The Insider Guide to Wilkinsburg
Evans, a 25-year resident of Wilkinsburg, is in her fifth year as an elected member of the borough council, and chairs the Wilkinsburg Municipal Authority and Wilkinsburg Borough Commercial and Industrial Development Authority. She started out as a freelance set designer for Pittsburgh stage productions, and got involved as a volunteer in a number of local restoration projects. A graduate of Point Park University, her career in community revitalization took flight when she became the first executive director of the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation, which she helped found.
Now, in addition to overseeing the execution of a 6-year $1.8 million Neighborhood Partnership Plan for Wilkinsburg, funded by Tri-State Capital Bank and the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, and developed with input from the borough, residents, and the business community, the WCDC is deep in the first phases of Streetscape Improvement Program to revamp the Penn Avenue corridor.
The first phase of the Program’s investment has provided tree pruning, 80 decorative streetscape banners, and locally fabricated trash receptacles designed by Technique Architectural Products, whose owner, Ray Appleby, is a CMU-trained sculptor. (His shop has outfitted Mad Mex locations with some cool metal work).
A recent grant through TreeVitalize Pittsburgh and the Borough of Wilkinsburg will put in place 500 new street trees, all to be planted by Nine Mile Run Watershed Association and volunteers on public property. A grant from Duquesne Light helped refurbish existing streetlights and create a well-lit and safer corridor while the Wilkinsburg Police Department has re-established a walking police presence along the business district.
“Our primary focus is crime and safety issues,” states Evans, “along with enforcement of building codes, loitering and littering laws. Our beautification work will also help attract business and investment back to Wilkinsburg.”
Some of Wilkinsburg’s old and architecturally gifted homes in the Hamnett Place neighborhood have been restored through the efforts of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation (PHLF). Their Wilkinsburg redevelopment projects have successfully restored four homes in the Hamnett Place neighborhood; work on three more historic homes, and the two-building, 27-unit Crescent Apartment development, are scheduled for completion by the end of this year.
PHLF launched a housing resource center, and has cleaned and cleared vacant lots, “Initiatives taking place right now in Wilkinsburg total over $10 million,” says Michael Sriprasert, PHLF director of real estate.
Urban Homesteading: finding your match
Wilkinsburg offers eye-poppingly affordable real estate for urban homesteaders and entrepreneurs who can spot an architectural gem beneath the overgrowth, and are willing to put in sweat equity to polish it up. (One business owner bought a parcel of land on a credit card).
Resident Chad Chalmers, an architect and member of the WCDC’s design committee,spotted a typical diamond-in-the-rough on an overgrown lot: six-bedroom, three-bath home with hardwood floors and 14 stained glass windows, which he and his wife Brigitte “fell in love with, and bought for a song,” and has spent five years restoring.
A new website provides up-to-date for rent/for sale listings in Wilkinsburg. The Borough and School District have developed a Tax Based Expansion Ordinance, which provides for tax compromise and tax abatement opportunities. Plenty of rehab and restoration programs stand ready to help homesteaders and investors who want in on the ground floor of an area poised for new growth.
But its biggest assets are long-standing businesses, some more than 30 years old, and a large number of robust and committed volunteers in its neighborhoods who care and dig in to run programs and restore neighborhoods.
Wilkinsburg Means Business
Downtown Wilkinsburg is five-block area along busy Penn Avenue (Pa. Route 8) and Wood Street that features unique businesses, residences, and historic and landmark architecture. What you won’t see are taverns and night clubs; Wilkinsburg has been legally dry since 1870. After the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 when liquor sales became a local option, residents voted to keep saloons out of Wilkinsburg. (Look for beer, tobacco, and soda, sold by the case on Penn Avenue’s Wilkinsburg Beverage Co.)
If you’re a fan of the Strip District, plan a visit to Pittsburgh Asian Market, a.k.a. Ou’s International, located on Penn Avenue, owned by Louis and Mai Ling Ou since 1981. Their large collection of specialty groceries and produce features hard-to-find items for Asian, Hispanic, and African-American menus.
Valley SalesValley Sales, a locksmith and key business on Penn Avenue in business since 1929, has an amazing wall display of hundreds of keys, both antique and modern. Owner Mary Blackburn remembers one customer who had just purchased a sweet 1967 Chevelle, and needed a key. She found one.
Wilkinsburg has made a for itself in the urban farming/grow-your-own food movement with its new Hamnet Place Community Garden, leased to the community by PHLF (and each plot taken) and Garden Dreams, a certified organic farm and heirloom seed business.
Kenyon Jewlers, in business since 1924, is where the owner, Doug Duffus, does restoration on antique pieces, can custom create a wedding ring, and repair most anything brought in. In other words, he runs the place the way jewelry stores used to be run: with knowledgeable people and masters of their craft.
Representative of Wilkinsburg’s historic pride in its churches, St. James Catholic Church, a gothic beauty almost 150 years old. has a long-standing commitment to social justice, and is a member of the Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network (it was one of its founding members), and is the only Wilkinsburg-based church among the PIIN membership.
Captions: Garden Dreams; Louis and Mai Ling Ou; Valley Sales; Community Garden; Kenyon Jewelers; Leah Thomas.
Photographs copyright Brian Cohen