October 23, 2009
Minority Architects Rebuild Pittsburgh from the Grassroots Up

by Zach Mortice
Associate Editor

Summary: Carnegie Mellon’s “UDream” program helps minority students understand a troubled community--and then gives them a chance to fix it.

The Homewood-Brushton neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Photo courtesy of the Carnegie Mellon School of Architecture Remaking Cities Institute.

The Homewood-Brushton neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Photo courtesy of the Carnegie Mellon School of Architecture Remaking Cities Institute.

If the colligate academy of architecture is criticized as a designer-centered ivory tower separate from the true-to-life state of cities and urbanism, consider the Carnegie Mellon School of Architecture’s Urban Design Regional Employment Action for Minorities (UDream) program as a rejoinder. This opportunity, run by Carnegie Mellon’s Remaking Cities Institute, gets minority architects working with minority communities at a grassroots level with projects that engage the public in bringing their neighborhoods back to life.

The Remaking Cities Institute is an urban think tank and research center focused on urban planning. With strong relationships with local non-profits, the institute promotes the natural evolution of eclectic and fine-grained urbanism. In conjunction with the institute, the UDream program has three simple goals: to increase minority participation in architecture and urban planning, to potentially retain these talents in Pittsburgh, and to search for urban interventions that could aid the struggling and declining Homewood-Brushton neighborhood on Pittsburgh’s east side.

Studying the city
UDream and the Remaking Cities Institute sponsored seven African-American recent architecture school graduates’ participation. The program began on June 1 and finished on Sept. 5, and was divided into two primary components. The first four weeks were spent taking classes at Carnegie Mellon and studying the Homewood-Brushton neighborhood. In the classroom, the students studied sustainable design, digital fabrication, and urban planning.

Outside of the classroom, they took walking and boat tours of the city, familiarizing themselves with the urbanism they would be designing in. (They also got in a trip to Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece.) At the end of this period they also worked on specific design suggestions for Homewood-Brushton. The remainder of the summer was spent at internships with local architecture firms and community development non-profits. (True to UDream’s goal’s, one firm even hired their intern full-time).

Ken Doyno, AIA, of Rothschild Doyno Collaborative in Pittsburgh, hosted two UDream interns at his firm. One worked on a housing project on a sloped site in the Hill District neighborhood. The other worked with a local human services non-profit, called the Hosanna House, on finding ways to link it to the surrounding community. “Success right now in the [Hosanna House] program has meant leaving the community, so the goal was to try to develop a vision of how to have success in the Hosanna House connect to the surrounding properties,” Doyno says.

Past and future
The structure and content of the UDream program makes it clear that its mission is to train architects as design-savvy community activists, not sculptural technicians. Much of the students’ work centered on tapping the local community’s expertise and refining it into urban solutions. Don Carter, FAIA, director of the Remaking Cities Institute, asks that, above all, students show respect for existing urban contexts and cultures, facilitate the community’s participation, and listen. “Learn from the community,” he added, “because they’re the experts. They know what their neighborhoods are about.”

“We often talk about what makes a piece of architecture rich,” says Derric Heck, a UDream student. “I think one of the things that makes it rich is when it’s representative of the people it is intended to serve. I would like for architecture schools to emphasize the personable nature of architecture. Of course you want people to be technically proficient, but if that thing [you’re designing] does not represent the people it’s going to serve, it’s really for naught.”

In many ways, Homewood-Brushton is suffering from a sadly typically litany of post-industrial Rust Belt urban problems: declining populations and commercial corridors, endemic poverty, poor municipal infrastructure, a lack of proper housing, and blighted and abandoned lots.

The neighborhood was originally settled in the 1880s, and was the home of ethnic white minorities (Germans, Italians, Jews), as well as some African-Americans, making the area one of the most diverse and integrated parts of the city. In 1951, the Pittsburgh Redevelopment Authority revealed a plan rebuild vast stretches of the Lower Hill District neighborhood, another African-American area, clearing out 95 acres in total. These people were largely resettled into Homewood-Brushton, confined to this and other adjacent neighborhood by unfair lending practices and residential redlining.

“Fifty years later, people still feel the pain of [that relocation],” says Heck, an architecture graduate from Florida A&M University. Many middle class white families fled the neighborhood for suburban areas when their new neighbors started moving in. The neighborhood further suffered from the riots caused by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, and the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s.

To deal with these problems and legacy of urban disinvestment, the UDream students focused on the social and economic fabric of the neighborhood as well as its built fabric. The students looked for ways to capitalize on the area’s existing architectural and cultural strengths. Though dilapidated, the housing stock there is well-built, and ripe for gentrifying investment. The neighborhood contained the nation’s first ever African-American opera house, the National Opera House, and it’s still home to a long-standing African-American music community center.

The students also looked for ways to connect Homewood-Brushton to the bus mass transit system in the city. They also examined ways to reinvigorate the area’s commercial core, affordable housing, and establish business incubators and urban farms. (Like many poor neighborhoods, the nearest grocery store is miles away.) To begin with, the UDream students wanted to help instill a positive self-image for the neighborhood with simple, small improvements: murals, better street lighting, new sidewalks and pavers, landscaping, and pedestrian bridges.
Carter says the program’s focus on diversity was key in assuring vital neighborhood buy-in. “If you’re working in minority neighborhoods, having facilitators who are of that group in the room makes it a lot easier to get to the point of trusting the process,” he says. “You need people that are familiar with the culture and can understand where the community is coming from. It’s not that every other professional can’t work that way and do the work. In fact, that’s the way it’s gone for the most part. It does add to the richness of the process to have that mosaic of people.”

If architecture and urban planning had been more diverse and inclusive when these heavy-handed urban redevelopment decisions that have scarred neighborhoods and caused this lack of trust between people and planners were made, they would likely have been avoided, Carter says. The problem, he says, lied both in the lack of diversity and community perspective around design and planning studio tables, as well as with the decision making process itself, which was purely top-down, with little call (or tolerance) for public participation.

“Community organizer”
During the summer internship portion of the UDream program, Heck found himself working to put a new face on the Pittsburgh Redevelopment Authority for the Homewood-Brushton community decades after the agency irreparably changed their neighborhood and relationship to the city. Heck succinctly describes his role with the redevelopment agency as a “community organizer.” He was responsible for putting together a neighborhood steering committee that would select architects for Homewood-Brushton projects. His primary goal was to identify people to sit on the committee, but he also worked on programming, development, and research projects—essentially training people to become stakeholders and advocates for their own neighborhoods. Along the way, Heck discovered that design solutions reside just as often with the people architects serve as they do with designers’ own skills. “Working with this group of individuals just showed that research can come from technical experts, and it can come from children,” he says.

“The community was very open and accepting of [the UDream students,]” Carter says, “and very proud of them, because the community didn’t normally see seven African-American architects coming in to work in a neighborhood.”

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