Joy to the ‘Burgh: Three who boomeranged back inject energy into their neighborhoods
Monday, September 19, 2005
By Diana Nelson Jones, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Every city neighborhood has its advocates. They go to the meetings. Neighbors ask them what’s going on. They got the new signs, the new lights and gathered the litter brigades. From their ideas come neighborhood events, neighborhood pride and, of course, change.
Three people from three neighborhoods have joined those ranks as boomerangs — area natives who left and then returned. They belong to a spirited slice of the population that, as Greg Panza puts it, “tries to spread joy” in their city neighborhoods.
Panza, John Lichter and Betty Kripp grew up in and around Pittsburgh, but like so many young people, they took their leave. Panza went to Phoenix, Lichter to Florida and Atlanta. Kripp’s exodus was merely suburban — to Mt. Lebanon — but the serenity of her beautiful street there was a long way from the littered streets she now walks daily.
They have found great roles to address great need.
Judy Dyda, the city’s neighborhoods coordinator, said boomerangs can be particularly valuable because of the experience they bring from other places they have lived.
“Without the influx of new members, burnout can become a problem” for community groups, she said. “Boomerangs not only re-energize a group, they can also bring a fresh perspective — a way to look at the community, and the organization, through new eyes. Smart groups actively seek out this new talent, welcomes it to the table and puts it work.”
Panza, 34, grew up in Castle Shannon and lived on the South Side for 10 years after college, working for a design firm. Four years ago, he moved to Phoenix.
“I thought Pittsburgh was small potatoes and I was going to move out West where everything is new and the grass is greener. But Phoenix doesn’t have green grass, and they have weeds growing up from the cracks in their sidewalks just like we do.”
He worked for a developer in historic districts, he said, “but they didn’t have anything like a Lawrenceville.”
After a few years, he said, “I was longing to come back to the real thing. I had friends back here who said, ‘Why do you want to move back here?’ ”
Panza returned in March and bought a house on Mount Washington. He started a consulting business called the Urban Idea Factory and got “plugged in.”
“Greg came to a community forum meeting,” said Wendy Powers, executive director of the Mount Washington Community Development Corp. “He just started to get interested in what we were doing. He started volunteering and has been very, very active, reaching out to the business district.”
He consulted and helped plan a Main Streets initiative to improve the Shiloh Street business corridor with storefront enhancements, new signs, flower pots and containers for recycling garbage.
Sitting in a booth at the Village Dairy on Shiloh, he mimicked his friends with playfully exaggerated negativity, then his face lit up. “Wow. I came back and saw what had changed. The convention center looks great. The North Shore. I couldn’t wait to walk there. Lawrenceville has changed. It’s exciting. I was really encouraged.
“I think sometimes the people of Pittsburgh are reluctant because things haven’t been in our favor for a while. That’s one reason why I want to be out there making sure something’s happening. You’d be amazed at the momentum. Business owners are saying, ‘Hey, we want to do our storefront, too.
“There’s a heartbeat up here.”
Last week, Powers’ board hired Panza as interim community programs manager. “This is really great,” he said, “because now I can really dig in and do more.”
“They brought this Greg Panza kid in, and he’s been fantastic,” said Todd DiFiore, owner of DiFiore’s Ice Cream Delite on Shiloh Street. “We have had issues with signage up here. We need signage, we need lighting, and people in the past would say, ‘Yeah Todd, I’ll help,’ and nothing ever became of it. He has talked to guys at the city and gotten things going. He took the time to deal with the obstacles.”
The Main Streets initiative includes an artistic sign that, as DiFiore says, “invites people up the street.” It should be installed by the end of fall.
Of the CDC staff and volunteers, Panza said, “We get together every month and say, ‘What can we do next?'” He described his new neighborhood as “the kind of place where you can talk to a guy on the street who knows the lady down the street who’s a friend of so and so. You don’t find that in Phoenix.”
John Lichter, 47, was raised in Greensburg, where he grew up in scouting. At age 16, he was a raft guide on the Cheat and Youghiogheny Rivers.
