Pittsburgh teens get creative at last weekend's Play Anywhere event in Wilkinsburg. Photo courtesy of UniversalWit.

In the South Side Slopes, vacant property accounts for 15 percent of the total land area. In Hazelwood, it’s 25 percent. In West Homewood, 42 percent.

For more than 30 years, since the decline of steel production and the accompanying population loss, Pittsburgh’s political, business and community leaders have struggled to find new uses for our region’s empty properties.

To help tackle this vexing civic puzzle, local entrepreneur and storyteller Christopher Whitlatch recommends … more puzzles.

Brainstorming at Play Anywhere in Wilkinsburg. Photo courtesy of UniversalWit.

Throughout this month, Whitlach’s event and publishing company UniversalWit is hosting several immersive Play Anywhere pop-up games across Pittsburgh to inspire creative uses of space in need of revitalization. “The games are really escape rooms without the escape room,” explains Whitlatch. “They’re ciphers and puzzles that need to be solved.”

Working in teams, players at the events make their way through a series of challenges, designed by Whitlach, that explore both the geography and the history of Wilkinsburg, Garfield and Millvale.

“It has a dual purpose of being fun and still showing off that community,” says Whitlach.

The first event was this past Sunday in Wilkinsburg. Dubbed “Conrad’s Lost Tapes,” the game had players make their way through the neighborhood via a series of audio clues left by the famed broadcast pioneer Frank Conrad, who started the radio station that became KDKA out of his Wilkinsburg garage in 1916.

Staff from Community Forge helped select the locations and organize the event.

On September 21, players will follow a series of visual clues throughout Garfield left by the eponymous (and fictional) time-traveling artist during the game, “Dear Garfield … Love Aryst Arillia.” The team at Assemble Pittsburgh provided local support.

Then on September 29, Whitlach and the staff of New Sun Rising will unveil “The Adventures of Young Andrew Carnegie,” in which players will scour the streets of Millvale, where Carnegie first entered the steel business, for clues leading to the magnate’s secret invention.

The events are free and open to all. While the main events are designed for teens and adults, staff from the various community groups will be on hand with activities aimed at younger visitors.

The national nonprofit KaBOOM! is funding the series through their Let’s Play Everywhere Challenge, which has awarded $200,000 in grants to 10 different community groups in Allegheny County over the past year.

Speaking with NEXTpittsburgh, Whitlach says the goal of the one-off events is simply to give residents a different vision of community revitalization that will hopefully inspire more experimentation.

Games are available to spark creativity at Play Anywhere events. Photo courtesy of UniversalWit.

Once the events are finished, Whitlach will use the experience to draft a “Community PlayBook” outlining the best practices for neighborhood and community groups looking to host similar events.

“It’s definitely a proof of concept,” says Whitlach. “Our hope is that they will continue to carry on this message of play to end blight.”

A self-described “aficionado of haunted houses,” Whitlach founded UniversalWit in 2006.

While maintaining his full-time job at the private equity firm, Topanga Partners, Whitlach expanded UniversalWit’s offerings to include immersive games, a website devoted to news “of the wild and weird,” a zombie-based card game and walking tours exploring the notorious history of Downtown Pittsburgh.

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.