Rustbelt Road Trips, we’ve come to find, are quite exhilarating. Last week our team of seven packed into a minivan and embarked on a 36-hour, whirlwind journey to Pittsburgh, PA.
Our mission? Visit as many people, creative spaces, and neighborhoods as possible to draw insights to bring back to Cincinnati. When it was all said and done, we successfully explored three co-working/maker spaces, met with three innovative civic project leads and toured four Pittsburgh neighborhoods in the midst-of positive transformation. It was a quick and concentrated expedition, but well worth it. We left the Steel City with a number of lessons learned. Here are a few:
Balanced development yields big returns
Small, brick-and-mortar businesses often do best in areas with heavy foot-traffic. There’s a part of Pittsburgh called East Liberty; it’s quite similar to the area north of Liberty here in Cincinnati, in that it sits on the border of two diverse, mixed-income neighborhoods. A few years back, a cohort of development partners brought Whole Foods, Target, Home Depot and a rapid-transit bus-line to this epicenter, despite a bit of pushback from local residents.
Soon, things started changing. People came; lots of people. An increase in foot traffic—fueled by the public transit line—allowed for small, locally owned businesses to take root in East Liberty alongside this new corporate infrastructure. People from across town began coming to Whole Foods for groceries and then visiting local shops by chance, providing a lift to the local economy and proving that indeed the big and the small together can thrive.
Meaningful stories fuel success
The Conflict Kitchen started out as a simple pop-up restaurant that pledged to serve cuisine originating only in countries with whom the US was in conflict. In under two years, this experiment has turned into something much bigger. 18-months after the kitchen served its first meal, the tiny restaurant in Schenley Plaza continues to drive a dialogue, both in the Steel City and across the nation. Why? The kitchen doesn’t just focus on food. They strive to share and celebrate the voices of people affected by US policies and use compelling design to do so. Because their facade, menu and featured cultural stories are constantly changing, the dialogue around them is constantly shifting as well.
The Conflict Kitchen introduces an interesting model, one worth considering for the Greater Cincinnati Area. This doesn’t mean creating conflict-fueled kitchens of our own, but rather devising projects that can continually adapt, change paths and spark discussion throughout their lifecycle. It doesn’t take much. Conflict Kitchen started on a shoestring budget of just $7k.
People drive project success
There’s a saying many venture capitalists live and die by: “Better to invest in an A-team with a B-idea, than a B-team with an A-idea.”
We think that same ideal holds true in the civic innovation realm. There’s no shortage of good ideas. However, it takes a particularly prodigious person to give those ideas the lift they need to create the impact they deserve. We met a few of these exceptional individuals during our time in Pittsburgh:
Eve Picker, Founder of CityLab
Personal wins include: developing over a dozen buildings in various disadvantaged Pittsburgh areas; starting an online magazine that features local Pittsburgh innovators; forming a Pittsburgh “do-tank”; and most recently, laying the groundwork for a real-estate crowdfunding company. Why the crowd-funding platform? It’s extremely hard for individuals to acquire the assets necessary to purchase and redevelop buildings—both in Pittsburgh and in other cities on the rise. Eve knows this much from experience; she remembers projects that took her 20 years to see any return. But she took the risk and, as a result, played a role in the redevelopment of the East Liberty neighborhood we described above.
Now she’s setting her sights on Garfield, where her Tiny House project (via CityLab) is set to break ground. The project is more than a glimpse into a new affordable housing model for Pittsburgh; it’s an attempt to use good design to draw attention to and raise awareness of a neighborhood on the crux of further disinvestment.
Howard Eisner, Director of X-Factory
The X-Factory is a barebones co-working/maker space for small industrial entrepreneurs looking to launch their companies or nurture ones they already own. Howard supervises and manages this space, but doesn’t market or advertise in traditional ways. That’s right, word of mouth promotion only. In fact, the X-Factory doesn’t even have a website; if you Google it, nothing related will come up. And yet, this 240,000 sq. ft. space is almost filled to capacity.
In the era of online marketing and big data, how can this be so? Character.
If he felt so inclined, Howard could turn a significant profit on the operation, simply by virtue of the space’s size and location. But it’s simply not on his agenda. Instead, he watches out for the little guy; rent is set just high enough so that X-factory operating costs are covered. Howard genuinely cares whether or not his tenants succeed, not just for their own sake, but for the sake of their families and for the blue-collar industrial legacy Howard thinks Pittsburgh “is slowly losing site of.” He keeps rent low and gives the tenants only what they need: space. He doesn’t weigh them down with rules either; he trusts them, and they trust him. This type of mutual respect keeps efficiency high, spaces filled and dreams alive.
Of course, we learned more than three things on our Pittsburgh expedition, but felt these three best exemplify things that Cincinnati could feasibly benefit from in the near future.
As evidenced by our quirky team photos, this trip was a fun adventure; but it served a greater purpose, too. We tend to stay pretty “heads down” in our work, and a change of environment helps us gain perspective and assess the bigger picture. Continued learning and exposure to the change happening in similar-sized cities has proven increasingly beneficial. It not only helps identify how we can do better, but solidifies what we’re doing well. Finally, it allows us to build a network of advocates to continue to learn from and grow with in the future. The more networks we break into, the better we can connect people, projects and ideas in the future.