If We Change It, They Will Come

Cedar Ave Deutschtown

After living in the shadow of mass clearance projects for the last half-century, a small neighborhood on the North Side of Pittsburgh has bucked the bureaucratic current, transforming itself into an increasingly coveted cluster of Victorian homes by using a completely different renewal approach: One House at a Time.

After the downtown area of Allegheny City, annexed by Pittsburgh in the early century, was razed for a retail mall, and a major highway and interchange removed hundreds of houses and separated the neighborhoods from the rest of the city, little hope was left. It was a neighborhood walled in, cut off, crime-ridden, and deteriorating.

But hardy long-time residents (and a few new ones) saw what few others could, and took advantage of the then-affordable home prices to build what is now one of the most desirable urban neighborhoods in the city.

“If I would have told my neighbors ten years ago that a house in East Allegheny could sell for more than $100,000, they would have told me I was nuts,” explained life-long resident and community activist Barbara Burns. “A few years ago East Allegheny wasn’t a very pleasant place to be.”

The residents who were willing to put up with a lot of unpleasantness to live in a Victorian house realized that if the houses were restored one by one, and the unattractive elements removed, the neighborhood, in close proximity to downtown Pittsburgh, would become desirable to other residents and even private investors.

“If it appeals to people’s aesthetic sense, on an emotional level, people will want it,” said resident Nick Kyriazi. “That’s what appealed to those of us who came early to many inner-city neighborhoods. But we are a small market. If you want to appeal to a larger market, you must get rid of the surrounding unpleasantness.”

The unpleasantness included crime, garbage, run-down or abandoned houses, vacant lots, graffiti, and nearby “nuisance bars.” The group set out to clean the neighborhood up, buy homes from absentee landlords, restore abandoned homes owned by the city, and build new ones on vacant and weed-covered lots.

“When we started, most of the home-owners were elderly, long-time residents, but there was an influx of absentee landlords renting to a significant number of loud, disruptive anti-social, and dirty tenants,” Kyriazi said. “The responsible residents and businesses were happy to see the change. The irresponsible residents were forced out when their houses were purchased, renovated, and sold.” Further, he said, as the neighborhood improved, unsavory businesses such as the “nuisance bars” on nearby East Ohio Street found their market shrinking. “Eventually they will be unable to stay in business and be replaced by merchants catering to new residents.”

With help from other groups, including the Northside Leadership Conference, the East Allegheny Community Council (EACC) built new homes, marketed old ones, and attracted new neighbors–some from the suburbs–to the neighborhood, redubbed Deutschtown, after the German immigrants who settled the area. The goal from the beginning was to reach a “critical mass” where the private market could take over.

“As our market expanded, we had an easier time selling houses and were able to sell houses for higher prices,” Kyriazi said. “When we can sell houses for more than it cost us, we can step aside and let private developers take over.” In working towards that goal, the group thought it was critical to maintain the characteristics and design elements of the Victorian neighborhood. There should be nearby businesses, limited amounts of parking, outdoor green areas, renovation sensitive to the architecture, and new houses identical to their century-old neighbors. EACC also pursued and obtained a city historic district designation for several blocks in the area.

Another goal on the way to successful and sensitive urban renewal was rezoning a once-single family neighborhood back from multi-family.

“This prevents speculators from converting houses into apartments,” Kyriazi explained. “In order to encourage slum landlords to sell, the potential for profit must be eliminated.”

Today several blocks have been almost completely restored, 41 new homes have been built, and many new professional residents call Deutschtown home. A new energy-efficient “smart-house” has gained national recognition by mixing historic architecture with modern technology and energy systems built for maximum efficiency. Friendly neighbors who know each other sit on front stairs, a new park fronts a restored church now used as a banquet hall, and the efforts have spread across a changing commercial strip to bring renewal to a larger area.

The residents who brought success to Deutschtown know first-hand from nearby failed projects that healthy urban neighborhoods aren’t the result of top-down plans. They also know that forces holding neighborhoods down are powerful, and that old neighborhoods don’t rehabilitate themselves by accident. It takes an active effort to bring new life to an old and forgotten neighborhood.

“Even if the houses hadn’t been neglected in terms of routine maintenance, most needed substantial renovation such as wiring, plumbing, and heating,” Kyriazi explained. “Few people want to undertake even a bath renovation, let alone move out and restore a whole house. It was easier to move to the suburbs. We had to take on the task.”

Today, Kyriazi says, the architecture and location–within walking distance of the city’s downtown, known as the Golden Triangle–are enough to attract private investment.

“The improvement in the neighborhood is now appealing to a greater percentage of home buyers,” Kyriazi said. “Before our efforts, only the thickest-skinned, beginning-career, preservation-minded people would tolerate the detractions. The day is nearing when we can sell houses for more than it cost us to build or restore them. Then I can step aside and live a normal life again, if I can remember how.”

Eric Miller

About Eric Miller

Rick and I started this web magazine as The New Colonist back in 1999. I was in San Francisco, and he was in Los Angeles. We had a common interest in sustainability and city life. We're still at it. Today I am happy to have lived in both New York, San Francisco and Pittsburgh and to now reside in Dallas. Find more at ericmiller.me