The Northside: Neu to me

The Northside hosted the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival earlier this year. As expected from preview press nights and word-of-mouth, the Northside proved to be a vibrant, bustling location for this innovative art-filled event. Between the great food and drink from East Ohio Street establishments – including Max’s Tavern, the Park House and Arnold’s Tea Room – and the open-minded people embracing creative happenings and impromptu street exhibitions, any and everyone involved will forever connect the Northside to special memories of their Fringe weekend.

Neu-kirche-logoWhat did come as a pleasant surprise was my introduction to the Neu Kirche Contemporary Art Center. Located at 1000 Madison Avenue, this 125-year-old renovated church is quickly becoming a hub of activity with programs ranging from public art and urban regeneration initiatives to residency opportunities and weekly youth yoga classes. To find out more about all the center has to offer, please visit their website at http://neukirche.org/.

Interior view of the Neu Kirche space. (Photo credit: Neu Kirche website)

Interior view of the Neu Kirche space. (Photo credit: Neu Kirche website)

While you peruse what there is to see online, just know pictures could never do this space justice in both atmosphere and acoustics. When my Fringe Festival show, Resurrection, was moved to their sanctuary, the gift of presenting while surrounded by stained glass windows and serene silence brought a new level to the piece that could not be matched.

Floor plan of studio space at Neu Kirche.

Floor plan of studio space at Neu Kirche.

Artists of all disciplines are welcome to apply for studio spaces at the Neu Kirche, while organizations can use other rooms for meetings and events, including the chapel. The staff, Lee Parker, Sarah Keeling and Oreen Cohen, are so inviting and approachable that even the most introverted of creatives can feel at ease with any questions and/or joining any programs of interest.

I would strongly suggest signing up on their mailing list to make sure you do not miss the latest and greatest from what is an inspiring Pittsburgh spot for innovative artistic practices.

Follow Neu Kirche on Facebook & Twitter @Neu_Kische.

Pretty, Vacant: Recapping the Vacant Home Tour

The Vacant Home Tour through Wilkinsburg took place on a hot Saturday, May 9th. 88 degrees was too hot to bike from Millvale comfortably, but I didn’t know that until I was standing (uncomfortably) at the registration desk. The walking tour was a little over two miles round trip and, while technically not in the City of Pittsburgh, included a hill or two. Each tour goer picked up a booklet that had descriptions of each home and a map then were sent up the hill to Singer place to the first home.

1329 Singer Place is a shy home, trying to hide behind a pine tree, content to be upstaged by its neighbor across the street: the Singer Mansion.

