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East End Architect Takes Affordable Housing Into His Own Hands, Helping Rehab Old Homes In Garfield

Joaquin Gonzalez
90.5 WESA
Gary Cirrincione outside the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation's Activity Center at N. Pacific and Dearborn Streets in Garfield.

As Gary Cirrincione walks along the Penn Avenue business corridor on the border Garfield and Bloomfield, he gestures towards the buildings on either side of the street. 

"You've got a mix of commercial and residential spaces, all jumbled together here," said Cirrincione. "Urban areas need that sort of mix and dynamic. There's a diversity here."

When Cirrincione first moved to Hays Street in the East End, his home was in Garfield. Now, the same house is part of East Liberty due to a boundary change, but he doesn’t pay much attention to those technicalities anyway.

"I tend to ignore those lines and deal with people problems," said Cirrincione.

Cirrincione is a self-employed architect and over the last 25 years, he's lent his skills and his time to a number of improvement projects in his community. He recalls that his first large-scale effort was right on his street.

"There was a vacant house on the street, a rather substantial one, that had a demolition order on it," said Cirrincione. "We got the great idea to turn it into affordable housing.”

Cirrincione said it took about two years and lots of participation from non-profits and other neighborhood volunteers, but the house eventually became 42 affordable housing units. 

He’s continued to work on other housing rehabilitation projects over the years, including collaborations with local non-profits Sojourner House and Open Hand Ministries.

"When I first met Gary, his high-energy aura overwhelmed me instantly. He freely offered his services to us and drew up the plans for our first rehabilitation project," said Michael Stanton, executive director of Open Hand Ministries.

Even as he's kept working on large-scale projects, Cirrincione has still found time to lend a hand on even the smallest of jobs. Rick Swartz, the executive director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation, sees him everywhere. 

“He's always available, generally on a Saturday morning, when it's time to get the garbage bags when it's time to get the rakes, the shovels, the hoes and be able to actually do the work. And he leads by example," said Swartz.

Cirrincione has also placed an emphasis on what he calls “greening projects.” That can range from planting trees along the sidewalk to turning a vacant lot into a play-space for kids.

At the Garfield Community Farm, which grows produce and sells to neighborhood residents, Cirrincione helped turn a vision and some grant money into a new greenhouse.

"Gary was the person who came around and donated his time and used his architectural expertise to do the drawings and to then do the even harder part of working with the city’s building rules and making sure it’s all done to code," said John Creasy, the farm's director.

Credit Joaquin Gonzalez / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
John Creasy and Michael Stanton have both collaborated on projects with Gary Cirrincione in Garfield.

Cirrincione said these kinds of green improvements don’t carry the same stigma of gentrification as, for instance, a real estate company putting up a new, expensive apartment complex.

"These are easily accessible. It’s considered less threatening to many neighbors to do greening projects," said Cirrincione.

He added, however, that gentrification is becoming a problem in the community. Cirrincione said it’s getting harder for working-class and low-income families to buy homes as they compete with outside developers, and even renting is getting trickier as prices increase.

"We want to control the affordability in our community and we want a tool to fight back the developers. We want to be in a position that the choice land in Garfield is not being grabbed up by investors from outside who are just profiting," said Cirrincione.

That's why he's helping to start up the Garfield Land Trust. Cirrincione said the idea is that, in the future, this resident-controlled organization will own plots of land in the neighborhood and be able to keep the houses on those plots in the hands of residents who meet certain income criteria.