Justin Strong in the new location of Ava Lounge in Oakland. Photo by Brian Cohen.

Pittsburgh has been named the most livable city in America. Twice. But Is Pittsburgh a most livable city for everyone who lives here?

We posed the question to grassroots activists in our midst, people who are on the streets of our underserved communities and raising their voices as a chorus to make our city the best it can be for all who live here.

They are doers all. Some are local business owners. Others seek to create multicultural venues, instill community pride, stand up for the rights of children–and serve up health and wellness with fresh juice.

Here is what they are doing and what they had to say.

A hero in the community

Betty Lane is the face of Larimer and one of its most admired citizens. Known to all as “Ms. Betty,” she has been a consummate organizer and advocate for the community for 40 years running.

Her stamina and passion for her neighborhood is unwavering. If she isn’t planting vegetables and flowers with the Larimer Green Team, she’s emailing city public works about a problem on a vacant lot or shoveling sidewalks with the 52Lots project and the Redd Up Action Team.

Lane rarely misses a community meeting and she always arrives early, often dressed in flowing colors. The Larimer Consensus Group is her primary focus. She assisted with the neighborhood-wide survey for the Choice Neighborhoods Program, a HUD initiative that recently awarded a $30 million grant to build affordable and market rate housing and improve services for residents.

“What I want for Larimer is for it to look greater than what it looked like when I moved here in 1970,” says Lane who has lived in Pittsburgh all her life and received a master’s degree in social work from University of Pittsburgh. “There were lots of homes here then. And Families. Homeowners took pride in the community. Even the alleys were spotless.”

Lane has lots of ideas on how to make this happen. The community has an abundance of beautiful brick homes that deserve to be fixed up, she says. “There’s strength in those brick and mortar homes. Hopefully this land banking will allow them to take a closer look at that.”

This week she will be attending a meeting of the Co-Housing Group—a new initiative popular in other cities that would identify land on which to build a common home for 20 people who would agree to buy into a communal living arrangement.

“It’s a new concept that we hope will take off here,” she says. “The homes include a central living area. People can choose to have meals together or not. The goal is to allow people to choose their own neighbors.”

Programs like 52Lots and the “side lot” program need to continue since they offer residents incentives to beautify their properties, she adds. Her own home is an example of community pride. A small vegetable garden that grows along her front curb is shared with everyone.

“I’m trying to be a role model,” she says. “People can’t always make it to meetings. They will say, ‘Ms. Betty, give it a break.’ But then I will see them in front of their own place trying to spruce it up.

“It’s all about getting that momentum going,” she adds. “It’s not the only way, but it’s how I get people involved. They see that I’m serious. I want our neighborhood to be beautiful and clean. My community is my canvas.”

Betty Lane with neighbor Tony Mainiero in Larimer. Photo by Brian Cohen.
Betty Lane with neighbor Tony Mainiero in Larimer. Photo by Brian Cohen.

A proponent of local businesses
To the west of Larimer in North Oakland, Justin Strong is putting the final touches on his property, the AVA Lounge and café, a restaurant by day and 45-seat BYOB performance space by night. He hopes to have a full bar operating by October.

Strong believes the most important component of a strong neighborhood is an economy that embraces local businesses and entrepreneurs, not big box development.

He formerly owned the beloved Shadow Lounge in East Liberty, a coffee shop and late night bar that promoted a wide range of entertainment, everything from music acts like Mac Miller to fiddlers, poets, and open mic nights.

Then Councilman and now Mayor Bill Peduto, a regular patron and supporter, had called it a “community center.”

Following a sudden and mysterious series of noise complaints, Strong closed Shadow Lounge in 2012. While AVA will be similar to Shadow Lounge, it will be better in many ways, he says.

“AVA is aligned with our target market,” he says. “North Oakland is more diverse than any other area of Pittsburgh—26 percent of the population is from outside of the country. That’s right up my alley. It’s also the most densely populated area in Pittsburgh.”

“A main street approach is a better fit than national chains for Pittsburgh,” he says in reference to his advocacy of local businesses. “We (entrepreneurs) need more opportunities to access these larger developments. Otherwise, how can individuals seek their entrepreneurial dreams?”

East Carson Street is a great example, he adds. “It’s places like these that give a neighborhood and city its reputation and name. If we turn ourselves into a strip mall, why would anyone want to visit Pittsburgh? It’s an everybody wins approach.”

One idea is to divide the TIFS and tax credits among the entrepreneurs, he says.

“It will create more Googles, but with people that are from here. I would love to see an alternative to the Pittsburgh Promise. Those who aren’t college bound (and it wasn’t for me) can obtain financing to start their own businesses.”

Carla Leininger, Global Beats
Carla Leininger, Global Beats

Forging cultural connections through dance
Carla Leininger, a native of Brazil, moved to Pittsburgh 27 years ago. This year she celebrates her 15th year as deejay of her Brazilian Radio Hour show, which airs from 6-7 p.m. on WRCT, 88.3 FM. She has been recognized for her role as an emissary of cultural programming in Pittsburgh with a 2013 Brazilian International Press award.

