This post is adapted from one titled “Salt of the station street pig and chicken” that originally appeared on the blog of a dear friend and a woman I admire. Rebecca Maclean is both the blogger behind Food Me Once, and also one of the editors and primary authors of the Digging Deep Campaign. Becky and I don’t always see eye to eye, but she understands successful urban environments as both a planner and as a person who has made the dedicated choice to live in the city, small kids and husband in tow. She’s quite an asset to Pittsburgh. I hope they’re starting to get that.
When I tweaked this entry, I did so to highlight Becky’s message about something that can be tough for economic developers and planners to hear: the places that do best are often the places that do so despite us. There’s something that happens in successful neighborhoods that a zoning code, an incentive package, or a nice maps with lots of colors…doesn’t. The critical challenge to our professions in this era is to drop our top-down assumptions and get deep into the understanding of how exactly these places thrive — and how, tactically and incrementally, we can help make that happen.
My distaste for the short-man-in-the-long-cape approach is pretty well known by now, but that’s not the point here. The point is that we need to start looking closely at case studies like Kevin Sousa’s in Pittsburgh: put some effort into taking them apart and understanding the moving parts. We need to analyze the details and the myriad of factors that go into these kind of places, and figure out how to support them – more tactically, more delicately .
We need to regard planning for the revitalization of communities as a social science, not a mechanical, this-goes-in-one-end-and-that-comes-out-the-other process. There are no magic levers, no simple buttons that we can push to make it go. Long-term, resilient, successful places need to grow, with all the messy complexity that comes with that. And if communities seeking revitalization don’t need a Grand Design, they most certainly need a good gardener. One that doesn’t squash or over-water the seedlings.
That is our job. Here’s Becky:
Gentrification. Revitalization. Stabilization. All words that come to mind when you’re thinking about what to do, exactly, with declining urban neighborhoods. But at the core of that “what to do” lies a mental barrier that urban planners (myself included) often fail to address.
At the end of the day, we can’t “do” anything with property that we don’t own – at least not easily or without great cost (financial and otherwise) to the community. This is why many of the best-loved neighborhoods, those that have revitalized and stabilized, are organic ones – places that developed, regrew and thrived for reasons that no planner ever planned. Perhaps they were steered or supported by community development corporations, neighborhood plans, or local planning departments, but, at their core, these places have been driven forward by people on the ground who were willing to take risks, pour their money (and those of their investors) into a place, make connections, and hope it sticks.
Here in Pittsburgh, I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for the East Liberty neighborhood for years. Once the third largest shopping district in Pennsylvania, East Liberty has great history, classic architectural gems, a decades-long period of decline, and some fantastically awful centralized planning decisions. Due to hard work and boots on the ground from the neighborhood Community Development Corporation and other stakeholders, this area is hopping once again. The smaller spaces in the neighborhood have for the most part been slowly rehabbed and now include a mix of established and relatively new businesses.
Here’s the sticky part: who’s the most important stakeholder in this process? The neighborhood resident who stuck it out here through the decline and rebirth? The chamber of commerce? The CDC, which busted its butt trying to get vacant buildings filled with a sustainable mix of tenants, only to get flack because they’re the ‘wrong kind’?
The mix is critical to success, but everyone is always critical of the mix.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I frequent businesses in East Liberty. So many are food-based – two Ethiopian restaurants, a Jamaican place, the cupcake bakery, the pizza shops, the Parisian bistro, the hip local dive bar, the waffle-centered performance art space, the conflict kitchen, the barbeque place, the hot dog shop, the burger bar, the modern American restaurant. As I write this list off the top of my head, I’m struck by the fact that most of these businesses are relatively new. One of the pizza shops is a long-timer; the rest have been operating a decade or less. And although most business owners are happy with any patrons, for the most part the clientele seems to be young, non-minority, hip, with disposable income. I think it’s safe to say that the immediate neighborhood residents would not fit that description. So East Liberty is back to being a destination – which, to be fair, is its historical role.
A conversation with a fellow local food blogger raised a tough question: what level of new investment in a neighborhood is appropriate for someone to bring into the community from outside? Does that level change if the business owners are from the neighborhood, the city, the region – or if they’re a complete outsider? What if they bring with them a certain caché, a cult of personality, a track record for excellence in their world?
Local foodies know by now that I’m talking about Kevin Sousa and his East End restaurant triumvirate (two of which are in East Liberty, and one in the urban core of the neighborhood). His first restaurant, Salt of the Earth in nearby Garfield, earned major accolades from the broader culinary community (Food and Wine and the James Beard Foundation, among others) and has been lauded locally. Rehabbing that building was seen as a Good Thing too, turning a historic Harley Davidson dealership from the 1920s into a hot spot on a stretch of Penn Avenue that sorely needed some eyes on the street at night. He’s followed that up with two restaurants opening almost simultaneously: Station Street Hot Dog Shop, and Union Pig & Chicken. And the grumbling has grown along with his foodie empire.
I just don’t get it. The hot dog shop had been vacant for over a year, and is carrying on the tradition of a hot dog shop in that vicinity (with that name) since 1915. The barbeque place bore the brunt of the complaints, both because people are very opinionated about their barbeque and because a white dude from McKees Rocks is cooking barbeque in the ‘hood (haven’t heard it in quite those terms, but that seems to be the general sentiment).
Food preferences aside (though I admit to being an avid fan of Kevin’s cooking), I keep wanting to ask the naysayers these questions:
- What would you have put in place of those restaurants? Both storefronts were vacant. Both places are continuing the traditions of their locations. While neither place is the cheapest place I can get a hot dog or some fried chicken, they’re not overpriced. If $22 is too much to pay for a really good rack of ribs, why would you willingly pay $20.99 at a chain restaurant for a mediocre rack?
- If you don’t want a Local Boy Done Good to bring restaurants to your vacant storefronts, where should he go? He’s a successful businessman with a solid following who chose to try new things in a neighborhood that needed it, and said they wanted it (one of the goals in the neighborhood plan is to become a dining destination, after all). He could have rested on his laurels and replicated his brand in the suburbs, and he didn’t.
Me, I’m happy to support a local businessman who serves food that I feel comfortable feeding to my kids in an area of the city that I love. Obviously, a lot of other people feel that way too.
This debate isn’t unique to East Liberty, or Pittsburgh. I lived in another city neighborhood a decade ago whose parochial blue hairs tried to run the Hispanic businesses off the main street – apparently they liked vacant storefronts more. But if you alienate the small business owner, who is supposedly the lifeblood of the American economy, sooner or later you’ll end up in a chain store (or vacant window) wasteland. That’s not what I’m interested in, at all.
Thanks, Becky. Take me to lunch the next time I’m in town, OK?