Entrepreneur Returns to Pittsburgh To Create Two New Community Centers
Kids dropped in for a free lunch, to use one of the many computers, or even just for a hug. It was day two for beSocial in Mon View Heights, in West Mifflin, one of two new community centers opened in the Pittsburgh area last week by James Whitner, an area native turned entrepreneur and philanthropist.
The West Mifflin site was joined by a second beSocial in East Liberty, above the Penn Avenue location of Social Status, one of two Pittsburgh sites for Whitner’s national streetwear-and-sneakers chain. The East Liberty site also includes a new art gallery and artist-mentorship space, 38a.
Whitner, now based in Charlotte, N.C., said the community centers express his company’s business philosophy.
“We’ve begun to create beSocial community spaces as a part of our retail engagement and a part of our retail experience," he said. The goal, he added, is "to help create an ecosystem for the consumer to not just take money out of their pocket, but as we take money out of their pocket, we put information and resources back into them and their lives."
Whitner knows first-hand about the kind of adversity he’s trying to address, especially in the Black community. The Mon View Heights location consists of two conjoined former two-bedroom rentals located a stone’s throw from an identical unit where he spent his teen years, in the 1990s. It’s located off Whitaker Avenue, about five minutes’ drive from Homestead. He describes what was then known as the Whitaker Projects as “poor, [and] riddled with tons of drugs and violence.”
After graduating from West Mifflin High School, in 1997, Whitner enrolled at Edinboro University. Under pressure to help his family financially, he said, he fell into the drug trade and ended up doing three years in a state prison on drug charges. After his release, he completed college — and eventually realized Pittsburgh wasn’t the place he was going to realize his dreams.
“I felt like living in Pittsburgh, what the city expected me to be was the federal inmate and the drug dealer that I had been,” he said. “And that is not what I wanted for my future, so I decided to pack up and move to Charlotte.”
He made his name in retail. His company, The Whitaker Group, opened stores under the names Social Status, APB, A Ma Maniére, and Prosper. (Whitner also owns about 50 housing units in Pittsburgh he rents to low-income families.)
Whitner said the retail operations have blossomed in recent years. He now operates 23 stores in 16 cities, and projects his company’s sales this year at $50 million.
The Whitaker Group’s nonprofit arm, the Whitaker Charitable Project, runs beSocial at various Social Status locations, and analogous community centers at other outlets.
“We wrap our retail ecosystem into giving back to the communities that serve us,” he said. “We in turn serve them.”
Whitner sends staffers into the selected communities to determine people’s needs , and programs the new centers accordingly. The effort also involves working with existing grassroots groups. For instance, the Mon View Heights BeSocial is the first beSocial not linked to a retail store. But staffers have spent weeks meeting community members, and will now work with volunteers there to support existing programs.
Last Friday, the walls of the renovated two-bedroom unit gleamed with white paint, and brand-new computer monitors lined desks on the first and second floors. When he arrived, Whitner took a moment to explain to staff and volunteers how he and his two brothers slept in one small bedroom of his family’s identical house nearby, while his mother slept in the other.
“This community informed my thinking, and it helped shaped who I am as a man,” he said in an interview.
Nonetheless, Whitner had harsh words for how his home region treats people of color.
“You don’t realize in Pittsburgh as a Black person that you’re living a nightmare until you leave, especially if you’re a poor Black person here,” he said. With beSocial, he added, “What we wanted to create was an escape and a visualization of what the world looks like, and some of the opportunities that could be available to you.”