Vacant lots on the North Side in Pittsburgh turning into gardens

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Rows of blueberry plants fill a city-owned Perry South lot that was once the weedy end zone of many a police chase on Pittsburgh's Charles Street.

It is now part of a city lease agreement with the Pittsburgh Project, and the bushes will bear fruit for the neighborhood.

Half a mile away, also in Perry South, sunflowers have replaced weeds and demolition rubble on Burgess Street. And in Manchester, elders enjoyed the summer harvest from a community garden.

Since last year, when the Buhl Foundation and Alcoa infused $125,000 into a project of GTECH Strategies, one North Side patch after another is yielding benefits. The stimulus continues this year with a sole focus on vacant land reclamation.

The Reclaim project is a pilot effort on the North Side, but its managers hope to replicate it.

"We are using this model and will try to take it to different neighborhoods," said Megan Zeigler, senior manager of Reclaim. "We can tweak it to the needs of any community, but it will always have some connection to vacant land because that's what we do."

Through the end of this month, GTECH -- which stands for Growth Through Energy + Community Health -- is seeking another round of ideas for North Side lots and will select 10. It is taking applications at

GTECH will supply stipends, a production fund and technical assistance through the year, a total of about $2,500 per project.

Selected winners will be trained in the processes associated with the reuse of vacant lots, of which the North Side has about 5,200 parcels that once held buildings.

Last year, GTECH chose 13 projects to jump-start. They included a mushroom-growing enterprise that A.J. Tarnas of Spring Garden may expand this year into a garden that Mark Williams oversees as a volunteer at the Pittsburgh Project. The two men connected in GTECH's training; Mr. Williams established the blueberry lot on Charles Street.

"I brought a huge list of ideas to GTECH," Mr. Tarnas said, "but mushroom growing was the one that seemed to fit" as a green economy model. "Mushrooms take waste and turn it into food."

GTECH zeroed in on the North Side to build on a vacant land beautification effort already under way by the Northside Leadership Conference.

The conference got a $50,000 grant from the Pittsburgh Partnership for Neighborhood Development to hire a staffer and make projects happen in three areas connected to Brighton Road -- Charles Street Valley, Brightwood and Brighton Heights.

"They are all facing common issues around vacant land and reuse of vacant sites," said Mark Fatla, executive director of the conference, which is collaborating with the Penn State Center's landscape architecture students.

The staff position will be advertised this month, he said. A peer-administered grant pool of $10,000 will help pay for the projects. Mr. Fatla said the conference will coordinate its work with GTECH's.

Janet Gunter of the Perry Hilltop Citizens Council has been working for years on beautification projects, one of which was the sunflower lot that GTECH sponsored. In addition, she worked with members of the Charles Street Area Council and the city's green team to transform what she called "a nasty abandoned lot" at the corner of Brighton Road and Charles Street.

"The GTECH program was very valuable for everybody who attended," she said. It provided understanding of the implications disinvestment has on "a place that has nothing to walk to."

Lisa Freeman, the force behind the Manchester Growing Together Garden at Juniata and Fulton streets, received GTECH's help to continue work she started two or three years ago with the city's GreenUp program.

GTECH's support allowed for the addition of compost, more plants, some machinery and tools. Last summer's crop was harvested by members of the community and some people who came from other parts of the North Side, she said.

The intent is to involve the students from Manchester Elementary in the maintenance and harvest.

"The kids in the neighborhood didn't know that cucumbers grow from the ground on vines," she said. "They were fascinated. But the senior citizens really latched onto that garden. People who came to the baseball field picked, too, and some people pulled whole plants out because they didn't understand. Education will be part of the process this year."

She said the GTECH project "opened up my understanding of the green economy. And just to be with like-minded people was captivating."

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Diana Nelson Jones: or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at


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