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State of PA: Artists help rebuild and unify up-and-coming neighborhoods across Pennsylvania

Residents flood into Art All Night

An Art All Night exhibit celebrating Yayoi Kusama

An Art All Night exhibit celebrating Yayoi Kusama

In neighborhoods across the country, the appearance of artists often signifies the beginning of gentrification, a process that pushes poorer residents -- and eventually artists themselves -- out of their homes. However, in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, community development organizations are attempting to use the art and branded "arts districts" to create neighborhood pride, stabilize housing and repopulate abandoned corridors while bridging the gap between old-timers and newcomers.

According to Nina Sauer, co-owner of Most Wanted Fine Art in Pittsburgh, much has changed along the Penn Avenue corridor since her husband bought a building there and rehabbed it by hand, joining an arts district founded in the late 1990s. Since then, the area has become a destination thanks to a monthly open gallery event, "Unblurred," promoted by the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation (BGC) and the Penn Avenue Arts Intiative. The corporation, along with other community organizations such as Friendship Development Associates were largely responsible for attracting artists like Sauer and her husband Jason to the area. 

"He definitely was buying in on this idea that this arts district would take off," says Nina of her husband's decision to move back to Pittsburgh and spend his savings on the damaged Penn Avenue building. "And [he] had faith in the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporations' ability to continue to build their community." 

At the time, mixed-use buildings on Penn Avenue were selling for around $17,000, according to BGC Penn Avenue Business District manager Samantha McDonough. The Corporation worked with Allegheny Valley Bank to design loans that would make it easier for artists to buy multi-use buildings, so they could live in the upstairs space while using the downstairs for galleries. 

"Part of the goal was to make them stakeholders in the community," says McDonough. "The idea was that they would then add value to the avenue and they did. Artists always come in and they do something cool, then they get pushed out. But this program of ownership really secured them in the area."

That said, Penn Avenue remains a dividing line. On one side of the avenue, houses sell for over $200,000. The tree-lined streets and manicured lawns of the Friendship neighborhood advertise the local Flower and Folk Festival, and exist in stark contrast to homes across Penn Avenue in Garfield, a majority African-American neighborhood. In Garfield, rows of brick homes, built in a similar style, are boarded up and falling down. They can be purchased for a song, but fixing them up can cost more than building new. Community groups are hard at work on innovative housing and development solutions, but change has been slower.
Between these two distinct neighborhoods is the arts district on Penn Avenue, a formerly industrial corridor that has been transformed by artists like the Sauers -- these creative pioneers occupy a tenuous and ever shifting middle ground. 

When the Sauers first moved in, Nina recalls problems with prostitution, gangs and drugs in the neighborhood. 

"The BGC has really worked hard and seen this change," she says. "We haven't had a grocery store in a really long time and we are building one that's going to open soon, so that's a really big win for the community. There is definitely still a ways to go." 

Since the 1970s, when industry in the city began to collapse, Garfield has lost half its population and the city of Pittsburgh hundreds of thousands of residents. The process of repopulating has been slow and spotty, with each neighborhood competing for new residents as investors buy up buildings in blighted areas, holding on to them in the hopes of an eventual windfall. Creating formalized arts districts is one tactic, but once artists move to an area, community development organizations face the challenge of integrating them into the existing culture and ensuring they play a longterm role in regeneration.

The Sauers earn money working with Goodwill, teaching ex-convicts the same skills they used to rehab their property, as well as arts management. It is Nina's hope that these skills may enable the recently incarcerated men to find work and improve their lives. 

"Goodwill knows that we get all the Garfield kids," she explains. "Anyone that comes through the program who is from Garfield, we come in and we help them. A lot of the guys come in and they have never had a job and these guys leave and they know at least how to fix stuff in their mom's house, and could be hired for contracting work." 

Down the avenue, Assemble, a "community space for arts and technology," offers free after-school tutoring and writing workshops for area youth, and provides event and gallery space. 

"The artists that Garfield attracted were all artists that wanted to buy into a place that they wanted to live," adds Nina. "It's not just a money investment; it was: 'I want to live here and I believe in these people and what we can build.'"

