Wilkinsburg is woven through with a network of people determined to seed the borough’s vacant properties with residents and businesses.

By Rich Lord

When the pandemic hit, Violet Scott was running an event planning business — not exactly a quarantine-proof way to make a living.

Points of Pride
PublicSource maps and chronicles the strengths of diverse communities

“I had to figure out something else to do, and that was to bake,” she said. The result is Veez Decadent Brownies, which specializes in the fudgy kind, plus cheesecake.

She’ll ship, but if you want to pick up your orange cranberry walnut brownies (or any other variety) just order online and then swing by 900 Wood St. in Wilkinsburg. 

That’s where this story transitions from delicious to auspicious.

From Scott and that address, one can begin to work through the web of people working to boost the borough, which saw its population peak at around 37,000, roughly 70 years ago, and is now home to around 15,000 people.

She’s on the board of Revitalize Wilkinsburg, an eight-year-old nonprofit that’s bringing life back to 900 Wood St. and other properties. Revitalize Wilkinsburg Executive Director Jerry Gaudi is part of an ad hoc committee called the Wilkinsburg Affordable Housing Advocates [WAHA]. And among them, the 15 members of that committee link a variety of faith-based and nonprofit groups that have together marshaled resources to support new homeowners in the borough. So far they’ve placed one household in a new home, with three more waiting for closings and 11 in various stages of the process.

They say Wilkinsburg is ripe for a rebound.

“It’s flat, it’s bikeable, it’s walkable. It’s greenspaces,” said Gaudi, who lives in Wilkinsburg and has been investing in properties there for a decade. “There’s a lot of potential here.”

Also abundant: empty buildings. The Wilkinsburg Community Development Corp. puts the tally at 500

The 900 Wood St. building was empty from 2005, when the Subway sandwich shop moved out, until 2016 when Gaudi took control of the property via conservatorship in which courts appoint a steward to restore a vacant building. Throughout the 6,000-square-foot space he found remnants of past uses, including dentistry, accounting, vinyl and steel wholesaling, telephone switching and baking.

Revitalize Wilkinsburg Executive Director Jerry Gaudi gives a tour of the building at 900 Wood Street, on April 14, 2023, in Wilkinsburg. The first floor space used to house a Caribbean restaurant, but last June someone broke in and set the furniture on fire. Gaudi plans to turn it into a baking and cafe space. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

“The original co-working, I guess,” he said.

In 2018, he brought in a Caribbean restaurant, but last June someone broke in and set the furniture on fire

Now he’s creating a new co-working space, plus baking and cafe space for Scott. 

“Luckily, we had the insurance and were able to bring it back to life,” Gaudi said. “So we’ll bring it back! Bring it back as a bakery.”

Most of Wilkinsburg’s empty buildings are houses. The root causes of the problem: Death and taxes. The borough’s 14 mill property tax is among the county’s highest, and the school district’s 24.5 mills is on the high end, too. When an owner passes away, the heirs must decide whether it’s even worth taking the title.

Revitalize Wilkinsburg Executive Director Jerry Gaudi gives a tour of the building at 900 Wood St. that will house the organization’s offices, on April 14, 2023, in Wilkinsburg. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)
Revitalize Wilkinsburg Executive Director Jerry Gaudi gives a tour of the building at 900 Wood St. that will house the organization’s offices, on April 14, 2023, in Wilkinsburg. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

“We don’t have heirs taking houses, and that’s why they sit,” said Renee Dolney, executive director of the new Wilkinsburg Land Bank and a member of WAHA. “Just getting a will doesn’t really transfer that deed,” and if the heir doesn’t want to undertake the time and expense of probate court, the property can fall into limbo.

Then homes “begin to fall apart,” said Steve Hellner-Burris, chief operating officer at Wilkinsburg’s Hosanna House and a WAHA member. The trick, he said, is to “take an existing home, stabilize it, do a good job for $125,000 or $150,000. Now we could sell that home and recoup the costs.”

WAHA is tapping funding from Duquesne Light (through Hosanna House as fiscal sponsor) to help finance the sale of Wilkinsburg homes to low-income households who now rent.

The group also engages with NeighborWorks Western Pennsylvania and Catapult Greater Pittsburgh, which prepare people for homeownership.

“That’s the next step — to be a homeowner,” said Scott, who rents in Wilkinsburg.

She grew up in neighboring Penn Hills and was living there through around 2019 when a chimney collapse forced her to move. She fell for Wilkinsburg.

“I just like the neighborhood and the feel of being here because of the housing — the houses are structured beautifully. You can get around very easily,” she said. “I feel like I belong here — I belong in Wilkinsburg, I should be able to open up a business in Wilkinsburg.”

She has revived running Jade Earth Events even as she bakes brownies out of a commercial kitchen in St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church and plans the move into 900 Wood St. 

Scott knows others are baking up masterpieces in kitchens in and around the neighborhood.

She’s working with Gaudi toward creation of a Rising Bakers program, which would train newcomers in the basics of entrepreneurship. “How do you get your foot in the door? How do you begin to become legal?”

She’s not worried about training her competition. She’s learned that a baker typically has a “mothership” product at which they excel. Hers is brownies — and good luck topping her mint chocolate.

“Everybody has a gift,” she said, “and everybody has their own specialty.”

This story is part of PublicSource’s Points of Pride coverage chronicling and mapping the strengths of diverse communities.

All photographs by Stephanie Strasburg.

Rich Lord is the managing editor at PublicSource and can be reached at rich@publicsource.org.

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Rich is the managing editor of PublicSource. He joined the team in 2020, serving as a reporter focused on housing and economic development and an assistant editor. He reported for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette...