A creative new project in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, is all about changing the conversation around vacancy and abandonment in the community. In its second year, the Vacant Home Tour tells the story behind several vacant homes and businesses, reminding visitors of the rich history of the neighborhood, and inviting participants to view properties as opportunities instead of liabilities. This year’s organizing team included Karlee Turkaly and René Cuenca, two recent Carnegie Mellon University graduates , Marlee Gallagher from the Wilkinsburg CDC, and Marita Garrett, Wilkinsburg Council Vice President. We were lucky enough to connect with Marita to ask a few questions about how the tour came about and what it takes to pull it off. Here are her answers:
What was the inspiration behind the Vacant Home Tour? What does it hope to accomplish?
The initial influences for this project came from a variety of sources during the design phase including Candy Chang’s “I Wish This Was” project, the invaluable interactions with Wilkinsburg residents at the Hosanna House, and a community walk through of the blighted neighborhood. They found that, while there once was rich history embedded in these homes there also was a vibrant community that currently existed in the neighborhood despite of people’s idea that Wilkinsburg was blighted.
One other big inspiration was Wilkinsburg resident Dee Briggs’ House of Gold project (house-of-gold.com). The group of Carnegie Mellon University students who came up with the tour concept met with Dee during the fall 2014 semester. Dee painted a blighted house she acquired all with gold as a way dematerialize it and communicate the inherent value of it beyond its structure. By commemorating this forgotten house in this way, she used the paint and a historic narrative to tell the story of the house and to raise funds to complete a “gentle demolition” — an effort to honor the house’s history and legacy by dismantling it piece by piece so that the building materials could be salvaged and used for a future project.
The Vacant Home Tour was conceived under the same sensitivity of wanting to dematerialize vacant and abandoned properties so that people can change their perception we have around blight and consider them opportunities rather than liabilities. The Vacant Home Tour engages current residents to research the house history of vacant properties in their neighborhood and to put together the narrative of each house on the tour. In this way, the VHT stitches together the narrative of the neighborhood by humanizing the memories of these homes while inviting others to challenge their idea of blight by experiencing the vibrant community that currently exists in the neighborhood.
The resident tour guides find out who lived in the homes, what they did, and how they contributed to the community. This year, we added a commercial building to the tour, so that we could tie in the rich history of Wilkinsburg’s business district, which was once one of the most popular shopping destinations in southwestern PA. The tour also initiated as a twist on a traditional house tour, which my organization (the Wilkinsburg CDC) hosts every year as part of our fundraiser. Like I mentioned before, the purpose of the tour began as an effort to reframe the issue of blight as an opportunity rather than a problem. That continues to be one of the primary goals, and since its inception, the tour has grown into an educational community event and a way to empower residents to address blight by getting connected to available tools and resources through our acquisition/rehabilitation workshops that run in conjunction with the tour.
Additionally, the tour is one of many ways that the Wilkinsburg CDC showcases the community and Wilkinsburg’s many assets that people may not be aware of — especially those visiting the neighborhood and/or those who have traditionally held a negative perception of Wilkinsburg. We really tried to build on that aspect this year by including more local businesses and organizations along the tour route, including more points of interest and activities along the route, and by also having a large vendor space with local organizations, housing nonprofits, and food trucks. The tour does not try to be the main solution of solving the issue of vacant and abandoned properties in Wilkinsburg, instead it aims at changing people’s perception of it by deepening the conversation we have around blight, connecting people with resources, and reflecting on what happened but also what could happen in the future.
Why do you think it’s important to remember the history behind individual vacant homes?
Wilkinsburg suffers from an incredibly negative perception. Even the people who live and work in the community tend not to see the value in the many historic homes and buildings that adorn the tree-lined streets. The properties featured on the tour have been blighted for years, decades even, but have not always been. People once cared for them. The circumstances that led to the homes’ vacancy is different, but the result is much the same.
Blight negatively affects communities, not just because it’s dangerous, but because it can make residents feel hopeless. For those of us who weren’t there during its heyday, it’s hard to imagine Wilkinsburg ever had a heyday. But that’s why preserving that history and that narrative is so important. Wilkinsburg was once the most affluent communities in southwestern PA, so what happened? How can it come back? How can it come back in a way that is equitable for all people? And how can we prevent communities from this type of drastic decline in the future? These are the questions that the Vacant Home Tour raises, and though we don’t have the answers, we are starting the discussion.
