Saturday Diary / Progress, preservation and a place called home
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When I chose the Mexican War Streets as the place to call home 14 years ago, I didn't know vinyl windows were banished by law to the back of a house or that you couldn't paint a brick building if it hadn't been painted before.
Then one day I saw a poster in a window that read "Certificate of Appropriateness." Kind of Orwellian, I thought, wondering what it meant.
Since taking over the Post-Gazette neighborhood beat seven years ago, I have learned. On most first Wednesdays of each month, I visit the Historic Review Commission. Sometimes the agenda has a sure-fire story on it. Sometimes the agenda appears to be ho-hum, but you never know when an application to add a side deck will bring out the fight in a neighborhood.
Finding stories is my calling. Work is fun, but work is work.
My life is in the War Streets.
Pittsburgh has 90 neighborhoods and I believe there's a perfect one for anybody in the world. Obviously, I have found mine.
On my walk home each evening, crossing the Roberto Clemente Bridge, passing PNC Park and dodging the drips from the railroad overpass, my world begins to flood back into me as I enter Allegheny Commons Park and can see my neighbors and their dogs moving about in the deepening dusk.
I literally feel flooded with a sense of place, a sense of belonging, a love for my neighbors and an urgency to get home to let the dogs out to pee.
If I believed in running, I would run.
The Mexican War Streets is a city and national historic district in the Central Northside. Any exterior renovation or change within the district boundaries must be approved Downtown. The city has 12 historic districts, and four are on the North Side, the former Allegheny City.
The city has an historic planner, Sarah Quinn, who can approve many applications over the counter. If she does, you get a Certificate of Appropriateness to post in a window, mainly to avoid being ratted out. If she feels your application needs a review, you get to present to the commission.
It's a challenge if the money's tight and you need a new window or two or four, as I do. They have to be wood windows. Some people have monster windows; mine aren't so big but I still have put off replacing them. Each winter I put beans in old pairs of tights to lay across the sashes.
But I believe in the rule and I love the aesthetic. If everyone sticks to it and honors it, the place will keep giving off that vibe and sense of time and depth that draws photography classes, tourists on Molly's Trolleys and thousands to our annual house tour.
The War Streets are poised to get larger. Much larger. From its current seven blocks -- 11 or so if you count alleys -- it could more than double in size if the Historic Review Commission votes to expand them next month.
The Central Northside Neighborhood Council and the Mexican War Streets Society teamed up to write the proposal. A dozen of my neighbors attended the hearing and spoke, most on behalf, two opposed. It was one of those rare hearings in which I knew how to spell all the names.
As usual, I appreciate all of their arguments.
An expanded historic district would very likely spur more investment, and it makes sense since the architectural fabric outside the current boundary is seamless with that inside.
Historic districts are very sexy. People with money come here from other cities and can't get their jaws closed when you tell them how much that Italianate three-story is selling for.
A hot neighborhood starts getting cool things. We now can walk to a taqueria and soon we'll be walking to eat sushi. Yay to all that.
But the $400 rent that one resident/landlord is maintaining for a tenant she loves -- and all those affordable rents that young people, many older people and artists need -- will likely become scarcer and scarcer. If the market is driving prices up and the landlord can't use vinyl windows, the landlord has every incentive to find a tenant who can pay more.
When housing prices go up, that's great if you're selling, but taxes go up, too. I have several friends who are struggling to afford rising rents, and I'm afraid the neighborhood is going to lose them.
We need to protect the affordability of our neighborhood for those who are less well off, and we need to encourage artists. Some War Streets leaders are highly sensitive to these concerns and appreciate the critical need for a balance amid gentrification, so I am hopeful.
In his acceptance speech during Wednesday's wee hours, President Barack Obama described hope as "that stubborn thing that exists inside us." I have never heard a better definition for the word. I am hoping like crazy that the place that floods me with so much love remains that place, whether its boundaries grow or not.
It's all one place to me. Home.
First Published November 10, 2012 12:00 am