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Community Rebuilding 

click to enlarge Linda Nelson, chairperson of the Manchester Citizens Council, says the neighborhood has fought hard to overcome decay and perception. - RENEE ROSENSTEEL
  • Renee Rosensteel
  • Linda Nelson, chairperson of the Manchester Citizens Council, says the neighborhood has fought hard to overcome decay and perception.

For the past four decades, the Manchester neighborhood in Pittsburgh's North Side has had something of an identity crisis. 

It became a national historic district in 1975 after community members rallied against developers seeking to remove blight by tearing down the era's distinctive Victorian-era homes. But even after that victory, many vacant structures continued to deteriorate, along with the neighborhood's personality. 

These days, preservationists have reason to believe the worst is behind them. Manchester's once-high crime rates have dropped below those of other North Side neighborhoods. And thanks to a moratorium the Historic Review Commission enacted in June, none of Manchester's vacant buildings will find its way onto the city's demolition list without a nod from the Manchester Citizens Corporation, which has led restoration efforts. 

But that's no reason to think the community is out of danger yet, says Stanley Lowe, the MCC's managing director.

"Right now, the city is really working with us," Lowe says. But "in the big picture, Manchester is one-quarter done, one-quarter transitional ... and if we stop now, I'm afraid that what's at risk in the transitional may impede what's already been done."

While demolition may not be a pressing issue, the economic downturn -- and banks' increased wariness of risky lending -- have emerged as larger problems, Lowe adds. Families looking to invest in the neighborhood might be stymied by banks reluctant to lend for restoration. 

"The level of [rehabilitation] activity is a proportional relationship to what the private market can and cannot do," Lowe says. "If there's limited access to capital, it stops. Places rot, get torn down ... and you can never go back and recapture that."

 

In the past year, the MCC has raised $5.7 million for preserving decaying homes. That's no small feat, but it's still a fraction of the $30 million to $35 million Lowe estimates it will cost to restore the roughly 120 vacant houses in need of repair. 

"Unless we continue this momentum, the only answer people will perceive is demolition," Lowe says.

Getting that money may be difficult. When the organization sought loans to rehab houses last year, for instance, banks told it they'd first need to secure presales, in which buyers commit in advance. 

As a result, the MCC held last year's "The Great House Sale," a kind of lottery in which potential homebuyers paid a $1,500 placement fee to be in the drawing for seven available houses. The move allowed the MCC to get the necessary funding; it sold all seven houses in 2009, and began rehabbing most of them this past summer. Twenty-five people made deposits in that sale; those who weren't selected are on a waiting list for future properties.

Linda Nelson, who chairs the MCC's board of directors, says the sale was part of a larger effort to "re-image" Manchester. In the past, the predominantly black neighborhood acquired a stigma as a hub of crime and drugs. 

That stigma outlived the actual social ills, she says. Today, Manchester is the largest black residential neighborhood in the North Side and has the third-highest property value among North Side communities, according to the MCC. Citywide, it has the second-highest home-ownership rate among black communities, Nelson boasts.

Police statistics compiled by the MCC show that instances of aggravated assault, burglary, robbery and theft have dropped from totals of 166 to just 14 between 2000 and 2007; narcotics arrests fell from 123 to 43 between 2005 and 2007. Also, according to the stats, there weren't any reports of sexual assault between 2005 and 2007. There were also no homicides in 2006 or 2007. (The MCC also organizes block watches and other programs to curb violence and crime.)

"We have the lowest crime stats on the North Side," Nelson says, "but that's not what you hear on the news."

Battling public perception and trying to attract new residents is "every day scratching tooth and nail," she says. The MCC's biggest hurdle is ensuring that once people are interested in coming to Manchester, they can get the financing to do so. Early talks "are in the works" between the MCC, banks and other agencies, she adds, declining to name which ones.

The Columbus Square development, which will create 31 housing units on a former brownfield site, has also helped draw attention. Also, the MCC is planning to host another sale similar to last year's, though it has yet to set a date. But Manchester isn't alone in its struggles to keep bankers interested.

"We're maybe swept up by this national conservative lending environment, and that's disappointing," says Urban Redevelopment Aauthority Executive Director Rob Stephany. "It's a shame in Pittsburgh ... [where] unlike other towns in the nation, we still have market demand."

But would-be residents shouldn't be discouraged, Stephany adds, even if revitalizing the neighborhood takes a little time.

"That neighborhood has put the same level of importance on helping low-income families and attracting vibrant markets," he says. "That kind of inspired social strategy -- that's going to take a little longer than just opening the floodgates, if you will."

 

But time may prove to be Manchester's greatest antagonist, even if it has provided the area's historical character.

Stephany says that government officials and residents alike agree that preserving the existing housing stock is the best option. But left vacant, buildings "start to slip into a public-safety hazard," he says, and the city has little choice but to demolish.

In the past five years, the city tore down 53 buildings in Manchester -- "too many," Lowe says. But even preservationists admit demolition is sometimes necessary: A 2009 report compiled by the MCC and the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, which pioneered efforts to preserve the neighborhood decades ago, listed 49 out of 172 vacant properties as acceptable for demolition.

"Some people think I'm a rotten son-of-a-bitch because I strongly believe in selected demolition," Lowe says.

Those are usually homes that are too decayed to repair. But when it comes to the latticework on Victorian porches or the exposed brick of row houses, the loss of history "is almost unfathomable," Lowe laments. "People have paid too high a price, worked too long to have that happen."

"You have to remember that everybody's been working for four decades in Manchester," says PHLF President Arthur Ziegler. "It takes a long time."

For now, the dynamics between the MCC and the city appear to be amicable, though that wasn't always the case. (Originally, Nelson says, "the city plan was to demolish these 150 homes.") There is no end-date on the demolition moratorium, Stephany says, as long as the community pursues an active agenda to fill vacancies and stop decay.

Adds Stephany, "We're really trying to figure out how to revive neighborhoods on their terms." 

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