In many ways, Garfield’s story illustrates Pittsburgh’s comeback, says lifelong resident Corey Buckner.

The neighborhood where he grew up—divided into “the valley” or “the hilltop”—once was turf for Bloods. But today’s youth have traded red for the orange and blue of the Garfield Gators football team, and young professionals are moving into Garfield, undeterred by the vacant lots and boarded up structures that remain from years marked by white flight, poverty, and crime.

Buckner, 29, works for the city’s Office of Community Affairs and someday wants to buy a house in Garfield.

Corey Buckner. Photo by Brian Cohen.
Corey Buckner. Photo by Brian Cohen.

“It was, and looked like, a ghetto,” he says. “But now, the neighborhood is becoming really organic—there’s a lot of people doing a lot of good work. We don’t argue with each other; we may have disagreements but we find ways to come to terms and get things done. We don’t need politics the way some communities need politics. Poverty made our neighborhood a strong neighborhood.”

New businesses and homes are returning vibrancy to Garfield, even if some of its glaring problems remain, says Rick Swartz, executive director of Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation (BGC), the organization whose work to rebuild and to assist home buyers led to Garfield’s renewal. People who stayed and those moving in cite its central location, relative affordability, walkability, and bus lines. Penn Avenue’s galleries, coffee shops and restaurants draw people all day and into evening.

“We love the energy—First Fridays, the arts community,” says Kate Stoltzfus, 33, who with husband Nik, 35, is remodeling a three-story house on North Fairmount Street across from Pittsburgh Glass Center. Attracted by its big porch and stained glass, they bought it at auction and gutted it to studs. They hope to keep much of the original layout and add a top-floor apartment.

It’s their second renovation in Garfield. In 2011 they bought a building on Penn with apartments and office space for Nik’s web design work and her company, Propelle, which helps women entrepreneurs.

“We got the bug, so we’re doing it again,” Stoltzfus says. This time, she’s documenting reconstruction on an Instagram account. “It’s a lively neighborhood, a great community with friendly faces. There’s a lot of things to love about Garfield.”

Kate Stoltzfus
Kate and Nik Stoltzfus in front of their second renovation project in Garfield. Photo by Brian Cohen.

As private developers begin to move in, the BGC continues to build and to hold community meetings about redeveloping Garfield, where green space includes community farms. With S&A Homes of State College, the BGC is building 19 rentals for lower-income families in the second phase of its Garfield Glen development. Swartz already is thinking about a third phase.

“Our goal is to let Garfield be something of a laboratory for housing that could define a new era in the city,” he says. “People are telling us it’s difficult to find housing that’s under $1,000 a month.”

The BGC is talking with architects Eve Picker, Rob Pfaffmann and Andrew Moss about building small homes that could sell for $200,000 or less. But it’s costly to develop vacant land in a neighborhood settled in the 1880s. “Those costs very quickly can be as much as $80,000 per unit,” Swartz says, citing remediation of water and sewer lines, retaining walls, steps and sidewalks.

And Swartz recognizes that drug crimes persist. A BGC public safety task force meets monthly, and people report problem neighbors. “As a community group, you have to be cognizant of the fact that a large underclass in a neighborhood like ours can pull apart the social fabric,” he says. “You really have to calm the neighborhood before you can think about turning it around.”

Gators coach Garth Taylor, 47, and his wife Kalisha bought their house on Winebiddle Street about 16 years ago, when the BGC and city Urban Redevelopment Authority began work to offset the decline.

“I’ve seen quite a bit of change and I can understand why changes are being made throughout the East End,” says Taylor. “I won’t tell you I agree with all of the tactics of change, but it’s definitely a huge difference.” He wants to make sure that people learn about opportunities and the process of buying a home.

Taylor grew up in Harlem and East Liberty, and wasn’t put off by Garfield’s destitution. He and fellow coach Bob Jones, a lifelong Garfield resident, preach brotherhood, morals and responsibility to the Gators’ 7- to 14-year-olds through a nonprofit, Brothers and Sisters Emerging. Taylor loves the work, though it and family time keep him from attending community meetings. He’s OK with that, as long as someone taps longer-term residents for suggestions.

“I’m a city guy,” he says. “I fit every demographic of urban African-American male you can think of. I own my home; my partner owns his. We chose to live in Garfield after graduating from college. And the white people that are moving in now, they couldn’t care less (about its past)—they’re out jogging, walking their dogs, their children. I don’t see it as completely gentrifying a community or neighborhood. What else would be here, if that wasn’t?”

Minette Vaccariello with family in their Garfield home. Photo by Brian Cohen.
Minette Vaccariello with family in their Garfield home. Photo by Brian Cohen.

Minette Vaccariello, 37, moved from Boston 11 years ago to pursue a master’s degree at Carnegie Mellon University and now works for UPMC at Bakery Square. Her husband, Raymond Morin, got a job at an art store the day after they arrived and now manages Acoustic Music Works in Squirrel Hill. They sought out Garfield’s arts scene and bought an end-unit row house on Penn in 2007.

“It wasn’t cosmetically stunning but it had really good bones,” she says. They’ve refinished floors, painted, and replaced kitchen tiles and countertops. A URA grant helped them buy windows and a front door. Vaccariello planted perennials and vegetables in a front bed.

“We have a porch—it’s nice to sit out there. We see a lot of people walking at night,” she says.

With the Garfield Community Action Team, Vaccariello spruced up a park, planted a butterfly garden at a playground, and landscaped an activity center.

“It’s still not a perfect neighborhood; we still have incidences of crime,” she says. “I think it takes a certain person who’s OK with that, knowing they can be improving the neighborhood, helping neighbors, giving back.”

She steered Lillian Denhardt, 27, to the house she bought on North Pacific Avenue three years ago. Denhardt looked in Bloomfield, where she was renting, and in East Liberty, where she works for Brean Associates, a small urban planning firm. Mostly, she wanted a brick house with original woodwork.

“I realized I could get a lot more of the things I wanted, more affordably, in Garfield,” she says. “I think a lot of people have come to that conclusion. I didn’t get a yard or a porch, but overall I really like it.”

Minette Vaccariello
Minette Vaccariello with family. Photo by Brian Cohen.

Denhardt grew up in Emsworth and lived away for nine years before the job brought her back to Pittsburgh. Her two-bedroom house is comfortable enough for her, boyfriend Justin George, and their two rescue dogs. She met George, a carpenter and furniture maker, shortly after buying the house.

“I didn’t really know anything about the East End when I moved back. Everyone I met, this was where they were living,” says Denhardt, who got a plot in a community garden and joined BGC.

She considers herself lucky to have become a homeowner at age 24. “In Garfield, that is more possible than it is in a lot of other places in the city, especially as affordability continues to be more of a struggle.”

Jessie Rommelt, 28, moved to Garfield five years ago and bought a two-unit house on Broad Street about 18 months ago with her partner, Nathanial Kling, a game designer. As director of Bunker Projects art gallery on Penn, Rommelt walks to work.

The couple fixed up the first-floor apartment and moved in, then refinished the second- and third-floor unit where they now live. It’s still a work in progress, says Rommelt.

“It looks like a lot different,” she says. “We’re lucky we have friends. We would do these long weekends where people would come help us.”

Explore Garfield during the NEXT 3 Days celebration September 9th through 11th, hosted by the community, the URA nd the City of Pittsburgh along with NEXTpittsburgh. Find details here.

Sandra Tolliver is a freelance writer, editor and public relations professional in Upper St. Clair.