Photo: The Last Billboard

An art installation called The Last Billboard that sat atop the Werner Building in East Liberty for years. It was censored last month and remains blank. Eve Picker, the CEO of we do property management, the building owner, ordered the removal of a message that was allegedly deemed offensive by unidentified community members.

Much has been written about the incident by Damon Young of Very Smart Brothas, Tony Norman of the Post-Gazette, halushki of Enright Park Association, and Grant Oliphant of the Heinz Endowments. Artist Alisha Wormsley, who asserted that she does not own the censored words, affirmed her inspiration for the piece, and her feelings about both its removal and the community’s response in this statement. While I have little to add to the discussion about the harm done by this act of censorship, I can provide some additional context for it.

The following piece is about controlling the narrative about East Liberty, and by extension, any neighborhood where money is to be made through real estate, and where controlling land is only half the battle. Landowners must also control the ideas and perceptions about a place, and they do so through branding (“Eastside”), imagery (renderings in vacant storefront windows), and compliant media outlets (too many to name). Landowners are aware of the threats to that narrative (The Last Billboard).

Although I open and close with Picker, this piece is not about her. Picker is but a thread that reaches back more than a decade into the systematic rewriting of Pittsburgh’s history and the branding of its future. This piece is merely the outcome of pulling that thread. Despite knowing Picker for a long time, I don’t know her well, and I chose not to reach out to her for this story. This is merely a thought-piece, unsuitable for citations in PhD dissertations, public testimony, or threatening fliers stapled to telephone poles.

As one who knows the power of community narratives, and the rewards for those who control them, Picker remains a central figure. But she’s not alone.

Photo of East Liberty storefront window that reads "Time to shop!"

Images like this one cover the windows of vacant storefronts in East Liberty. Photo: Downstream

In the Beginning

Fifteen years ago I sat across a table from Eve Picker and the creators of Model D Media, an online publication based in Detroit. An idea that Picker had been kicking around began to crystallize—creating a platform to tell positive stories about Pittsburgh neighborhoods—and was on a brainstorming tour, making stops with various organizations and people to which the idea might appeal.

It appealed to me. Before long I was a subscriber to this online thing called “Pop City Media” that, with its blend of arts, culture and development news, was unlike anything I’d seen prior to 2006. Picker, best known up until then as a high-risk developer of buildings that no one else would touch, became Pittsburgh’s most significant content creator seemingly overnight.

“Pop City Media posed a long-lasting challenge, perhaps a threat, to the local news establishment.”

Picker’s status as a fixture in Pittsburgh news lasted for a decade or so, culminating with her Tiny House in Garfield. The house was tiny, but its mishaps (mostly on the public sector side) were not, and the project was generally regarded as a bust. The Tiny House concept in other cities has served as a means to create affordable housing, and Picker was the first to give it a go locally. Soon after, Picker kept a low profile.

Until she did that thing. That bad thing.

The bot from Greenland that follows me will surely wonder, What bad thing? Well, bot… An art installation called “The Last Billboard,” which sits atop an East Liberty building owned by Picker’s real estate company, read: There are Black People in the Future. In response to alleged, unidentified complaints, Picker, citing a never previously evoked clause in the lease with the curator of the installation, ordered its removal. So, bot, of all the many troubling things that happen in East Liberty, this one was of the censorship variety.

Photo of East Liberty storefront window that reads "STORE CLOSING SALE."

Many neighborhood-serving businesses in East Liberty are vacant or closing. Photo: Downstream

Challenging the Establishment

It may be difficult for young Pittsburghers and newcomers to the city to grasp how radical of an idea Pop City Media was early on. (If you think “Eastside” is a neighborhood and not merely a geographically-based corporate brand, then that includes you.) Then, the city’s doom-soaked newspapers peddled violence, blight, abandonment, and anything else that fed our city’s collective low-esteem, and our seemingly unquenchable thirst for its validation.

Traditionally at times like these, Pittsburgh could always fall to the feet of its dark master: sports. Sadly, though, those were lean years for two of our three once-great teams, whose underperformance was rivaled only by our city’s tax base. Much of the Pittsburgh citizenry remained on defense, willing to fight to the death to prove that, no matter what, we were better than Cleveland.