In 1981, while in college, he started his own business, Riversport, to teach and guide people in canoes and kayaks. After six years in Confluence, he sold it and moved to Florida. There, he started a business transporting mail for the U.S. Postal Service. It grew throughout the southeastern United States, moving him from Orlando to Tampa to Atlanta.
By the time the rest of his family had moved to Florida, he had sold his business and was longing for the seasons and the rivers. His return to Pittsburgh at the end of 2001 was almost an escape, he said. He got on his feet with a series of odd jobs and settled in Manchester.
A Spanish speaker, he is now a bi-lingual customer service representative for National City Bank and rents an apartment in what used to be a paint company. “It fascinates me to be here. I wanted an urban situation. Maybe it’s the challenge. My street has a lot of families with children, which I like, and it’s quiet.”
A year ago, Lichter saw Alan Perry’s fliers in the neighborhood asking for help with a gaggle of scouts from the Bidwell United Presbyterian Church.
“I had been praying for three years for someone to help me,” said Perry, “and I get a call from an Eagle Scout named John Lichter. What a blessing. I was kind of surprised he showed up because he was white. But John Lichter does not see color. What he has shared with the boys is tremendous.”
There were seven scouts, a number that has since doubled, he said. Many of the boys, from 7 to 17, had never been out of Manchester, much less in the woods.
“It hasn’t been easy,” he said over coffee at the Old Allegheny Sandwich Shop near his home. “A few of these kids’ entire world is Manchester.”
On the first camp out, a lot of kids were afraid to sleep out, so they slept in the cars. Some had forgotten to bring sleeping bags. Others were afraid to leave their sleeping bags at night for nature’s call. On one outing, the kids in the tents raided the vehicles and ended up breaking the windshield of Lichter’s car.
“I was thinking about giving up on the Boy Scouts because I thought their behavior was just too far gone,” he said, “but they’ve come back from the broken window experience. They’re starting to take initiative.”
The boys haven’t gone white-water rafting yet, but Perry said they can’t wait. “They had not done real camping until John came. They’ve learned there’s other things to listen to, like the sound of a creek.”
Betty Kripp was raised in the city — on Mount Washington — but she and her husband settled in Mt. Lebanon to raise their two daughters. They both taught in the Chartiers Valley School District, retiring in 1999. Two years later, on their beautiful, quiet, trouble-free suburban street, they shocked their neighbors with their news.
“They were so confused that we would be moving to the city,” she said. “But that city thing doesn’t leave you. I knew when we retired that I wanted to keep working and I wanted something in the city.”
Soon after they found their house on a tucked-away street of the South Side Slopes, Kripp was a member of the neighborhood association and the South Side Local Development Corp.
One day recently, as she walked her neighborhood picking up litter, she said, “Boy my life has changed a lot.”
When they moved into their 110-year-old frame with its spectacular view, “the first thing we did was open the windows. The train was going by, and my husband loves trains. And that smell.” She laughed. “I love that smell, that city smell.”
Kripp works part-time with the Arts Education Collaborative Downtown.
“I first met her volunteering for the South Side House Tour in 2002,” said Bev Boggio, president of the South Side Slopes Association, herself a boomerang. “Her husband does all our graphics work. Betty single-handedly started a welcome wagon for new people, with a basket and information like when garbage day is and to give them shopping guides and information about getting involved.”
Kripp’s great strength and contribution is that she is a connector, said Boggio.
“She is helping to blend the South Side and the Slopes as one neighborhood,” notably in clean-up efforts that brought the neighborhoods together for Trash Bash earlier this year and for Saturday’s Tire Toss to rid a ravine of about 750 tires.
“For the neighborhood, there isn’t anything she won’t get involved in. I can’t imagine life without her on the Slopes.”
When she and Bob first moved to the Slopes, they walked the entire neighborhood and found a walking bridge to the Flats. “We wanted to find out where we were and where we fit.” After just four years, she said, “We really feel like this is our home.”