Leininger launched Global Beats in 2004, a grassroots world music movement featuring salsa, reggae with bachata, afro-pop with Balkan beats and a fusion of other rhythms. It’s all about connecting internationals with their cultural heritage, she says. Global Beats was a monthly event at the AVA Lounge in East Liberty.

Calling herself a “deejay who would rather be dancing,” she has been doing private events of late and contemplating a new venue in Pittsburgh for world music. By day, she’s an “employment brand ambassador” and recruiting specialist currently for PPG, formerly for PNC Financial and Eaton Corp.

“It seems that we’ve been talking on this (livable city) topic for a long time,” she says. “One of the things we are lacking (in Pittsburgh) is a venue that allows 100 to 200 people to come together and dance. We have a lot of bars where people can sit and drink, but not a lot of places to dance. Dance brings people together naturally and breaks down barriers.

“I play what other clubs don’t play and that’s our differentiator,” says Leininger. “People like me, who want to make a difference, have a hard time finding financial backing. I devote many hours to bringing diversity to this city—it should be easier to find funding so that volunteers with limited hours but a lot of passion and initiative can achieve more.”

In 2013, Leininger received a grant from Vibrant Pittsburgh to host the first World Music Day at the Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival. Her grant was rejected this year, which was a huge disappointment for her.

Pittsburgh has a high-quality of professional internationals compared to other cities where internationals tend to live together in pockets of the city, she says. “That’s one advantage we have,” she says. “Recently it feels that a  renaissance is underway with the new mayor and I’m very excited about that. The city put a screen in Market Square so everyone could watch the USA World Cup soccer game. In very small ways, I feel the fruits of my labor are paying off.”

Majestic Lane. Photo by Brian Cohen.
Majestic Lane. Photo by Brian Cohen.

Creating healthy third spaces
Majestic Lane is taking a slightly different approach as a social entrepreneur and “juice evangelist,” spreading the message of health and wellness in underserved communities through Juice UP 412, a smoothie and juice bar and wellness blitz. The first juice stand, which opened in the Strip District last year, was made possible through a partnership with Bar Marco.

Lane, who formerly worked for Sen. Ferlo’s office in community development, recently began working for A+ schools as director of community and engagement strategy. An Awesome Pittsburgh grant assisted the “juice up guys” in putting a stand within The Livermore in East Liberty, to open soon.

Juice UP also takes demonstrations and classes to the streets and into schools and community based organizations in underserved neighborhoods across the city, imparting healthy recipes that youth can share with their families. The idea is to “provide nutritious, delicious juices to inspire people to invest in their personal health and wellness.”

“We have to operate out of a lens of equity and inclusion” says Lane (no relation to Ms. Betty Lane, although he calls her “his heroine.”) “Everyone needs a chance to grow within the city, to be able to stay and raise a and family. We need two trains running at the same time.”

The question is how can we bring people back into the city? he asks.

The Larimer Choice Community Grants ($30 million awarded by HUD) will help to attract people back into these neighborhoods and allow them to stay. The African American Neighborhoods of Choice through the URA and Heinz Endowments will also assist by creating create districts within populations that give people incentives to return to an urban lifestyle.

“Juice UP has had a lot of support from the community. Imagine five or ten Juice UPs doing different things in the city. When someone comes in and gets their juice, it provides a higher quality of life for the city as a whole. It creates these third spaces.”

Jessie Ramey courtesy of In These Times
Jessie Ramey courtesy of In These Times

Advocating for children

Jessie Ramey is a scholar, activist and blogger. Her blog, Yinzercation—as in yinzer nation+education—challenges the Corbett administration’s defunding of public education in Pennsylvania.

A fifth generation Pittsburgher and Point Breeze resident, Ramey is a visiting scholar at Pitt and a social historian of working families. She is a member of Great Public Schools Pittsburgh, advocating for a “community schools” model that would open up closed school buildings to house social services for children and families.

She has been twice invited by the White House to meet with President Obama’s senior policy advisors.

“I like the way you posed the question,” she says. “Pittsburgh has been named as the most wonderful in everything, so this is exactly the right question to ask—most livable for whom?”

“We have a long way to go when it comes to being the most livable for all of our families. The statistics reveal what its really like in Pittsburgh, particularly for our communities of color. Our city is one of the poorest places for African American children. About half of them are living in poverty.”

Ramey believes every child deserves the right to attend a great public school. With Yinzercation as her weapon, she is generating momentum for an educational justice movement in southwestern Pennsylvania. The blog is a clearinghouse for news, conversation and civil debate on educational issues that she shares with volunteer parents, students, teachers and community members.

“We have to make sure that every kid has access to a great public school,” she says. “I’m also excited about the Mayor’s push for universal early childhood education. If we really put our minds and our hearts behind giving every kid early educational opportunities, Pittsburgh will be a more diverse and wonderful place for everybody.”

Deb is an award-winning journalist who loves ancient places and cool technologies. A former daily newspaper reporter and Time-Life Books editor, she writes mostly about Pittsburgh. Her stories have appeared in Fast Company, Ozy and Pittsburgh Magazine.