Walkabout / Garfield hopes to benefit from influx of creative class on revitalized streets

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With a $49,350 grant from the Heinz Endowments, Garfield is embarking on an experiment -- the 6% Place project.

Helping guide the project is longtime Downtown developer and architecture instructor Eve Picker, who established the nonprofit cityLAB, which she calls "a DO tank, not a think tank." It is undertaking the work in Garfield as part of its mission to use the city as a laboratory for experiments that might stimulate economic vibrancy.

The 6% Place project was born from research by CEOs for Cities that indicates when at least 6 percent of a neighborhood's population works in creative fields, investors perk up.

Ms. Picker will consult with the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp., the grant recipient, to prepare a committee of 15 people to conduct a census to determine the percentage of creative workers in Garfield. The committee also will direct neighborhood forums to plan a creative reuse of the former Fort Pitt Elementary School.

The committee first met last Wednesday. It includes seven Garfield residents, five of whom are creative workers.

Identifying creative work may be a bit squishy. A painter, a poet and an oboist are obviously creative workers, but what about a minister who runs a coffeehouse to help immigrants learn English, or a blacksmith?

For the purpose of getting Garfield out of "the high negatives" of reputation, said Rick Swartz, executive director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp., any creative worker who surfaces in the 6% Place experiment will be part of the solution to show Garfield in a different light.

"We have people who run a community garden, work in the media, in museums, as designers," he noted. "They are people who have aspirations. Neighborhoods like Garfield are commonly portrayed otherwise."

Penn Avenue has been a black-white divide between Garfield and Friendship, but both neighborhoods have some racial crossover and are increasingly nuanced. Mr. Swartz said Garfield is gaining more black professionals buying homes.

If the project works, he said, "Garfield's image in the private, biased market will start to change. Over time, if you are a homeowner in Garfield, you should be able to realize some of the gain that people see on the other side of Penn Avenue."

CityLAB's preliminary work on the 6% Place project included interviews in which Garfield asserted its identity, Ms. Picker said. People wanted a better neighborhood reputation, housing values and quality of life but they still wanted to be Garfield.

The neighborhood census will start with door-knocking at about 400 households on Penn Avenue, Dearborn Street and Broad Street.

Rob Stephany, director of the Heinz Endowments' community and economic development program, said the grant rewards "an innovative path to socially compassionate community change. We want to see vibrant neighborhoods with strong market forces at work and to make sure that low-income people clearly benefit from that vibrancy."

The Bloomfield-Garfield Corp. has been successful in "getting low-income people into equity positions," he said. "Now the question is how to lift people's equity and get the neighborhood up to better health in a culturally sensitive way, to look at the talent it has and to build on that. It's a neat approach to a community change agenda.

"I believe in the [6%] theory," he said. But even if it doesn't pan out, "great things will come of this anyway."

Freddie Croce, an architect who lives above his office on Penn Avenue, is on the committee and said its main goal is to reverse Garfield's image.

"Garfield is a decent neighborhood that's family friendly, not overly crowded, convenient in a lot of ways, with fantastic views. All the surrounding neighborhoods are pretty stable. If we can get people here who want to improve the neighborhood, this program could appeal to anybody."

Ms. Picker said cityLAB chose Garfield in part because of the Penn Avenue Arts Initiative. The Bloomfield-Garfield Corp. and Friendship Development Associates have worked on that initiative for years to put creative workers in vacant storefronts. The spinoff Unblurred street arts event turns Penn Avenue into a destination on the first Friday night of every month.

"Garfield is like a little island surrounded by economic development," Ms. Picker said. "And it is waiting to happen."

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Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk. First Published September 11, 2012 4:00 AM


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