As a state representative for Oakland, I’ve been excited to take an active role on many issues of interest to the 23rd District, including two major policy issues that are coming to a head in Harrisburg this year.
Public transportation is a lifeline for our Oakland residents, workers and visitors. Unfortunately, the Port Authority’s financial situation in recent years has meant constant threats of route cuts, and has too often left riders anxious about whether they’ll be able to get to work, school, the doctor’s office or the grocery store.
For my constituents, almost 20 percent of whom ride the bus, it’s a critical issue.
I’ve reintroduced legislation this year that would provide adequate funding for the Port Authority, based on the recommendations of the governor’s own funding advisory commission. The great news is that other legislators agree this problem must be solved. Senator Rafferty, a Republican, has introduced legislation that would also create new funding for the Port Authority by generating more than $100 million annually for statewide public transit next year, going up to more than $500 million annually for public transit in five years.
In addition, as a long-standing supporter of health care reform, I’m also excited about the changes to the health care marketplace which make sure that insurance companies can’t discriminate based on your age, your gender or whether or not you’ve been sick before.
I want to make sure that Pennsylvanians benefit from all of health care reform, including the federally funded expansion of Medicaid to residents with incomes up to 133 percent of poverty. These workers – who serve our food, stock our groceries, care for our children and our parents – deserve access to health care themselves. I’ve sponsored legislation that would require Pennsylvania to accept the $37 billion in federal funds to make sure these residents have health care coverage.
New independent reports conclude that accepting the Medicaid funds would be an economic boon to our region. I will continue to urge the governor to act with the interests of all Pennsylvanians in mind.
For more information, please visit my office at 2345 Murray Ave., Suite 205, call 412-422-1774 or visit www.pahouse.com/Frankel, www.facebook.com/RepDanFrankel or twitter.com/RepDanFrankel.
By Rebekkah Ranallo
On April 22nd, West Oakland residents celebrated an important event: the grand opening of their community coffee shop, The Corner Café. I asked OPDC’s Community Organizer, Tara Sherry-Torres, to join me at the opening to check it out and discuss an article I needed to research. We were at the café for about an hour, during which time about a half dozen community members approached us to say hello and catch up.
When asked to measure outcomes in community development, we often place strong emphasis on the physical—for how many people have we provided affordable housing? How many blighted buildings are now code-compliant? How many new trees have we planted in the neighborhood? We compile this data each month to show our community, partners and funders where we’ve made an impact and where we seek improvement.
These physical achievements are important, but building a strong community is not just about bricks and mortar. None of OPDC’s progress in the aforementioned areas would be possible without established social networks and relationships between members of our community. OPDC’s community organizing program prioritizes tracking this type of data, too—who do we meet and who do we help connect through our various programs each month? In Oakland, we’ve recently made significant strides in this area, which, in community development, we call social capital.
In his critically acclaimed work Bowling Alone, political scientist Robert Putnam describes social capital as “our reserve of personal bonds and fellowship,” stressing the concept that all social networks have value. When OPDC launched the Oakland 2025 process in 2011, we sought to build upon Oakland’s reserve of these valuable relationships. Six months after the plan’s release, Oakland’s residents are increasingly plugging into the different opportunities around them, resulting in transformations throughout the neighborhood.
About a half dozen people approached us as we sat in The Corner Café that April morning. They caught up with Tara on community “business” items, so to speak: “When’s the next Oakwatch meeting?” “Did you get my email about the trash in that vacant lot?” The conversations each gradually turned to personal updates. News about children’s weddings, college graduations, career transitions and favorite types of coffee filled the room. I’d invited Tara out that morning to discuss the academic theory behind social capital, but the people we encountered demonstrated it in action.
Longtime West Oakland resident Barb Blandino sat with us for a few minutes to discuss what’s been happening on Robinson Street. “I think the community garden has really helped connect people here around something positive,” she said, referencing West Oakland’s Earl Brooks Memorial Garden. “Black, white, young, old, male and female, we’ve made a lot of new connections. We say hello to each other now.”
In North Oakland, community members are preparing for a new CVS store to open on the former Giant Eagle site at the Centre Avenue/North Craig Street intersection. Discussions with CVS representatives began as the neighborhood worked to ensure good development at a highly visible location in the neighborhood. Residents, neighboring property management companies, local businesses and OPDC staff all came together in a productive forum over several meetings of the Bellefield Area Citizens Association. CVS heard the community’s concerns, and together they negotiated the building’s final design to meet the community’s expectations.
It’s not always something positive like a new development or a community garden that brings people to the table, though. Tara described several instances in which many Oakland residents have come together over a shared frustration. Putnam calls this phenomenon “public problem solving,” or as one person he interviewed described it, “making your private pain public.”
