A fighter from Manchester: Stanley Lowe still raises hackles -- and hope
Stanley Lowe last week: "Many people think development is like buying a fast food hamburger, quick and easy, with a suggestion of what you want on it."
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Stanley Lowe's life was dramatic enough before July 18.
When it was reported that two men invaded his Manchester home, stabbed him, tied him up and drove him to an ATM from which he extracted $200, the phones of development and preservation professionals lit up around the country.
In their circles, Mr. Lowe is one of the most notable neighborhood advocates, a perennial keynote speaker on preservation and urban revival and the mentor of many.
In the neighborhood he loves, the reviews are more mixed. He pays out of his own pocket to have elderly residents' snow shoveled and is credited with fighting successfully for the low-income area. But he's known as a bully who insists on doing things his way and plays to a small crowd of followers rather than embracing a changing community.
Mr. Lowe, 59, a former Pittsburgh Housing Authority director and longtime community development and preservation leader, had been off Manchester's radar for seven years when he returned recently to take a role in a new neighborhood plan. This spring, he pleaded with the Historic Review Commission to give Manchester time against a growing demolition list, saying, "I'm cautiously hopeful we can make things happen."
Just after he left the room, a woman in the audience said loudly, "Stanley Lowe does not speak for Manchester."
Her comment indicated Manchester is a different place today. The irony is Mr. Lowe helped make it that way.
Mr. Lowe grew up on Allegheny Avenue on the site of what is now a vacant lot. He and two siblings were raised by foster parents, Sheffield and Mae Denson, from the time he was 4; his biological family did not stay together after his father was injured in a car accident.
Michelle Jones and her siblings lived around the corner. Her parents were strict, like his, and the kids all had to stick close to home when they played. "One thing Stanley and I both knew was we were going to college." He graduated from Shaw University in history education.
"We both had scholarships from churches. Neighborhood groups helped us get summer jobs. The people in our lives helped us learn what community organization was about. The community made us," she said.
"My father was a Pullman [porter] for 40 years," said Mr. Lowe. "My mother took care of the family. She made me give her half of everything I made" delivering papers, shoveling snow and mowing lawns. "When I kissed her goodbye to go off to college, she handed me $4,000. It was my money." He stopped abruptly and a sob escaped, then he whispered: "She had saved it for me.
That time in his life was turbulent, locally and nationally.
"The place where my mother and father raised me was being abandoned," Mr. Lowe said, describing the aftermath of riots and street fires that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., when he was a senior in high school. "Seven thousand people just up and left."
But he came back after college.
In the early 1970s, with help from the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, he and the Manchester Citizens Corp. convinced the city to get federal funds for demolition converted to block grants so MCC could act on a strategy: to repair properties, clear liens and market homes for $1,000. Fifty houses were sold in three days.
Manchester had achieved both federal and city historic status by 1979.
Under his leadership, MCC closed a dozen or more nuisance bars, at least one of which dealt in stolen merchandise. Mr. Lowe said his car was firebombed as a result.
In 1988, with Landmarks' support, he co-founded the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group, an umbrella group for neighborhood advocates to force banks to lend in low-income areas, as the law required. He also served as the Landmarks Foundation's preservation fund director.
"Stanley was one of the most transformative figures in community development because of PCRG," said Mark Fatla, executive director of the Northside Leadership Conference. "Banks had been red-lining low-income neighborhoods" and would have continued to do so despite the Community Reinvestment Act, he said.
A friend of Tom Murphy when both were activists on the North Side, Mr. Lowe became executive director of the Pittsburgh Housing Authority soon after Mayor Murphy took office in 1994.
The federal government classified it as a troubled agency. Its 1940s housing was 25 percent vacant. Contractors stood in line to recoup money with $17 million in lawsuits.
Michelle Jackson-Washington, then the authority's deputy director, recalls the first staff meeting with Mr. Lowe. "He was going to clean this place up and if you didn't want to help him do it, you could quit."
He pushed for change, she said. "He had 'chat and chew' sessions and would say, 'I don't want anybody coming in here not saying what they think.' He got his directors up at the crack of dawn, or at midnight, to do drive-throughs in a van to see what the communities were like at night."
The authority demolished Allequippa Terrace, Broadhead Manor, Bedford Dwellings and Manchester's three-story concrete bunkers. In the process, people threw chairs at him in meetings. "I told them, 'I am not going to continue fixing up messes for you to live in,' " he said. " 'We must make a leap into the future.' "
He was credited with making significant changes. Chris Shea, a protege who heads East Baltimore Development Inc., said the authority did the first study of the public housing market, which hadn't been done because there was no incentive to do so. "Housing authorities got paid by HUD whether units were occupied or not.
"Stanley's brilliance was in reframing the discussion in terms of neighborhood," he said. "Housing authorities had ungodly access to capital resources. They would replace all the toilets for $10 million in one place and all the windows in another."
Mr. Lowe took that money and used it to leverage private money to reintegrate public housing tenants into a neighborhood, he said.
The old public housing projects were replaced by scattered-site homes and townhomes paid for by the federal Hope VI initiative.