Yet there was a restlessness in certain quarters, especially among young people dissatisfied with a dearth of affordable, relaxed cultural events, and a nightlife that forced them to choose between drinking at a random person’s apartment, and drinking on a “boardwalk” made from four moored river barges. There, partygoers could choose from various venues, some of which openly banned track suits, velour, brimmed hats, and Timberlands.

That pent-up energy began to flow, the cultural bleeding began to clot, and what emerged were the types of things that could only be described as Pittsburgh as fuck! GroundZero Action Network, Penn Avenue Arts Initiative, and the Shadow Lounge reshaped cultural norms and the ways in which we interacted with the built environment and each other.

“Few cared about the outsize influence that this revenue may have had on Pop City Media’s content, ergo, its message.”

Meanwhile, community-based organizations were multiplying throughout the city, many of which were organizing around community plans and reimagining business districts. It wasn’t paradise, but many of us who were old enough to suffer the steel mills closing and Tequila Willie’s opening felt that the city was starting to head in a better direction.

However, plenty were the signs—figuratively and literally—that we were wrong, and many of us can look back and pinpoint which portentous sign we failed to recognize. For me, it involved a charming Carson Street hybrid bar and coffee house called Tuscany. If you were looking for a place where you could write letters (with an actual pen on actual paper) to your future spouse, surrounded by dark wood wainscoting, while watching Queer as Folk with a hundred complete strangers, Tuscany was your spot. Upon leaving Tuscany, you stepped in sidewalk puke for the third time in as many visits, and ignorantly wrote it off as nothing more than a strange and unfortunate coincidence, again not seeing the signs (which, in this literal instance, was Nick’s Fat City’s rebirth as Diesel). And when you found Tuscany permanently closed and its sign gone, you were so outraged that you failed to make proper meaning of its successor’s new prophetic sign that read Finn McCool’s.

A major transition was underway in Pittsburgh, and major transitions are difficult to recognize in the moment, especially for sluggish newspapers that, in the absence of competition, made their mint from subscribers who craved daily doses of failing urbanity, a precursor to what would later become known as ruin porn. (Ok, fine, there was also international news, sports, coupons, and the funnies.) In their attempts to make sense of this transition, it was evident to many that the news producers didn’t “get” the news makers.

But Picker got it. And by getting it, Pop City Media posed a long-lasting challenge, perhaps a threat, to the local news establishment. While the newspapers were fumbling around in a dark closet like teenagers who lost a round of spin the bottle, Pop City found the light switch. Picker turned its management over to editor Tracy Certo, whose writers produced compelling stories that showcased the collaborative, creative spirit found throughout Pittsburgh neighborhoods.

Photo of East Liberty storefront window that reads "Time to Chill!"

Capital

Picker returned to running real estate companies with no capital letters. no wall productions and we do property management developed and managed various buildings downtown and elsewhere. Picker’s downtown properties, such as 421 Firstside, the Bruno Building, and 930 Penn Avenue, were leased to a variety of commercial and residential tenants, including fierce gladiators such as Georges Laraque, Gary Roberts, and the American Institute of Architects. The latter published Columns, a monthly architectural magazine edited by Certo prior to her jump to Pop City.

Picker’s real estate migrated eastward over time, including the Strip District’s Brake House Lofts and Bloomfield’s LUNA Lofts, and all the way to East Liberty. we do redeveloped the Liberty Bank Building on Penn Avenue (which was acquired for $1,000), where East Liberty Development, Inc. (ELDI) was a tenant; and acquired the Werner Building, later home to the Waffle Shop, Shadow Lounge, Conflict Kitchen, Livermore, and The Last Billboard.

“Communities awake each day to find that another vital organ has been harvested in the night.”

Flourishing under Certo’s management, Pop City Media brought in more than 150,000 visitors per month in 2009. With startup funding of $200,000, it attracted additional investment from the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, while charging upwards of $40,000 for site advertisements, many of which were placed by real estate development companies.

In what may have been another missed sign, few cared about the outsize influence that this revenue may have had on Pop City Media’s content, ergo, its message. Perhaps it was the combined effects of coming out of the Great Recession and, for some of us, still having a lingering Obama buzz going, we didn’t see the sign that read: There are $4,500/month Apartments in the Future.