South Oakland resident Mark Oleniacz is an Oakland resident who’s emerged as a leader in this way. Long frustrated by issues such as trash and disruptive parties, he’s been encouraged by OPDC’s efforts and is working with his neighbors to launch a new neighborhood association, South Oakland Neighborhood Group (SONG). “I’m encouraged by the things I’ve seen so far. With help from OPDC and other organizations, community involvement is growing and I am optimistic that it will help return Oakland to the stable residential neighborhood it used to be,” Mark wrote to me. “We are making incremental but visible progress toward that goal.”
People form bonds when coming together on these issues. When you commiserate with your neighbors at a meeting about the slumlord’s property down the street, you may not realize it, but you’re building a relationship that has value. You now have allies who will work with you to eliminate future challenges. Plus, your knowledge about who to contact for each issue grows, and suddenly that pothole at the corner seems like a less daunting challenge to confront. Connections such as these are the driving force behind strong social capital in a neighborhood; they lead to more cohesive and effective approaches to solving complex problems.
Tracy Soska, a faculty member of the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work, told us, “The quality of life in a neighborhood strongly ties to the quality of one’s neighborly relationships. The more people know their neighbors, the more they will be a source of mutual support.”
So, what’s the community organization’s role in helping link all these people together? “If you think of Oakland as a large wheel, OPDC is kind of like the center of that wheel holding the spokes together,” Tara explained to me. “We’re not driving the momentum—we’re just holding it all together.”
At OPDC, we’ve seen a steady increase in attendance at many of the community meetings we help facilitate. Each of Oakland’s distinct neighborhoods now has its own community group, and these six groups are all members of Coalition of Oakland Residents (COR). Oakland 2025 proposed creating COR to ensure residents have a voice in implementing the plan and a strong forum for advocacy through an alliance of neighborhood associations that represents all residential areas in Oakland.
“Now there’s more of an understanding of why it’s important to communicate across Oakland’s different neighborhoods and neighborhoods are supporting one another. People are attending meetings outside of their immediate neighborhoods,” Tara said.
Schenley Farms resident Christina Schmidlapp is one of those people. Recently, Barb Brewton, her West Oakland friend told her about a new group, the Oakland Green Team. Barb knew Christina volunteered with several Pittsburgh greening organizations and thought she’d appreciate this channel for meeting Oakland neighbors outside of Schenley Farms while doing something she loves: working outdoors.
“Over time, my immediate ‘neighborhood’ of Schenley Farms has expanded to include much more of Oakland,” Christina said. “When I learned about the Green Team’s involvement with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy’s Bates Street project, it seemed like something I’d want to be involved with. I was impressed with what I saw when I attended that first meeting.”
Maybe you haven’t had time to make it to your local community meeting yet. What’s cool about social capital, though, as Putnam tells us, is its external impact on a neighborhood at large. Even if you are a less connected individual than some of your neighbors, you will benefit from the spillover impact of living in a well-connected community. For example, if your neighbors are keeping an eye on one another’s homes, you’ll benefit from an overall lower crime rate even if you keep to yourself.
“When multiple people value a common place, it helps build relationships,” Tara said as we packed up our laptops to head back to the Atwood Street office. “This place for example,” she said, motioning to the café. “People value it—they feel connected to each other when they’re here.”
The birth of these social networks is not something we leave to happenstance. OPDC’s staff makes a concerted effort to help establish these relationships—it’s a major component of our mission and strategy as a community development organization. When we see growing attendance at neighborhood meetings and people initiating dialogues with each other, we celebrate it as a victory. These victories are no less important to us than when we break ground on a housing development or complete a new community garden. In fact, they are the victories we use to catalyze those changes you see and feel throughout the neighborhood.
There’s a surge of momentum fueling change in Oakland that you don’t want to miss. Check out this list of community groups and meetings and consider plugging in. Contact Tara at 412.621.7863 ext. 17 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can always find us on Facebook and Twitter, too.
Special thanks to the many Oakland community members who allowed S. Rick Armstrong to photograph them for our e-newsletter!
On May 7th, UPMC representatives attended a public meeting at the Oakland Career Center to discuss their 10 year master plan for the Oakland campus. Approximately 15 community leaders attended and discussed UPMC’s plans for their properties and how they’d incorporate key recommendations from the Oakland 2025 Master Plan.
Medical and educational institutions have a special kind of zoning called “EMI”; in order for these institutions to maintain compliance with their EMI zoning they must update their institutional master plan every 10 years with plans for their properties. The master plan is reviewed by both the City of Pittsburgh Planning Commission as well as City Council, allowing for two opportunities for public input.
UPMC will present their plan to the planning commission in June; the date is TBA.
To view the plan documents, visit this section of UPMC’s website.
