A Quick Little Post, Community and Economic Development, Opinion, Uncategorized

Another Drive Down The Pennsylvania Turnpike; A Quick Little Post.

When I set up an appointment in January to meet with Mr. Rick Swartz of the Bloomfield-Garfield Development Corporation in Pittsburgh, PA, I didn’t know that there wouldn’t be any snow on February 20th 2018, but that it was almost 80 degrees there.  Not only was traffic on the freeways fine for a weekday, but for once someone else happened to drive; a fellow East 185th St. Block Watcher named Dennis who actually was willing to drive!

Pittsburgh February 20, 2018, Offices of the Bloomfield-Garfield Dev Corp.

The Offices of the Bloomfield-Garfield Development Corporation.

Anyway, the main purpose of this road trip back down the turnpikes was to meet with the Director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Development Corporation, Rick Swartz, and later finally see Bakery Square.  Rick has been the Executive Director of this community development corporation as long as I have been familiar with the neighborhood.  In January, I sent him an email asking if I could ask a few questions related to the project I’m working on.  He replied that he’d be more than happy to and eventually agreed to meeting the day after Presidents’ Day.  What turned out what I thought would be a fifteen to thirty minute chat became almost an hour until our busy schedules put an end to it.  He was very nice in answering not only my questions but providing more information and leads than I imagined (of course most will be put in my project and not on this blog).  I will say this though; they have a lot of hard-working people working there and it’s all based on the premise that a decentralized, and team player, approach  to community revitalization is what really works.

The day was full of surprises in a way, not just the almost summer like weather or the hamburg I had for lunch with Dennis and one Jason Sauer at a place called Tessaro’s.  By trying to find out where Jason (the subject of a few posts on this blog) is renovating an old house he bought (named Rowdy Park after his son), my colleague and I accidentally stumbled upon one of the latest and I think more impressive projects built in the neighborhood; Garfield Commons.  Driving up the hill from Penn Avenue, I did see the infill housing construction done on vacant lost on those streets but a development like Garfield Commons really surprised me.  Built by a public-private partnership between the City Housing Authority and a private developer, Garfield Commons is the only mixed income project in the neighborhood.  Only one-half the units are slated for low-income households, the rest is moderate.   In fact, as the picture below shows, the units wouldn’t stick out in a suburban development here in Hudson or Avon.  This is not what one would imagine for low-income residents and that’s the point.  While there is still a lot of blight and abandonment in Garfield, things have really been changing in the past ten years.

The development corporation got into developing housing originally because no one else wanted to do so.  Now, developers are coming in on their own. For existing home owners, many being African-Americans, whereas in the past if you sold your house you’d only get what you paid for, property values have now risen enough that they actually have equity.  Instead of being pushed out like they were in places like the Lower Hill decades ago, neighborhood residents will see their homes appreciate in value.

Ironically, the existence of Bakery Square a mile down the road, and Google’s 450 employees there, hasn’t really impacted the community.  What has, are the universities with their adjoining technology programs and the researchers who need a place to live.  However, Garfield is far from being gentrified which is exactly what Rick and his staff don’t want to happen.  Somewhere down the line, he would like to see a Land Trust set up to focus on preserving the neighborhood’s affordability. “We will not be here forever as the Bloomfield-Garfield Development Corporation,” he said.


A view of Columbia Street in the Garfield Commons development,

Once again, I am absolutely grateful for Mr. Swartz taking the time out of his busy schedule to talk with me in person like he did.  For someone like myself who has basically self-published or written locally that was quite amazing.

Sometimes you are just meant to do something.

Pittsburgh February 20, 2018, View from Jason's yard towards Downtown.

The view from Hillcrest Street looking towards downtown.


Photographs by James Valentino



A Quick Little Post, Community and Economic Development, My blog., Uncategorized

A Walk Down Walnut Street: A Quick Little Post.


Walnut Street looking West.

Pittsburgh called me again on Sunday and I drove down the Turnpike to spend a few hours there.  As a post from last year shows, I have become familiar with some of the neighborhoods on the East side of that city and moved beyond Penn Avenue to see places further afield such as Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill and finally the campus of Carnegie-Mellon.  Another street I went back to was Walnut Street in the Shadyside neighborhood.  This time around, I managed to do something I wasn’t able to do last year; find a parking spot.  As a result, I was able to hit the sidewalk and explore a really unique street.





