It was day three of an eight-day bicycle trip. Mary Tremonte and Jessica McPherson were peddling from Pittsburgh to New York City to join the protests of the Republican National Convention. Because the batteries in their cell phones were dead, they wheeled into the parking lot of a gas station to use the pay phone. McPherson wasn't ringing fellow activists, however, or checking to make sure her parents had bail money ready just in case. She was calling her real-estate agent.
Elizabeth Kivowitz was back in Pittsburgh and working out of Northwood Realty's Squirrel Hill office. She'd earned her realtor's license only weeks before, but she had good news. The owners of a three-bedroom, one-bath house in the heart of Garfield had accepted an offer the women had made a day before: a mere $17,000 for the property. Tremonte and McPherson planned to pay in cash.
After completing their bike trip to Manhattan, the women returned to Pittsburgh and turned their new house -- smack-dab in the middle of a neighborhood generally considered to be one of Pittsburgh's most blighted -- into a cozy, comfortable and mortgage-free home.
From Kivowitz's perspective, Tremonte and McPherson's house-hunting excursions were not exactly textbook. In fact, those are almost the exact words that Kivowitz used to describe the many times the women insisted on being shown properties in some of the city's least desirable neighborhoods. They would arrive at the Northwood office on their bicycles, which they tossed into the back of Kivowitz's pickup. "You guys aren't a textbook situation!" she would say. "You want to do what? I'm going to have to ask about that ... "
Now sitting at their kitchen table and sipping echinacea tea, Tremonte and McPherson snicker at the memory. "She was sort of learning on the job," says McPherson. "But she was really good. I think most of the time, in the ranges that we were looking, an agent would not be very motivated to help us because they're not going to get much commission."
Kivowitz wasn't the first real-estate agent in Pittsburgh to field such requests, and she won't be the last. Pittsburgh's housing market is quickly becoming more desirable for buyers -- many of them politically active and connected to the punk community -- who are willing to take on the responsibility of a crumbling house in a depressed neighborhood. Assuming, of course, that the price is right.
Talk about crumbling houses and depressed neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, and you have to mention Erok Boerer and Geoffrey Frost. Both are deeply entrenched in the local punk community. And like Tremonte and McPherson, both are ecologically conscious activists with a fondness for negotiating the streets of Pittsburgh on their bicycles, no matter how disagreeable the weather. Both are also regular volunteers at Free Ride, a non-profit organization located in Point Breeze that repairs donated bikes and re-sells them cheaply.
Today, the two are talking about do-it-yourself home improvement in the living room of their $6,500 Beelen Street house, which sits along the fringe of the Hill District, near the Birmingham Bridge. Like nearly all the house, the living room has been furnished and decorated almost entirely by found objects: a giant stereo speaker reclaimed from the street acts as a chair; bookshelves, which strain beneath used reference books and a zine library, were handmade from wood salvaged from a Dumpster.
"When I was in high school," Frost says, wrapped in an electric blanket to insulate himself from the chill of the house, "people were always telling me that I couldn't survive unless I was making forty or fifty thousand dollars a year. But there are a lot of things that look really bad to a real-estate agent that aren't really that expensive to fix."
Ultra-budget and urban communal living are hardly new concepts to Frost or Boerer. For years, both had lived in punk houses -- often run-down rental units packed sardine-tight with friends, strangers and revolving casts of travelers -- in Pittsburgh and around the country. In fact, the two were living in a punk house, known as Centro del Mundo, when they decided to become owners. It's located just across the street from the home they own today.
Boerer and Frost had looked at homes all over the city when, peering out their front window, they noticed a realty sign staring back at them. The house it advertised was sagging and desperately neglected, and when Boerer phoned about it, the realtor simply replied, "Oh, that shithole? I don't feel like going out there. How about I just give you the combination on the lock so you can go look at it on your own?"
"It was good for us," recalls Boerer. "Because then we could punch a hole in the wall and see if the beams were messed up."
The beams weren't messed up, in fact. At least not according to a friend of Boerer's, who knew something about construction. The rest of the house, however, was literally in pieces. The plaster was cracked and falling apart, and the roof leaked in places. The realty company wanted $9,900, but settled for $6,500.