On May 2nd, nearly 30 people attended a public meeting to discuss a comprehensive redesign of Central Oakland’s Louisa Street steps and corridor. Through a grant from The Sprout Fund, OPDC is working with the City of Pittsburgh and Springboard Design to beautify the steps and create a bike boulevard along the corridor, the first of its kind in Pittsburgh. The proposed improvements include a new bicycle runnel for cyclists to easily roll their bikes up and down the Louisa Street steps, enhanced lighting, public art, new bike lanes and more.
“Bike boulevards are streets that prioritize bike traffic, while still accommodating car traffic and safe passage for pedestrians,” OPDC’s David Zwier explained. “In 1990, Pittsburgh was ranked one of the three worst cities in the country for bicycling. Since then, our city has made huge strides in this area. The Louisa Street Bike Boulevard is the next step in making Pittsburgh friendly for all forms of transportation.”
Community members raised several questions and concerns including parking, safety for cyclists and regular maintenance of the steps. Springboard Design’s Paul Rosenblatt explained to community members that the project would not result in a net loss of parking spots, but would restructure where parking is situated.
Many residents agreed that improvements to the steps are long overdue. “I’m excited to see improvements to the street and stairs,” remarked Mary Beth Halferty, a Coltart Street resident. “We hope that the stairs can become a beautiful, serene space that is cared for by all.”
Local cycling advocate Jon Webb is eager to see innovative bicycle infrastructure come to Oakland. “The Louisa Street Bicycle Boulevard is a step in the right direction for people who bike and walk in Pittsburgh,” he said. “Oakland is one of the city’s main hubs and making it more accessible to all forms of transportation is greatly needed.”
The City of Pittsburgh’s Department of Public Works is considering physical improvement to the steps and Louisa Street including replacing the current lights with LED fixtures and evaluating the steps for additional lighting installations. Funding sources for the improvements are also being investigated.
Springboard Design will review the feedback from this initial meeting and present a draft concept plan for additional community comments at a follow-up meeting on May 30th at 7pm at the Oakland Career Center, located at 294 Semple Street. Even if you missed the first meeting, please join us on the 30th.
Check out the photos from the meeting, courtesy of The Spout Fund and photographer Ben Filio.
Click here to view the presentation from the meeting, which includes site plans, photos of Louisa Street’s existing conditions, and examples of bike boulevards in other cities.
If you have questions or feedback on this project, please contact David Zwier at 412.621.7863 ext. 14 or email@example.com.
This project is supported in part by a grant from The Sprout Fund through the Social Innovation Exchange (SiX) program.
Social Innovation Exchange (SiX) is an initiative of The Pittsburgh Foundation in collaboration with Pop City Media and The Sprout Fund, sponsored in part by the Benedum Foundation, the Buhl Foundation, and an anonymous foundation.”
The Sprout Fund enriches the Pittsburgh region’s vitality by engaging citizens, amplifying voices, supporting creativity and innovation, and cultivating connected communities. Founded in 2001, Sprout facilitates community-led solutions to regional challenges and supports efforts to create a thriving, progressive, and culturally diverse region. With strong working relationships to many community organizations and regional stakeholders, The Sprout Fund is one of Southwestern Pennsylvania’s leading agencies on issues related to civic engagement, talent attraction and retention, public art, and catalytic small-scale funding.
Originally from: I was born in the Hill District and moved to Burrows Street in West Oakland when I was little.
Current Neighborhood: West Oakland
Job: Atwood Street Cleaner
Family: Two children and five grandchildren who are all in the Pittsburgh area
Education: Herron Hill High School.
OPDC staff member since: 1999
How did you originally get involved with OPDC? JoAnn Fountain got me a job at JobLinks to help with general building cleaning and maintenance. In 2000, I started working for OPDC cleaning parts of Central Oakland streets that aren’t included in the OBID cleaning crew’s boundaries.
What’s your favorite part of working with OPDC? I feel like I’m part of a family.
Favorite thing about Oakland: The history and the community and feeling like everyone knows me, even the college students.
When not volunteering/working for OPDC, people will most likely find you: Walking around the neighborhood getting some exercise and visiting local businesses like Merante’s and Gus Miller’s.
Favorite hobbies/interests: Watching and going to the Pirates games and meeting new people.
Biggest challenge you’ve overcome: Growing up in a family without a father, learning how to be street-wise, and supporting my mother and sisters so we could make it.
What’s your dream job? Nothing! I would be happy just relaxing and enjoying life all the time.
Something most people don’t know about you: That I am a very kind and generous person with a soft heart.
Contact Info: You can find Leon enjoying his coffee at the OPDC office before and after his shifts at 8am and 10am Monday, Tuesdays and Fridays.
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