Screenshot of Alisha Wormsley's post about the Last Billboard being taken down.

This story has been updated to include the latest statement from the landlord, Eve Picker, allowing the sign to go back up. The statement appears at the end of this story. It was updated again to include the statement from ELDI and their role in the “firestorm.”

Throughout March, this is what the billboard on top of the East Liberty building on Highland and Baum said:

There Are Black People In The Future.

Suddenly, the message from the artist Alisha B. Wormsley was removed and Jon Rubin — who put up the billboard in 2010 and has curated the public messages ever since as a space for public voices — wrote this yesterday on Facebook.

“Last week, The Last Billboard’s landlord, We Do Property, forced Alisha’s text to be taken down over objections to the content (through a never-before evoked clause in the lease that gives the landlord the right to approve text).”

“I believe in the power, poetry and relevance of Alisha’s text,” he continued, “and see absolutely no reason it should have been taken down. I find it tragically ironic, given East Liberty’s history and recent gentrification, that a text by an African American artist affirming a place in the future for black people is seen as unacceptable in the present.”

The reaction online was intense with a torrent of Facebook comments and tweets objecting to the removal.

News stories, blog posts, including one from Damon Young of Very Smart Brothas, soon followed, along with an announcement of an event to address the wildly controversial move — with the artist, Alisha Wormsley, present.

In a sentiment repeatedly echoed on Facebook, a commenter named Robbert Bricker wrote on Wormsley’s post, “This is the sort of thing that happens when ‘political correctness’ turns into fascism. Art should NOT be censored … Even the art that you allow to offend you.”

Not that most commentators found this message offensive. On the contrary, many posts questioned what exactly was so offensive about it? Most proclaimed the removal racist and called out the landlord, Eve Picker, of we do property.

“As your former tenant and colleague, I am confounded by this art censorship. As you are someone who claims to be for new ideas, and supportive of creative people, including myself in the 1990s, why this? Why?” asked Jen Saffron on Facebook. “What do you gain from censoring this artist, who is an excellent and lauded artist who has something important and accurate to say? Why are you exercising your ‘power’ to censor Alisha Wormsley’s message?”

Picker, in turn, suggested a community forum. Tracy D. Turner posted on Facebook Eve Picker’s first email to her and Chris Ivey, the director of the documentary, “East of Liberty.”

Dear Jon:

My inbox is being flooded with people accusing me of being a rascist (sic) for asking you to remove the sign. As you know, I requested that you remove it because other people in the community felt the sign was racist and were offended by it. So here we are. Art has caused friction. Perhaps that’s what you wanted but it shouldn’t be aimed at me.

We have worked together productively on this project for almost 8 years now, an arrangement which has added tremendously to the cultural fabric of the neighborhood. Over that time, we have never questioned any of the artistic statements you have made. This is all very disappointing. If a full community conversation is to be had, then that’s what should be focussed on.

If you agree to sponsor and conduct a community discussion where all parties are invited – and by that I mean everyone you have reached out to, everyone who was offended by it, the administration, the press, and anyone else — that is held at a public venue in East Liberty, such as the Kelly-Strayhorn, and if the end result of that discussion is agreement that the sign should go up again, we will be the first to give you the go ahead.

For the record, Wormsley’s quote was the most recent of a long line of creative uses of the billboard.  Eight years ago, CMU associate professor and Waffle Shop creator Jon Rubin put up the highly visible billboard and it has displayed creative and artistic messages ever since.

In November, ironically, the message was: Ideally, everything will turn quiet now.

No chance of that at the moment.

NEXTpittsburgh contacted Eve Picker and here’s her emailed response from April 5th:

My company manages the 124 S. Highland Building (also known as the Werner Building) in East Liberty.

One of my long-time tenants has been using this rooftop billboard for several years as part of an art installation. They recently posted a message based on the work of local artist Alisha Wormsley. In response to the installation, we were contacted by a number of people in the local community who said that they found the message offensive and divisive.

We asked the tenant to remove the message because they didn’t follow the lease agreement that states the billboard cannot be used for items “that are distasteful, offensive, erotic, political…” and the lessee must have lessor’s approval in writing before installing the sign. Almost always, whether a building is public or private, there is an approval process that needs to be followed.

The tenant has posted messages in the past without seeking approval, but there has never been a community response about them being distasteful, offensive or political. Our objection is not with the message, but with the fact that people are offended as the result of a message we never saw and approved before-hand.

We are strong supporters of the arts, diversity, inclusion and conducting discussions to resolve conflicts. We suggested to the tenant that they sponsor and conduct a community discussion where all parties are invited, and we’ve been told there is now a public meeting scheduled for April 18. We will support whatever the community decides is in its best interests, as long as there is a clear direction coming from that meeting.

Eve Picker
we do property management

In an emailed statement to NEXTpittsburgh at 7:30 am on April 6, Eve Picker wrote:

Over the last 24 hours, we’ve received a number of emails from people who said they are not offended by the sign and are saddened by its removal. They far outnumber the people who originally approached us about being offended.

We truly appreciate the comments from people who reached out to us in a respectful, thoughtful manner and believe the public has spoken. We are giving the tenant full approval to reinstate the original sign. In the future, we will follow the approval process outlined in the lease the tenant signed, so that we are all informed and on board for all future signs. 

But wait, there’s more. This statement came from ELDI, East Liberty Development, later in the day:

April 6, 2018

The Board and Staff of ELDI are quite aware of the social media firestorm precipitated by the removal of the most recent message on Jon Rubin’s billboard project in East Liberty. Previously, ELDI provided technical assistance and financial support to Jon Rubin in his efforts to open first the Waffle Shop and then Conflict Kitchen in East Liberty. We also provided financial support to Mr. Rubin to structurally modify and convert an abandoned billboard into his current message board. We understood and supported his efforts to use public art to spark community dialogue. It’s unfortunate that the recent turn of events has sparked accusations of racism towards Eve Picker, the property owner, who invested in the East Liberty community twenty years ago when others were unwilling to do so. She acquired and historically renovated the Liberty Bank building which had been vacant for many years, had several large holes in the roof, rotten floor joists, and was home to only pigeons.

It is also frustrating that this firestorm started when we sent an email to both Mr. Rubin and Ms. Picker asking about the meaning of the message in question and suggesting that the message was ambiguous and could be considered tone deaf given the gentrification debate underway in the neighborhood and the need to bring back the displaced Penn Plaza residents. We never demanded that the message be taken down, but simply asked how long it would remain. No one in the neighborhood knows why or when messages are changed, who the authors are or the context of the messages. Ironically, our email was prompted by concerns raised by individuals of color who were confused about the context and intent of the message. Perhaps, a sign should be affixed to the billboard directing people to a website that will contain background on all messages going forward.

Lastly, personal attacks are never productive or helpful and do not foster open dialogue or discussion, much less understanding. There always have been and always will be people of color in East Liberty. The 1999 and 2010 East Liberty Community Vision Plans delineated and celebrated East Liberty as an open, inclusive, and welcoming community; and ELDI is committed to East Liberty being an inclusive community in every area, and will continue to work towards maintaining housing, employment opportunities and amenities for all residents, regardless of their race, ethnicity, age, economic status or any other demographic.

And in another interesting twist, according to Janera Solomon, executive director of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, the community forum was planned before the sign was removed.

Stay posted for more details on that.

Melissa Rayworth

Kidsburgh Editor Melissa Rayworth specializes in stories about culture, gender, design and parenting. She has written for a variety of outlets in the U.S. and Asia, and is a frequent contributor to The...