Pop City Media (not be confused with the Pop City Pittsburgh Facebook group, a separate but related successor) is now defunct. Prior to her departure, Certo penned a farewell letter that included some clues for what her next venture would be, the theme of which was a new endeavor focused on (paraphrasing): Those who were taking Pittsburgh to the “next level.”

Somewhere in Lawrenceville, a certain citizen was delighted by this news. This citizen had for some time been making the rounds, picking brains, and conceptualizing that very thing. Finally! Someone with actual publishing creds and a solid grip on punctuation is going to take this on and shine some light in all of Pittsburgh’s darkest corners…Our segregated neighborhoods…the racial school achievement gap…dubious bus service…poor air quality…inexplicably expensive rents all of sudden. His mind raced… An editorial board made from some of Pittsburgh’s best minds penning opinion pieces that matter…that will get us to that next level…that will use proper ellipses.

Photo of East Liberty storefront window that reads "FOR LEASE."

Above the Fold

NEXTpittsburgh was launched in March 2014, and under Certo’s stewardship, is now read by nearly a quarter-million people each month, according to its website. NEXT is a nicely designed, multilayered, largely utilitarian site that aims to “publish stories with impact, focused on the cool people, projects and places taking Pittsburgh to the next level.”

Hard to argue with that, as our opinions likely differ on the meaning of cool, but it’s the impact that deserves our attention now. To its credit, NEXT is the only publication I’m aware of that covered the Last Billboard controversy and included all of the following in their entirety: Wormsley’s Instagram statement; Picker’s email to Jon Rubin, the curator of the installation; Picker’s two emails to NEXTpittsburgh; and a statement from ELDI. I consider that high impact.

Yet impact is best measured by the rule, not the exception, and NEXT leans towards celebrating the city’s titillating cool factor through e-newsletters and Facebook entries for its 32,000 followers. NEXT is a tree that bears a lot of fruit, but we need to ask how high readers are asked to climb to get it.

“Controlling that narrative is a major battleground in the future of East Liberty.”

In the spirit of the times, Pop City Media’s against the grain stories were more the rule than the exception. If NEXT’s with the grain stories seem low-risk and calculated by comparison, the question then becomes, for what purpose and to what end?

Take, for example, Eastside Bond, a luxury apartment complex with more than 300 high-priced units. NEXT’s articles about Bond and the broader Eastside development celebrated high design and amenities, such as dog-washing stations, stone countertops and fire pits, while leaving a lot of fruit, higher and harder to reach, to rot on the branches. NEXT emphasized a $70 million loan from Huntington Bank as the project’s financial cornerstone, but neither quantified the project’s public subsidies—federal, state and local—nor questioned the public benefits thereof. With units priced as high as $4,500 per month on the edge of a predominantly low-income neighborhood of color, NEXT did give voice to community planning—the developer’s voice:

“We think we’re doing development that will benefit everybody, but the devil’s in the details,” says Minnerly [Mark Minnerly of Mosites Construction and Development]. “So we’re trying to make sure we’re part of a balanced strategy, that we’re doing pieces of what is a larger community plan.”

As Pittsburgh began to change, Pop City Media’s evolution and the emergence of NEXTpittsburgh were no longer the paradigm-shifting force of Pop City’s early days, but more of a city rebranding campaign that continues to this day. There’s no trace of malice in NEXTpittsburgh, and its devotion to the many things that make Pittsburgh great—job openings, personal profiles, family friendly events—seem nothing short of genuine.

Yet with millions of readers annually, stories about groundbreakings, new restaurants, and social events profoundly shape the image of this place. With celebrating the hip, the cool, and the newest-latest in a city on fire, comes a responsibility to acknowledge that fires don’t burn on their own. In East Liberty, many people and businesses are running out of oxygen.

Unlike the days of urban renewal, communities today are not dealt knockout blows, but eroded like canyons by wind and rain—a vanquished community mural with the faces of black children over here, a shuttered discount clothing shop over there, and a censored billboard with the words “Black People” in between—and waking each day to discover that another vital organ has been harvested in the night. Because federal agencies are no longer able to single-handedly dictate the future of a place, twenty-first century renewal employs an ever-changing slate of partners, collaborators, and co-conspirators, some of whom are oblivious to their own conscription. But in the end we have to ask, what’s the difference?

