Pittsburgh Calling: A Clevelander’s Return to Penn Avenue

It took me three years, but this Fall I finally went back to Pittsburgh’s Penn Avenue.

The former Steel Town has been in the news for over a decade as a rust belt success story. While other industrial cities, like Detroit, slide into bankruptcy, Pittsburgh is not only stable but has gained in population. A lot of it has to do with the very strong network of community development organizations, such as the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation which serves the East End neighborhoods that includes Penn Avenue.

It was what was happening in this city that got me to go out there in the first place. On a learning exchange program, I went in October 2010 to see Penn Avenue. It was there that I met Jason Sauer who owns the Most Wanted Fine Art Gallery and is director of the Penn Avenue Arts Initiative (PAAI). Created in 1998 the PAAI was designed to help foster art galleries and studios along this old depressed commercial strip. As he took me and a guest around the street, Jason told me that they leveraged $6.7 million into $58 million in real investments from fa�§ade renovations to completely brand new construction. Since then, he and his wife, Nina, have brought fellow artists up to Cleveland and we kept in touch. So, returning to Penn Avenue has always been on my radar.

Jason had his Pittsburgh Art Car Show featuring hot rods and other souped-up vehicles, including his own. It is the second year he has held it and the very fact it didn’t rain made him feel that it was a success. There was a diverse crowd of people, mainly millennials but others too, who saw the cars, watched the spray painting contest, and cheered the ladies who participated in a pin-up girl contest. I was impressed when he told me that others from Ohio, and as far away as Washington DC came there to participate.

Penn Avenue is a working class neighborhood that has, to all appearances, seen better days. You see the small storefronts built one hundred years ago, the dense urban fabric, the empty lots and the downtown Pittsburgh skyline soaring to the West. However, if you take a closer look, you can see that things have been changing for the better. Total investment in the neighborhood continues to grow. Jason told me that, on the streets to the north for example, 45 houses were built last year. As I went back down I-79 to the Pennsylvania Turnpike three hours later, I kept thinking about how much we in Cleveland can learn from these people.

According to Rick Swartz, executive director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation in an email he sent to this writer, Pittsburgh has become a city of community organizations, neighborhood development corporations, and business district associations that don’t owe allegiance to any political faction. The role that the councilman and mayor have in the allocation of resources for example is quite meager.

Whereas, in Cleveland, there is an excess supply of abandoned homes, real estate pressures in Pittsburgh are such that people are getting, as Rick Swartz put it, “pushed out of neighborhoods that previously no one in the educated classes wanted to live in.” He was worried that, with funds from Harrisburg dramatically declining, organizations like his cannot truly undertake building more affordable housing in the city.

Cleveland’s neighborhoods have been trying to turn around after years of decline with mixed results. North Shore Collinwood has fared better than most. This lakefront community lies in the ward of one Councilman, Michael D. Polensek. Representing Ward 11, soon renamed Ward 8, of the Collinwood area since January 1978, he has been passionate about the area and the efforts to redevelop it.

“We have to remain believers in the community,” Councilman Polensek told the crowd at the East 185 Street Block Watch meeting in October, “I’ve never stopped believing.” However, when told about how Pittsburgh does it, he saw the merits of the community organizations doing it on their own as well. Here in Cleveland he referred to himself and his colleagues as ‘clearing houses’ for these groups. For example, the councilman gave $400,000 annually towards the two development corporations in his ward. Therefore, the Northeast Shores Development Corporation in North Shore Collinwood, and others elsewhere, receive essential funding from a source that in Pittsburgh doesn’t exist.

Councilman Polensek went on to discuss the big projects being undertaken in his ward. In June, the State of Ohio transferred three lakefront parks to the Cleveland Metroparks, the Euclid Creek Tunnel Project is almost finished, and recently Cleveland City Council approved funding of $225,000 to go towards renovating the historic LaSalle Theater on East 185 Street. As for Waterloo Road, North Shore Collinwood’s answer to Penn Avenue, more than $6.5 million has been spent on a streetscape project and storefront renovations.

As to neighborhood stability, Pittsburgh didn’t have to go through a crippling desegregation busing case nor a foreclosure tsunami that Cleveland has, “House values drop, you’re underwater,” Councilman Polensek said over the phone later that week, “people cannot afford five grand to fix a roof or put in a new furnace since they cannot get a home improvement loan. So they walk away.”

Cleveland and Pittsburgh have responded differently to urban decline with naturally different results. The regional conferences are long gone but that doesn’t mean that together we still can’t communicate and come up with great ideas for the region. Perhaps, we can collaborate someday again on how to make our cities even better.

Photographs by James Valentino

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