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:

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.
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

FREE Green Building Workshop on Feb. 18

English: Logo of the .

Image via Wikipedia

The Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation is a great organization that has been doing some great work here in Pittsburgh since 1964.  This workshop is just one of the many programs they offer throughout the year.

If you are looking to learn more about historic buildings or just want to meet some great people – check out one of their SOTS events.   SOTS is short for the Society of Tavern Seekers – every few months they meet at a historic bar in Pittsburgh for a happy hour event.

‘Building Green’ with ARTEMIS Environmental

What does “building green” really mean?

Green building is an often over-used and not entirely understood term.  For our February workshop at the Landmarks Housing Resource Center in Wilkinsburg, Ian Miller, managing partner of Artemis Environmental in Lawrenceville, will discuss elements of green building and design.

He will also talk about Artemis Environmental’s wide range of products, which include everything from boards made of sustainable materials such as bamboo and sunflower seeds to toxic free finishers and recycled tiles. Mr. Miller’s show-and-tell of sustainable building products will include a demonstration of American Clay plaster and cork flooring.

Date: Saturday, February 18
Time:10:00am to 11:30am
Location: Landmarks Housing Resource Center
744 Rebecca Ave, Wilkinsburg, PA 15221
Map and driving directions

Janice Webb Donatelli started Artemis Environmental, which is located at 3709 Butler Street in Lawrenceville, in 2005.

Mr. Miller is transforming Artemis from a high quality green building products supplier into a full-scale design, supplier and installation business.

Mr. Miller is owner of Zambano and Sons, a general contracting firm focused primarily on residential remodeling and exterior hardscape projects. He lives with his wife, Carla, a landscape architect, their daughters, Stella and Rose in a 100-year old house in Friendship that has no shortage of green remodeling projects on the horizon.

This workshop is FREE

RSVPs are appreciated. Contact Mary Lu Denny: or 412-471-5808 ext. 527.

Yinz Asked, We Answered: Summer Birthday Ideas

Yinz Asked:

“As I’m getting older, it’s getting harder and harder to find things to do to celebrate my birthday with friends. I’ll be 32 the last week of June and I have a mix of friends with a range of ages and interests. I’d like to share my day with a lot of my friends, but I have no idea what we could all do together. Any suggestions on where we could go or what we could do?” – JK

We Answered:

Celebrating a birthday is a great excuse to organize a group and take advantage of some of the great things going on about town in the summer. Here are some ideas:

1) The annual Citiparks’ “Dollar Bank Cinema in the Park” is a great option for groups of different ages and interests. Choose from Flagstaff Hill, Riverview Park, Grandview Park in Mt. Washington, Arsenal Park in Lawrenceville, Brookline Memorial Park, East Liberty or West End/Elliott Overlook. Tell your friends to grab a blanket, and have a potluck picnic dinner (don’t forget your birthday cake!). Flagstaff Hill alone has “Julie and Julia” and “Where the Wild Things Are” both playing at the end of June. It runs Sundays and Wednesdays throughout the summer. This option is casual and inexpensive and it takes advantage of a fun Pittsburgh summer tradition.

For details go the CitiPark’s website,, or call 412-422-6426.

2)  Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation has free walking tours on Fridays and Saturdays.  Why not gather your group and tour around, ending at a great restaurant?  For a small fee, you can also tailor walking tours to your likes/dislikes and get a customized tour.  See Pittsburgh from a new perspective: do the “Downtown Pittsburgh” walking tour and hit one of the many large restaurants at Station Square for a celebratory meal.

For reservations and more information call Mary Lu Denny at 412-471-5808 or check out the website at

3)  Golden Triangle Bike Rental, located downtown on the Eliza Furnace trail, has group tours/rentals.  This locally owned/operated business will customize a tour for your party.  You can even stop for dinner, or a drink, all the while sightseeing the city from the bike trails.  They will work with what sounds fun to you.

Call 412-600-0675  or

As you get tired of the usual birthday party ideas, think outside of the box.  Try  a group event that gets you out of the house, a gathering where you can learn something and get some fresh air.  If people have diverse interests, there will surely be something in these ideas for everyone, and the shared experience will bring the gang together.  Most importantly, find something that YOU enjoy and have a great birthday!