girl scout events when I was young to hanging out at Crazy Park as a teen

  2. Mati
    10/13/2018
    Reply

    My Kids loved sliding, so did my grandkids
    and I loved in my adulthood to go down head
    first on my stomach.
    For us it was always ‘The Blue Slide Park.
    The day my daughter graduated from the
    Baby swing at the bottom to the big time swing
    Below the slide was a ‘Big event’.
    My grandkids running in circles and disappearing
    Under the half pipe tunnels.
    I dare them all to climb up and down
    on the yellow climbing contraption to the right
    of the slide. Or hanging up side down from the branches of the small tree at the entrance to the park.
    Walking the dogs and exploring the trails in the woods. Soccer practice and games on the hill.
    Now, they are all gone to other places, and old
    me Still like to ride on my bicycle into the park watching the new kids and people with all over
    the world faces having fun.
    The magic of ‘The Blue Slide Park’ lives forever.

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