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A fresh start for Wilkinsburg

Pittsburgh Tribune ReviewBy Marjorie Wertz
Sunday, March 25, 2007

It was Col. Dunning McNair who laid out the first lots in what now is Wilkinsburg in 1790. He named his plan McNairsville and built the first mansion, Dumpling Hill.
The mansion eventually became the home of James Kelly, a wealthy businessman. Kelly bought thousands of acres and donated the land for churches, schools and two homes for senior citizens. It was Kelly who eventually would fight to make the borough independent.

“Col. McNair had purchased about 266 acres, and he and Kelly developed the village,” said Jim Richard, a former borough tax collector and member of the Wilkinsburg Historical Society. Richard also is a member of the Wilkinsburg School Board.

But it was from the well-connected Wilkins family that the 2.03-square-mile borough eventually would take its name.

John Wilkins owned a lot of property in the village, while his brother, William, was a county judge, founder and first president of the Bank of Pittsburgh, legislator, state senator, minister to Russia in Tyler’s administration and, eventually, Tyler’s secretary of war.

In the 1800s, the area that became Wilkinsburg was annexed to the city of Pittsburgh. Kelly fought to make the village independent again, and, in 1871, he prevailed. Fifteen years later, on Oct. 5, 1887, Wilkinsburg was incorporated as a borough, and the community quickly grew.

The Pennsylvania Railroad laid its first tracks through the community in the mid-1800s. The Lincoln Highway would come through the borough in the early 1900s.

“We also used to have an airport in the Blackridge area of Wilkinsburg from 1930-38,” Richard said.

“Wilkinsburg was the home of a transportation network, with the highway as the main street, the railroad, and it was an early streetcar hub,” said Arthur P. Ziegler Jr., president of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.

The borough’s access to Pittsburgh’s “amenities” made it appealing. Plus, it was known as the “city of churches.” And it was, and still is, a “dry” community — no taverns or bars are allowed in the borough.

Popular home-construction styles in the borough’s heyday included Queen Anne and Romanesque (1890s), as well as Colonial Revival, Federal and Vernacular (early 1900s). Many buildings remain, forming the foundation for the borough’s rich architectural heritage.

The historical society has written a book that will be published by Arcadia Publishing on April 30. The book features 220 photographs and will be available at local bookstores and through the Wilkinsburg Public Library.

Joel Minnigh has been head librarian for 31 years. The library was founded in 1899 as a branch of the first Carnegie Library in Braddock.

“In its heyday, it was the largest library in the state,” Minnigh said. “Our first librarian was Fred Evans, whose father designed the British House of Parliament.”

According to a report by the Wilkinsburg Neighborhood Transformation Initiative in December 2004, the borough, like many Allegheny County neighborhoods, began to experience declining and aging population in the late 1960s, which led to an eroding tax base, out-migration, loss of neighborhood schools, abandoned or underutilized buildings and decaying business districts.

After the borough began to decline in the ’70s and ’80s, criminal activity increased.

Mark Smith lived in Uniontown for 10 years before moving to Wilkinsburg in 1998. Smith was director of the Wilkinsburg Chamber of Commerce from 1998-2000 and now is involved in a real estate and community-development consulting firm.

Smith bought and renovated property along Jeanette Street. His book, “Boldly Live Where Others Won’t,” resulted from his interest in community development.

“My desire has been to convince people to become property owners and live in the community as resident landlords,” Smith said. “There’s this housing stock in Wilkinsburg of larger homes that lend themselves to duplexes and small, multi-unit apartments, in which the property owner can live in one unit and rent the others.”

Smith lists three advantages to buying property in Wilkinsburg: convenience, cost and conscience.

“You can get favorable appraisals and that leads to favorable financing plans. Plus, Wilkinsburg is 10 minutes from downtown Pittsburgh and 10 minutes from Monroeville,” he said. “Wilkinsburg has its issues, but for those who have vision and willing to stick it out and become a part of the solution, there’s opportunity.”

The Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation became interested in Wilkinsburg because of its history and the rich architecture of its buildings.

“Residents and local government officials asked us to try and assemble a program to create reinvestment in Wilkinsburg without relocating anyone,” Ziegler said. “We have developed a multi-pronged effort, which includes the use of our preservation loan fund to help some local nonprofits restore and renovate buildings.”

Kasey Connors, a Wilkinsburg resident and owner of Vintage Reconstruction, a restoration contracting company, also is involved in the Wilkinsburg Neighborhood Transformation Initiative.

The initiative came about when a development proposal called for demolition in the Jeanette Street area.

“The community felt so strongly about the historic nature of that area, we asked Landmarks to come in and help,” Connors said. “Landmarks brought their resources to the table with consultants and held multiple community meetings focusing on the Jeanette Street corridor.”