But Mr. Lowe left the authority under a cloud. A federal audit in 1999 revealed that the authority had misspent more than $700,000; by the time Mr. Lowe resigned in 2001, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development determined that the authority owed it $1.4 million in cost overruns and overspending.
Mr. Lowe said the overruns were due to miscommunications, differences of interpretation or mistakes made while trying to right a listing ship. He said he did not resign because of the audit; he had an offer to work from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which he served as a vice president from 2001 to 2007, when he began consulting for Fourth River Development, a Pittsburgh-based firm that is working on housing projects in New Orleans and coastal Mississippi.
He is "back and forth" between Pittsburgh and the Gulf Coast, he said.
Though he has always kept a home in Pittsburgh, he was less visible for several years. Last year, Arthur Ziegler, president of the Landmarks foundation, asked him for help in assessing Manchester's 194 vacant buildings and figuring out which ones to save and how. Now Mr. Lowe, who is divorced and has one son, is back in the neighborhood of his roots, back in a big way.
Mr. Lowe may not speak for everyone in Manchester, but he does speak the loudest.
During a recent interview, he threw his head back and laughed heartily when told of the comment at the commission hearing, then launched into a lecture in Stanley Lowe 101: What Most People Do Not Understand.
Mr. Lowe, a stocky man with a furrowed brow and expressive mouth, achieves an almost scary salience when he talks about the work of building neighborhood. The deeper into the story he gets -- punctuating the narrative with "it gets worse" or "it gets better"-- the more he becomes a one-man orchestra. As he recalls the exodus of homeowners after riots in 1968, MCC's efforts to clear the streets of drug dealers and nuisance bars and the attitude of people who don't think beyond their own investments, his voice builds to a crescendo.
"Some buildings have to come down; we don't argue this." He sounds as if he is arguing. He scoots forward in his chair, his arms waving. "So let's tear down 84 buildings. What do you do with the next 110? Tell me what strategy tears down 194 buildings." In a high-pitched singsong, he asks, "They're all going to be victory gardens?"
He drops back into his chair. "If you do it piecemeal," he says, "you won't get it. If your strategy is to tear it down, be careful what you ask for. We've already torn down more than we have left."
His passion and forceful style can be both galvanizing -- evident in his history of accomplishment -- and off-putting.
Ten people have talked to the Post-Gazette about their discontent that Mr. Lowe has his hand in the latest Manchester plan; all but two declined to have their names used.
"A lot of people are afraid of Stanley Lowe," said Marilyn Brooks, a resident of 18 years and a retired television reporter. "He is a bully. He's used to getting what he wants. A number of people don't go to MCC meetings because they don't want to hear him anymore. ... I will never take away from him what he did. But today, he's a divisive person in the neighborhood."
Ms. Jones, a member of the MCC board, began working in housing development with a predecessor of MCC after college. Regarding her childhood pal, she said, "He does tell people off and get angry. That's something he has to work on."
The former American Electric site, slated to become a 31-home plan being developed by Fourth River, is a hot-button issue. Some residents ask why MCC needs new houses when it has old ones vacant. One resident said a grocery store would have been better.
Jon Anderson said that although he has lived 17 years in Manchester, some of the old guard who support Mr. Lowe still regard him and other relative newcomers as outsiders.
"In meetings I have attended, Stanley takes over and starts preaching to a small group of people. I applaud him for his accomplishments, but I asked a question about how he was going to raise money for the American Electric site and, basically, the response was 'shut up and sit down.' I was a vice president at Mellon Bank and have some experience, but he wasn't interested in finding that out."
Responds Mr. Lowe: "Saying you need something does not make it happen. Many people think development is like buying a fast food hamburger, quick and easy, with a suggestion of what you want on it. There were a trillion ideas for that site, but ideas need private and public partners with investment dollars to make them happen."
Detractors say Mr. Lowe's connection to Fourth River Development got the firm the contract to develop the site. Mark Schneider, a principal of Fourth River, said the Northside Community Development Fund needed a developer to get partner lenders and "couldn't get anyone else to do it." He and his partners have experience developing environmentally damaged sites, including Summerset at Frick Park and Washington's Landing.
Mr. Schneider said groundbreaking in Manchester should begin next month.
Mr. Lowe said the kidnapping and wounds he suffered went into the mix: "You have your highs and lows. I have also had dinner with the Rockefellers. I have dealt with all kinds of people all my life." The experience didn't shake the confidence of place he has felt living in Manchester, he said.
"The people who did this don't live in Manchester. I've changed some things: more security. But in my heart, I stand for Manchester and I always will."
He said his work in New Orleans, though, is compelling and that he wants to return to it full time.
Ahmed Martin, a community development manager in New Orleans who has worked with Mr. Lowe there, said that city would welcome him back full time. "We would take him in a heartbeat. He is brilliant, dedicated and genuine."
Mr. Lowe said, "I am trying to serve in the capacity role [for MCC] until I can hand it off. I can't do this forever, but I owe people. This neighborhood has given me everything I have.
"People are going to challenge me because I step up in my own neighborhood?" His voice reaches for outrage but ultimately sounds tired. "The question I have to answer is: What will happen to me if I don't step up?"
First Published August 23, 2009 12:00 am