East Side Story | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

East Side Story 

Community organizers in the East End are seeing something from Larimer that they haven't seen in a long time: people. And while no one ever complains about too much grassroots activity, the escalating interest has created some confusion about who is steering the Larimer ship.

"I've been here 12 years," says Maelene Myers, the executive director of nearby East Liberty Development, Inc. "I've never seen the turnout I have seen in the past few months."

Larimer sits just east of East Liberty, bordering Point Breeze and Homewood on its other side. Like some of its neighbors, it has been plagued by poverty, blight and violence. Almost 30 percent of housing units in Larimer are vacant, according to 2000 Census data.

"This is a community that has been struggling for many years," Myers says. But Larimer, she predicts, is positioned for revitalization.

On Thu., Nov. 20, politicians, residents and other stakeholders are unveiling the results of a Larimer Community Plan. At a 6 p.m. event at the Kingsley Association (6435 Frankstown Ave.), residents will get a look at a planning initiative that has included state Sen. Jim Ferlo, state Rep. Joe Preston, and representatives from community groups, the Urban Redevelopment Authority and City Planning.

"The excitement is there," Myers says.

But so are the challenges. One of the most vexing, says community consultant Pat Clark, is that Larimer is "one of the few neighborhoods in the city that people don't know where it is." (Editor's note: Clark is the husband of CP associate editor Al Hoff).

"From what I'm told," agrees Larimer business owner Craig Marcus, "depending on who you talk to, some years ago there was a Larimer, [or] there wasn't a Larimer."

In fact, Larimer's only community group (aside from churches and business fraternity chapters) doesn't even have Larimer in its name: the East Liberty Concerned Citizens Corporation -- whose name is a holdover from when it represented Larimer, Garfield and East Liberty -- operates out of a Paulson Avenue office.

For Marcus, Larimer offered the opportunity to own the building he worked out of. Four and a half years ago, he moved his custom wood-furniture business, Marcus Studio, from the Strip District to a gallery/work site on Hamilton Avenue.

About a year ago, Marcus started lending his showroom to the Larimer Community Plan initiative, not knowing exactly what they were doing. Shortly thereafter, he joined the group's beautification action team.

"I started asking them what in the world they were doing," he says. "At the same time, I started getting interested in taking over vacant lots ... [But] I wasn't under the impression that greening was part of what they were meeting about."

Since then, Marcus and others have planted trees and sunflowers in some of Larimer's empty spaces. He's optimistic that seeds of business are similarly taking root.

"Nobody has the illusion that [Larimer's] going to all of a sudden blossom the way it used to be," Marcus says. But he is convinced that change is in the air.

The stretch of Hamilton that his gallery looks out on "used to be Automotive Row," Marcus says. The mechanics are still there, but so are places like Absolute Ballroom, a dance studio that opened in June.

"We really see ourselves as the kick-off for the Hamilton arts corridor," says Andrew Pueschel, Absolute's artistic director, adding that the nearby Bakery Square construction and galleries like Marcus's played a role in the location decision.

"There's a critical mass of people interested," Marcus says. But at the same time, "there's sort of a general lack of organization."

And in fact, he's already been caught up in a dispute over whose vision for the area will prevail.

In an effort to liven up the neighborhood, Marcus has been trying to purchase the rights to display a mural reprint of artist (and Peabody High graduate) Romare Bearden's 1971 work "The Block" behind a community garden on a Frankstown Avenue side street.

"The Block" is a six-panel collage of a tightly packed Harlem neighborhood, with apartments resting on storefronts. New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the work is housed, calls it "a scene emblematic of the African-American experience."

But Ora Lee Carroll, the executive director of East Liberty Concerned Citizens, is more concerned with who ordered the mural than who's featured in it.

When Carroll saw an invoice from the Met -- addressed to her organization in care of Marcus Studio -- she became irate. No money had yet changed hands, but the invoice included an unsigned contract for the mural's display.

Carroll says she never approved the proposal and says the ELCCC's name was used inappropriately.

"What application did they fill out to get the invoice?" she says. "Who gave them the authorization?"

Carroll has filed a complaint with the police and frozen the corporation's incoming mail so that it must be picked up by someone with an ID.

Marcus says it's all a misunderstanding: As an ELCCC volunteer, he says he was doing the legwork for the project to make a presentation to Carroll. "I basically wanted to get all my ducks in a row," he says.

Marcus has agreed to take the ELCCC name off the mural project, but he's looking for another nonprofit to back it. Certain discounts, which Marcus says are necessary to make the $1,027 project viable, are available only to nonprofits.

"The organizational problems that prevent us from doing anything in the neighborhood have to be surmounted," Marcus says. "This mural is a good example of that."

East Liberty Development, Inc.'s Nate Wildfire -- who has been sitting in on community planning meetings -- says that Larimer is in the process of aligning the newly active community members with the smaller population of longtime activists -- which to a large extent means Carroll, who "has been pouring her heart and soul into Larimer for decades."

Working with consultants and volunteers but no staff, Carroll has become, as she puts it, "the force behind the engine" at the East Liberty Concerned Citizens Corporation.

Carroll co-founded the ELCCC in 1983 and has been fighting a campaign against drugs, gangs and poverty, at times with minimal support, for years.

But now, "there's more folks stepping up to the plate," says Wildfire. "Folks aren't alone anymore ... [and] there's probably going to be growing pains in figuring out how new energy continues to move forward. But none of that is discouraging."

Carroll says she's ready to let someone else take the reins. "I'd feel good saying, 'I did this,' and sitting back," she adds. But she's not going anywhere until she's sure that the next wave of leadership has the best interests of Larimer at heart.

And that's why her misgivings about the mural are wrapped up in a larger concern: Who exactly will be redeveloping Larimer?

"They've got another plan for this neighborhood, and it ain't about us," says Carroll. "They're not talking about building houses for low-income people. They've got something else in mind."

Myers says she's heard similar concerns from some residents: "People are afraid that 'government' will be the one that will come in and plan their neighborhood."

Perhaps such wariness is not surprising. Black communities throughout Pittsburgh still remember the devastation of the Lower Hill District -- which took place nearly half a century ago as part of the construction of the Civic Arena. And the economic downturn in East Liberty's Penn Circle area is widely regarded as urban planning gone awry.

The largest recent project in Larimer is the ongoing redevelopment of the closed Nabisco plant, just down Penn Avenue from East Liberty's business district. But while Bakery Square is in Larimer, the development's Web site refers to its location as "at Eastside" -- a re-branding that some locals view as linguistic gentrification designed to appeal to affluent, mostly white shoppers.

Some see the "Eastside" tag as an effort to make East Liberty seem more like Shadyside ... and erasing Larimer's name as an effort to make that neighborhood seem more like East Liberty.

"It should be Larimer Square, not Bakery Square," Carroll says. "Larimer should be at the top of that building."

For her part, Myers sees some of East Liberty's growth in the last 12 years as a blueprint for Larimer. But sustaining a grassroots enthusiasm, she says is the key to future success.

"I don't know how you do it without community involvement," she says. "You cannot do it without them. It's like a car without wheels."

Business owner Craig Marcus in his Larimer storefront
  • Business owner Craig Marcus in his Larimer storefront


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