An arts-led strategy to enliven the Penn Avenue corridor in Pittsburgh's East End has catalyzed an incremental and organic change. Artists, arts-organizations and new businesses, including a range of nonprofits, have taken up residence, signaling the emergence of a vital and economically diverse district.
In the late 1990s, Penn Avenue in Pittsburgh suffered the kind of dereliction that afflicts many Rust Belt commercial corridors: vacant and boarded up storefronts, dangerous levels of crime. In 2017, Penn Avenue offers a different kind of experience. Little Angels Learning Academy provides daycare, and Aahmani Afrikan Braids offers hair care. Most Wanted Fine Arts is “a community service organization disguised as an art gallery.” People’s Indian Restaurant is open for lunch and dinner, and Assemble hosts classes, summer camps, birthday parties, and more for learners of all ages interested in arts and technology. These and other businesses along the 12-block strip signal the emergence of a vital and economically diverse commercial corridor.
Under the direction of a full-time artist-organizer, the PAAI attracted artists and arts organizations to the district by actively marketing mixed-use spaces and creating custom packages of property purchase and rehabilitation subsidies to give an ownership stake. Black artists have begun to move onto the corridor, and many of the arts and cultural organizations have worked hard to reach out to area youth to learn artistic skills and explore their creativity. Not every aspect of Penn Avenue’s turnaround worked as planned, however: the hope that a revitalized Avenue would close the seam between two racially and economically distinct neighborhoods was not fully realized.
A reflective report on LISC creative placemaking projects in four cities shows how community development intertwined with arts and culture can uplift neighborhoods, and bring excitement, income, pride and inspiration to the people involved.