Walnut was not a major thoroughfare but, as the existence of many old commercial buildings showed, this was a community shopping area of long-standing.  However, besides a drug store, bank and an apparently really busy diner called Pamela’s, there were other stores that seemed to have plopped down there from a high-end suburban lifestyle center.  I saw high end boutiques with designer labels, a smart phone store with millennials standing in front of the new products, even a what looked like a very nice florist shop.  Here in Cleveland, a J. Crew would be at Legacy Village or Crocker Park and not on a street like East 185th or Murray Hill Road, but that’s what has happened in Pittsburgh.

They even had a L’Occitane en Provence, a high end body and skin care chain, in a shop on a corner.   I stopped inside and saw a scene that would be more fitting for Beachwood Mall in the Cleveland area than in the central city.  There were all the various products assembled in appealing displays, a modish decor, and an attentive sales clerk who told me that Pamela’s had the best pancakes she ever tasted.  Since there was a line of people out the door, I did not take up on her suggestion and lunched later in Squirrel Hill, but it just goes to show how busy this street can be even on a Sunday morning.


One of the nearby residential streets.

The presence of such areas within the central city limits is interesting to me as a Clevelander.  In fact, many of these neighborhoods within Pittsburgh’s city limits provide a learning opportunity for many of us here to emulate in our own neighbhorhoods.


Walnut Street looking East.



Photographs by James Valentino


A Quick Little Post, Opinion, Uncategorized

Return to Pittsburgh: A Quick Little Post.

It took three years, but I managed to hop in the car and drive down to Pittsburgh PA yesterday and go to Mr. Jason Sauer’s Pittsburgh Art Car extravaganza on Penn Avenue. Having gone to the one in 2013, as this old piece I wrote shows, the event has since then tripled in size.  He was expecting Pittsburgh’s Mayor Bill Peduto to be there, as well as Richard Swartz of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation, but I had to head back to Ohio before I was able to meet either of them.  However, I did see what really mattered, Jason’s wife and little son Rowdy; who was having the time of his life throwing chalk and picking up leaves.


The 2016 Pittsburgh Artcar Show.

Not only has Pittsburgh Art Car, but Penn Avenue itself has flourished.  I noticed that they completely repaved the street (like they did up here on Waterloo Road in my North Shore Collinwood neighborhood) but he was saying how only two of his freestanding sculptures he put in lot remain.  Apparently, the properties have been bought and are in the process of being redeveloped.  As for Jason, he bought a bunch of lots a few streets North of Penn, and up the hill, and plan to move his operations there.


A quiet street off of Penn Avenue.

In fact, as I drove around a huge part of the city before parking my car, I did see some of what planners and writers have been talking about.  There are a lot of young people there, vibrant neighborhoods, and as a result very little parking.  The most important thing I noticed was that this was broad-based.  Squirrel Hill is not close to Garfield and students attending Chatham or Carnegie Mellon cannot account for all the people I saw on Walnut Street with all its’ stores.  Except for Little Italy, the city of Cleveland has nothing like that on the East Side; and only in pockets of such activity on the West Side for that matter.


Downtown Pittsburgh seen admist the construction work on Route 28.

Clevelanders can learn something from them.


Photographs by James Valentino


From Metals to Minds; what’s good for Pittsburgh also good for Cleveland?

University Circle, looking East on Euclid with UH buildings, May 10, 2015

Euclid Avenue looking East in the University Circle area, May of this year. Photograph by James Valentino.

