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

Guide to unique, interesting, and fun classes and workshops in Pittsburgh

School may be out for the summer but there’s still plenty of opportunity to get your learn on. From day-long workshops to weekly evening classes, there’s tons of chances to try something new or pick up long-forgotten hobbies once again.

Knitting/crocheting

Whether you’re picking up a pair of needles for the first time, looking to perfect your purling skills, or ready to make the perfect pair of socks, a knitting or crochet class is a great opportunity to pull out the yarn and needles. The following locations offer a variety of classes for all skill levels.

Dyed in the Wool
3458 Babcock Boulevard
Pittsburgh,  PA 15237
(412) 364-0310

Yarns Be Design
622 Allegheny River Boulevard
Oakmont, PA 15139
(412) 794-8332

Natural Stitches
6401 Penn Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15206
(412) 441-4410

Knit One
2721 Murray Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA, 15217
(412) 421-6666

Wine and Whiskey

Dreadnought Wines in the Strip District has a variety of classes for different levels of expertise, including both Wine and Spirit Education Trust Certifications and more casual tastings.
2013 Penn Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15222
(800) 565 2816

Wigle Whiskey, one of the Strip’s newest establishments, distills their own whiskey and gin onsite in traditional copper pots and using local ingredients. They offer tours on Saturdays, plus have events like labeling parties and the annual tar and feather celebration.
2401 Smallman Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15222
(412) 224-2827

Arts, Crafts, and Tech

The Society for Contemporary Craft holds day-long and evening workshops using all kinds of crafts and materials: fiber, wood, book arts and paper, metal, and mixed media.
2100 Smallman Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15222
(412) 261-7003

Union Project is a neighborhood space for people to come together and connect, create, and celebrate. They currently offer ceramics classes, Zumba, salsa, yoga, and hula hoop lessons.
801 N Negley Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15206
(412) 363-4550

Cut and Sew Studio offers a social sewing environment, with all tools and materials available, for people looking to learn how to sew, wanting to get better at it, or working on specific or independent projects.
5901 Bryant Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15206
(412) 865- 6565

Saxifrage, described as a higher education nomadic campus, offers classes in woodworking, computer programming, organic agriculture, graphic and user-centered design, map and geographic information systems, and carpentry.

TechShop is a community-based workshopping space for people who want access to industrial tools and equipment. Classes are offered in a wide range of industry, such as woodshop, metal work, silk screening, welding, embroidery, computer design, 3D printing, and much more.
192 Bakery Square Boulevard
Pittsburgh, PA 15206
(412) 345-7182

Improv/Comedy

Steel City Improv has multi-level 8-week classes for both budding and more experienced comedians to hone their craft. Students have the opportunity to perform on stage, plus the chance to audition for the house teams and/or form independent groups.
5950 Ellsworth Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15232
404-2695

Improv Academy also offers weekly classes, as well as private sessions for actors or writers, film, television, on-set work with production companies, and improv troupes.
109 Market Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15222
(412) 407-3319

Arcade Comedy Theater explores the many different forms and type of improvisational and standup comedy through various weekly classes, including some aimed towards kids and teens. They also host monthly workshops taught by visiting and local professionals.
811 Liberty Avenue

Pittsburgh PA, 15222
(412) 339-0608

The University of Funny has a comedy 101 class to teach adults the basics of comedy. Mic technique, confidence in front of crowds, and the art of standup are all explored to find your inner funny.
(412) 573-9444

Miscellaneous

Free Ride in Point Breeze isn’t so much a bike repair shop as it is a bike education facility. The idea is that you volunteer your time, paired with a willingness to learn, and the staff at Free Ride teaches you how to build, and repair, your own bike. They have a variety of earn-a bike programs for both adults and children, as well as individual classes throughout the week.
Construction Junction
214 N. Lexington Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15208
(412) 254-3774

The Allegheny Observatory in Riverview Park offers tours Thursday and Friday nights in the warmer months. Tours start with a short presentation, followed by a walking tour of the building, and then end at the 13-inch Fitz-Clark refractor telescope. Public lectures are also offered every month.
159 Riverview Avenue

Pittsburgh, PA 15214
(412) 321-2400

While not necessarily a class or workshop, we’d be remiss to not mention Trundle Manor in a list of unique learning opportunities in Pittsburgh. Billed as “the most unusual tourist trap in the world meets the most bizarre private collection on public display,” you can tour (by appointment only) the manor’s antique taxidermy, old world charm, sadistic medical devices, coffins and coffin like items, Steampunk influenced creations, cryptozoology, and much more.
7724 Juniata Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15218
(412) 916-5544

Of course, all locations of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh have a plethora of classes, events, and workshops, from knitting book clubs and video game gatherings to language clubs and computer classes.

What cool classes and workshops did we miss? Leave us a message on Facebook, send us a tweet, or email Catherine@iheartpgh.com. And keep a look out for our posts on cooking/dining classes in the ‘Burgh and free/pay-what-you-can yoga!

