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Why I moved (back) to Pittsburgh: Northside

In the past year, Tom Corcoran and his neighbors have pulled more than 500 tires from illegal dumping sites, hired a community planner, and purchased over 14,000 wildflower seeds to sow in vacant lots. Corcoran may have retired from the business world in 2008, but working to improve his California-Kirkbride neighborhood has already become a second career.

"We've really been making a lot of progress," Corcoran says, "It's just trying to get people involved and realize that this is a very valuable neighborhood."

A Washington County native, Corcoran has lived in Pittsburgh on-and-off since the 1980s, but ever since finding and restoring his hilltop, Victorian home, his roots have grown much deeper.

Work had taken him to live in many different cities--Chicago, Dallas, Cleveland, and San Francisco--but Corcoran says he always knew he'd return.  In 2008 he moved back to Pittsburgh, this time to stay, he says.

"I've always loved Pittsburgh.  It has more here to offer than I think any city that I've ever lived in--and I've lived in some great cities," Corcoran says.  "You almost have to leave it before you realize how great it is."

Corcoran's build speaks to his former rugby days, but far from being intimidating, he is a kind, people-person, who loves to talk. A regular at the nearby Monterey Pub, he'll spend an evening talking with good friends, or someone he's met for the first time.

And although Corcoran cites friendly people, great live music, and diverse restaurants, as contributing to the high quality of life in Pittsburgh, perhaps more influential is Corcoran's own attitude and approach to the city.

"I just look at it from the point of view that whatever you want is here, sometimes you just have to dig," Corcoran says.

Digging is what Corcoran did to turn his home and garden into a mini-villa within the city.  Perched above lower California-Kirkbride, at the meeting of two sets of city steps, Corcoran's home also looks over nearby Manchester, which appears like rows of miniature mode homes.  Mount Washington is nearly eye-level, and in the evening the Golden Triangle glows like a neighbor's porch light.

The red brick, three-story home was built around 1882, by German immigrant Jacob Franz.  Corcoran says for an old house, it wasn't in terrible shape.  All he added to the exterior trimming was a fresh coat of green paint.

"I fell in love with [the house] as soon as I saw it," Corcoran says.  "Even the condition that it was in you could just see that it had great potential.  It had great bones to it."

Corcoran says major renovations weren't necessary, as the same Keller family had lived in the home from 1923 to 1987.  It was gently divided in two, with the older generation living upstairs, the younger downstairs.  Since they were family, Corcoran says, those divisions were lovingly laid, with very little structural changes.

The sloping back and side yards have been transformed into terraced gardens, using bricks and stones dug from the property, and nearby woods.  Roses, lilies, irises and spiderworts fill beds wrapped by winding brick paths.

Compared to Corcoran's home projects, however, community development in this stretch of the Northside hasn't been as smooth.  After years of neglect, entire sections of the neighborhood have been demolished. But the California-Kirkbride Neighbors group, which Corcoran belongs to, is beginning to see a gradual change.  

Many beautiful examples of Victorian architecture still stand. Trees are being planted; debris cleared from lots.  The Neighbors have hired community planning agency CZB, of Alexandria, Virginia, to develop plans for at least two new parks, accentuating topography and structural amenities.  Corcoran himself is the chair of committee on beautification and safety, two areas which he says he felt he could really make a difference.  Allegheny CleanWays has partnered with Corcoran for hillside clean-ups, and he is hoping to partner with GTECH soon on one of their signature sunflower gardens.

"He's done a great job," as chairman, says Debbie Reed, president of the California-Kirkbride Neighbors. Reed says the group has been organizing in the community for the past 11 years.

For Corcoran, this type of work isn't completely new.  Corcoran began working in the technical side of IT, as a programmer designing information systems.  Later he took on management and sales roles, reorganizing companies to find what was working, and what was not.  
It was Corcoran's job to ask the questions, where is the company today, and where does it want to be tomorrow?  He would then determine a course of action. These are the same questions Corcoran is asking of his California-Kirkbride neighbors.

"I know I drive people nuts with that," Corcoran says with a laugh.  "But my whole thing is like look, if we don't make the neighborhood what we want it to be, somebody's going to come in and do it.  So I would rather us have the control of it."

In the warmer months, Corcoran spends mornings in his garden.  On his deck he reads the news and drinks coffee under the shade of a towering oak. Nearby, scrappy trees grow through the foundations of former homes.  Children play games and ride bikes, their sounds fills the green spaces and climb the hill.  An occasional car drives up the steep, curving road.

Soon, Corcoran is on the phone, asking the city to repair a city-step handrail, determining the cost of vacant land, or working on grants for community gardens, trees.

Corcoran, who turns 57 in a few months, says he feels more like a kid now than ever.

"I just totally enjoy every day. There are times that I kind of miss the structure of corporate America, but all I have to do is like walk outside," Corcoran says with a shrug. "I'm okay with it."

Andrew Moore has recently joined Pop City as Development News Editor.

Captions: Corcoran's 1882 Victorian home; an abandoned lot before clean-up; Tom Corcoran at home; hilltop view; grassy lot and decorated party wall; close-up of art

Photographs copyright Brian Cohen
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