Recently, I’ve decided to download a copy of a report called From Metal to Minds” Economic Restructuring in the Rust Belt. Written by Cleveland State University faculty members Richey Piiparinen, Charlie Post, and Pacific Standard contributor Jim Russell, this report is just one of a series being written for the Urban Studies and Planning Commons of Cleveland State University’s College of Urban Affairs. In their report, they discuss their concept of a “knowledge society”, the economic impact it is currently having in Pittsburgh, and what they argue is starting to happen here in Cleveland. They believe that knowledge itself is becoming an export industry that in turn attracts capital and companies to locate in such areas. As they explain regarding Pittsburgh, that city’s new economy is “largely fed by two components, (1) an educational service industry that is tradable or exportable (2) a research industry that is attracting R & D expenditures from outside the region. Both components are globally sourced.” (Metals to Minds, page 17) Universities play a key role in this development, which can also be, as Constance M. Yowell of the MacArthur Foundation called it “a learning mechanism” Big tech looks for a knowledge network which is usually centered on a top research university, be it the University of Waterloo in Canada, Carnegie Mellon (CMU) in Pittsburgh, or when it comes to Cleveland Case Western Reserve University. Jim Russell and his colleagues go on the argue that “If used strategically, R & D expenditures allow for the creation of a ‘knowledge society’ described here as a regional economy in which knowledge production does not so much create industry, but rather is industry.” (Metals to Minds, Page 17). This is exactly what is happening in Pittsburgh. Naturally, the report leads to more questions. Is Cleveland creating a dense R & D environment? Is the idea of a ‘knowledge society’ as elusive as Richard Florida’s Creative Class? Is it geared towards a highly educated elite or will it create well-paying jobs for the average Clevelander? How would a knowledge society relate to Bruce Katz’ idea of an innovation district? If the one thing Cleveland has, medical research, makes it considered a locus for a Knowledge Society, isn’t that just as short-sighted as when Pittsburgh put all its hopes on steel, or Detroit with the Automobile Industry? What is wrong for a city’s knowledge sector not just exporting but also producing emerging industries? How much of this longstanding economic and community impacts directly benefit Cleveland’s neighborhoods and inner ring suburbs, or don’t they matter? In regards to Cleveland, it seems that job growth in the Health Corridor is outpacing it in Greater Cleveland as a whole. The vast majority of this growth is in health care. Now, should it all be meds? Why not eds? Why not this learning ecosystem generate green industries or design high-end consumer goods? There is nothing wrong with diversifying the economic portfolio.

Univeristy Circle, June 7, 2015 another view of Wade Lagoon

Wade Lagoon in the Fine Arts Garden with Wade Chapel and Case Western Reserve University in the distance. Photograph by James Valentino.

The authors are correct about the role legacy assists of the industrial age playing a major role in a city’s redevelopment. The larger the city, the more these assess a city has, and can utilize for its’ rebirth. The city of Cleveland itself still possesses many such assets, some in the Downtown area but most notably in the University Circle neighborhood with such institutions as the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall, and most notably Case Western Reserve University all major economic engines for the region. Many institutions around University Circle have participated in a residential tax credit scheme for people to live in a few miles of say the Cleveland Clinic campus on Euclid Avenue. Called Greater Circle Living (GCL), it was started in 2008 to help area institution employees be able to live there. Theoretically, the more knowledge sector companies come to University Circle, the more employees will be attracted to this program. A trickle down effect to urban revival so to speak. It sounds nice until one realizes that those same people can someday just use the Opportunity Corridor, now under construction, and commute from places like Avon Ohio. However, Jim Russell, in a recent email, wrote that he was worried far more about the gentrification of areas around University Circle. “The benefits won’t trickle down; residential displacement is a serious threat.” On the other hand, in that same email, Mr. Russell believes that Cleveland is on the verge of new mindset; how manage an economic boom. For a city with has been trying to find a panacea for its’ decades long decline, this is almost like a new world being laid out before it. As the report says, “The key here is that when information technology, or the innovative ways to access information, co-exists with centers of knowledge production, then a cyclical effect takes hold. That is, better access to information enables better knowledge creation, and advancement in education leads to better information. This is the knowledge society in a nutshell. And it has the capacity to evolve cities like Pittsburgh-and yes, Cleveland-profoundly, with longstanding economic and community impacts.” (Metals to Minds, page 21)


Report, photograph by James Valentino.

We will see if this becomes a reality in the upcoming years.


Pittsburgh Calling: a Clevelander’s return to Penn Avenue.

Pittsburgh, September 2013

Pittsburgh, September 2013


Here’s another piece I’ve gotten published last year that I think should be kept out on the web-o-sphere because they are really doing great things in Pittsburgh.

“It took me three years, but this Fall I finally went back to Pittsburgh’s Penn Avenue.

The former Steel Town has been in the news for over a decade as a rust belt success story. While other industrial cities, like Detroit, slide into bankruptcy, Pittsburgh is not only stable but has gained in population. A lot of it has to do with the very strong network of community development organizations, such as the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation which serves the East End neighborhoods that includes Penn Avenue.

It was what was happening in this city that got me to go out there in the first place. On a learning exchange program, I went in October 2010 to see Penn Avenue. It was there that I met Jason Sauer who owns the Most Wanted Fine Art Gallery and is director of the Penn Avenue Arts Initiative (PAAI). Created in 1998 the PAAI was designed to help foster art galleries and studios along this old depressed commercial strip. As he took me and a guest around the street, Jason told me that they leveraged $6.7 million into $58 million in real investments from façade renovations to completely brand new construction. Since then, he and his wife, Nina, have brought fellow artists up to Cleveland and we kept in touch. So, returning to Penn Avenue has always been on my radar.