photo credit: https://vacanthometour.wordpress.com/

It’s a fitting first stop. The nearby Singer Mansion stands as a reminder of the importance of preservation. The estate of John F. Singer covered much of the immediate area before it was parceled out, including the land that 1329 Singer Place stands on now. An important example of Gothic Revival architecture, it once stood vacant before being used as a bachelor’s club, a 2-unit apartment and, unsurprisingly, the set for The Spiral Staircase, a 1946 horror film. 1329 Singer Place is more modest in history and detail, but there are photographs to entice the first wave of tour takers, showing the interior in surprisingly good condition. “How easy it might be to have a piece of history of your own,” the volunteer-constructed signage beckons.
VHTre_1329 Singer_crowd
VHTre_1329 Singer_sign
The second stop, 740 Hill ave, hints at the underlying goals of the tour organizers. The home appears to occupy the middle position in an “evolution of a vacant home.”
VHTre_740 Hill_neighbors
The students who designed this tour did so as a way of addressing blight. Blight, a term borrowed from botany, refers to the decay of neglected properties, the cause of which is sometimes unknown and the effects, often irreversible. It’s the plant form of cancer, something to be feared and removed. The label of “blight,” repeated again and again, has been used to so devalue individual properties, city blocks and entire neighborhoods as to render them expendable.
The stigma of blight, used to justify archetypal policy disasters like Pruitt-Igoe: this is the attitude toward blight that the tour hopes to change. Rather than tear down and start over, the tour seeks to bring in new residents to work with what’s there.
Despite the heat, tour goers and docents were in good spirits, even at the homes without shade. The docents I spoke with had moved to the community within the past decade, some more recently, their residences a block or two away from the houses they were minding. Among people taking the tour, I expected to find a lot of spectators, those with a passing interest in DIY culture, but mostly just looking for unique thing to do on a nice Saturday afternoon. I was surprised, then, to talk to a fair amount of people who seemed genuinely interested in pursuing a purchase of vacant property. Artists were common among people I talked to; the sculptor interested in acquiring a second property as a studio space, the potter who wanted a primary residence with room to expand into a detached studio. The workshop at the end of the tour was targeted towards these people, where experts were on hand to lead an in-depth discussion of how to acquire a vacant property. People were still trickling into the second session when I stopped in for a head count, but I got an estimate of about 60 total people who took part in both sessions.
VHTre_tourtakers
Reaction from residents that I spoke to ranged mostly from positive to indifferent, but there is some deep-seated skepticism and suspicion as well. During the radio interview in the lead-up to the tour it took just two phone calls before a woman brought up the ‘G’-word: “It sounds a lot like gentrification to me. I would think that a community land trust would be a better option for getting young families, people of color in these houses. It’s my understanding that a lot of the houses that are being renovated in Wilkinsburg right now are enticing to a lot of middle class, wealthy people, and I just don’t think that’s fair.” Walking between the second and third house, another longtime Wilkinsburg resident put it to me a little more bluntly: “50, 60 years ago everyone here looked like you before you all left. Now we see you on your bicycles, smiling, wanting to come back in and push all of us out.” I, a smiling cyclist, was trying to figure out if there was a way to explain to her that a line of white people parading through her neighborhood was not a coordinated effort, when her voice caught in her throat and she abruptly turned to leave. “I have to go, but I just hope you are listening.”
Marita Garrett, for one, is listening. As representative for the First Ward on the Borough Council, she knows that people are passionate about protecting their community and takes steps to engage them as much as possible. “We’re not going to just wake up one day and say hey, there’s a Wal-Mart here,” she says, addressing economic concerns about gentrification. “There’s a lot more transparency in the new leadership on council and the school board.” The community is responding to that transparency, attending events such as Community Conversations, a series of workshops aimed at strengthening the community from within. Marita told me about the most recent Conversation, the third in their series which “focused on economic development through entrepreneurship, and we’ve gotten a turnout of 70 or 80 people for that.”
VHTre_816 South Avenue
VHTre_831 Rebecca
The last three homes are clustered just a few blocks from each other. As I learn about their famous occupants (Vernon Royce Covell, who designed the three sisters bridges) and their famous neighbors (Frank Conrad, radio pioneer for KDKA), I remember the decade-old study of vacant homes that concluded that 70% of them could be saved. That means that statistically speaking, at least one of the homes on this tour is likely to be unsalvageable. When that happens, they’ll once again have to get creative about how to deal with it and others; it’s not going feasible to give each doomed property a “House of Gold” sendoff (a nearby art project by Dee Briggs, who advised the designers of the tour).
VHTre_718 Whitney

Nobody is in denial of this being an uphill battle and even the most enthusiastic potential vacant home-buyers have their optimism tempered. Crime is in the back of your mind when you consider moving to Wilkinsburg; one of the docents tells me that their car damaged in a shooting recently, and another tour taker is overheard saying that their neighbor’s car was stolen. But perhaps more disturbing for potential home buyers are the taxes. One of the docents introduced me to the phrase ‘tax trap’ to describe Wilkinsburg’s situation: Wilkinsburg’s population has declined to about half of what it was in 1950, and the borough, having to maintain an area of the same size, had no choice but to levy higher and higher taxes on the residents that remain. Now, the only way to lower the tax burden is to attract new residents, who are scared off by the high tax burden. Community groups are trying to reduce barriers to home ownership in their own ways. For instance, the borough is being more aggressive about seizing tax-delinquent properties so that interested buyers don’t have to track down the owners on their own. Meanwhile, the WCDC is talking to banks ahead of time about the viability of restoring properties so that lenders don’t simply dismiss a loan application for a distressed property. But remove or navigate every other obstacle, and the taxes still remain the last, highest barrier. Tax deferral programs are difficult to take advantage of, and taxes that seem manageable when a vacant home is purchased can quickly become unmanageable after renovations are complete and the property is reassessed.

