Alisha Wormsley. Image courtesy of Alisha Wormsley.

For decades, one particular natural phenomenon has plagued the neighborhood of Larimer.

“Larimer is always flooded,” says Pittsburgh artist Alisha Wormsley of the East End neighborhood which, due its geography and proximity to the Negley Run watershed, experiences frequent flooding and property damage during large storms.

These issues will become the focus of RiverRoots, Wormsley’s community-inspired art installation set to go up on East Liberty Boulevard between Larimer and Negley Run Boulevard. Supported by the Kingsley Association and the Living Waters of Larimer, and funded by a $450,000 grant from ArtPlace America, the project—originally called The Well—will occupy an upcoming park and gathering space meant to raise awareness about the need for sustainable water practices in the flood-prone area.

Wormsley describes the installation as an underground cistern that will collect rainwater and slowly release it into the surrounding soil. She recently hosted an event at the Environment and Energy Community Outreach Center where Larimer residents were invited to learn about the project and provide their input. She’s also working with a team that includes members of the evolveEA landscape architecture firm and the Urban Redevelopment Authority, as well as a hydraulics engineer.

“I’ve been doing different community engagements to get an idea of what kind of work the community would want to see,” says Wormsley. Once the artwork design is finished, she plans to host another meeting around October or November to “make sure the community is down for it.”

RiverRoots contributes to efforts by local organizations and the City of Pittsburgh to tackle the flooding situation in Larimer, as well as in the surrounding neighborhood of Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar and nearby Negley Run Boulevard. In recent years, multiple investments have been made in green infrastructure projects meant to ease water accumulation in the area during intense storms. In 2016, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority secured a $1.3 million grant and cost-sharing agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to work on a design for green infrastructure in Negley Run.

There’s also the Negley Run Bioswale from Project 15206, a collaboration of community, government, corporate, academic and philanthropic leaders looking to identify green infrastructure opportunities in the 15206 zip code. According to the Project 15206 website, the bioswale runs along Negley Run Boulevard and prevents severe flooding by collecting stormwater runoff from the northern side of the road, allowing it to soak into the ground and flow into a rain garden near Washington Boulevard. The project is expected to intercept up to 910,000 gallons of stormwater and remove 800,000 gallons from the combined sewer system.

Besides bringing attention to Larimer’s flood problems, Wormsley also wants her piece to depict how water plays into the culture and history of the predominantly African-American community.

“There are some pretty amazing quilters who live in Larimer, and a lot of the storytelling they do through their quilt designs has to do with water,” says Wormsley.

People have shared memories with her about dancing in the rain and racing toy sailboats down Larimer Avenue. There are also tales about Larimer residents swimming in a manmade pond when city pools were still segregated, as well as how laundry dictated the lives of the community’s female elders, either as a way to make money or as a way to care for their families.

“I’m just trying to get as much as I can so it can inspire the work that I’m making,” she says. “In turn, it will hopefully be something people want to visit.”

Wormsley estimates that construction on the park will begin in January 2018 and will be completed within 11-12 months. She expects the installation to go up sometime in the summer of 2018.

Amanda Waltz is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared locally in numerous publications. She writes for The Film Stage and is the founder and editor of Steel Cinema, a blog dedicated to covering Pittsburgh film culture. She currently lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and oversized house cat.