Diana Nelson Jones' Walkabout: City native returns, gets farmers market for Squirrel Hill lot

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Squirrel Hill doesn't come to mind immediately as needing community development, but it occurred to Alec Rieger that a block-long parking lot there was getting no revenue on Sundays and that Squirrel Hill didn't have a farmers market.

A Pittsburgh native who calls himself "the classic boomerang," Mr. Rieger, 42, asked the Pittsburgh Parking Authority and Citiparks if he could organize a Sunday farmers market in the lot behind the former Gullifty's between Beacon and Bartlett, and "after some coaxing," Citiparks agreed. The parking authority gave it a quick green light, he said.

Citiparks runs seven farmers markets, all on weekdays. It will try the weekend market in collaboration with RustBuilt, a nonprofit Mr. Rieger founded with three partners. RustBuilt organizes entrepreneurial events with the goal of making Pittsburgh "the Rust Belt's capital of innovation," he said.

Among its accomplishments, RustBuilt produced a startup weekend event last month that resulted in the placement of several nascent entrepreneurs in the Alpha Lab incubator, Mr. Rieger said.

The farmers market is the nonprofit's first foray into "place making" to bring amenities and people together.

"I think of this market as community development," he said. "People think Squirrel Hill doesn't need any attention because it's rich, but that's not entirely true."

Standing in the parking lot that runs parallel to Murray Avenue, he pointed south and west to apartment buildings where many elder residents live and noted, "What we do have is great pedestrian flow and population density."

Mr. Rieger has returned to his hometown, like so many native Pittsburghers. He left in 1994 to seek opportunities in other cities, including Los Angeles and New York, before moving to Squirrel Hill last year.

"I got married and had kids and had a dream of being a social entrepreneur," he said. "There is no way to launch something like this in New York. The barriers to entry are impossible. Instead of continuing to pay ridiculous rent there, we thought, 'Why not move to Pittsburgh and cut our costs in half?' There is so much space to do things in Pittsburgh and so much need."

Not that there's a culture of "yes" here, he said. "The culture of no is one of Pittsburgh's biggest challenges."

But he got the yes he wanted.

"I missed waking up on a Saturday or Sunday and walking over to a farmers market," he said, referring to his weekends in New York. He said holding the market on a Saturday was not an option in Squirrel Hill because Orthodox Jews wouldn't be able to patronize it on their sabbath.

The market will operate each Sunday starting June 1 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. through Nov. 23. About 20 vendors have signed on so far, including both traditional and higher-end organic farmers.

"We think it is critical to create more next-generation, creative-class lifestyle amenities in the city," Mr. Rieger said. "Now we have developed a public-private collaboration with Citiparks, and I am in the process of forging partnerships with various community stakeholders to create innovative programs that tie in with the market."

He said he imagines programming that could range from bluegrass fiddlers to vendors from the Chinese and Jewish communities and activities for children.

"We need amenities to get people to congregate and share ideas. That's how innovation happens. I'm all for celebrating Pittsburgh. It's why I moved back.

"But nobody's managing change," he said. "We need to be doing what the cities we benchmark ourselves against are doing. We need to start programming our streets, create public art spaces where people read poetry, do interpretive dance or play viola."

Mr. Rieger added, "There are a lot of green shoots around the Rust Belt because it has become an attractive place to be. Some things can be done without costing much at all, like the Sunday farmers market. The parking lot is here and has been a wasted opportunity."

Pittsburgh's potential is so great that if we reach it, he said, "nobody would ever talk about Portland again."

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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