A Transformed Penn Avenue
A market and shopping place by day; a bustling creative gallery expo by night. Penn Avenue has transformed into a hub of creative energy through efforts by the Penn Avenue Arts Initiative.
You’ve just eaten one of the best meals Pittsburgh has to offer.
As you walk out into a warm Friday night, you rave about what you’ve just consumed—full and happy. You casually stroll down a street filled with students, artists and musicians, and you spend the next couple of hours popping in and out of art galleries; some of the work is shocking, some is affirming, some makes you wonder if you can spare a little cash to get it on your wall.
When you tire, you duck into a coffee shop and take stock of a night full of food, fun and art. Come morning, these streets will be lined with happy children and energetic young families on the way to fresh markets and shopping. But, for now, it’s a neighborhood full of life, art, and enthusiasm.
And you’ll never guess which neighborhood this is.
Thanks to nearly 13 years of effort, a 10-block stretch of Penn Avenue that spans Friendship, Garfield and Bloomfield has been transformed from a mostly abandoned series of storefronts to a revitalized hub of activity.
Two groups, Friendship Development Associates and the Bloomfield Garfield Corporation, began collaborating in 1998 on what would become the Penn Avenue Arts Initiative—a bold strategy to revitalize the neighborhood, not through traditional efforts in housing and business development, but through the arts instead.
“The people who initiated [PAAI] had visited some other rust-belt type communities that were using this mechanism to attract investment,” says Michele Morris, president of the Friendship Development Associates Board and, of course, a Friendship resident. “They saw some really good examples.”
The beginning of the initiative saw the purchase of 18 unused properties—all between 4800 and 5500 Penn Ave.—that were rehabilitated and sold at incredibly low prices to arts groups looking to develop or individual artists. All 18 are still in use today. During its tenure, vacancy in those blocks has dropped by more than 55 percent, according to the Initiative’s website.
After so much success, Morris says, it’s time to decide what’s next for the neighborhood.
“Right now, we’re trying to figure out a strategy to engage people to develop their properties—or sell them to people who want to develop,” she says. “How do we convince them that it’s to the benefit of the whole community?”
The specific future of this area is being decided now, but Morris says it will likely involve more initiatives to draw families to the neighborhood. She cites the presence of Whole Foods, Home Depot and the soon-to-open Target in nearby East Liberty as features unique to the city limits. With those amenities and recreational opportunities for families (and parents), this neighborhood could become Pittsburgh’s destination for young families.
Meanwhile, the galleries are already a hub for 20- and 30-somethings, particularly on the first Friday of every month—a regular gallery crawl known as Unblurred.
At Unblurred, a dozen galleries open their doors; heavyweights like the Pittsburgh Glass Center and Dance Alloy Theater (both headquartered on Penn Avenue) hold interactive, participatory events; coffee shops like the ultra-popular Quiet Storm bring music and spoken word; restaurants and cafes offer tastes of their fare—and more.
Other than downtown’s Gallery Crawl, its the only regular neighborhood-wide arts event in town.
“There is a very, very wide range of art,” Morris says. “There is something for everyone. Every gallery has its own little following, and you get some spillage into the next gallery.”
At a recent Unblurred, a new neighbor got in the act: acclaimed restaurant Salt of the Earth. Since opening in the fall, Salt instantly became one of the most-talked-about spots in town; after being open for less than six months, the small restaurant on Penn Avenue attracted enough attention that Kevin Sousa, its chef and co-owner, was named a semifinalist in the prestigious James Beard Foundation Restaurant Awards.
Salt is, however, very much a part of the neighborhood. At April’s Unblurred, staff members hung out at the Glass Lofts and handed out samples. It’s not very surprising that they would get in on the act: Previously, Sousa was a member of the Friendship Development Associates board.
“He’s been a part of the process, and he’s been an asset to the community,” Morris says.
Within a few months, PAAI will decide what’s next, and development will continue along Penn Avenue (several properties available now are listed on the organization’s website) and in nearby East Liberty.
By rights, this should attract more than a fair share of new residents to one of Pittsburgh’s under-appreciated neighborhoods.
And with world-class food, an abundance of art, historic homes and so much more, it’s about time.
The next Unblurred event will be held the evening of June 3 on Penn Avenue. Info: friendship-pgh.org/paai.