The media doesn’t control the fate of East Liberty; but by fawning over certain elements and delivering backhanded compliments to others, its influence is significant. This is the same media that’s currently loath to bear witness to what many perceive as the death of a community; the same media that was once all too eager to put the actual deaths of actual members of that community on the front page, above the fold.

It’s the death by a thousand cuts, it’s the nickel-and-diming that cities now use to conquer its stubbornly untamed urban areas, and it’s up to all of us to point out every instance of baiting-and-switching, short-changing, and convenient-omitting wherever we find it.

Most of my readers are white. I’m talking to you.

Law of the Instrument

At an April 16 community meeting for the Penn Plaza redevelopment, audience member Celeste Scott talked about the need for community-controlled development. “I think this is just a testament to what happens when the developers control the narrative,” she said. Scott’s remarks pertained to housing, but are equally applicable to many facets of neighborhood development.

Controlling that narrative is major battleground in the future of East Liberty, and while the tone-deafness towards it has become pandemic, it was Wormsley’s text on The Last Billboard that East Liberty Development, Inc. (ELDI) questioned as being possibly tone-deaf. As a non-profit developer, ELDI owns many pieces of this narrative, including a big one: the “successful” transformation of East Liberty can be attributed in large part to crime reduction.

“Telling good stories is good for business, especially the real estate business.”

ELDI commissioned a crime study analysis by the consulting firm Numeritics, who released a report called, “East Liberty Crime Data Analysis,” completed in 2013. The first sentence —”Within a span of five years, 2008 to 2012, overall crime in the residential area of East Liberty has decreased by 49%, and residential property prices have doubled” — establishes the narrative for the remaining 22 pages.

The report reads like a stiff crime-fighting story. The villain is the Slumlord, whose properties overwhelmingly contribute to neighborhood blight and disinvestment, and whose tenants are overwhelmingly responsible for neighborhood crime. The hero is ELDI, which has restored some order to East Liberty by targeting and acquiring approximately 200 properties that it later sold, rehabbed, or retained as rental units; and through property upkeep, increased police presence, and implementing rigorous tenant-screening practices. This is all according to the report, of course, which concludes by making a pitch for more funding to allow ELDI to further these efforts.

Numeritics was approached by ELDI to “examine the linkages between these developments and ELDI initiatives…[and was] tasked with providing plausible reasons that explain these developments; examining the degree to which ELDI was responsible for them and documenting the process by which these outcomes were achieved…”

Not surprisingly, this professionally prepared report does just that. To analyze and critique it fully would not only be time consuming, but would require a professional to do so (at a significant cost); without that, the report stands unchallenged, and is frequently cited as evidence that ELDI initiatives are working as intended, and the neighborhood is better off for it.

While the quality of the data is difficult to question, the essence of the report is not. It’s purpose is to explain (if not rationalize) changes that have already occurred, not to evaluate or critique the methods used to bring about those changes, or its consequences. Opposing viewpoints, either statistical or anecdotal, are largely absent, except for a stated goal of correcting “misguided narratives” that persist in East Liberty. Of greater concern is the report’s premise: “Crime is a real estate problem and therefore requires a real estate solution.”

Let that sink in.

To claim that something as complicated as crime can be so neatly reduced to “a real estate problem” is breathtaking. To craft an analytical report around this declaration, when the solution has already been identified, is astounding. Surely ELDI’s crime-reduction activities sprung from a solid foundation of facts, data and research?

“ELDI staff who live in or around East Liberty came to the realization that crime is a real estate problem and therefore requires a real estate solution,” the report states.

The report then reveals the “hot spot” theory which states that neighborhood crime originates from a small number of properties, and policing or acquiring them has disproportionately large positive impacts on neighborhood safety. Though the theory is considered well-grounded, its purpose here is to justify ELDI’s anecdotal hypothesis.

Not surprisingly, what follows focuses on real estate, and does not speak to the other underlying causes of blight and crime, namely poverty, and its root causes. Largely absent is that crime is also an employment problem; an education problem; a mental health problem; a substance abuse problem, etc. — problems that ELDI is less equipped to tackle. Because ELDI is primarily a real estate development company, this too closely resembles the “law of the instrument,” an over-reliance on a single tool, that says if all you have is a hammer, you’ll treat everything as a nail.