BGC also worked with the city to turn abandoned buildings into new affordable housing units and offers grants for homeowners to rehab their building's facades. 

"The revitalization is by no means complete, but if you had seen it 15 or 20 years ago, you definitely would notice a difference," says McDonough.

Meanwhile, in Philadelphia's Kensington and Fishtown neighborhoods, Diana Jih, community relations specialist with the New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC) says her agency has seen similar transformation with the establishment of an arts district. Occupancy has increased, crime has declined and new businesses join the arts corridor, Frankford Avenue, every year. The neighborhood has also seen the $7.5 million transformation of a textile factory, the Coral Street Arts House, into subsidized housing and studio space for artists. In addition, NKCDC has been personally involved in building and maintaining the area's stock of affordable housing, notably through a recently announced collaboration with local green builder Postgreen.

"We promote a First Friday event," says Jih, echoing faith in event-based community building, "getting people on the streets and making Frankford Avenue a destination in the city and also regionally." 

On May 17, the neighborhood will host its annual Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby.  According to Jih, this event came about when residents became tired of being associated with the Kensington Strangler, a serial rapist and murderer who terrorized the neighborhood in 2010, raping and killing three women. 

"Residents wanted to show the city and the world that this wasn't what their neighborhood was about," she explains. "We wanted to reclaim our neighborhood and show the values of our community -- commitment to sustainability and arts and cycling -- and that was how it began." 

Today, the festival showcases all things mobile sculpture attracts visitors from around the city.

Grassroots festivals can have a tremendous impact. The 24-hour art party Art All Night started in 1998 in Pittsburgh's Lawrenceville neighborhood. In 2008, it attracted over 10,000 visitors, along with curious developers. In the last decade, the area has seen unprecedented growth thanks in part to the young creative types that have decided to call it home. Now, the community's focus has shifted from revitalization to balancing the interests of business with those of residents, according to Nate Hanson, Chief of Staff for City Councilwoman Deb Gross who represents the area.  

Hanson was drawn to Lawrenceville several years ago, hoping to live among urban creative types. This year, Art All Night occupied a space the size of an airplane hangar, large enough to accommodate submissions from artists of all ages. 

"As the neighborhood develops and issues surrounding gentrification arise, a question becomes how and where do we continue this event when a building that nobody wanted to use becomes prime real estate for condos?" asks Hanson. "As the neighborhood develops, we have to find a way to maintain the past and the culture of Lawrenceville. You need fans, you need creators and you need natives, and that's an important task for our office."

Gross helped promote creation of the city's first land bank, a non-government entity that will assist in the sale of tax-delinquent city property. (The Pittsburgh bill passed on April 14; Philadelphia recently passed its own land bank legislation). The land banking process will hopefully help alleviate blight while also facilitating the development of properties in alignment with community goals. 

"The city has been run top-down by white men for literally centuries," explains Gross. "Now we have a model for grassroots, ground-up policymaking that's not starting from the top and working its way down -- that's based on consensus building." 

The land banking process could be an asset to communities seeking to attract artists in order to spur revitalization similar to what has occurred in Lawrenceville, where historic homes in an aging community were purchased and restored. It also offers communities the chance to turn abandoned properties into opportunities for renewal.

According to Hanson, part of Pittsburgh's charm is its ability to sustain unique and recognizable artistic and cultural communities within close proximity. Maintaining those unique enclaves is paramount to the identity of the region, and Hanson thinks that with a little planning and foresight, it can be done. 

"It's exactly analogous to driving the streets in Pittsburgh," he muses. "They are charming but amazingly confusing, but once you figure them out, you are on your way." 

ELIZABETH DALEY is a New York City native and freelance writer who relocated to Pittsburgh in search of a better life. Her work has appeared in USA TodayThe Christian Science Monitor, Reuters and numerous San Francisco Bay Area publications. Follow her on twitter @fakepretty.

**This piece orignially appeared in our sister publication, Keystone Edge.
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