A Green Makeover for an Ailing Borough

The town of Wilkinsburg just outside of Pittsburgh is about to get a green make-over. Some residents of Wilkinsburg want their community to once again be considered active and prosperous, and they've come up with a plan to make that happen. The Allegheny Front's Sarah Rutherford reports.

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OPEN: The town of Wilkinsburg just outside of Pittsburgh is about to get a green make-over. Some residents of Wilkinsburg want their community to once again be considered active and prosperous, and they've come up with a plan to make that happen. The Allegheny Front's Sarah Rutherford reports.

DACIC: One, two, flip

RUTHERFORD: On this beautiful summer day, college students are hammering together 2x12s. One just fell.

DACIC: Thank the Lord for steel toed boots.

RUTHERFORD: That's Nelly Dacic--one of 12 architecture students from Carnegie Mellon University. They designed and are now building the porch for a new green community center for Wilkinsburg. They created the roof of the porch to save water.

DACIC: At every low point of the frame we have this funnel that attaches to a downspout that will redirect water to retention bases. All that water that's coming down from it isn't going to the sewer--it's going to be retained.

RUTHERFORD: This is the first time Carnegie Mellon has worked with the neighborhood of Wilkinsburg. The professor in charge-John Folan-says that's a good thing.

FOLAN: A lot of communities...suffer from plan fatigue--they've been studied over and over again; there's very little that's implemented and people lose faith in the process. Wilkinsburg had not been studied by the Urban Lab in the past...so we had a community that was willing to support us.

RUTHERFORD: Mindy Schwartz is relying on that support. Schwartz is one of the masterminds behind the make-over. She's also known as the Urban Gardener of Wilkinsburg. Today, she's weeding her plant beds.

SCHWARTZ: I'm distracted by these beautiful strawberries. Do you want to eat strawberries while we're chatting

RUTHERFORD: Schwartz tore down two abandoned houses to make a commercial garden that now grows gourmet tomatoes, eggplants, and these luscious strawberries, to name a few.

SCHWARTZ: As time went on my vision expanded a little bit beyond food...to the whole issue of living sustainably in the city

RUTHERFORD: The community center will go right next to her garden. It will eventually be open to the public and will demonstrate sustainable living strategies. The goal is that local residents will be inspired by something they see add it to their own houses.

SCHWARTZ: If it can help people put solar panels on their roof, or micro-wind turbines, or save rain water and use it in a garden then they're going to spend a lot less money on utility bills and that is harvesting the local ecology to build wealth

RUTHERFORD: Some day, Schwartz hopes to create an urban ecovillage--a place that's as self-reliant as possible and extremely community based. Because nearly 30% of the houses in Schwartz's neighborhood are abandoned, she and her neighbors have a chance to redefine the area.

SCHWARTZ: I see vacant housing as an asset. As a resource. You can harvest all of the materials out of it. And you can take those materials and use them to their highest and best use in the house next door

RUTHERFORD: Schwartz would enhance existing homes, renovate some abandoned houses, and turn other vacant lots into gardens, orchards, or even chicken coops.

SCHWARTZ: Hello, how are you

RUTHERFORD: Schwartz takes a break from weeding to talk to two Pittsburgh residents who have traveled to Wilkinsburg to learn about urban gardening.

AMBI: conversation

SCHWARTZ: And that just proves the point...A green activity is just a magnet. People want this, people are craving this sort of thing.

RUTHERFORD: Across the street, Schwartz's neighbors are on board. Jack Schmitt and his wife used to buy tomatoes from Schwartz. One day they noticed the lots next door and decided to move in and create their own garden. They agree with Schwartz's idea of a green community.

SCHMITT: We have weekly potlucks here in the backyard and it's all sort of family centered people that are into organics.

RUTHERFORD: Schmitt and his wife created a garden on one side of their house. On the other side, they bought a six unit that they are going to rent to like-minded homesteader types.

RUTHERFORD: Unlike two-thirds of Wilkinsburg's residents, Schmitt and his wife are both white, as is Schwartz. But Schmitt says that race hasn't been much of an issue.

SCHMITT: ...Look at him, who's this white guy? He comes in, he tears down the house next to him. Once I meet them and they realize that ...I meet the median income for Wilkinsburg and I'm just like them...They all understand that we are all coming from the same good to make the community a better place.

RUTHERFORD: Other residents of Wilkinsburg are also excited about Schwartz's efforts, like Vanessa McCarthy Johnson. She's a member of Wilkinsburg's Council and lives a few blocks away.

MCCARTHY-JOHNSON: What's critical to Wilkinsburg is to change the image and to change the perception of what people think Wilkinsburg is. I would love us to be the green in the East. And I think this is the right step.

RUTHERFORD: Other people believe in Mindy Schwartz and her team's desire to make Wilkinsburg a better place. Schwartz's nonprofit, called the Institute for Ecological Innovation was awarded $150,000 from the Heinz Endowments this spring. She hopes that eventually other neighborhoods will look to Wilkinsburg as a model for green redevelopment.

For The Allegheny Front, I'm Sarah Rutherford.