The two closed on the house in December 2003. By then, "Angry" Ron Douglas, known locally as "the punk-rock taxi driver," had decided to buy into the house as well. Boerer arrived at the realty office with Angry Ron, who was sporting a giant green Mohawk. "They both looked totally punk rock," Frost says, howling at the memory. "[The realtors] actually took them out of the lobby and into a separate room, so no one could see them."
Six months later, Boerer's girlfriend, Andalusia Kincaid, bought into the property as well, as did another friend. The process was simple: Each of the four owners effectively purchased one quarter-share of the house, factored in with sweat equity and the cost of the few building materials the group actually did buy.
"I know my Dad feels weird," says Boerer with a weak smile. "Because my house was paid off before his was."
Of course, Boerer had a good bit of help. Not only is the house itself collectively owned, but so are its appliances, its furnishings, and nearly everything else that turned the previously unloved structure into a home.
In the kitchen, for instance, sits a battered but perfectly functional $100 stove purchased from Construction Junction, a non-profit retail shop in Point Breeze that deals mostly in used and surplus building materials. "Actually," says Boerer, pointing to the refrigerator, the floor tiles, and then the counter, "this whole kitchen is Construction Junction, pretty much."
Which isn't to say that patching up the house was as simple as saving money on cheap materials. Boerer and Kincaid are quick to share a stack of photos that document the rehab in process. In the photos, piles of debris, and what's probably asbestos, fill every corner. Non-weight-bearing walls had been punched through and torn down. Many of the rooms had to be totally gutted -- including the bathroom, which now operates on a gray-water system (water from the sink drips into a pail, and is then used to flush the toilet).
Frost, still wrapped in an electric blanket, slowly shakes his head. "It's still difficult for me to believe we did all this stuff."
Even today the home, which has been nicknamed Cripple Creek, looks and feels very much like a punk house. Thrift-store art adorns the walls, and absolutely nothing in the house matches, which makes perfect sense when you consider how much of the interior -- including even some of the windows -- were reclaimed from the trash.
As Kincaid readily admits, "We're choosing to live this life. Coming from middle-class backgrounds, all of us probably could have good jobs. When I moved in here, I was 21. I was like, 'Buy a house?' But here, owning a house is not in conflict with our punk ideals whatsoever. In fact, it goes hand-in-hand with them."
Adages such as "Abolish private property" and "property is theft" have been mainstays of the anarchist movement since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. And for some home-owning punks, appearances can be hard to shake.
"I [got] a copy of one of my employee's zines," says Tim Williams, a local homeowner whose aesthetics are easily more mainstream than anyone's at Cripple Creek, even though he's spent years drumming for punk bands including Davenport and Aus Rotten. "She's someone who's young, and very visibly punk. And she was talking about her job, and she said that her boss was 'pretty cool,' and then described me as an ex-punk rocker! That was a [much] weirder moment for me than getting a mortgage."
But like most of the homeowners interviewed for this article, Williams, who is 32, professes to have almost no feelings of buyer's remorse since closing on his Braddock Hills house last summer, even though with a $700 monthly mortgage payment on his $72,000 house, he'll be writing checks well into middle age.
"I resisted it for a long time," he says of becoming a homeowner. "I was never sure I would stay in Pittsburgh. And I have a yard now, so that's kind of strange. I guess that felt like kind of an un-punk moment -- when I had to start mowing my lawn."
Still, the co-owners of Cripple Creek spent years working low-paying service industry jobs, paying the mortgages of often faceless landlords. For them, escaping from the rent cycle and spending their days working on projects they actually believed in was the most punk lifestyle choice possible.
"I think like a lot of people," Boerer says, "a lot of the things I want to accomplish with my life require not having a job. I want to learn more about permaculture and gardening and sustainable ways of living. We've been talking about solar panels, and we're doing activism on top of that. Those are things I want to do, and I feel good about doing. And I really couldn't do as much of that if I had a job."
After all, why would any self-respecting punk choose to line the pockets of a landlord? Wouldn't he rather avoid the capitalistic middleman altogether, and use the earned equity to fund a hobby, or a project or even a lifestyle he actually believes in?
"I wanted to get out of the rent cycle," agrees Nathan Iverson, another member of the local punk community who recently bought a home in Lawrenceville with his wife, Kelly. "I wanted to have my own house, and raise a family, and live in a community that I felt comfortable in. It was like, I was working, I took my money home, and I gave it right to my landlord. It just seemed like, on a small scale, what was wrong with the world: I'm slaving away at work for someone else to make money off of me, and then I go home and give all my money to somebody else."