When people drive or walk by a boarded up home, that’s all they see. By sharing the stories of these homes — the people who lived in them, the businesses they ran in the business district, the holidays that were celebrated in the home, the children that grew up there, the architectural details that made each property so full of character, the gardens that grew in the yard — the Vacant Home Tour aims to honor the value of these properties regardless of what the future holds for the properties (restoration, demolition, or continued vacancy). The stories are told by current residents, people who have lived in Wilkinsburg for decades as well as those who’ve lived here for just a couple years, which adds another layer to the tour by connecting Wilkinsburg’s past to its present in an effort to shape the future.
What does it take to plan this event, in terms of research, community engagement, and volunteer time?
It takes a lot of time, and we wish we had a lot more of it! The research is definitely the biggest and most time consuming aspect of the tour. Research begins with deed searches to get all of the names of past property owners. Deed searches can go really far back, before the homes were even built. With the names of property owners, we can then do searches on Ancestry, Google, Facebook, newspaper archives, and at the local library — Wilkinsburg is fortunate to have an amazing historical society and historic directories that list the people who lived at each address and what their occupation was.
There are multiple challenges to this research including that other people besides the property owner may have lived in the home, the fact that boarders were really popular back then in these large historic homes, and that much of the stories of minorities and people of color tend to be missing, if not omitted, from historical records. So again, if we had more time, we could probably dig up a lot more details about the properties and the people who lived in them. In fact, during the tour, several descendants of past owners/business owners attended and shared even more insights about the properties!
In addition to the research, community engagement is a huge part. The tour is shaped by the community, so community meetings and resident engagement via neighborhood canvassing, email and social media are all extremely important to the process. In all, our committee of four began planning the event in December 2015 with the bulk of the work happening in March and April.
In addition to research, resident tour guides are also present during the tour day to share the information with tour goers. In addition to time, event funding/sponsorship is also a critical piece. The event can be done very cheaply, but having funding for the display boards/visuals at the very least is super important, especially because tour goers cannot enter the properties, so it’s necessary to have an informative and interactive visual at each tour stop. A tour map is also critical.
The 2016 tour just happened last weekend. What was one of the highlights?
The additional commercial property was a favorite stop. Hearing about some of the businesses that used to operate in Wilkinsburg was interesting to a lot of people. It helped that the granddaughter and daughter of two of the business owners were present at the stop during the day. They had a lot of stories and interesting insights about the building and the businesses that we otherwise would not have been able to share.
Another highlight was one of the homes, 708 Whitney, as we were able to get tons of historic photos from the granddaughter of one of the long-time owners. We actually had so many photos that we couldn’t fit them on the display and had to create a scrap book that tour goers could look through. Having direct interaction with the descendants is one of the hardest parts of the tour and research process, but definitely worthwhile because it makes the tour stop so much more interesting and detailed.
Following the tour, I received an email from the great grandson of another property owner (817 Rebecca), who actually moved back to Wilkinsburg with his wife recently and is looking to get more involved in Wilkinsburg’s revitalization. The turnout was great, with both many residents of Wilkinsburg and other outsiders interested to explore the history of the borough.
This is now your second year running these tours. Have you learned any lessons that would be helpful to others considering a similar project?
The first year, the tour was scattered all over Wilkinsburg; this year, we concentrated the tour within a few blocks, and people seemed to enjoy that more. It was more walkable and they could spend more time at each stop without worrying that they would miss anything. This was especially important for seniors and people with disabilities.
We included interior photos of every property except the commercial building. People really appreciated seeing these photos, especially people who are considering purchasing a vacant property. It helps to know what the interior condition is like before pursuing a vacant property.
Additionally, having workshops in conjunction with the tour and/or accessible resources for people interested in acquiring/rehabbing a vacant property is hugely important as well. This year we included a panel session focused on resources to acquire vacant homes and another on rehabbing properties. Lastly, the more planning/research time, the better!