Let’s Get Tarred and Feathered

I am embarrased that I have not posted more about Wigle Whiskey here on IheartPGH.  Earlier this summer, the folks who own Wigle helped me to plan a tour and tasting of their fine facility as a going away party for a friend.  This was a tall order – I wanted the going away festivities to be something that would make my friend really want to stay in Pittsburgh.  Meredith, of of the family members that owns and operates Wigle, went above and beyond – the tour was fun, funny and educational – and a nice alternative to you usual going away happy hour.  And there was plenty of the happy hour spirits flowing – the tour starts with a cocktail and ends with a tasting.  Sign up at WigleWhiskey.com for an upcoming tour.  Tours fill up quickly.

But you don’t want to wait for the tour? Well you are in luck – the folks at Wigle are celebrating the whiskey rebellion with a free tar and feather party this Friday.

What does Wigle have to do with the Whiskey Rebellion?

Wigle Whiskey is named after Philip Wigle who was a key player in the Whiskey Rebellion. In 1794, Phillip Wigle defended his right to distill in a tussle with a tax collector. He unwittingly helped spark the Whiskey Rebellion, which pitted Pennsylvania distillers against George Washington’s troops.

Why Tar and Feathers?

Tarring and Feathering has historically been used to protest taxes in Europe and in America. During the Whiskey Rebellion, local tax collectors were tarred and feathered by Pittsburgh distillers. The distillers were living on what was considered the frontier and felt betrayed by their new government eastward. Pittsburgh was then the epicenter of American whiskey production and so was the hardest hit by the distillation tax enacted by Alexander Hamilton and George Washington.

Will there really be tar and feathers?

Think of it as a creative interpretation of tar and feathering – Wigle has invited the creative minds at the Mattress Factory, Attack Theater, Society for Contemporary Craft, Toonseum, Carnegie Library and the Carnegie Science Center to create a modern, safe, and presumably less messy  interpretation of tar and feathering.

Will I be able to drink whiskey at the event with out being tarred?

Yes!  The event is free and open to all. Attendees will have the opportunity to purchase $5 whiskey cocktails and food from Pittsburgh food trucks, including the Pittsburgh Taco Truck, Franktuary and the Goodie Truck.

Wigle Whiskey Tar & Feather Party
Friday, Aug 24 from 6-9 PM
Wigle Whiskey Distillery, 2401 Smallman Street
Free Admission!
Facebook Event

Wigle Whiskey on Urbanspoon

Bikes, Beer & A Better Pittsburgh – Two Wheels Lots of Green, Aug. 11

I love writing blog posts about events that combine lots of great things – I think it was last summer that I started noticing some super collaborations among Pittsburgh organizations.  Two Wheels and a Lot of Green may take the cake for an event that combines a whole lot of Pittsburgh goodness into one action packed day.

Some of the folks who do amazing things for Pittsburgh that are partnering on this event…

  • GTECH – GTECH is short for Growth Through Energy + Community Health.  GTECH is a Pittsburgh based non-profit that is doing some great work in Pittsburgh and elsewhere around the country around reclaiming vacant land, energy conservation and job creation.  GTECH has a couple of core areas of programming that you can read about here.  One of the things you may have seen are their sunflower lots around Pittsburgh.
  • BikeFest – each summer, BikePgh organizes a week long celebration of all things bicycyle in Pittsburgh.  There are lots of events – something for every level of cyclist.
  • Tapped Pop Up Beer Gardens – new to Pittsburgh this summer – the folks who run Bar Marco have been organizing a pop up beer garden – beer,  drinks and food trucks are popping up in different vacant lots around town.  The one in July was awesome – lots of great people and fine food. Lawrenceville

 

As part of BikePgh’s annual Bike Fest – GTECH is organizing Two Wheels and a Lot of Green – a bicycle tour around Pittsburgh to check out some of the sites that GTECH has been working on to reclamation vacant land in East Liberty, Homewood, Larimer, Wilkinsburg and Millvale! Each bike route will feature several sites with refreshing drink stops and QR-code accessible video stories about the community and site’s transformation.

After the bike ride you can hang out at the Tapped Beer Garden which will be held at GTECH HQ.

Two Wheels and a Lot of Green
Saturday, August 11, 2012
10-Noon Bike Tour $10 includes lunch
Noon-11pm Tapped Beer Garden – free admission
Facebook Event – http://www.facebook.com/events/450570881644421/ 

Are you a Bird Nerd?

Bird - Blue Jay

Bird - Blue Jay (Photo credit: blmiers2)

I would not really describe myself as a birder – but I have a few friends who are – and I have to say the bird watching stuff sort of rubs off on your. My sister and her good friend were visiting in Florida and have gone out of their way to look for certain birds.  I have joined in on a few of these trips – I was more excited about seeing a dolphin than the pelicans.  Last year when we were visiting some family in Florida, we went to the store (aka took a break from the family) – on our way to Target my sister shrieked and I almost ran the car off the road – turn out the elusive crane she had been hunting for just chilling in the Target parking lot.

And if you really, REALLY, really like birds and you find yourself in Venice, FL – you should stop and see the Venice bird rookery.

Anyhow, if you are a bird nerd or tend to hang around with bird nerds – then you might be interested in some of these events for the Great Backyard Bird Count.

Just want to check out some birds from your computer screen?

The Audubon Society of Western PA has a Live Bird Feeder Camera here.