"I think a lot of people think of punk as being something very temporary," Frost reflects. "As if it's something you can only do for so long, and then you have to grow out of it: get a real job, get a normal life."
Frost has had real jobs. At some he even received regular paychecks. Formerly a union organizer, Frost will spend time this summer volunteering for an eco-group known as Mountain Justice, which is campaigning to stop mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia. For his part, Boerer recently volunteered time at a Guatemalan NGO known as Maya Pedal, which turns used bicycles into electricity-free, people-powered machinery. (Boerer also constructed a bicycle-powered smoothie blender that was exhibited at the Lawrenceville FLUX and the recent Salvo Arts Festival at Construction Junction.) Kincaid is a part-time host of WRCT's public-affairs show Rust Belt Radio and a volunteer for Book 'Em, a non-profit books-for-prisoners program which operates in the basement of Garfield's Thomas Merton Center.
It's no wonder, then, that the three cobbled together a surprisingly comfortable home with a minimum of cash and supplies. "We're used to being able to accomplish whatever we want," Frost explained later in the evening, sitting in front of a battered computer monitor. "So we have a false sense of security with projects, even when they're big."
But not every new home-owning member of Pittsburgh's punk community is busy rehabbing within strict eco-conscious guidelines. Nor are they all snapping up cheap houses with cash, and tackling professional-level repairs and remodels entirely by themselves.
What of those who pay monthly mortgages on $70,000, $80,000 or even $100,000 homes? Can standard property-owning ever be an ethical decision for someone whose politics verge on anarchism?
Consider, for instance, Deanna Hitchcock. At 28, Hitchcock, who was raised in a small town in upstate New York by parents who owned an ice-cream shop, is one of the founders of the Mr. Roboto Project, a punk venue and multi-use space in Wilkinsburg. She's an avid bicycle-rights advocate who has never owned a car in her life. She also has no cell phone, no cable television, no DVD player and no credit cards. But last August she chose to take on a 30-year mortgage for a $60,000 row house on Barnes Street in Wilkinsburg.
"I was jumping on the bandwagon," she says.
Hicthcock remembers Dan Goldberg and Julie Meredith being among the first couples in the punk community to be homeowners. Goldberg, one of the founders of the South Oakland punk house known as the Peach Pit, isn't particularly active in the Pittsburgh punk scene these days: He's now married with a full-time job as a Web designer. But back in early 2001, when Hitchcock heard through the grapevine that Goldberg and Meredith were thinking of buying, she was taken aback. "I was like, 'Who buys a house?'" she said, sitting in her new dining room, which looks surprisingly middle-class save for the subway-sized Clash poster on the wall. "And when I heard they were buying in Lawrenceville, I was like, 'Who lives in Lawrenceville?' Of course, now everybody lives in Lawrenceville."
Soon after, Boerer and Frost began rehabbing their home. And then Mike "Q" Roth, a Roboto Project volunteer whom Hitchcock had once dated, became a homeowner as well. He was planning to buy with Emma Rehm, who is now his wife. Hitchcock remembers spending afternoons at the Barnes & Noble in Squirrel Hill with Rehm, who flipped through bridal magazines while Hitchcock paged through home-improvement books, cribbing notes about tile replacement and interior painting.
Hitchcock is quick to admit, however, that although the do-it-yourself credo has been a guiding philosophy in her life, much of her house -- aside from a few stained carpets that needed to be removed -- came ready-to-own.
"But it's really great when I go to [Cripple Creek] and see all the stuff they've done," she says. "I think, this is what it's all about."
Even further removed from the DIY aesthetic of Cripple Creek is Chris Tracey and Martha Reicks' place -- a tidy, $100,000 home that rests on a leafy street in Highland Park where crickets chirp after the sun goes down. Tracey was heavily involved in the punk scene during his college days, when evenings and weekends were spent going to shows and putting out zines (including the well-regarded Eco Zine).
Today, Tracey works as an ecologist for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, and is an adjunct professor in the landscape architecture department at Chatham College. His work week is more structured, and his home has already been assessed at $10,000 more than its value when he and Reicks purchased it in 2003. But his own home-construction projects were influenced by the socially conscious ethos that led the owners of Cripple Creek to build not just one, but two trash-heap composts near their property.
