Last Thursday evening a loud “BOOM” silenced Cruger Way in Friendship; explosions make people nervous.
“Don’t worry,” said Keith Williams, “It’s supposed to sound like that.”
Williams, from Professional Hand-D-Man, was helping to install drywall frames for the Latham St. Commons, a new project in Friendship spearheaded by a multidisciplinary team from Carnegie Mellon that will convert a stretch of mostly unused garages into a self-sufficient food system and “learning laboratory.”
Mark Stuckey, born and raised in Friendship, acquired the buildings on Latham Street accidentally in 2006 when they were included in his purchase of a nearby daycare. As he watches students chalk out measurements on the walls and take notes, he says he never envisioned the garages as anything more than self-storage units.
“The dream vision is that this whole area will be able to use this space,” he says, waving toward Garfield and Friendship. “You take farming into the city, which I know isn’t that new of an idea anymore, it’s just now we’ll be able to do it.”
Stuckey’s differentiation between new versus new-to-us encapsulates the intent of the Commons: to leverage what’s on hand and create new solutions for shared challenges.
At the moment, the idea behind the Commons is much grander than its appearance: a u-shape of 27 low-slung garages clustered at the corner of Latham Street and Cruger Way. The color of raw tuna, they face one another over a long, central spit of land; hugging the earth for support and showing signs of their age, they lean into one another as if gossiping about aches and pains.
But a line of dilapidated buildings is not what the Commons team sees. A group of design, policy, information systems, and engineering students, the undergraduate-graduate team is piloted by Kristin Hughes, a designer and associate professor at CMU; Mary-Lou Arscott, an architect and a CMU architecture professor; and Tim Zak, Director of CMU’s Institute for Social Innovation.
They’re all thinking big, and in different ways, but the working vision is a place where food is grown on the roofs, while shops, entrepreneurs, and services flourish below.
Arscott says part of an architect’s job is to imagine what could be.
“We’re part of the process of investing in infrastructure and the way that infrastructure can prevent human happiness or promote it,” she says. “You need to have some vision of the future.”
There is a particular feeling that happens when a group of people decides to believe something is possible. The little Latham Street eddy was as full of that feeling as it was with the sound of footsteps and two-by-fours and earnest discussion of measurements as the Commons team prepared for its first public event, Cookies and Conversation, at First Friday.
The event will offer just what it says, as well as an invitation to neighbors to offer their ideas for what the site could be. To start that dialog, the students, with Williams’ help, were installing chalkboards on the garages’ outer edges. Passers-by will be prompted to finish the statements “I am…”; “I need…”; “I wish…”; and “I wonder…”
Katherine Frazer is a communication design and human computer interaction double major at CMU. Her job, along with fellow student Zach Bergeron, is to find more ways to engage residents in the future of Latham Street.
“We want to make sure we [don’t] go in with a lot of assumptions about what the community wants or what we feel they need and let them speak for themselves.”
Zak surveyed the installation bustle fondly. He says the Commons could be a model for reimagining underdeveloped space.
“I’m excited about the opportunity to create something new that has a positive impact that didn’t exist before,” he says. “Particularly something that uses resources that already exist but they’re just kind of lying fallow.”
As the sounds of framing resounded down the alley, people began to walk by to investigate. They stopped to talk, or just watch, clustered together in little groups. The project will need funding to determine if the idea is possible. But Hughes says they decided to just start asking the community and figure it out.
“It’s a big idea. And we don’t know if it will work,” she says. “But it’s the spirit of all of this. Just being here.”