Walkabout: South Side's Schwartz Market revived and very green

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While waiting for the ribbon-cutting inside what used to be Schwartz Market the other day, I set my reporter's notebook on a row of nested grocery carts just inside the door.

The 4,800 square feet of space without aisles looks much larger than it did as one of the city's last full-service ma-and-pa groceries. The carts are the only reminder of what South Siders lost in 2011 at 1317 E. Carson St.

In its new iteration as Schwartz Living Market, the building is open on Saturdays for vendors to sell products and educational information that aligns with the environmental mission Elisa Beck set out to accomplish as one of the building's owners.

When she told me several years ago of her plans to transform the building into a model of reuse, she sounded highly ambitious: solar power, a rooftop garden, a worm and compost system, recycling for no or minimal waste, a recapture of stormwater, no chemical or toxic materials, and -- most incredible of all -- a 20,000-square-foot 19th century building creating its own energy.

It's easier to imagine now that I have come to believe that Ms. Beck, a developmental optometrist and the founder of Sustainable Monroeville, is, as city Councilman Bruce Kraus put it at the ceremony Friday, "the most tenacious human being I have ever known."

On newly refinished wood floors under a freshly painted tin ceiling, 10 vendors have been confirmed so far to sell products from natural soaps to organic, vegan and gluten-free foods. The market will be open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays through Labor Day. After Labor Day, it will be open Thursday through Sunday, the hours to be determined.

"This is just the beginning," Ms. Beck said. "This shows the potential this place has. Maybe we can inspire other people with flat roofs to grow food, too."

In 2010, Ms. Beck persuaded the owners of Schwartz Market to stock some organic groceries. By then, they were considering retiring; they closed the store in February 2011.

"My vision is to have that building be the coolest, most sustainable property on the planet," Ms. Beck told me later that year.

She tried to line up a grocer with whom she hoped to work on meeting the International Living Future Institute's living building challenge. The institute touts its performance standards as "the greenest anywhere." (For more information about that: www.living-future.org/lbc.)

The grocer bowed out, and Ms. Beck pressed on to open the building for community use as a vendors market, with environmental demonstrations, creative arts and health and nutrition workshops.

Her message hit a brick wall with many, including every contractor she tried to convince.

"None of them understood what I was talking about," she said. "You can't bring toxins into this building. They couldn't understand how long it takes to source materials."

So she brought on board as her contractor Darrell Frey, a permaculturist who sells produce to several high-end local restaurants and who authored the book, "Bioshelter Market Garden."

Hal Saville, a consultant for Energy Independent Solutions, said he is working with Ms. Beck on a rooftop design that would accommodate solar panels and a food garden.

Among the other vendors, Cynthia Hill, who used to sell her natural soaps and lotions as Third Day Luxury Soaps in the Pittsburgh Public Market in the Strip, is now at the Schwartz site every Saturday.

"I fell in love with the vision," she said. "It falls in line with the organic natural herbs that go into my products. Also, I grew up in Beltzhoover and came here as a little girl."

When Ms. Beck addressed the crowd of about 65 people Friday, she held giant scissors in anticipation of cutting the ribbon that stretched across roughly where the cashiers stations used to be.

"A lot of people have not believed this would happen," she said, "but here we are."

"We are here today because of your tenacity," Mr. Kraus told her. "The South Side thanks you, and the planet will thank you."

I never dreamed it would take this few years for her dream to have evolved this far. If the building doesn't meet the rigors of the living building challenge under Ms. Beck's direction, it will come as close as it could under anyone's.

For scheduling of events at the market: www.1317eastcarson.blogspot.com.

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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


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