As Pittsburgh area redevelops, these organizations hope the arts can bolster communities, not remake them

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A mural painted on the wall at the entrance of the deejaying class at the Lighthouse Project at the YMCA in Homewood. (Photo by Kimberly Rowen/PublicSource)

A Lighthouse Project mural at the Homewood-Brushton YMCA. (Photo by Kimberly Rowen/PublicSource)

As redevelopment changes the identity of some Pittsburgh communities, James Brown of the Lighthouse Project at the Homewood-Brushton YMCA looks to the power of arts programming to encourage “withintrification.”

Instead of redefining neighborhoods, “withintrification” focuses on identifying community assets like local businesses, organizations and individuals to revitalize a community in a way that reflects its current residents.

At the Lighthouse Project, youth are encouraged to learn audio and visual artistic techniques to create their own media and tell stories about who they are, not how others view them.

“Young people of color are viewed as obstacles to community development,” Brown said, referencing perceptions that they’re failing academically and involved in crime or drugs. “We want kids to have self-worth [and] have a realistic understanding of the barriers.”

While the Lighthouse Project focuses on teaching and empowerment, the role of arts and culture in community development is complicated. It can help communities express their identities. Or it can be a magnet for rising rents as outsiders are drawn to neighborhoods no longer affordable to longtime residents.

James Brown, director of creative youth development at the Lighthouse Project, does a creative thinking exercise during a class on podcasting. (Photo by Kimberly Rowen/PublicSource)

James Brown, director of the Lighthouse Project, does a creative thinking exercise during a class on podcasting. (Photo by Kimberly Rowen/PublicSource)

In 2002, economist Richard Florida lent a hand in pushing arts and culture into the spotlight when he posited the term “creative class,” a term used to identify workers in knowledge-based industries that drive innovation, often courted by cities with attractions like revamped art and business districts. This “build it and they will come” mentality led cities to look to the power of the arts to attract young talent, new ideas and economic growth. It also raised the question of whether development spurred by art helps a community by drawing new attention, or whether it causes harm by altering its identity.

In the Pittsburgh area, organizations like the Lighthouse Project and several others are looking at the question of how art can help shape a community without remaking it into a space current residents don’t recognize.

Remaking a Wilkinsburg church

The Center for Civic Arts [CCA] is supporting community revitalization by focusing on arts and culture-focused development. Their mission has led them to Mulberry Street in Wilkinsburg, where they plan on restoring a blighted, 36,000-square-foot church. I joined the CCA board in February 2020 and focus on community outreach through the programming committee.

As part of that work, I’m helping spread word about opportunities for the community to share their thoughts on the church revitalization project.

The Center for Civic Arts is undertaking the restoration of a 36,000-square-foot church Wilkinsburg. Some of the church's stained glass windows have remained intact. (Photo by Kimberly Rowen/PublicSource)

The Center for Civic Arts is undertaking the restoration of a 36,000-square-foot church Wilkinsburg. Some of the church's stained glass windows have remained intact. (Photo by Kimberly Rowen/PublicSource)

Founded in 1903 before expanding to more than 2,000 members in the late 1940s, the space served as a community asset and included a 24-classroom school on top of its community kitchen and gym. The church’s last Sunday service was held in 2016. Jody Guy, founder and director of CCA, said the goal is to make the space a multi-use asset guided by the community’s needs.

But first it needs to be restored. Replacing the roof is a top priority, and much of the original stained glass work easily reached by foot has been stolen. Sufficiently looted and once home to a squatter, the building has been able to ward off significant deterioration thanks to steel beams encased in wood. CCA is planning a soft opening in the spring.

Guy is leveraging her past experience in securing corporate funding from the likes of financial institutions, foundations, higher education and environmental organizations to gain the support of local councilpersons and their constituents..