Much of Tracey and Reicks' rehabbed kitchen is ecologically and socially conscious too: from the Terragreen ceramic tiles that are made from 80 percent recycled glass, to the certified-sustainable wood the couple used when they moved the kitchen's doorframe. Probably the most innovative improvement, though, is the under-floor heating that was installed beneath the tiles after an old radiator system was removed. A transformer located in the basement, Tracey explains, sends 24 volts of electricity through the plastic sheet, which has small coils inside. Tracey estimates that it costs about three cents a day to heat the room.
"There's a ton of stuff you have to buy and do to repair the house; everything from maintaining things like the furnace, all the way up to remodeling," he says. "And you can choose to be ecologically and socially conscious when you do that, you know? I kind of feel like we're affecting a lot more than we were when we were just renting."
"Pittsburgh is ripe for punk homeownership," says Doug Stewart, a realtor with Neighborhood Realty Services who's standing above my table at the Quiet Storm, and offering his business card. Sunday brunch is in full swing, and I'm midway through an interview with Doug Weaver, Kalie Pierce and their 4-year-old son, Genly, who looks almost as punk rock as his parents; a long shock of hair falls over one eye, and he even sports painted fingernails. Doug and Kalie aren't just parents (their daughter Reyghan is 9) and mortgage-holding homeowners; they've also managed to stay relatively true to their punk roots and political ideals. Last summer, when the two had saved enough money to move into a home, Stewart was the realtor they chanced upon. He's since become something of a champion of local budget homeownership.
"One of the credos of the punk ethos as far as I understand it," Stewart says days later, "is 'do-it-yourself.' And in a declining neighborhood, the economics dictate that the more labor it takes to fix [a house], the less likely it's going to [get fixed]. But if you're a punk, and your ethos is do-it-yourself, you don't hire somebody. You hack it. You figure out a way to do it."
Still, in the beginning stages of selling Weaver and Pierce their $55,000 Polish Hill home, Stewart had his reservations.
"Their aesthetics were definitely not of the mainstream," he offers. (Pierce often dyes her hair bright red, and tangles it into dreadlocks. Weaver, along with other piercings, wears a silver ring in his septum.) One of Stewart's friends, after hearing about the new clients, said, "They're anarchists! Can they sign a contact?"
"But the thing is," Stewart says, "they're like everybody else. Doug works at a plant that prints mugs in Swissvale, and Kalie is going back to school, and they've got two kids, so they needed a place to live. They followed the standard real-estate law, and the transaction was quite smooth."
"A punk," Weaver had explained to his agent, "is somebody who doesn't need a policeman standing over their shoulder to do the right thing."
Indeed, says Jen Angel, being a homeowner may even be more punk than renting. Probably best known as the co-founder of Clamor, a punk culture magazine, Angel was also an editor at Maximumrocknroll, the punk world's undisputed bible. Today, along with her Clamor co-editor Jason Kucsma, she publishes the annual Zine Yearbook and organizes the Allied Media Conference, a yearly gathering of independent publishers in Bowling Green, Ohio. She also shares a $100,000 house with Kucsma, in Toledo. The home, says Chris Tracey, who befriended the couple during his years as a grad student at Bowling Green, "is not like a punk house at all."
"I know some [punks] have issues with [property ownership]," Angel says. "But the thing is, so many punks, I think, don't feel like they can commit to living somewhere and contributing and building a scene. Jason and I talk a lot about how it's important -- especially for punks and activists -- to stay in cities that are not Chicago, New York and San Francisco. The work we do is important, and it needs to be done everywhere, not just in those big cities. We know a lot of really good people here, and we're really invested in our area."
"I think there's certainly something to be said for the nomadic type of existence that some punks choose to live," Doug Stewart had said. "You can see a lot of the country that way, and meet a lot of people that way. But at some point, I think most people get tired of that lifestyle. So if you're going to be somewhere -- and everyone must be somewhere -- why pay somebody rent?"
"For me," Jessica McPherson had explained in her Garfield kitchen, "this is a commitment to urban life. It's a reinvestment in what we've already built. It's not like we're going to change the tax structure in Pittsburgh, or save Pittsburgh. We're just trying to stay consistent with our own personal beliefs."
"I feel like it's social equity and cultural equity," Mary Tremonte added, still holding onto her cup of echinacea tea, and surrounded by warmth. "We're investing in the world we want to live."