Slowly but surely Northsiders are reclaiming their neighborhoods and transforming them into positive places where residents can connect with their communities.
They are doing this by transforming nuisance bars into “third places,” or businesses and non-profits that provide a community meeting place for locals to relax and interact.
Home is the first place, and work the second, said Mark Fatla, executive director of the Northside Leadership Conference.
“Everyone needs a third place,” he said, and cited the Café ‘n’ Creamery, which used to be the Homeplate bar, as an excellent example for Brightwood.
“It’s become a central gathering place for that community,” he said. “It’s where you’re going to run into friends. It’s where kids are going to be after school.”
On July 30, after decades of community struggle, Allegheny Center Alliance Church purchased Rebel’s Bar on East Ohio Street from owner Leonard Butler for $200,000, including fixtures and equipment.
Now the bar, long considered a gathering place for ne’er-do-wells, stands locked up with lights off and two copies of a July 31 Pittsburgh Tribune-Review article announcing the closing taped to the windows.
ACAC Reverend Blaine Workman’s phone number is penciled in the white space beneath the story, along with a note inviting community members to offer suggestions for the space.
Fatla said the Leadership Conference is working with the church to find a new purpose for the building and then establish a business or outreach that will benefit the community, although the planning is in early stages and they are still discussing what might be best for everyone involved.
Workman said he had received several suggestions, but that what they do with the space will depend on whether or not the church is able to purchase the empty lot next to the bar — currently owned by the Urban Redevelopment Authority — and the three-story apartment building behind the bar.
One possibility is having Amani Coffee on the corner of Foreland Avenue and James Street move into the space, Workman said.
“We want it to be something that has a place in the community,” Workman said, rather than a “destination.” He added that he wanted it to serve and build the existing community rather than simply draw outsiders in.
Fatla said that while closing nuisance bars that bring drugs and violence into neighborhoods is always a priority, replacing them with positive businesses is equally important.
“It’s not just getting rid of the noxious use,” he said. “It’s putting it to good use. The net gain is so much better.”
The Café ‘n’ Creamery has been open for almost two years now, said Deb Gumpf, the executive director of New Hope for Neighborhood Renewal, which is part of the New Hope Church in Brightwood.
The church had been putting pressure on the bar for a while, Gumpf said, and when two female congregates purchased a house next door, they immediately began praying about it.
In April 2007, soon after the women moved in to the house, the bar’s owner approached the church and offered to sell to them.
The café opened in January 2008 and held a grand opening in April 2009. Now it holds special events like poetry and jazz nights. It also houses exhibits by local artists and community meetings.
“It’s made such a change on that corner,” Gumpf said, adding that many youths have to catch Port Authority buses to school there.
Fatla stressed that closing a problem business was only part of the process.
“We closed a porn theater,” he said in reference to the Garden Theater on North Avenue, “and that’s good, but now we need to find [something] to revitalize that block.”
City of Asylum, an organization that provides residences for writers who have been exiled from their native countries, recently purchased the Manteca Bar on Monterey Street in the Mexican War Streets neighborhood.
President Henry Reese said City of Asylum hopes to transform the bar into a small bookstore specializing in translations and a space for readings and concerts.
In this case, a realtor approached Reese and told him the Manteca’s owner was ready to sell. City of Asylum also acquired the empty lot next to the bar, and a house next to the lot.
“He was ready to move on,” Reese said. “It was actually a very friendly process.”
The house will become the bookstore, the bar will become a café, and the organization will build a three-story glass building on the empty lot that will serve as the main entrance for the bookstore and café, and provide a space for readings.
Reese said he hopes the space will turn into the go-to place for readings in the city because it will be free and devoted to literature.
City of Asylum hopes to renovate the top floors of the bar into apartments, which he said will allow them to house more exiled writers.
“We see it as transformative within the community,” he said.
Not all nuisance bars close quietly though. Fatla said the closing of many problem bars is preceded by a climactic event like a shooting or other explosive violence.
“It’s almost like a disaster has to happen,” he said.
While he declined to name specific bars, he did say there were a few concerns in several neighborhoods.
The Shamrock on Western Avenue in Allegheny West, for instance, has received complaints over the years.
“And mind you, there are good bars,” he added.
He said that the Manchester Citizens Corporation has closed half a dozen problem bars over the years, and that other community groups are generally good with putting pressure on bars to clean up their acts.
In the case of Rebel’s, the East Allegheny Community Council as well as other community members put pressure on the bar by bringing two legal cases against it. Both of those cases resulted in legal action against the bar’s liquor license, but the Butlers appealed and had the license fully restored.
Butler said that he had been looking for someone to buy the bar for eight years, but that he kept a low profile in his search.
“I just wanted to get out,” Butler said. “It’s too aggravating.”
Butler, who has been in poor health for a number of years, added that he had a potential buyer from West Virginia, but he chose the church in hopes they would be able to make progress in cleaning up the area.
The church purchased the bar and all its equipment and fixtures for $200,000.
If Allegheny Center Alliance Church purchases the empty lot and apartment building adjacent the bar, Workman said they would look into putting a community development business in the apartment building and a “community serving” business in place of the bar.