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Artists bring flourish to Penn Avenue

Pittsburgh Post GazetteWednesday, June 13, 2007
By Diana Nelson Jones,
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Nine years ago, two nonprofits designated a 12-block stretch of Penn Avenue through Bloomfield, Garfield and Friendship as a destination for artists. Some local residents ridiculed the idea. The corridor was pestilent.

Bloomfield-Garfield Corp. and Friendship Development Associates teamed up to pitch empty storefronts to artists. They attached big colorful banners over doorways between Mathilda Street and Negley Avenue in a 16-building strategy. Vandals and several seasons of weather had their way with the banners for a few years.

Fast forward to the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater at 5941 Penn Ave., where at 6 p.m. tomorrow, the Penn Avenue Arts Initiative will throw a release party for its new 20-minute video that documents the turn of events since 2001. The event, celebrating “Electric Avenue,” is free and open to the public and will include live music, refreshments and art for sale.

Despite many ills remaining, the nonprofits feel vindicated. Nearly a dozen arts groups have clustered along the corridor in the past six years, many of whom perform and offer classes, including the Pittsburgh Glass Center, Dance Alloy and Attack Theatre. More than a dozen arts-related businesses and individual artists who live upstairs and work downstairs also have invested in the corridor, as did two architecture studios, Edge Architects in 2003 and Loysen + Kreuthmeier in 2005. Some of the artists and arts groups offer workshops and classes to all age groups.

Garfield Artworks was the lone gallery, and Dance Alloy had just moved into the neighborhood when artist Jeffrey Dorsey began volunteering with the Penn Avenue Arts Initiative. It started in 1998 as a joint project of Bloomfield-Garfield Corp. and Friendship Development Associates. Both are nonprofits that provide neighborhood services and develop real estate. They compiled a database of more than 400 artists in three immediate ZIP codes.

Mr. Dorsey served on the steering committee to get the initiative on its feet, then was hired the next year to run it. He was instrumental in establishing the Unblurred event that draws the public to artist spaces the first Friday evening of every month and is now executive director of FDA.

“Artists were interested” in the corridor early on, he said, but it took a few years for momentum to build. “We would have an artist ready to buy, and then there would be trouble with financing, or a contractor and the artist at the last minute decided not to buy.” On two buildings in particular, “the banners were up way too long, but we got a lot of response.”

On the new video, the second the arts initiative has made to document its progress, Mr. Dorsey said artists were the target to jump-start revitalization “because artists are connectors.”

A revival of Penn Avenue is radiating to some of its troubled side streets. Recently, two new homeowners relocated here from other cities, one a young family, the other a young couple, and bought blighted, abandoned homes to renovate and live in north of Penn, said Becky Mingo, real estate specialist for Friendship Development.

Aggie Brose, deputy director of Bloomfield-Garfield, said BGC has sold 22 of 23 new single-family homes of a 50-house plan that will occupy a four-by-four block area. Eight more are being built now, and 19 will be started next summer, she said.

The BGC also owns seven homes being rehabbed this and next year on North Fairmount.

The arts initiative has had “minimal impact on the sale of new houses in Garfield,” she said, “but I’m hoping that unconsciously, all the excitement on Penn Avenue in general fed into buyers’ decisions.”

She said the BGC and FDA “labored for years” to fill small storefronts that continued to lie dormant until the groups met with Artists in Cities, an organization that was finishing construction of the Spinning Plate Artists Lofts and Galleries on Friendship Avenue in 1998.

“They had a waiting list,” said Ms. Brose. “So Rob Stephany, [commercial real estate specialist for East Liberty Development, who was then on the BGC staff] jumped in and said, ‘We have places on Penn Avenue. Let me take you on a tour.’ That’s how the Arts Initiative was born, and a movement started.”

(Diana Nelson Jones can be reached at or 412-263-1626. )

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