ioby was founded in 2008 in order to make it easier for local leaders to gain the funding, knowledge, and resources needed to make positive change on a local level. For the past ten years we've worked alongside more than 1,600 passionate, committed community leaders and have watched as small projects have turned into larger initiatives and collaborations have become movements.

We want to take a look back at the past ten years, and tell some of our favorite stories of positive neighborhood change. We want to know: what kind of things can start with a conversation, a neighborhood meeting, a few dollars raised?

For the next ten months, we'll be checking in with leaders nationwide, past and present, and rolling these stories out. Thanks for reading!

 

Pittsburgh Northside Resource Mall

 

4. Pittsburgh's Northside Resource Mall

Pittsburgh, PA, 2016-Present

Reverend Eleanor Williams’ neighborhood in Pittsburgh’s Northside is like many other communities across the country; rich in it’s community, but reeling from decades of disinvestment. The seven neighborhoods that come together at the now-shuttered McNaugher Special Education Center were once vibrant centers of commerce and community.

“It’s changed drastically,” she says. “I grew up not too far from where the [McNaugher] building is, and that area was always such a thriving area,” she says. “There were community stores, and drugstores, and restaurants, and a lot of things going on in that maybe three-four block radius up by where the school is. And all that just kind of dissipated over the years, and a lot of people left their properties, and they had to be torn down. A lot of vacant lots now…”

Jobs left, services left, and neighbors now have to leave the community and go across town to get groceries, and access the resources that were once around the corner.

None of that sat right with Eleanor. Hers was a life of service–she had spent 35 years as a teacher in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, and continued to serve her community in her retirement as a pastor to two congregations. She felt strongly that her community should be one where neighbors could access what they needed close by, and that they shouldn’t have to jump on a bus and spend hours to get the basic things they needed on a daily basis. Luckily, she wasn’t alone.

There is still a strong sense of community in the neighborhoods that intersect at the school, and organizations born out of the community that are doing powerful work. “We were doing all these different things that were services to the community, and we came together and said, ‘Hey, none of us really have any space,’” Eleanor says. “We were working out of the library or wherever, and we thought ‘Oh, it’d be good to get this building where we could all have a space to do our programming, and we could kind of bind things together.’” So they came together to form the Northside Partnership Project and set their eyes on the McNaugher Special Education Center, a former school building that was shuttered some six years ago. Sitting right at the center of numerous neighborhoods made it the perfect hub for a “resource mall,” one roof to house pretty much all the services and support a neighbor would need.

 


[The century-old McNaugher school sits at the center of seven neighborhoods on Pittsburgh's Northside, a perfect location for a neighborhood hub. Click here to explore the neighborhood.

A broad coalition

“We saw the need for our children. There was no recreation, no kind of outlet, a lot of violence in the neighborhood that hindered people. So we want to revitalize the community to be friendly, to show that people can thrive in their own community,” Eleanor says. “We also want to give people a chance and to kind of flex their skills. There’s a lot of people who are skilled in the neighborhood that don’t get the opportunity maybe to get a job, or show what expertise they have.”

So the coalition is as diverse as the problems they seek to solve. There are care workers that support seniors age in place; an organization of parents trying to lead young people away from crime; a group that supports citizen reentry from the justice system; a group that supports the health of mothers and children; after-school programming. They all knew that the families they served didn’t just need a single service on their own–they might need after school programming for their kids, but they also probably needed healthcare. Their seniors might need support to age in place to stay close to their loved ones, and their grandchildren might also need support getting their first job out of school. If the coalition’s services were co-located close together, they’d have a powerful combination.

“One of the things we want to have in the resource mall is a drop-in center, where you come in and you can get all the job skills you need, if you’re homeless, a veteran, people out of prison, they can come and we can steer em in the right direction and they can come and just, you know, be safe and chill out and have a safe place to be,” Eleanor says. It didn’t matter who they served, they wanted the resource mall to be a one stop shop.

And at the center movement for the resource mall are the very people who live, work, and play in the community. “We are living what we know people need. We’ve come from that, we live that,” Eleanor says of the coalition. “A lot of us come from struggling families, and we’re where the community is and so we know their plight. We meet people where they are, and just try to build them up and build up their self-confidence. So it is neighbor to neighbor. We want to always show ourselves friendly, make people feel safe, when they come to our building.”

 

Pittsburgh Northside Resource Mall

[ioby leader Eleanor Williams, left, with Dwayne Barker of ioby project Fineview & Perry Hilltop Community Pride Project at ioby's Pittsburgh convening in 2017.]

 

Buying the building

The coalition fought long and hard to obtain the building. Not long after the school closed about six years ago, they began looking into how to acquire it.

The total cost of the building was a whopping $235,000. After searching long and hard for funders, they finally received a $225,000 from the county, just short of the full amount. "So we had to raise another $10,000, and raise money to meet the closing costs," Eleanor recalls.

“We asked everybody, we asked the whole city. Most would say, ‘Once you get the building, we can help you, but we can’t help you acquire the building.’” They received a loan from a private funder to close the gap on the building’s price, but that still left them with the thousands of dollars in closing costs. Having worked with and received funding from the Buhl Foundation, the Foundation introduced Eleanor to Miriam Parson, our Pittsburgh Action Strategists who shared with them the idea of crowdfunding to raise flexible cash for the closing costs. “Miriam was wonderful. I would go and strategize on how we can get this thing moving, and some of the things that we could do to get people involved, and so forth.”

It wouldn’t be Eleanor’s first campaign. “We did a ‘keep warm’ campaign, where we wanted to get clothing and winter things for children. The first time we did great. We met our goal overnight, almost.” But that goal was smaller, for just over $1,000. This time around they’d need to raise thousands more.

With a bigger goal, though, came a bigger network of support. They relied on the broad Northside Partnership Project coalition and their network of neighborhood supporters, and raised over $9,000–just enough to pay for closing costs on the building. And with that, the building was theirs.

Pittsburgh Northside Resource Mall
[A volunteer scrubs a wall of the McNaugher school. While the Northside Partnership Project raises money to fund the next phase of renovation, legions of volunteers from inside and outside the neighborhood are helping to ready the building to become a community hub once again.]  

Realizing the resource mall

There’s still much to do to get the building ready for the community. “The building is in really good shape, it just needs a lot of cosmetic work, and there’s some spots where we might have to do something about the asbestos. For the most part, ninety percent of the building is operable,” Eleanor says. They’re looking to raise a more funding through ioby to help with the renovations, but they’re turning to a steady stream of support from the neighborhood as well. “We get a lot of volunteers. People would just come in off the street sometimes and say, ‘Is there anything I can help you with?’”

With all the help, it won’t be long before the resource mall is up and running. But until then, the coalition is already committed to bringing the community into the space that is ready. “We worked with the American Heart Association, and we did a blood pressure screening once a month. You’d come and get your blood pressure, and talk about healthy blood pressure and different diseases that come with high blood pressure and so forth. Then we worked with a group called 412 Food Rescue, and they came in for six weeks and talked about nutritional food and we cooked food… We have our meetings here and are just getting ready to play bingo each week, so we’ll have bingo going on for the seniors.”

In the century-long lifetime of the McNaugher school building, it hasn’t really been closed for very long. And soon enough, it’ll once again be at the center of a vibrant neighborhood as a hub of care and community.

 

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