New Kensington

Re-birth of a Downtown

Tonight, after a class on emergency vehicle operations at Station No. 3 on the hill rising from downtown New Kensington, I happened to turn down Walnut St. as I left the station. I chose this way for no particular reason. After class last night, I had gone a different way, so I figured I’d go down Walnut this time.

As it happens, Walnut looks down the hill to where it meets Constitution Blvd., on the upper side of the railroad tracks that divide downtown from the residential district on the hill. It overlooks the area of 10th St. downtown.

I saw cars. I saw people. I saw lights, and lit “open” signs, and activity. I knew it was there, of course–this is the site of the newly-opened Voodoo Brewery location–and I’ve seen the lights and the people over the past several weeks and even back into last year when Voodoo was working on their building and held several outdoor events. I’m familiar with the area because it is part of the first due district for my fire station, Company No. 1. Jenny and I often visit nearby Knead Café for breakfast on Saturdays when we are home.

Tonight, I saw all of this, and I figured I would drive through the area on my way home.

Years ago, when I moved back to New Kensington, the downtown district was virtually empty. I lived (and still live) in the flats of the Parnassus neighborhood of the city, south of 7th St. Many days (and nights), I would walk up and back through the downtown area. There were lots of people who thought I was crazy because of how “dangerous” it was. Whatever. Most nights I didn’t see a single soul out there, other than the police as they went to and from their station at City Hall on 11th St. Occasionally I’d run into someone. We’d say hello to each other and kept going on our way. If that is what “danger” looks like, well, I don’t know what to tell you.

Many people just saw the problems. They’d say “bulldoze it all and just make it flat.” I don’t know what they thought would move in if it was just flat land. They seemed to forget that building construction is rather expensive. I think they wanted some magical industrial giant to move in and be the “new Alcoa,” replacing the aluminum giant that closed up and left an enormous industrial campus now almost a half century ago.

I saw potential. I saw four theatre buildings. I saw storefronts with pretty owner apartments above. I saw buildings that could be loft apartments. I saw office space, and room for entrepreneurs to try to spin up their latest business ideas, and restaurants that would serve lunch to the downtown patrons during the day, and the cultural event patrons in the evenings. I saw places for downtown parks and outdoor concerts and places for the office workers to enjoy their lunch or their coffee and pastry outside.

I talked my head off about these things to anyone who would listen. I’m sure some got tired of hearing me. I wanted to get some cultural establishment set up downtown. I wanted to re-open one of the theatres. Imagine, people coming downtown for things! It would inspire the opening of places that would cater to those groups! Restaurants, pubs, maybe some related office or artists space nearby, forming our own little cultural district. It could be the genesis of revitalizing the entire downtown! I wanted the New Kensington Civic Theatre to have a home performance space, and a place that could be rented out for events, and for other performing groups to book for performances. I had my heart set on one building, and then it was torn down. I set my heart on another, but it would need more work than anyone could hope to do without a huge infusion of cash. It had long ago been turned into a store of some sort, so the vestiges of its theatre past were evidenced only in the outside façade, fly box above where the stage would have been, and artifacts above the drop ceiling and below the main floor. But there was another, still set up as a movie theater, and it could be made functional again with some work.

We got a group together, wrote a proposal, and had a good chance to land a reasonable chunk of dollars to start some work on it. Somewhere along the way, some old greed crept in somewhere along the approval path, and the proposal shifted from “purchasing and doing work” to “doing a feasibility study.” You can read that as, “putting money in someone else’s pocket for nothing more than some paper where they tell you everything you already know.” This version of the proposal had little support, and we were not interested in participating in the filling of someone else’s pockets for no real result. It fell apart. I started to get tired.

I kept talking. I kept saying that we needed a critical mass of stuff bringing people downtown, and things would start to turn around. We needed to get those seeds planted so they could start growing!

Time marched on. Lots of people tried lots of things. City leadership remained committed to making things happen, but they’re not magicians. The city still needed some good seeds to get things started and start the snowball effect. Time kept passing. I got more tired. I stopped talking so much. Most of the time, I was met with apathy or people complaining that it was never going to be like it was.

Of course it will never be like it was. That was then. There’s no reason it had to be the same. It could be a different kind of good. Vibrancy isn’t restricted to a specific model.

Tonight, I saw it. I knew it was coming. Knead Café, WCCC, The Corner, Apothecary Soap Company, and so many more small places establishing themselves with a downtown presence over the last few several years, in addition to the places like Catoris Candy that have stood the test of time in the area. I can’t even name all of them now. But I saw it coming. Then, Voodoo announced that they had purchased the old theatre that I had really wanted, the one that needed lots of work: The Ritz. It would not be a theatre, but it would be what I had envisioned, though in a different form. Tonight, I saw all of that come together. Voodoo wasn’t the only place that was open when I drove through. There were multiple places open at 9PM in a place that had been utterly dead and deserted not all that long ago. There were a few people working on their buildings. Yes, at 9PM. There were people on the sidewalks. There were multiple places still open serving food. The parking lots were busy. The street spaces were full. I drove down the block and saw lights on in many once-dark buildings.

My heart was glad, though I was a little sad. As much as I wanted to be a part of all this, I’m not. Jenny and I, and a bunch of like-minded people, continue to work hard on the residential areas surrounding downtown. What I see now, though, is a bunch of people with an enormous amount of positive energy that they are pouring directly into the city. This is exactly what the downtown needed. It’s exactly what we all needed. We hit critical mass, and finally the right combination of will and energy and resources happened. Tonight, I saw it.

Jonathan does a lot of stuff. If you ask Jenny, maybe he does too much stuff.