History & Landmarks was drawn to the project because of the architectural integrity of the Jeanette Street buildings, which were built in the 1890s and early 1900s.

Three houses along Jeanette Street and one along Holland Avenue were targeted for restoration. Restoration began in summer 2006 on the three single-family homes and one owner-occupied duplex.

“The houses will have special financing that includes $10,000 in soft mortgage provided by the county government,” said Michael Sriprasert, Landmarks’ assistant for real estate programs. “The houses will cost $70,000, but the buyer will have a first mortgage of $60,000. The $10,000 soft mortgage will be deferred until the buyer sells the home. If they sell after 15 years, the soft mortgage will be forgiven.”

Funding for the restoration projects came from Allegheny County, the Sarah Scaife Foundation, the Hillman Foundation and others.

The homes will be available for sale in early fall. Sriprasert said buyers can customize fixtures, paint and flooring if Landmarks has an agreement of sale in April.

Ziegler said History & Landmarks also might get into a restoration project with the historic Pennsylvania Railroad Station, which was built in 1916 but has been abandoned since the 1970s.

“The county wants us to look at the train station, which we’ve looked at many times,” Ziegler added. “That’s a big commitment.”

Connors is quick to commend History & Landmarks for its efforts in the community.

“I see them as a rescuing agent,” she said. “They brought these homes up to the standards on which historic districts are based.”

Mindy Schwartz saw opportunity in the form of gardens on vacant lots.

Schwartz operates Garden Dreams Urban Farm and Nursery on two vacant lots across the street from the Holland Avenue home renovation project. The business markets specialty and heirloom seedlings, sustainable gardening supplies and vegetables. A greenhouse in her Center Street basement allows her to grow 10,000 plants, including 80 types of tomatoes.

“My garden is a green oasis in the middle of a distressed neighborhood; a patch of green where life is growing,” Schwartz said. “The farm is a fountain of regeneration, in a way. It creates good energy and is a bright spot in town. It seems to have a significant impact in the community.”

Schwartz and two friends, Barb Kline and Randa Shannon, created Grow Pittsburgh, which teaches and facilitates urban agriculture. Its two affiliates are Garden Dreams and Mildred’s Daughters Urban Farm in Stanton Heights.

“There have been a number of people redoing houses and investing in the neighborhood,” Schwartz said. “My farm has been a magnet that’s excited and engaged people and has been a contributing factor in helping people want to invest in this neighborhood.”

She is working on another project in the Hamnett Place area of Wilkinsburg. The Hamnett Homestead Sustainable Living Center will be in a building Schwartz owns. The building will be transformed into a community center and greenhouse, where she will teach people how to grow food and achieve sustainability.

For Mayor John Thompson, the changes to the community in which he’s lived for 42 years are invigorating.

“I’m excited about the positive things I see happening in Wilkinsburg,” said Thompson, who took office on Jan. 2, 2006. “We have committees working together and focusing on seven areas — economic development, municipal services, human services, communications, education, beautification and housing.”

A much-needed grocery store, Save-A-Lot, opened Feb. 20 in the borough, and a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Generations Building, on the corner of Wood and Franklin, took place March 14. The newly renovated structure will have offices and housing. The Sperling Building, on the corner of Penn Avenue and Coal Street, was transformed into a six- to eight-unit apartment building.

“We’re also looking at doing single-family housing projects on McNair Boulevard,” Thompson said.

In December 2006, the police department hired a new chief, Ophelia Coleman, who served as a Pittsburgh Police detective for 20 years.

“She is very community-oriented. She knows what needs to happen here in Wilkinsburg,” Thompson said. “There’s truly a lot going on in Wilkinsburg. If you can’t get excited about what’s happening now, I don’t know what it will take.”

The history:

Wilkinsburg, which was first home to settlers in the 1700s and broke away from Pittsburgh’s eastern flank in 1871, has made its share of contributions to the region’s history.

* It was home to President John Tyler’s secretary of war.

* It was a transportation mecca in the 1800s, with the Pennsylvania Railroad, the Lincoln Highway and a streetcar system running through it.

* It was where, in 1919, the first commercial radio station, 8XK, was broadcast from the garage of Westinghouse engineer Frank Conrad; the station was a forerunner to KDKA radio.

* It was birthplace, in 1920, of Scholastic Magazine, founded by Wilkinsburg native Maurice Robinson as a newsletter for high school students. Scholastic Magazine would become Scholastic Publishing, publisher of the wildly popular “Harry Potter” series.

For all the borough’s historic value, though, the past several decades have brought economic and social ills that have coincided with an eroding tax base. But within the past few years, a renaissance has begun, as residents and nonprofits work to revitalize the community.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633