When the team behind Community Forge came together in 2016, they envisioned a cooperative social enterprise that would do important things: It would offer a platform for community service, education and civic action, and also play a key role in revitalizing an economically distressed neighborhood. Community members would have a say in everything, from the programming to the appearance of the physical space.

This month, that space — a new community center serving the people of Wilkinsburg — became a reality.

Community Forge’s executive director Mike Skirpan explains that the first step was securing “a big enough space where we could do all these kinds of things.” So in 2017, the group acquired the former Johnston Elementary School in Wilkinsburg with funding from Bridgeway Capital.

The building had sat vacant since 2012. To Skirpan — a Mon Valley native — it symbolized a problem he’d seen throughout what he calls “post-industrial” Pittsburgh: an abandoned building “waiting for developers to come knock it down or turn it into apartments.”

The group was glad to reclaim a space like that for what they feel is a more creative purpose.

“Culturally, we have this weird desire to make everything new, but there’s something so dead about that to me,” says Skirpan. “When you go into a building and can look around at things that happened over the course of 100 years, there’s character and history there.”

Under the fiscal sponsorship of New Sun Rising, Community Forge is currently anchored by two tenants — the educational nonprofit Pittsburgh Learning Commons and the extreme pogo stick company Xpogo. Others include K-Theatre Dance Complex, Gwen’s Girls and Lost But Not Forgotten Outreach.

Building on the momentum they’ve created in just under a year, Skirpan and his team are introducing a membership program that they hope will help cultivate new partnerships for the space.

“It takes a village,” says Skirpan. “It’s about rethinking spaces like this so people can come together and communities can thrive.”

Inside the new center. Photo by Shamus Fatzinger.

At 45,000 square feet and four stories, the building features more than 20 classrooms, an atrium, library, gymnasium and other multi-purpose rooms which are being transformed into offices, co-working spaces and venues for the performing arts and events.

The building is now open, but work continues on many of those rooms.

According to Skirpan, 75 percent of the renovations so far — from mortaring and painting to servicing the boiler and heating system — have been done by Community Forge members and volunteers. For more specific expertise, they’ve engaged local professionals, including plumber Ken Cuccaro, local electrician Bob Boden, Temper and Grit woodworking, the University of Pittsburgh’s Engineers without Borders and the architecture firm of Celli-Flynn Brennan.

New life in an old space

“Every neighbor, community member and school alum is happy to see it brought back to good use,” says Skirpan.

Ashley Comans is one of them. In December, she was elected director of the Wilkinsburg School Board and has spent most of her life in the borough. When she was a kid, her Girl Scout troop was based out of Johnston Elementary.

“What I love most,” says Comans, “is how the Community Forge team has kept the true essence of the building. When I walked into the space for the first time since the early Nineties, I was amazed at how nostalgic the space made me feel.”

The building’s history as a school can still be felt. Photo by Shamus Fatzinger.
The building’s history as a school can still be felt. Photo by Shamus Fatzinger.

Though some changes need to be made to bring the building up to modern safety standards, original features like built-in cabinets, library bookshelves and an intercom system remain intact.

“People wanted to have aesthetic memories of how the school looked,” says Skirpan, who adds that tenants were even asked to renovate around the original chalkboards in the classrooms.

Wilkinsburg residents also want to see the building continue to enrich children’s lives. One room in the facility has been designated for youth activities — and young people will vote on how to use it. With their input, the room has already been painted in an outer space theme.

Board member Doming’a Horner praises Community Forge for “showing its genuine concern and care for the youth by being a resource in multiple facets.”

Community Forge, she says, is “a breath of fresh air for the Wilkinsburg community.”

Emily Stimmel

Emily fell in love with the written word as a teenager, when she published zines and wrote for her school paper. Today, she is a freelance writer with a decade and a half of experience in non-profit communications....