The Insider Guide to Wilkinsburg
Pittsburgh loves a comeback. We know what it takes to rise up after hard times: toughness and resilience, street smarts and hard, hard work.
Wilkinsburg is a comeback story in the making. A renewal of fierce hope and optimism is taking root here, with well-crafted development strategies put into action by an assortment of visionaries: residents, business owners, community development enthusiasts, historic preservationists, private organizations, neighborhood volunteers.
Incorporated in 1887, this 2.3 square mile borough seven miles east of downtown Pittsburgh, had a bustling business district, and a population of 30,000 during the 1940s. But the demise of the steel industry and resultant urban flight of the 50s and 60s blighted this proud City of Churches (there are 37 active churches within its borders) and dropped those numbers by a third. By the 2000 U.S. Census, Wilkinsburg had lost more than 10,000 residents. Census 2010 places Wilkinsburg at just under 16,000.The Wilkinsburg CDC: a change agent
Many in Wilkinsburg credit the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation
for helping to drive this spirit of optimism. The WCDC was organized in 2007 to attract investors and entrepreneurs to its main commercial district on Penn Avenue.
Its energetic and tenacious executive director, Tracey Evans, knows that Wilkinsburg's success will be built brick by brick. "We are working hard to lay the right foundation for a more successful business district," she says.
Evans, a 25-year resident of Wilkinsburg, is in her fifth year as an elected member of the borough council, and chairs the Wilkinsburg Municipal Authority and Wilkinsburg Borough Commercial and Industrial Development Authority. She started out as a freelance set designer for Pittsburgh stage productions, and got involved as a volunteer in a number of local restoration projects. A graduate of Point Park University, her career in community revitalization took flight when she became the first executive director of the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation, which she helped found.
Now, in addition to overseeing the execution of a 6-year $1.8 million Neighborhood Partnership Plan for Wilkinsburg, funded by Tri-State Capital Bank and the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, and developed with input from the borough, residents, and the business community, the WCDC is deep in the first phases of Streetscape Improvement Program to revamp the Penn Avenue corridor.
The first phase of the Program's investment has provided tree pruning, 80 decorative streetscape banners, and locally fabricated trash receptacles designed by Technique Architectural Products, whose owner, Ray Appleby, is a CMU-trained sculptor. (His shop has outfitted Mad Mex locations with some cool metal work).
A recent grant through TreeVitalize Pittsburgh and the Borough of Wilkinsburg will put in place 500 new street trees, all to be planted by Nine Mile Run Watershed Association and volunteers on public property. A grant from Duquesne Light helped refurbish existing streetlights and create a well-lit and safer corridor while the Wilkinsburg Police Department has re-established a walking police presence along the business district.
"Our primary focus is crime and safety issues," states Evans, "along with enforcement of building codes, loitering and littering laws. Our beautification work will also help attract business and investment back to Wilkinsburg."
Some of Wilkinsburg's old and architecturally gifted homes in the Hamnett Place neighborhood have been restored through the efforts of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation (PHLF)
. Their Wilkinsburg redevelopment projects have successfully restored four homes in the Hamnett Place neighborhood; work on three more historic homes, and the two-building, 27-unit Crescent Apartment development, are scheduled for completion by the end of this year.
PHLF launched a housing resource center, and has cleaned and cleared vacant lots, "Initiatives taking place right now in Wilkinsburg total over $10 million," says Michael Sriprasert, PHLF director of real estate. Urban Homesteading: finding your match
For the socially progressive, frugal and urban-focused homeowner not afraid to get his/her hands dirty, Wilkinsburg is the right match: racially/ethnically diverse, close to the city and fuel-efficient: eight-minutes' drive to downtown, close to urban programs and amenities and public transportation (access to the East Busway can get anyone downtown within 20 minutes) and within a fifteen-minute drive of four city neighborhoods, the Waterfront, and Monroeville.
Wilkinsburg offers eye-poppingly affordable real estate for urban homesteaders and entrepreneurs who can spot an architectural gem beneath the overgrowth, and are willing to put in sweat equity to polish it up. (One business owner bought a parcel of land on a credit card).
