Windows of Opportunity | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Windows of Opportunity 

Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani made his reputation as a law-and-order tough guy, based in part on the so-called "broken window" theory. As described in a March 1982 Atlantic Monthly article, broken windows signify neglect and tacitly encourage more serious crimes. Fix the small problems, the logic goes, and solutions to the larger ones will follow.


Critics, though, say that Giuliani used the theory as an excuse to badger the homeless rather than actually fixing much. And the debate didn't really follow his jump into national politics. That's too bad, because independently of Giuliani or the Atlantic, repaired windows are leading a stunning revival at a formerly moribund Pittsburgh intersection.


At Stanton and Negley avenues, the border between East Liberty and Highland Park, what was originally the Second Presbyterian Church of 1900 is now the Union Project, a developing community and arts center. Over the years, the structure has experienced fire, changes of congregation, and, in the 1990s, abandonment. Only in 2001 did a group of young civic-minded Mennonites purchase the building with foundation support and begin working on its current incarnation.


Windows were one of the earliest and most telling components of the renovation. Dozens of blue and green stained-glass panes were decaying or broken, broadcasting the historic building's decline. Assistant Director Justin Rothshank explains that professional repair and restoration would have cost more than $900,000. Instead of hiring glass-repair contractors, the Union Project solicited volunteers and also offered stained-glass classes (it still does both) to reduce substantially the expense of repair. The activities generate some welcome revenue, but the renewed senses of creativity and community enfranchisement are at least as valuable.


"It's really a barn-raising ethic," explains Executive Director Jessica King, describing the vanloads of students who have volunteered. The philosophy has guided the project since its inception and operates at an increasingly large scale. On Nov. 18, the Union Project had a grand opening for its atrium. What looks from the outside like the apse of the church is a double-height room with a curving balcony. A renovation by architect Mike Eversmeyer uses a light touch to improve accessibility and admit more light. More of the increasingly numerous repaired windows are visible inside than were previously. And it wouldn't have been possible without a special agreement with the contractor, Massaro Corporation, to cooperate with the volunteer labor.


Similarly telling is how the new space vividly extends its new unified missions of building community, promoting the arts and raising revenue. The atrium is open as a craft store, with hours on Fridays (check just in time for the holidays. Many of the works on sale were made in the studio spaces of the Union Project's basement, and proceeds support the organization. So do office leases: The now-sunny balcony rooms are all occupied by businesses or non-profits whose synergistic philosophies are at least as important as their rent checks.


Political activists and arts-event organizers Jackson Clark Partners have set up shop in the Union Project. Thanks in part to what Rothshank calls "a huge federal grant," the two organizations are also working to develop an incubator for not-for-profits that want to emulate successes in historic preservation, fund-raising and organizing.


The model is clearly successful, but the work is not yet complete. Though the church's atrium is finished, renovation of the sanctuary is ongoing. A coffee shop also has yet to go in, and the active art studios downstairs are due for an expansion. As for the offices and conference rooms, Rothshank admits, "Rents are definitely cheap, because we're not done yet." For that matter, not all of the windows are redone yet.


Still, the initial impulse to fix windows has proven to be particularly resonant, not because other changes happen automatically, but because the positive and productive model inspires creativity and cooperation at an ever-increasing scale.


Typing at her office computer, King comments on the stained glass over her shoulder that she restored herself. What she says about that piece applies, of course, to the Union Project itself.


"With a little bit of effort, you have a chance to make something lasting."



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