If you weren’t looking for the Octopus Garden in Friendship you could easily miss it. The community’s garden, sandwiched between houses, doesn’t announce itself as you walk along South Aiken; a gray rain barrel and flowers leaning into the sidewalk are the only enticements to look a little further. Usually, it isn’t the long pea pods or the dinosaur kale that draw people beyond the wooden arch marking the garden’s entrance, but the eponymous giant octopus that lazes among the raised beds.

“The minute Octavia came, the space changed,” says Kristin Hughes, the garden’s founder and an associate professor in Carnegie Mellon’s School of Design.

Five years ago, on a fall night, the house next door to Hughes’ caught fire. Standing outside the following morning Hughes began talking with an older man surveying the house’s hull. She wondered what would happen to the place.

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“He was a retired CMU professor and he said, ‘I’ll sell you the building and the vacant lot next to it for cheap if you want it,’” she remembers. “I don’t know what I was thinking but I said ‘OK.’”

Despite growing up on a farm in upstate New York, Hughes had never started a garden. Or demolished a building. But by the beginning of that summer, she’d done both. She says it wasn’t pretty.

“We took a lot of the existing brick from the building and we had five really sad beds. That first summer we didn’t plant until very late. Everything was donated. And we had these little pepper plants that didn’t do a thing.” She laughs. “Nothing grew, it was just pathetic. And I just thought, this is going to be really bad.”

But it wasn’t. The next year, Octavia came to the garden when the Three Rivers Arts Festival cleaned house. Her arrival surprised people into rethinking the place where the old house had been. Then Hughes added signs around the garden that said things like “CAUTION: Tomatoes” or “Vegetable Crossing.”

“We really started to change the vernacular of the space,” she says. “It’s just kind of wacky, and gets people to stop in their tracks.”

Hughes says creating a garden on the grounds was a response to the way the house came down. A man living there suffered from severe depression and had lit himself on fire.

She pauses.

“All I could think was wouldn’t it be amazing to do something hopeful in the space. That could energize and motivate a community to think positively about the space they live in and create places where people can just be human. Interact, talk to one another, connect to nature.”

In her day job, Hughes blends design and community engagement to enable social change. She says design is a discipline that can put tools in the hands of a community to change on its own.

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“When you have an idea and then you can give people the canvas to do things, magic happens,” she says.

Hughes co-created FitWits, a holistic, preventative health program that helps children and adolescents talk about nutrition in a fun, accessible way. At the time she started the garden, she was working with communities in Wilkinsburg and McKeepsort who were working on their own gardens.

“And I thought, I wonder if my community [Friendship] could do it. Here’s a relatively young, hip, everyone wants to create change place, but could we do it?”

While Friendship didn’t immediately embrace the garden, people from Wilkinsburg came to help build the garden. “They really believed in the process and knew the hard work that it took to get something like this,” Hughes says.

In the beginning, that kind of far-flung support from different partners was crucial to establishing the garden. Grow Pittsburgh, Wilkinsburgers, the Heinz Endowments and Friendship community members all contributed to making the garden a permanent spot in the neighborhood. Hughes is adamant that she while she may have been the garden’s catalyst, she is not its center.

“This is a community effort now, everyone in the community is part of it. They help with cutting the grass, building,” she gestures around, the motion encompassing a new chalkboard, a little lending library, a horseshoe and a small green shovel left behind in the grass, evidence of a child’s afternoon “It’s not just me anymore.”

Looking around the garden, Hughes says it’s amazing to see what has happened in five years.

At the Octopus Garden. Photo by Tracy Certo
At the Octopus Garden. Photo by Tracy Certo

“Three years ago, this was not a pretty space to look at. It’s a good lesson to just be patient, it takes time. And I think people have to realize that if you want to do something that really does transform something it’s not going to happen overnight.”

Hughes and her dog were well on their way home when a young father, two tiny girls in tow, approached the garden. The sounds of Penn Avenue traffic and a fire engine at work seemed far away as the two girls let go of their father’s hands and raced through the arch toward Octavia, squealing in delight.

Margaret J. Krauss is a writer, radio producer, and researcher. If not biking Pittsburgh's streets or swimming its rivers, she is likely geeking out about a really good story.