The tour is not a solution to these problems; it doesn’t try to be. What it is is a small step on the road to revitalization. It’s likely that of the 500-odd tour takers, only a small fraction possess the means and desire to pursue a vacant property, and a large fraction of them will be scared off by crime, or taxes, or the amount of elbow grease it will take to restore them. But in the future, the hope is that even the faint of heart will read “blight” and think of what could be done with the what’s there, not what could be done once it’s gone.
photos by Ray Bowman unless noted otherwise

#tbd: Paint a mural during the Three Rivers Arts Festival

The Three Rivers Arts Festival opened yesterday. Lots of people are planning on coming down to see the art, but come between 11am and 2pm from today through June 14th and you can help create it. Muralist Kim Beck has begun stenciling an 850-foot mural underneath the Fort Duquesne Bridge and is ready for volunteers to help fill in the “paint by number” with black, white and gray paint.
TBDMural_StencilDetail
Looking at her Tumblr, you can see that Kim Beck (previously featured on I Heart PGH) has a fascination with the mundane and ephemeral aspects of the urban landscape, like billboards, sky writing and plastic security fencing. She carries that idea forward here with the mural that depicts common, hardy, native plants. In other words, weeds. I like the project because it works at different scales; up close I think it will read as almost abstract because of how large the plants will be, and from the other side of the river it will be cool to see weeds sprouting at the foot of the city.
TBDMural_AcrossRiver
If you miss the window to help with the mural, you should still stop by and see some of the items on display. Riverlife has partnered with the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Institute of Architects to showcase past proposals by young architects on how to better utilize “urban voids”. The proposals were submissions to the Young Architects Studio Competition over the last few years, which was created as a way for young architects to express themselves and be involved in Design Pittsburgh, an annual event held by the AIA to celebrate architecture and give awards for design. The exhibit will last all summer, and Riverlife is planning events in the outdoor exhibit for every Wednesday through the end of August. Stay tuned for more details on those events as they become available. The mural and gallery are collectively known as #tbd, so follow Riverlife on Twitter, search that hashtag or just keep reading I Heart PGH.
TBDMural_Exhibit
So come down and create some art of your own, this weekend or any day until the Arts Festival closes on June 14th. Between 11am and 2pm you can help paint a mural under the Fort Duquesne Bridge. If you’re walking, it’s most easily accessed by walking towards the Point fountain and turning right after walking under the bridge. When you hit the Allegheny River, walk upstream until you see people with brushes and rollers. See you there.
TBDMural_Visitors

This weekend: Living on the Fringe

Pittsburgh Fringe FestivalIf you are looking for experimental plays, one-person shows and performance art without a filter, the second annual Pittsburgh Fringe Festival comes to the North Side this weekend, May 8-10. If you are anything like me, I hadn’t heard about the Fringe last year when it took place in Shadyside. And, like so many of the more subversive events I find so fascinating in this city, I found out through old school word-of-mouth. So, after doing my own research, becoming involved and now preparing to participate in Pittsburgh Fringe, here is a quick and easy guide to what you need to know and what you can learn about this hidden Pittsburgh treasure:

A 5 Point Guide to the 2015 Pittsburgh Fringe Festival

1. Festival Details: For show descriptions, tickets and volunteer opportunities on the Fringe, please go to the official website: pittsburghfringe.org

Pittsburgh Fringe Festival

 

2. Location, location, location: the North Side is hosting this year’s artists. Fringe Central is at Arnold’s Tea Room. Here you can see the entire layout: http://pittsburghfringe.org/images/map@2x.jpg

Map of the 2015 Pittsburgh Fringe Festival

3. Explore the Neighborhood: In between shows, please take advantage of all of our hosting establishments as seen in the map. From food and beverage to art, tattoos and recreation, find more of what they offer here:

4. Podcast: For a more personal touch , listen to an AP collection podcast with Pittsburgh Fringe Artistic/Executive Director, Dan Stiker, and  two Fringe artists (yes, one of them  is me!) here.

5. Social Media Stuff: Follow the Fringe on social media for updates, news, shares and retweets at the following: (and don’t forget to use the official hashtag #makeityourfringe)

And who knows? Once you experience life on the Fringe, you may be inspired to join us next year as the international Fringe phenomenon becomes a local staple for alternative creative practice. Hope to see you there!

Vinyl in Pittsburgh – Pittsburgh Profiles Visits Jerry’s Records and Galaxie Electronics

A link to this new video series was shared on the Pittsburgh reddit page over the weekend.  This short, 7 minute video, offers a look at Jerry’s Records and Galaxie Electronics – both are located at 2136 Murray Avenue in Sq. Hill.  The video series doesn’t have a website yet but you can keep an eye on The Cut website for updates.

Pittsburgh Profiles // Vinyl in Pittsburgh from Jordan Sucher on Vimeo.