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YPA: Preserving Pittsburgh One Teen at a Time

It's a gray winter morning in Homestead, and heat in the old Moose Building -- the one that's a hard left off the Homestead Grays Bridge onto East Eighth Avenue, the crumbling part of Homestead, the part separated from the spanking-new Waterfront by a radioactive trench -- is but a distant memory. Outside, snow flurries jounce in the frigid air, and coal trains rumble by a few blocks away. Now home to the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh, the Moose -- with concrete heads on the cornices to prove its pedigree -- has seen far better days. Once home to dinner dances, now it's another piece of crumbling Eighth Avenue, underloved and underutilized.
Upstairs, in the underheated second floor ballroom -- the original pressed tin ceiling still standing firm -- nine members of Miss Steph's civic class from nearby Propel Andrew Street High School are huddled in their overcoats learning how to put together an Arcadia Publishing-style book on Homestead, 30-odd pages about what it is and what is used to be -- the businesses, night life, mills, and so on. Documentation, they are told, is an integral part of the preservation process, to making Homestead a better, more livable place.
"They are very excited about it," offers Stephanie Nachemja-Bunton -- Miss Steph to her students. "They have a lot of ideas. Working on this will bring them together -- and connect them to the neighborhood. What's more," she adds, "this is an amazing opportunity for them to be published."
As presenters conduct tutorials in interviewing, taping, editing, photographing, and researching, Crystal, Malikqua, Shaheem, LaQuan, and the others -- all Fu Manchu fingernails and endless earrings -- listen with rapt attention.
"I think it's important to keep certain buildings around," offers junior Shaheem Franklin. "To remember our history. Where some things come from. Remember the roots." He pauses. "I could see myself getting into this, to preserve certain kinds of buildings."
That, of course, is precisely the point behind YPA. Brainchild of Dan Holland, who transformed a CMU graduate school project into a nonprofit back in '02, YPA was created, he says, "to get young people involved in historic preservation."
Offering events, tours, research, training, technical assistance, and special projects, YPA's raison d'etre is to encourage teens to take leadership roles in preserving their communities. As a proven tool for economic development and regional revitalization, historic preservation means more than creating museums. Instead, YPA promotes bringing back to life old structures through restoration, adaptive reuse, and creative renovation.
Having said that, Holland is quick to point out that "the whole focus is on young people. We're the only one of our kind in the country dedicated solely to youth engagement. We're about educating young people about architecture, history, civics."
"It's an interesting thing to do," says junior Michelle Goldsborough. "Because as new things develop, and time changes, it's important to keep a sense of identity, where things came from, who you are, where your roots are. It's exciting to find out everybody's viewpoint."
"Preserving your history is a good thing," agrees junior Jessica Williams. "Whenever everything's changed, you want to show your children where things were or how things happened. Here in Homestead, it's going to be interesting to see what people think about their community -- what things were like."
What things are like, Holland says, is "an on-going crisis in low-income and African-American communities. There are a lot of buildings that are vacant or waiting to be torn down. These are once-vibrant places being turned into wastelands. In and of itself, that sends a message that we don't care.
"So what we're trying to do with YPA is change the equation, to get young people to become drivers of economic revitalization. Young people are very interested in the environment, urban places, authenticity. Because we're tapping into these popular ideas, our message resonates with teens."
Resonate it has, to the tune of 1,800 high schoolers since actual programming began in '03 -- along with 350 members in 19 states. "Steeler Nation," Holland smiles.  "People love to reconnect with Pittsburgh.
"People in Utah, New Jersey, and South Carolina also came to us and said, 'we want to start a YPA group.  Tell us how.'" Although Holland & Co. are happy to pass along the information, they have no current plans to set up outposts of the empire. "We're trying to build the brand locally," he says.
"We're not pretending to change the world," Holland adds. "But we are trying to add value, to restore and revitalize existing buildings, to leverage partnerships, and ultimately to focus on the good things that are happening in communities." To that end, he says, "we are trying to create a critical mass of youth engagement."
Along the way, like other preservation organizations, YPA has documented the historical worth of various regional buildings -- from the August Wilson House and New Granada Theater in the Hill to the home of the National Negro Opera Company -- and have spearheaded efforts to get them historic status, and therefore funding for preservation and revitalization.
For his part, sophomore LaQuan Deen likes it wholeheartedly. With a good, stiff pragmatic side to him, and wisdom beyond his teen years, he peers into the cracked crystal ball that is Homestead and says, "you won't see cities looking like dumps anymore. People will have places to live."
"The kids are energized," Holland says, "because the message is, 'we care about your neighborhood. We want to make these buildings living, breathing things, not museum pieces.  We want to make them assets in your community.'  For these students," he adds, "our hope is that they become motivated to help their communities, that they go on and work in the field, preserve history, architecture, neighborhoods."
He looks up to see his charges broken up into groups, still in their overcoats, working on editing skills here, interviewing techniques there.
"I do know this," he says.  "We are making a difference in a small way. We're preserving old buildings one young person at a time."

For information on YPA's Preserve Pittsburgh Summit and Preservation Awards Reception on April 10, see their website.

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Abby Mendelson's latest book, End of the Road, a collection of short stories, is available at amazon and bn.com.

 Captions: Dan Holland; Tikisha Johnson and LaQuan Dean; Jessica Williams;Stephanie Nachemja-Bunton and students; Young Preservationists meeting

Photographs copyright Brian Cohen
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