Bringing Heart & Soul stories to life in Ambridge

August 12, 2022
One of two crosswalks in downtown Ambridge that now feature the handprints of community members.

By Karen Price

On a hot and muggy Saturday in July, a half-dozen people crouched in a crosswalk in the heart of Ambridge, dunking their hands in paint and pressing their palms onto the roadway. 

The scene piqued Bonita Lopez’s curiosity, so she detoured on her way to the ATM and walked over to find out what was happening. When she learned it was a public art project inviting members of the small Western Pennsylvania community to include their handprints in the creation, she called over to her husband waiting in the car to say she’d be another minute. She’d lived in Ambridge for 38 years, she said, before bending over to dip both hands in green paint to add her contribution.

Longtime Ambridge resident Bonita Lopez makes her mark.

“OK, I made my mark!” she said afterward. “I’m a grandmother of seven. Now I can show them, there’s granny’s hands!”

The crosswalk project is a collaboration between Ambridge Heart & Soul, The Genesis Collective arts organization, Allison Park Church Ohio River Campus and the borough of Ambridge. They painted two crosswalks with handprints on July 23, and will paint another four featuring different designs in August.

“We chose to do the handprints first because it really represents the different people in the community coming together to do one thing,” Ambridge Heart & Soul project manager Alyssa Roppa said. 

Ambridge is located 16 miles northwest of Pittsburgh with a population of 7,000, and, like many Western Pennsylvania towns that sit adjacent to a river, its history is steeped in the steel industry. Early on it was a company town of the American Bridge Company, and thousands of immigrants settled in Ambridge to work in the mills. 

Community members young and old add their prints.

Today, industry still exists along the banks of the Ohio River, and along the main drag of Merchant Street you’ll find the Iron Horse Theatre Company, Altered Genius Brewing Company, a bicycle shop and other retail plus a bakery, ice cream shop, and restaurants. 

Ambridge has been a PA Heart & Soul town since 2020. The PA Humanities’ Heart & Soul process is a multi-phase, primarily volunteer-run approach to community development that uses the humanities to put people first and engage residents in planning and decision making. Right now, the group is in the story-gathering phase where they go into the community and ask residents what they love about Ambridge, what’s most important to them and what they’d like to see in the future. 

Local artist Marlon Gist, center, created art for an additional four crosswalks based on stories that Heart & Soul volunteers collected from the community.

The next four crosswalks that volunteers will help paint were designed by local artist Marlon Gist based on the stories Heart & Soul team members have gathered so far. 

“He listened to all the stories and that’s where he got the themes for the art,” Roppa said.

Two of the crosswalks will feature hearts filled with flags as a nod to the much-loved Nationality Days festival that was held for 50 years but ended in 2016. It’s something they’ve learned through story gathering, Roppa said, was important to the community and that they’d like to bring back. The fifth crosswalk will be similar to the Ambridge Heart & Soul logo, featuring bridges, houses and hearts. The sixth, she said, is a bit more abstract but will show paper clips of different shapes and colors all linked together to represent the connectedness of the community. 

Adding a little handprint to the mix.

Lorna Albanese is a pastor at Allison Park Church Ohio River Campus just blocks from where the handprint murals were being painted. As she watched community members come and go, stopping to chat or add a handprint, she couldn’t help but smile.

“It looks like the town is loved,” she said. “It really makes the town look cared for and loved. And now people who live here can say, ‘I helped make that,’ and when people have ownership of something, they’ll care for it better.” 

To learn more about PA Heart & Soul visit

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