Rent Help For Artists Latest Effort In Allentown Revitalization
Chase McBryde grinds metal in the corner of a big room cluttered with odds and ends collected from all over the city – old furniture, pallets, even the seat of a car. It was junk to its former owners, but McBryde views it all as potential source material.
His creations fill tabletops and dot the floor, from the full-sized model of a futuristic gun from the Fallout video game series to a cow skull replica. Even the warehouse studio’s coffin-shaped doorway is custom-made. Punk music plays on the stereo.
“Usually, most of what I find is between 100, 150 years old, that people just throw in the dumpster after they gut the homes in Lawrenceville, Oakland area, all over the city," McBryde said. "It’s really sad just to see it go to a landfill.”
During his time in the Industry Street warehouse, McBryde’s company, RIP PGH, has created signage for several Allentown businesses, along with custom furniture, murals and jewelry.
Community leaders at the Hilltop Alliance, which advocates for Allentown, want to bring at least five more artists and artisans like McBryde into the old Industry Street warehouse. The alliance has offered to pay half the artists’ rent to their landlord, RE360, for the next two years through $33,000 in grants provided by PNC Charitable Trusts and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation.
In return, alliance leaders want artists to create and install public art at target sites around the neighborhood.
“We’re really hoping that the people that come here start to adopt this as their second home, or maybe their first home,” said Siena Kane, Allentown Business District manager at the Hilltop Alliance. "Maybe they’ll buy a place here, rent a place and also work here. They’ll get a sense of what they want their project to be in the community.”
She said she’s hoping the temporary public art projects will be one facet of the continuing redevelopment campaign in Allentown.
Its main drag, Warrington Avenue, still has its share of vacant storefronts, she said, but new shops have sprouted along the sidewalks, blending in with the older neighborhood mainstays.
"This is the Allentown Learning and Engagement Center, the ALEC. This is Leon’s Caribbean, opened last year, really great jerk chicken," she said, pointing out shop after shop as she walked. "Paisano’s – if you want to hear an F-bomb and get a slice of pizza, definitely go there."
The recent influx of new business was due at least in part to a separate rent abatement program offered along Warrington Avenue in 2014. That program was one of several funded by a $1.5 million grant from the state and local corporations.
The trick is getting the businesses to stick around after the grant program dries up in the year 2020, Kane said.
Developer Joe Calloway owns a lot of commercial property in Allentown.
“As far as keeping those businesses alive, as a real estate developer, I’m very, very open … to selling those buildings," Calloway said. "I would like to not be a landlord in five years.”
As successful as rent abatement has been in Allentown, the neighborhood’s revival might have started before the big grant arrived. The small business incubator Work Hard Pittsburgh opened on Warrington Avenue four years ago – then known as the “Hardware Store.”
“When we moved in in 2012, there were many vacant storefronts. It was basically us and Alla Famiglia," said Josh Lucas, the company's founder. "Within weeks, Sweet Peaches, the catering company down the street, moved in, and we’ve seen steady progress in filling those vacant storefronts.”
Census data show a historically bleak situation for Allentown, including seven decades of population decline, from a high of more than 8,200 residents in 1940 to about 2,500 in 2010. In 2010, about one-quarter of Allentowners lived under the poverty line and one in five houses sat empty. The average home value was estimated at about $42,000, putting it in the bottom tenth of city housing prices.
Calloway said he’s not holding out for large-scale projects from an outside developer in Allentown; he wants action now.
“Everyone thinks you have to start with these fancy buildings, and ripping things down. We’re not ripping anything down. We start with people," Calloway said. "We’re starting with the makers; we’re starting with the coffee shop; we’re starting with the real estate company, the construction companies. We’re starting with the people, and that’s what’s going to make this area great – not some epic condo with all these fancy elements.”
Bringing in artists to beautify a neighborhood already on its way toward economic redevelopment is a logical next step for the Hilltop Alliance, Kane said. For his part, Chase McBryde said he’s looking forward to having new neighbors in the warehouse.
He said he’ll make more noise than they can.