“The viewpoint of this report is clear: the desirability of a place is measured by investment and rising property values.”

Another troubling aspect of the report can be found in the section titled, “The Theoretical Basis for the Intervention Strategies.” Here the authors write, “In explaining the successes that ELDI has had in the revitalization of East Liberty, we look to a number of evidence-based theories that are relevant to that transformation.” Two pages later, “Last but not the least is the Broken Windows theory (Kelling & Wilson, 1982).”

As a crime reduction theory, the premise of Broken Windows is that small crimes like vandalism lead to more serious ones, and diligent policing of the former reduces the latter. The theory has been implemented in many cities, most notably within the New York Police Department under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, through policing policies like “stop and frisk.”

The effectiveness of Broken Windows-style policing is debatable at best, as is the correlation between property crimes and more serious offenses. What’s not debatable is that Broken Windows is racist. It results in countless arrests of predominantly people of color, often not for the original crime of a busted window or graffiti, but for the kinds of absurd infractions that white people are almost never arrested for—such as obstructing a sidewalk in front of their own home—after being questioned about a broken window.

Effectiveness aside, Broken Windows allows for more police intrusions into a community and increases the number of confrontations between police and community members. For a police department to endorse a controversial theory like Broken Windows is one thing; for a community group to do so in another. It’s well-known that even minor arrests often result in plea-bargained guilty verdicts that, in turn, may result in the loss of one’s housing assistance, and thus their ability to remain in a gentrifying neighborhood. Surely this twentieth-century crime-fighting Broken Windows theory wasn’t embraced, let alone celebrated, in East Liberty?

“Initiatives that worked were refined and made more specific to East Liberty’s situation,” the report continues. “The ones that did not work were jettisoned. Over a period of time, some existing literature on crime was built into this mode of thinking. Concepts and theories like the Broken Windows that rang true were adopted by ELDI.”

But that’s not why East Liberty lost nearly a thousand black residents in eight years, says Numeritics, who argues “that close to 70% of the population loss is accounted for by units simply being abandoned and/or uninhabitable.” This comes from a January 2018 “white paper,” titled, “The Population Impact of East Liberty Revitalization,” that opens with the question, “What factors explain the loss of approximately 940 African Americans in East Liberty between 2007 and 2015?”

The document argues that most of that population loss occurred prior to the neighborhood’s revitalization, a finding that counteracts “the misguided narrative that the displacement of African Americans happened only after the neighborhood was deemed a desirable place to live…(Italics added).”

Yet the report then specifies that the data for the loss of the 940 African Americans began in 2009, not 2007.

“Specifically, between 2009 to 2015, using the US Census American Community Survey (ACS) data, the point estimate of the population of African American [sic] in East Liberty fell by 940; from 4190 to 3250, representing a 22% decrease in African American population.”

The dates are important when combating this so-called “misguided narrative,” because it was 2009 when the last of three low income high-rises was demolished. Ranging from 17-to 20-stories, Federal American Properties (FAP) at one time housed approximately 1,000 residents, most of whom were African American and had already been displaced by 2009. Had the report actually reached back further, the loss of African Americans would have increased substantially, in numbers and percentage.

To say that this loss occurred prior to the neighborhood becoming a “desirable place to live” is inherently problematic. Not acknowledging that the high-rise demolitions were undertaken to catalyze revitalization is negligent; asserting that East Liberty became a “desirable place to live” is racially biased. Even with its many problems, East Liberty has always been a desirable place to live for thousands of its residents, especially low income African Americans who valued its abundance of transit options and neighborhood businesses, not to mention its social fabric made up of family and friends.

The viewpoint of this report is clear: the desirability of a place is measured by investment and rising property values. This viewpoint was then regurgitated by local and global news outlets that did not question a report that was commissioned by an East Liberty real estate organization; undertaken by an East Liberty-based consulting firm; and predicated on the hypothesis of ELDI staffers who live in East Liberty. This report, routinely cited by ELDI staff in public forums, has had a demonstrative influence over the prevailing community narratives which, by its own admission, it sought to correct.

It wasn’t clear to me who funded this report. A case can be made for funding a more independent examination of the subject matter within; without that, the imbalanced report appears—what’s the word?—misguided.

