Diana Nelson Jones' "Walkabout": A fresh perspective is sprucing up the view of East Ohio Street
July 7, 2014 11:34 PM
Rev. Ken Turnbull, left, and Bruce Klein, with one of the historic photos on East Ohio Street.
By Diana Nelson Jones / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The retail corridor that runs through the North Side’s historic Deutschtown district abuts Allegheny Commons Park and is loaded with handsome Victorian structures, many appealing businesses and, more than anything, potential.
East Ohio Street has been loaded with potential for a while now, but something better seems imminent.
The neighborhood is undergoing a youth movement with new home ownership and attractions that include this Saturday’s Deutschtown Music Festival, now in its second year.
In the spring, a little band of stakeholders came up with a quick and inexpensive improvement for about a dozen careworn, empty storefronts — 60 historic photographs on 4-by-8-foot panels that have transformed the street into a curious art gallery.
“Our intention was to get people to start looking at the street,” said Bruce Klein, founder of the Photo Antiquities Museum, on East Ohio.
He supplied many of the panels. Photography students at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild and graphic artist Robert Sands provided the rest.
The panels include an aerial view of the city including the Civic Arena and Three Rivers Stadium, the Edgar Thomson Works in Braddock and a convention of missionaries at Carnegie Hall in Oakland. Most, though, are not local.
The intent was to show a broader, more worldly vision.
“We wanted to show every culture we could,” Mr. Klein said.
Among the images are people in traditional Asian and Native American garb. One panel is of a soldier from a Pennsylvania regiment; a few are of children. Another is among the last portraits taken of Abraham Lincoln. Several panels wrap around the side of a building like wallpaper.
The East Allegheny Community Council, North Side-North Shore Chamber of Commerce members and several neighborhood businesses combined to pay a few thousand dollars for the display.
“We started with blighted and boarded-up windows, with the permission of seven building owners,” said Randy Strothman, a marketing consultant who lives in Deutschtown.
The Rev. Ken Turnbull, a pastor at the Allegheny Center Alliance Church, and Nate Wigfield, the director of community development at Bistro to Go, organized crews that installed the panels. The owners of five businesses also agreed to have volunteer crews paint their storefronts.
Alex Alexiades owns several buildings on East Ohio and said he believes the effort will contribute to the street’s comeback.
“I’ve been here a long time, since the ’60s, and I’ve watched the area change, from good to bad. It’s on its way back up,” he said.
The Alliance Church bought the nuisance bar Rebels to close it five years ago, with plans to renovate it and find a good business reuse, said Rev. Turnbull. It also bought a vacant lot beside that from the Urban Redevelopment Authority and a condemned house behind it from a private owner. The site beside Rebels now is a large garden, a potential site for purposeful public congregation.
For decades, the five retail blocks from Cedar Avenue to East Street held three or four pawn shops, a couple of nuisance bars, convenience stores and offices with security buzzers. A sprinkling of attractive newer businesses offer a sense of the potential.
“We need more diversity of retail,” Mr. Klein said. “We don’t need more nail places and rent-a-centers.”
In the meantime, Rev. Turnbull said, “We want to increase the curb appeal as a community, through art, saying to shop owners, ‘Help us work alongside you.’ The Northside Leadership Conference helped us navigate the process with some business owners, but there has been no pushback. Everyone seems to be delighted.”
Mr. Strothman said the street gallery is also a message to artists to look in Deutschtown for a home or studio, but the ultimate goal “is to fill all these storefronts with good businesses and services.”
Diana Nelson Jones: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1626.
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