Monday, March 21, 2016

What Gentrification Could Mean for Pittsburgh

This mural of hope for twenty years has anchored
 a row of mostly vacant properties in Garfield 
that's became known in Pittsburgh as “Bride’s Row.”

Twenty years ago the Friendship neighborhood in Pittsburgh had more than its fair share of derelict homes. When I moved into the area ten years ago, the home next to ours was run down and should have been condemned.

Within two years however, a private speculator bought it and within a year sold it for seven times what he paid for it. Obviously, with those kind of returns, derelict properties were not going to last long.

As homes continue to increase in value, the fear now is that some people will be pushed out. This is the definition of gentrification. Is such a thing even possible in Pittsburgh?

In March, Michele Martin of NPR visited Pittsburgh and convened a panel for an event entitled “Reinventing the American City” at the August Wilson Center.

Most of the conversation was about the gentrification going on in just two Pittsburgh neighborhoods -- East Liberty and Garfield -- both adjacent to mine.

It was often a contentious conversation, mainly because this was one of the few times when leading developer Eve Picker of City Lab, which bills itself as an innovative "Do tank not think tank," had the opportunity to respond directly to some vocal critics.
The focus of city planners has been too much on attracting "creatives" said panelist photographer and MacArthur Fellow LaToya Ruby Frazier.

In her view, the city needs to stop focusing on the creative class and “…start paying attention to the working class...The problem here is the segregation between the working class and the creative class…{which are} creating programs that are one step ahead." 

Frazier grew up in Braddock which is a depressed town where the last working steel mill in Pittsburgh still churns but employs only one tenth the workers it used to. Now that the state’s largest employer, UPMC in health care, closed down its hospital in Braddock, the community, symbolically at least, lost it's heart.

Frazier was referring to ideas contained in "The Rise of the Creative Class" by Richard Florida which she asserts has become the handbook that city planners often use to displace people.

In this book, Flordia states that secret sauce to revitalizing a neighborhood back to its middle class status lies with the artists and other creatives, often gay couples, who pave the way for families to come back in once the tipping point has been reached.

This idea has been preached as the solution to the re-development of Pittsburgh's Garfield neighborhood, where there are 400 vacant properties and a relatively homogeneous African American population. In fact, panelist Eve Picker's City Lab has written a book on the topic entitled "6% Place."

The amazing thing about my neighborhood in Friendship just across Penn Avenue is that while it is true that all the creatives (7% in the year 2000 according to City Lab), and now more and more families, have pushed the median price of housing up, the demographics of the neighborhood are such that it still cuts across all racial and economic lines.

There are still a decent number of affordable units.

The question is, as it has been for the last ten years, can the success of Friendship be exported to Garfield across the street?

A "bride's row" home in Garfield: what comes next?

Poet and artist Vanessa German whose poem "Lost My Cool at a Community Meeting" kicked off the event, answered that question with her poem when she said, "It is possible to have both economic development and restorative justice when there is love."

Wanting to learn more on that topic, I asked an African American lady at Midas’s Muffler in East Liberty who lives on the other side of the Garfield neighborhood in Stanton Heights: “Is love the responsibility of the family or a community?” 

“Both,” she said. “My family was born into love, not sex, like some of these kids.”

All three of her kids graduated college and are doing well.

NPR Panelist Tara Sherry-Torres founder Café Con Leche whose business is on Penn Avenue between my neighborhood and Garfield has started a marketing company based on this idea.

She said one of her events on Penn Avenue was created to get Spanish people, black and everybody to together to meet and feel a good vibe. 

"There should be more neighborhood based spaces to engage people of color.”

Years back, the Friendship Development Group hosted art festivals along Penn Avenue with the same goal in mind. Now there are first Friday gallery crawls.

Without making too much of my role in all this, I would say at various times this is exactly what I’ve tried to do when I visit Penn Avenue.

Every day I used to walk my daughter to Penn Avenue and wait at the bus stop with another family of kids that lived in Garfield. I thought it was important for me to be myself, so when I wasn’t looking at my phone, like any good middle-class, uptight, striving dad who wants the best for his kids, I pepper them with questions about their homework as we waited for the bus. I was probably overcompensating for the little I did myself growing up.

Regardless, I think we all became friends.

Some days, we wouldn’t get the chance to talk. I would watch the three of them come running down the hill, shoe laces flying, jackets flailing, and they would be the last to get on the bus.

One time when they didn’t make it, I walked up the hill. I knew what street they lived on because I’d seen the kids round the corner and run down the hill a hundred times. After just two attempts, I found the house.

As I walked down the steps to the house towards the door, I looked in the window and saw the eighth grader. I was smiling, but when the mom answered, I think she was shocked. I think she thought I was going to get them in trouble, like I was a truant office. I offered her a ride, but quickly got the sense that there wasn’t the trust needed, the trust like I had with many of the parents of kids in our neighborhood. Of course I understand the reason - I wouldn't trust my kids with a stranger - but I wasn't a stranger, or at least did not want to be. 

Reality will take time to adjust.

Eve Picker, the developer that was getting picked on (no pun intended) all throughout the NPR forum and who once did a lot for Friendship as a member of our community group said, “I feel like we can fix it {our problems}, if we talk to each other and trust each other.”

She developed the first tiny house in Pittsburgh and other initiatives to move mountains in Garfield.

When she was asked what would build trust, she expressed frustration.

“I just don’t know the way in,” she said.  

Panelist Bill Generett Jr., the CEO of Urban Innovation21, suggested putting those emotions aside and focusing on the solutions. His nonprofit works with these issues every day in Pittsburgh.

Maybe, but on the other hand, maybe not so fast. Maybe we need to learn to get past our knee-jerk emotions, to learn how to get at those emotions of friendship that are hard-wired into our brain to help each other to thrive. 

What the Garfield neighborhood could learn from its next door neighborhood Friendship is contained in its name. Friendship is the glue that holds our whole neighborhood together. For that to work elsewhere, we must all cross street, both symbolically and really. There can be no racial divide.

Given our history - this may take years.

But we have to try. Without a sincere interest to help each other, we will be at the hands of sheer market forces, and those market forces are very much at work. For instance, the “bride’s row” block of mostly vacant homes in Garfield that sits on Penn Avenue has recently been sold to a private developer.  What happens next could as much be about friendship as it is market forces