Saving the middle class starts at home

By John Horchner

When I arrived in Pittsburgh in 2007, Richard Florida, author and Carnegie Mellon professor, had already left.

But the ideas from his book Rise of the Creative Class (2002) were being implemented throughout Pittsburgh. This was particularly true in the neighborhood that I moved into, Friendship.

Years earlier, Friendship had fallen into disrepair, and the main thoroughfare that ran alongside one of its borders, Penn Avenue, still needed significant attention. There was a 12-block section that had become particularly crime ridden, and two nonprofits decided to target the area as a zone for artists.

In 2008, Jeffrey Dorsey, Penn Avenue arts district manager and my neighbor, told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette that artists were being used to jumpstart revitalization “because artists are connectors.”

Later, in 2011, urban change agent and developer Eve Picker sought to add more artists to the next neighborhood across Penn Avenue, Garfield. The task was more challenging, with 400 vacant properties.

Picker set a goal that 6% of the neighborhood’s residents should be creative workers. According to the project’s website, “Six percent is the number, the tipping point. If a neighborhood can get that many creative workers, it becomes an attraction in its own right.” This idea ran parallel with Richard Florida’s writing.

As Picker, Dorsey and others worked to add more creative places along Penn Avenue to the glass-blowing center, dance studios, art galleries, theaters and performance spaces already there, an upscale restaurant suddenly appeared next to new condominiums.

Then came a coffee shop, a grocery store, two hotels and — a half a mile down the road — a sleek Target across from the transit center.

The biggest prize was a large Google office in an abandoned Nabisco factory on Penn Avenue with matching luxury apartments across the street in a development called Bakery Square.

Despite this success, activists and residents living in these neighborhoods were concerned they would soon be squeezed out by higher rents.

Before I left in 2016, those concerns grew and reached a crescendo in March when Michele Martin of NPR visited Pittsburgh and convened a panel for an event titled “Reinventing the American City” at the August Wilson Center. Change agent Eve Picker was on the panel to meet her critics.

One panelist, photographer and MacArthur Fellow LaToya Ruby Frazier, said that city planners had focused too much on attracting “creatives.” She argued that the city needed to start paying attention to the working class and address the segregation between the working class and creative class by creating programs to benefit both.

Richard Florida may have moved to Toronto, where he still writes and teaches, but I imagine he was all ears. In 2017, he told The Guardian that there was a “dark side of our urban revival,” which his book The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class — and What We Can Do About It, would address.

These ideas were on my mind when I spoke to my friend Erik Pearson, an artist who lived and worked within 100 hundred yards of the Raymond Avenue Green Line light rail stop in St. Paul’s south St. Anthony Park for more than a decade.

During that time, the listed starting price for rental units Pearson’s apartment building doubled. Erik recalled for me how in 2006 he first saw the sign for artists’ lofts while driving on University Avenue and decided to move in.

“It was so exciting…having a studio where you are,” Erik said.

“I built a community of friends; we all did the art crawl together. (But) once the light rail came, we were always worried about the studio space … You look at a lot of the apartments going up and you see the prices and you wonder how affordable they are.”

Apartment rentals in general in this south St. Anthony Park area are now 10% higher than St. Paul as a whole, according to a Market Summary Report on Zillow.

“Is it like Soho?” I asked Erik. Soho in Manhattan was once a declining manufacturing neighborhood with rents going down that was completely revitalized after the artists moved in.

“On a different scale, but basically the same thing…that’s the joke among artists, enjoy it while you can!” Erik said.

Erik leaves behind a large, 3,900-square foot mural at the entrance to the WestRock plant that produces recycled board off Vandalia Street in the neighborhood. It depicts the history of the place since its beginning in the early 1900s. You can also see his work online (erik-pearson.pixels.com) or at Lanesboro Arts in Lanesboro, Minnesota.

 I also spoke with Catherine Reid Day, who helped found the Creative Enterprise Zone in 2009 as a community-based effort in south St. Anthony Park to be a counterbalancing force to the displacement of creative studios during the construction of light rail on University Avenue.

“The area is significantly changed because it is a textbook example of transit-oriented development,” she said. She noted the many successes in the area’s recent development, including “…greater transportation access, more housing, different kinds of housing (including workforce housing such as The Ray) and some warehouse and manufacturing converting to creative studio spaces (BroTex).”

However, according to Richard Florida’s most recent book, rapid price increases in a neighborhood are driven by a scarcity of resources, especially around transit that provides proximity to the urban core, major universities, parks and other green spaces, all factors south St. Anthony Park provides in spades.

Alarmed, I reached out to Florida by email and asked what the next steps for the neighborhood should be:

• Supplement housing and/or income to bring more of the middle class back to south St. Anthony Park? or

• Devote energy to making the area around the train stops affordable for all, including service workers and middle-class families?

“I think both strategies have merit,” Florida said. “I think the second is the better of the two, but it probably makes sense to go for both.”

I couldn’t find anywhere where Florida said he was giving up on the original idea — that artists and other cool creatives can spearhead the revitalization of a neighborhood and may be deserving of special treatment. He’s also not saying that success in any way should be punished. He’s just advocating for building more inclusive neighborhoods with all levels of the middle class.

In late May/early June, I attended the Strong Towns/CNU conference in Charlotte, North Carolina. The conference offered numerous ideas to tackle the scarcity of middle-class housing, including an idea forwarded by one engineer to build more luxury housing to take some of the demand off middle and lower priced housing units, preventing high-income individuals from feeling the need to bid up prices as they search for housing anywhere in the neighborhood.

The ideas discussed at the conference didn’t just apply to the problems found in high status neighborhoods, however. The challenges of building the middle class in what may be currently lower status neighborhoods was also discussed.

The most powerful speaker on the topic was Majora Carter from the South Bronx. There, she is a business owner and developer and believes that in lower status neighborhoods, cities should employ talent retention programs like those used by corporations to encourage existing residents to stay and build wealth.

If there were incentives for starting the type of businesses everybody wants in a neighborhood — like cafes, bars and farmers’ markets — a city would be helping to build the middle class instead of engaging in poverty maintenance which can lead to a downward spiral of services and make residents want to move away.

Whatever form it takes, there is an urgent need for us to continue to work on this problem, lest our middle class, which provides the balance and stability the world needs right now, finds itself having to move away from the very places it calls home. 

John Horchner is a professional writer who lives in St. Anthony Park.

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