“Wilkinsburg has all these things going on, but there’s no cohesiveness. So I see these opportunities and I’m trying to bring them together,” Guy said. She said the community is becoming more collaborative, for instance with the Wood/South Gateway Project. The project to revitalize vacant lots involves Wilkinsburg Borough Council and other stakeholders such as the chamber of commerce CCA, Penn State Landscape Architects and the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association.

Jody Guy, founder and director of The Center for Civic Arts, is working on a restoration of this church on Mulberry Street in Wilkinsburg. (Photo by Kimberly Rowen/PublicSource)

Jody Guy, founder and director of The Center for Civic Arts, is working on a restoration of this church on Mulberry Street in Wilkinsburg. (Photo by Kimberly Rowen/PublicSource)

Guy stressed the need for community input for the Mulberry church project.

“[Our] civic responsibilities require the participation of our community for a truly democratic and inclusive community revitalization process,” she said.

This brings the community’s voices to the table to assist in envisioning the asset’s role within the community. The organization is planning a civic engagement event at Pittsburgh Urban Christian School at 6:30 p.m. on March 5.

A story of steps

Recently, Pittsburgh’s Office of Public Art [OPA] teamed up with Bike Pittsburgh to administer grants to community groups and artists in a project called Steps We Take. The grants asked community groups to partner with artists to create events to bring awareness to some of the city’s 700-plus stairways, many of which are in disrepair.

“We know that artists, given the resources and support, are uniquely equipped to best tell the story of the stairs and help communities better advocate for this important infrastructure,” Derek Reese, project manager for OPA, said.

In Polish Hill, the Polish Hill Civic Association [PHCA] was selected as lead community group and hosted two “vertical” block parties in October 2019 to draw attention to the need for funding to maintain the neighborhood’s steps. The design firm Merritt Chase was selected as lead artist team and conceptualized the block parties while PHCA organized the music and food.

Gina Favano, Polish Hill artist and musician, was specifically sought out alongside a few other local artists and fabricators, to join the artist team. She helped to decorate the chairs, tables, and frames for the events that now reside at the PHCA for future community use.

Polish Hill's Jewel Street steps adorned with artwork designed by Merritt Chase in collaboration with Gina Favano. (Photo by Christian Phillips/christianphillipsphoto.com)

Polish Hill's Jewel Street steps adorned with artwork designed by Merritt Chase in collaboration with Gina Favano. (Photo by Christian Phillips/christianphillipsphoto.com)

Kim Teplitzky, president of the PHCA board executive committee, explained that the neighborhood steps are important transit routes for residents. “Without those steps we would not be able to get from one end of the neighborhood to the other, besides driving all the way around the neighborhood.”

She said the vertical block parties on the Phelan Way and Harding Way steps drew attention to the routes that residents use every day.

“I think doing public events on the steps really highlighted the level of disrepair and critical maintenance necessary to keep them safe and usable,” she said. “It was really neat to walk through the neighborhood and be like, ‘Oh, look at this, there’s this giant frame highlighting these steps that I normally don't take. What’s down there, is that a different route I could take?’”

Favano decorated the structures built by the Merritt Chase team with inspiration from Wycinanki, a traditional folk art involving paper cutting.

“Something I’ve been trying to actively do in the 13 years I’ve been living in the neighborhood, is come up with stuff that all of the generations that live there side-by-side would want to see, or make them happy to look at,” Favano said. “That’s the way Polish Hill is most diverse, generationally.”

She said projects like the Steps We Take show that art “can be used as a tool to make a place more livable and safer and healthier. But I think that the people that use those stairs every day don’t need a piece of art to know that [the stairs] are not safe.”

The Steps We Take project culminated with four neighborhoods hosting their respective variation of a kick-off party on the stairways during the first few weeks of October. Since then, three of the stairways have been chosen to receive city funding in the City Steps Master Plan. This includes the Harding Way steps in Polish Hill, the Rialto Street steps in Troy Hill, and the James Street Steps that connect Fineview and Deutschtown.