Photo of East Liberty storefront window that reads "Retail Space for Lease."

Last Billboard and Controlling the Narrative

Guiding East Liberty’s transformational narrative in this way is quite different from the positive narrative cultivated by Pop City Media early on, which was arguably innocuous to neighborhoods like East Liberty, and directly confronted the harmful narratives of the establishment. Only Picker can speak to her motives then or now, but it’s never been clearer that telling good stories is good for business, especially the real estate business.

As a former tenant in one of her buildings, I can say that Picker was known to be both charming and cantankerous, and I never knew which extreme I might encounter in the hallway. Still, I never imagined that Picker would censor art of any kind, especially The Last Billboard, knowing the firestorm it would create.

Or, perhaps, she didn’t anticipate a firestorm, or a strong reaction of any kind. Has the New East Liberty, curated and manicured the way it is on the ground and online, led Picker to believe that the alleged offenses of public art outweighed the real offense of removing it? It’s impossible to know; what is known is that Picker still sees a role to play in controlling the narrative of a neighborhood in which she has real estate interests.

If Picker had simply discovered a sign she disapproved of and ordered its removal, this matter would be less complicated. But that’s not what happened. In these times when urban renewal needs co-conspirators, Picker was prompted, and as if by reflex, complied. Because she suggested that community consensus was required for the sign’s reinstatement, but not its removal, confirms this.

But if we look hard enough, we can find clues to thorny questions like these. While researching this story I stumbled upon Picker’s blog, simply called “Eve Picker.” In a posted dated January 4, 2018, titled, “Embracing Graffiti,” Picker recalled a recent trip to her native Australia. (All posts prior to April 2018 have since been deleted, but you can find a screenshot here.) Picker wrote:

“The tiny alleys and streets feeding into Brunswick were an unexpected surprise. There we found both occupied and abandoned buildings joyfully encased in graffiti. Now I’ve never been much of a fan of wall art. Wall art can often mean that the neighborhood doesn’t have the buying power to renovate the building behind the facade. But here, off Brunswick Street, one of the most expensive places in town, the colorful walls are encouraged and are just captivating.”

With former Shadow Lounge and Waffle Shop-turned-Livermore sitting vacant, this was an odd thing to say. More importantly is that within a span of three months, Picker censored one vision of the future and embraced another. In East Liberty, this public art was found to be “offensive and divisive,” and causing “friction”:

Photo of East Liberty art installation called The Last Billboard that reads, "There are black people in the future."

Whereas in Brunswick, art like this is “just captivating”:

Photo of a mural in Australia that reads, "Sovereignty" and "Deadly Future."

In the end, when the winds of public opinion changed direction, Picker did too. That kind of community power—forcefully expressed by people of color and white folks alike, from inside and outside East Liberty—proved once again to be an antidote to the actions of capricious landowners.

The conversation then moved indoors, where the Kelly-Strayhorn Theatre hosted a sober, civil and enlightening community forum. The theatre, known as KST, has been holding conversations like these for some time, unbeknownst to many in the audience. One takeaway may be that the KST has emerged as the kind of community institution that can fill the communication void left by other institutions.

For more than a decade, East Liberty real estate developers have casually weathered occasional disturbances from within the community, allowing them to subside on their own without detriment. Renters of increasingly high-priced apartments have not been deterred by this ephemeral discontent either, for they, too, seem to know that this too shall pass.

If it’s true that concerns about The Last Billboard were voiced from within the community, we have to ask why it prompted a stronger reaction than, say, any of the traffic-jamming ruckuses of the many street protests that have taken place during the last year. Was it because the billboard held a 24/7-illuminated-at-night presence, whereas protests disperse after few hours? Or perhaps it was because those displeased cannot influence what happens in the public square, but can influence what unfolds atop a private building?

What’s certain is that Wormley’s art claimed a piece of the East Liberty narrative.

Picker the message-maker has long known the power messages have to change communities. Picker the messenger has long known how to deliver them, and presumably how to take them away, but found that the latter is not so easy. That she was wrong about that might suggest that East Liberty has indeed changed, but perhaps not the way she thought. Perhaps it is Picker and the rest of her real estate cohort that are now missing the signs.

But let’s not forget, this is not about Eve Picker.

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