Most Wanted Fine Art on Penn Avenue.

Most Wanted Fine Art on Penn Avenue.

Jason had his Pittsburgh Art Car Show featuring hot rods and other souped-up vehicles, including his own. It is the second year he has held it and the very fact it didn’t rain made him feel that it was a success. There was a diverse crowd of people, mainly millennials but others too, who saw the cars, watched the spray painting contest, and cheered the ladies who participated in a pin-up girl contest. I was impressed when he told me that others from Ohio, and as far away as Washington DC came there to participate.

Most Wanted Fine Art owner Jason Sauer getting things ready for his event.

Most Wanted Fine Art owner Jason Sauer getting things ready for his event.

Penn Avenue is a working class neighborhood that has, to all appearances, seen better days. You see the small storefronts built one hundred years ago, the dense urban fabric, the empty lots and the downtown Pittsburgh skyline soaring to the West. However, if you take a closer look, you can see that things have been changing for the better. Total investment in the neighborhood continues to grow. Jason told me that, on the streets to the north for example, 45 houses were built last year. As I went back down I-79 to the Pennsylvania Turnpike three hours later, I kept thinking about how much we in Cleveland can learn from these people.

According to Rick Swartz, executive director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation in an email he sent to this writer, Pittsburgh has become a city of community organizations, neighborhood development corporations, and business district associations that don’t owe allegiance to any political faction. The role that the councilman and mayor have in the allocation of resources for example is quite meager.

A spray painting contest.

A spray painting contest.

Jason Sauer's car at his event.

Jason Sauer’s car at his event.

Whereas, in Cleveland, there is an excess supply of abandoned homes, real estate pressures in Pittsburgh are such that people are getting, as Rick Swartz put it, “pushed out of neighborhoods that previously no one in the educated classes wanted to live in.” He was worried that, with funds from Harrisburg dramatically declining, organizations like his cannot truly undertake building more affordable housing in the city.

Cleveland’s neighborhoods have been trying to turn around after years of decline with mixed results. North Shore Collinwood has fared better than most. This lakefront community lies in the ward of one Councilman, Michael D. Polensek. Representing Ward 11, soon renamed Ward 8, of the Collinwood area since January 1978, he has been passionate about the area and the efforts to redevelop it.

“We have to remain believers in the community,” Councilman Polensek told the crowd at the East 185 Street Block Watch meeting in October, “I’ve never stopped believing.” However, when told about how Pittsburgh does it, he saw the merits of the community organizations doing it on their own as well. Here in Cleveland he referred to himself and his colleagues as ‘clearing houses’ for these groups. For example, the councilman gave $400,000 annually towards the two development corporations in his ward. Therefore, the Northeast Shores Development Corporation in North Shore Collinwood, and others elsewhere, receive essential funding from a source that in Pittsburgh doesn’t exist.

Councilman Polensek went on to discuss the big projects being undertaken in his ward. In June, the State of Ohio transferred three lakefront parks to the Cleveland Metroparks, the Euclid Creek Tunnel Project is almost finished, and recently Cleveland City Council approved funding of $225,000 to go towards renovating the historic LaSalle Theater on East 185 Street. As for Waterloo Road, North Shore Collinwood’s answer to Penn Avenue, more than $6.5 million has been spent on a streetscape project and storefront renovations.

As to neighborhood stability, Pittsburgh didn’t have to go through a crippling desegregation busing case nor a foreclosure tsunami that Cleveland has, “House values drop, you’re underwater,” Councilman Polensek said over the phone later that week, “people cannot afford five grand to fix a roof or put in a new furnace since they cannot get a home improvement loan. So they walk away.”

Cleveland and Pittsburgh have responded differently to urban decline with naturally different results. The regional conferences are long gone but that doesn’t mean that together we still can’t communicate and come up with great ideas for the region. Perhaps, we can collaborate someday again on how to make our cities even better.”

Penn Avenue in Pittsburgh looking towards Downtown, September 2013.

Penn Avenue in Pittsburgh looking towards Downtown, September 2013.

I’ve been checking up on Jason and his endeavors during the year and he has opened a second gallery right near the river.  I couldn’t go back down there this Fall like I planned but plan to at least try next year and check things out again.  It would be nice to see how other areas of the city, from neighboring Lawrenceville to Squirrel Hill and Oakland, are doing, and perhaps meet some more community activists and planners trying to turn things around.  Cleveland can learn a lot from them.