Changes in Lawrenceville

While the arts can be a force to preserve communities or highlight existing assets, they are also sometimes the first identifiers of looming change. The “Soho Effect” refers to artist led-gentrification, and in Pittsburgh, Lawrenceville is sometimes seen as a local version of that trend.

The neighborhood had long been home to craftsmen affiliated with the steel industry. But after the industry collapsed, residents pivoted their craft to a new market. Woodworker Joe Kelly is the owner of Kelly Custom Furniture and Cabinetry, and he said he similarly changed his craft after seeing a drop in business from museums a little more than a decade ago.

“I put a kitchen in the window and said, ‘I’m your kitchen guy,’” Kelly said. “You adapt. You turn your trade to whatever you need to turn it into. The craftspeople were sort of anchoring every other block — we were actually making stuff for people to purchase, and we were sending work to each other.”

Kelly, who moved to Lawrenceville about 30 years ago, served on the Lawrenceville Business Association [LBA] — a precursor to today’s Lawrenceville Corporation — and he said the LBA helped keep artists in the neighborhood with seed money to help them purchase their buildings.

“The artists created the fuel and energy of our reinventing of the neighborhood, and people liked that,” Kelly said.

He reminisced about purchasing his building for $6,000 in 1990. It was in such bad shape that it needed brick repointing done on the inside. He said he’s lent a hand in assisting his employees through the process of buying homes in the area.

Lawrenceville has seen a surge in development, in part bolstered by the local art community. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Lawrenceville has seen a surge in development, in part bolstered by the local art community. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

In Kelly’s view, the neighborhood grew at a steady pace, before taking off over the last 10 years. While some residents have been able to stay, Lawrenceville is often cast as a neighborhood no longer affordable to longtime community members.

Rising concerns from advocacy groups about the dramatic loss of affordable housing led to the creation of a community land trust, which put its first homes up for sale in 2017, followed with the passage of a pilot inclusionary zoning ordinance in 2019.

Preserving identity

Despite the power art can have to reshape communities, little research exists on the role of arts in community and economic development. Academics have even released research on the lack of consensus about the theory. In recent years, I’ve noticed increasingly more academic studies of sociology and policy-based research that look toward the arts as a driver for equitable development by uplifting marginalized communities instead of implementing top-down change.

One example is a study of the Mullae art district in Seoul, South Korea. Similar to Pittsburgh, the area experienced a post-industrial economic restructuring. As the art district in Mullae developed, researchers found that it maintained both its residents and affordable landscape. To be successful, the study noted that governments “should de-emphasize conventional measures of art district success, such as residential and commercial investment, in exchange for acknowledgment of intangible factors like community identity and the creation of space for personal expression.” The study also said that including the public in the planning process benefits development.

Preserving cultural authenticity provides greater benefit to development when the general public is included in those planning processes. The government’s bottom-up planning for cross-sector partnerships involving the community and its artists brought along the ability to communicate residents’ voices, vision and values.

Harnessing the arts as a communication tool with direct, open participation can build agency in the community, strengthen social capital and create a collective vision.

In Pittsburgh, 1Hood Media is collectively focusing on the intersection of arts and activism by offering support in media literacy and creation with an emphasis on social justice. 1Hood’s workshops ask youth to critically think about the stories and messages media enforces and, in turn, apply the same thought process to the art they engage with and produce.

Taliya Allen, former director of 1Hood’s arts education and cultural enrichment, said the programming helps participants “ignore self-doubt and become an instrument for their community and those that need guidance.”

By focusing on youth in the community, 1Hood is an example of art as a tool to build “confidence, community investment, and identity.”

Jamie Parke is concluding her graduate degree in Community and Economic Development from Penn State with a thesis focusing on the role of arts and culture in Pittsburgh’s ongoing development. You can reach her at jamieparke22@gmail.com.

This story was fact-checked by Shannon Kavanagh.

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