Resident Chad Chalmers, an architect and member of the WCDC's design committee,spotted a typical diamond-in-the-rough on an overgrown lot: six-bedroom, three-bath home with hardwood floors and 14 stained glass windows, which he and his wife Brigitte "fell in love with, and bought for a song," and has spent five years restoring.
A new website provides up-to-date for rent/for sale listings in Wilkinsburg. The Borough and School District have developed a Tax Based Expansion Ordinance,
which provides for tax compromise and tax abatement opportunities. Plenty of rehab and restoration programs stand ready to help homesteaders and investors who want in on the ground floor of an area poised for new growth.
But its biggest assets are long-standing businesses, some more than 30 years old, and a large number of robust and committed volunteers in its neighborhoods who care and dig in to run programs and restore neighborhoods.Wilkinsburg Means Business
Downtown Wilkinsburg is five-block area along busy Penn Avenue (Pa. Route 8) and Wood Street that features unique businesses, residences, and historic and landmark architecture. What you won't see are taverns and night clubs; Wilkinsburg has been legally dry since 1870. After the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 when liquor sales became a local option, residents voted to keep saloons out of Wilkinsburg. (Look for beer, tobacco, and soda, sold by the case on Penn Avenue's Wilkinsburg Beverage Co.
If you're a fan of the Strip District, plan a visit to Pittsburgh Asian Market, a.k.a. Ou's International, located on Penn Avenue, owned by Louis and Mai Ling Ou since 1981. Their large collection of specialty groceries and produce features hard-to-find items for Asian, Hispanic, and African-American menus.
Jean's Soul Food on Penn Avenue, serves it up Southern style: catfish, ribs, and fried chicken, with a heap of mac'n cheese and collard greens on the side. On Thanksgiving Day, she serves traditional holiday dinner to the homeless and hungry. Local businesses pitch in, including the local Subway and Save-A-Lot market.
Valley Sales, a locksmith and key business on Penn Avenue in business since 1929, has an amazing wall display of hundreds of keys, both antique and modern. Owner Mary Blackburn remembers one customer who had just purchased a sweet 1967 Chevelle, and needed a key. She found one.
Matt's Up-beat Records on Penn features current and hard-to-find soul, vintage Motown, hip hop, gospel, and jazz releases, along with DVDs and poster art.
Family-owned James Florist
on Wood Street recently refurbished their store entrance and sign with a Pennsylvania "Main Street" fašade grant. They've been providing posies for proms, weddings, funerals and family celebrations for more than a century. Step inside to see one of their favorite holiday store props: an antique horse-drawn sled in mint condition.
Wilkinsburg has made a name for itself in the urban farming/grow-your-own food movement with its new Hamnet Place Community Garden, leased to the community by PHLF (and each plot taken) and Garden Dreams
, a certified organic farm and heirloom seed business.
, in business since 1924, is where the owner, Doug Duffus, does restoration on antique pieces, can custom create a wedding ring, and repair most anything brought in. In other words, he runs the place the way jewelry stores used to be run: with knowledgeable people and masters of their craft.
Leah Thomas opened a ladies' boutique, A Woman's Touch, on Penn Avenue seven years ago. Among fashionable church-going ladies in town, the sherbet-colored hats in her window never go out of style. This year, with a royal wedding spurring interest in stylish chapeaux, she had 150 to 200 new wholesale and custom-designed pieces on her racks.
Representative of Wilkinsburg's historic pride in its churches, St. James Catholic Church, a gothic beauty almost 150 years old. has a long-standing commitment to social justice, and is a member of the Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network
(it was one of its founding members), and is the only Wilkinsburg-based church among the PIIN membership.
To read more about Wilkinsburg businesses see the Featured Neighborhood on our home page this week and click on Live. Work. Play.
Captions: Garden Dreams; Ray Appleby of Technique Architectural Products; Louis and Mai Ling Ou; Valley Sales; Community Garden; Kenyon Jewelers; Leah Thomas.Photographs copyright Brian Cohen