Neighbors Unite helps revitalize Wilkinsburg

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It may not look like it just yet, but Wilkinsburg is undergoing a renaissance of sorts.

The borough — which has been plagued by drugs, gang warfare and considerable blight, especially over the last quarter-century — is slowly coming back.

And a whole lot of people are pitching in to make things happen, thanks to a 12-year-old grassroots organization called Neighbors Unite Wilkinsburg.

Current chairman Bernie Wetzel said the focus of the nonpartisan group has always been the political process, not to take specific positions on issues but to make sure that council and, more recently, the Wilkinsburg School Board are run properly.

“Ultimately, the primary function is to identify good people [who are] community-minded and guide them through the process of appearing on the ballot,” Mr. Wetzel said.

Among other things, the group raises funds — thus far from family, friends and neighbors — so that no candidate has to pay out of his or her own pocket to run a campaign. The group pays for fliers, yard signs and campaign literature. Over the years, it has raised between $10,000 and $15,000.

Though “once those individuals get on school board or borough council, we don’t influence them,” Mr. Wetzel said, the people supported by Neighbors Unite Wilkinsburg who ended up being elected are having an impact.

“In general, we’ve seen tremendous [contributions] by those individuals,” Mr. Wetzel said.

Tracey Evans, executive director of the 4-year-old Wilkinsburg Community Development Corp. and a former councilwoman, noted the corporation is doing its part, aggressively marketing the primary business corridors of Penn Avenue and Wood Street, sending out e-blasts to people on its email list and advertising in the Pittsburgh Business Times as well as the City Paper to get people interested in a place that, she said, folks “may not have even considered.”

As a result, Ms. Evans said, “We’ve seen 25 business parcels sold, along with 10 vacant storefronts.”

Ongoing projects sponsored by the corporation include renovation of a historic train station on Hay Street opposite Ross Avenue, near East Busway, with the help of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission at stabilizing exterior renovations; the Falconhurst, an apartment complex on Kelly Avenue off Rebecca Avenue; another apartment building at the corner of Coal and Rebecca avenues; and another building at South Avenue and Wood Street. In addition, the Penn Lincoln Hotel, at the corner of Penn Avenue and Coal Street, is being demolished and “will be a prime corner location, shovel ready” for someone who may want to build there.

Major outside players include the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, with funding coming from the PNC Foundation; the Community Infrastructure and Tourism Fund of the Allegheny County Office of Economic Development; and the Pennsylvania Housing and Finance Agency.

That kind of cooperation hadn’t happened before, said Vanessa McCarthy-Johnson, seven-year council member and current president, who noted that council in the past had suffered from conflicts among its members.

“There’s no backbiting, no infighting,” said Ms. McCarthy-Johnson. “It allows us to focus on business.”

At some point, Ms. McCarthy-Johnson said, if these things work out, the borough’s property tax rate, highest in the entire commonwealth of Pennsylvania, can finally be cut. But not just yet, she said.

Other issues to be addressed, according to Ms. Evans, are the plethora of one-way streets, railroad trestles and the Port Authority of Allegheny County’s two park-n-ride lots located in Wilkinsburg.

And while things are changing — “It’s nice to see people walking their dogs at night,” Ms. McCarthy-Johnson said — the borough’s myriad problems will not be solved overnight.

“You’re not going to do a 180 in a short time — it’s going to take a bit to unwind that,” Mr Wetzel said. But as for Neighbors United Wilkinsburg, “I think it’s a successful model for other communities to build sustainable change by these institutions over a longer time.”

Rick Nowlin: or 412-263-3871.

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