Taking the Hard Road to Organizing Sustainability in Pittsburgh

ACORN ACORN International

Pittsburgh    The words “easy” and “right” are challenging concepts in community organizing, since all of it is hard and in each situation organizations have to make adaptations to find the right ways and means that work in a certain time and space. Nonetheless, inarguably there are some ways forward at a greater degree of difficulty than others, and choosing to build sustainability from the start has to be one of the bigger challenges, and that’s what I was seeing in the Homestead, West Homestead, and Mt. Oliver boroughs on the Southside of Pittsburgh.

Compared to Youngstown, Detroit, and some other Midwestern US cities, Pittsburgh has a “good press” arguing that they are making the transition from heavy industry and its poisonous smokestacks to something like the clean jobs of big healthcare and high tech. The city has shrunk though the metropolitan area is large. Abandonment is everywhere, just hidden better behind dense trees and hillsides.

Maryellen Hayden Deckard, a former ACORN organizer for many years in Pittsburgh is trying to build a new organization starting in the small towns or boroughs south of the rivers in Homestead, Mt. Oliver, West Homestead and the like and even calling it ANEW. She’s also doing it the hard way by trying to develop “low to the ground,” as she calls it, by patching together what she hopes will be resource generating sustainability projects that can support the organization’s development.


ANEW is an ACORN affiliate so I took the opportunity of being in Montreal to stop by and see what progress they had really made since my last visit a couple of years ago. In a couple of cases, I was literally “on the ground floor,” because part of what ANEW Institute is doing is rehabbing two buildings, one on 8th in West Homestead and the other that they call the Baker House on Baker Street across from the park in Homestead, the storied steel town and home of the famous strike against Andrew Carnegie and his operations almost 120 years ago. The Baker property was gifted over to them from the borough in hopes they could successfully rehab the property. They envision a coffeehouse and event space with their own offices there and some apartments on the upper stories. The bones of the building are good, but they have a lot of work to do to get there. The West Homestead property is being done on spec for the owner who wants to rent out the top two floors as apartments and has also given them rent free space for the first year as part of their payment to install the print shop they hope to operate there, having already made the down payment on an $11,000 machine, which they think will be their goldmine coupled with a business services and citizen wealth type operation. Since ACORN International has a biodiesel machine still sitting in our warehouse in New Orleans, a farm, and two coffeehouses that are all struggling to carry their weight and contribute to supporting organizing around the world, I know the risks she is taking and the long odds of success.


view of US Steel behind Baker Street building
view of Pittsburgh from St. Michael’s cemetery on the southside
Southside CDC
Hilltop CDC
Hilltop CDC

Walking through Mt. Oliver in the morning the signs of various community development organizations were found less in the footprint of change than in peeling murals and for rent signs downtown. Tax preparers, dollar stores, and junk shops with the occasional corner store, café, and bar were the main attractions, competing with for sale and for rent spaces.

It needs to be done, and our opponents, and even our friends, have taught us that without controlling our resources and sustainability we cannot survive much less organize, build power, and make change, but even if we all agree that organizing is a struggle, social enterprises and so-called community development through small business projects are hard ways to go as well. There has to be a balance, and we have to remember to always keep trying to do what we are good at and tempering our new ideas with our proven skills.

ANEW Buildings