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Pittsburgh residents’ labor leads to neighborhood revival

Pittsburgh Tribune ReviewBy Mike Cronin
Saturday, May 19, 2007

Some of Garfield’s “steps to nowhere” are finally headed somewhere.
The Bloomfield-Garfield Corp. has spent about 25 years buying abandoned buildings and empty lots whose concrete stoops still blight the neighborhood. In some spots, green grass and new homes stand in their places.

“God bless these folks,” Aggie Brose, deputy director of the nonprofit, said of the people who bought the homes. Even though some still have blighted structures as neighbors, the new homeowners are “visionaries,” she said.

It takes patience to transform depressed neighborhoods like Garfield into vibrant centers, said those who have pushed for development there and in East Liberty, the South Side Slopes and Tarentum.

Coming up with just a plan might take a year, and executing it can take decades. Leaders of development corporations like Brose’s said residents, business owners and government officials must cooperate to bring a neighborhood back to life.
“With community planning, the way you start is always the same: You find out what’s important to the residents of the neighborhood,” said Maelene Myers, executive director of East Liberty Development Inc.

In South Side Slopes, residents and groups have tried to promote affordable housing, Downtown views and cleanup efforts to attract new neighbors. A fire helped, too.

Bev Boggio, 41, cofounder of the South Side Slopes Neighborhood Association, credits a 1998 fire that gutted three houses on Holt Street for mobilizing her neighbors.

“We put signs on poles saying we needed to save our housing stock from fires,” Boggio said. “So many people showed up, we decided we should have our own neighborhood group.”

Judy Dyda, South Side Local Development Co.’s manager of community planning, said older residents learned they needed to embrace young professionals, like Boggio, who started moving in.

“We’ve worked together to do neighborhood cleanups and lighting for pedestrian bridges,” said Joan Burke, 62, a lifelong resident of the slopes.

Brose and Richard Swartz, executive director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp., have focused on bringing new residents and business owners to Garfield. They’ve worked with the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority to buy and renovate properties. A 50-house project is underway, and all but one of the 23 built so far have been sold. The homes sell for $120,000 to $131,000.

“We’re deliberately pushing the market up and selling at two to two-and-a-half times what a house here typically sells for,” Swartz said. “It’s a signal to the private market that this area is not going to stay depressed forever.”

A walk along Penn Avenue reveals the resurgence. Many artists own the shops where they sell their work and others’. That’s unusual, said Laura Jean McLaughlin, 41, owner of The Clay Penn.

Neighborhood groups like the Penn Avenue Arts Initiative help artists get grants and loans so they can take ownership of the area’s improvement, McLaughlin said.

“I purchased this building for $15,000,” said McLaughlin, who’s received a grant and loan from local groups to refurbish her property and create two apartments upstairs. “I’m gaining equity. I’ll be able to sell and make a profit.”

Affordable housing is one way Tarentum residents hope to draw people to their borough, where houses cost between $40,000 and $60,000.

“We’d like to have a Shadyside kind of thing,” said George Gatto, owner of a motorcycle shop, a diner and other businesses. “People like to shop in towns.”

Borough Manager Bill Rossey held a meeting last year to gather ideas from the community. Hundreds attended, and since then Rossey has applied for nearly $50,000 in state grants to plan the development of Tarentum’s riverfront, railroad areas and West Seventh Avenue business district.

“People are waiting to get on board with what Tarentum’s going to do,” said Debbie Shiring, 39, who has lived most of her life in the borough and is handling the public relations campaign for the revitalization. “There’s definitely a groundswell of energy and support.”

Mike Cronin can be reached at or 412-320-7884.

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