In 2007, incoming President Terry Doloughty was preparing to run his inaugural Polish Hill Civic Association meeting. He happened across the minute book from the first PHCA meeting ever, held in 1969. The pages were full of people complaining about real estate prices. Residents were completely up in arms over a local apartment renting out for $75 a month. Who, they fumed, made that kind of money?
Fast forward almost 50 years, and the same question gets asked in Polish Hill over and over and over again. What is going on with these insane real estate prices? Who, they still fume, makes this kind of money? While some issues ebb and flow, old problems get solved and new problems rear their head, there seems to be one that keeps coming back: affordable housing.
Geographically isolated and perched on a steep incline, Polish Hill is one of the scrappiest, proudest, and most storied neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. Originally settled in 1773, the area was known as Springfield Farms. The immigrants who lent their name to the neighborhood didn’t start arriving until the late 1800s. Once here, they quickly set down roots and imbued the entire neighborhood with the food, language and culture that is still very-much-so a part of living in Polish Hill. And, one could imagine, arguing over escalating real estate prices.
John Rhoades, current president of the PHCA, sees his organization as an important force in trying to keep Polish Hill affordable. One of the best ways a community can protect their land from being snapped up by out-of-town developers is to have a way to purchase those lands themselves. That’s where an expansion of the Community Land Trust comes into play. The expansion, which resulted in the creation of a new nonprofit, City of Bridges Community Land Trust, works with Etna, Sharpsburg, Millvale, Lawrenceville, and Polish Hill. They are working to help Polish Hill itself purchase properties and swatches of land that could be appealing to outside developers. Or, as Rhoades puts it, “places in danger of gentrification.”
The dreaded G word. Aubrey Halliburton, the lead organizer of the Polish Hill Arts Festival and 2nd Vice President in charge of Membership for the PHCA, recounts a story, “We moved here 8 years ago from Seattle,WA. Within a month of moving here, there was a reporter at the coffee shop and she said ‘I’m here from Brooklyn. I’m here to interview local folks because I’ve heard that Polish Hill is the next Williamsburg;’ everyone was like, ‘fuck off.’ Only in Pittsburgh would that be an insult, and that’s why I love it here.”
Polish Hill also has a reputation of being an enclave of punk rockers and counterculture enthusiasts. Whether a resident identifies themselves as punk rock or not, there is a certain sense of belonging and community that stands out for its depth, even in a City that prides itself on that very thing. And to be fair, all residents, punk or not, are pissed about the lack of affordable housing in their neighborhood.
Councilwoman Deb Gross, who has been serving Pittsburgh’s District 7 since 2016, puts it like this: “They are fierce about it. We have a lot of neighborhoods that have that, but I always joke that Polish Hill would secede from the Union if they could, and I would be fully supportive. They have an independent streak. People who chose Polish Hill are a community unto themselves. They chose to come to Polish Hill, they chose to build their lives here.”
Halliburton echoes that sentiment. “There are zero conveniences. We have three bars, a record store, a coffee shop and a bookstore. Why are you moving here unless you want to be a part of this community?’
Outsiders have seen plenty of reasons to want to move to Polish Hill. Nestled between the Strip District and Oakland, with a straight shot downtown and close proximity to the East End, the location is desirable to a lot of people. A lot of developers. And with a small geographical area and not a lot of real estate inventory, prices can skyrocket pretty quickly.
Nigel Swat, long-time bartender of the Rock Room, is one of the locals who bought in when the prices were low. She bought her house for $25,000 15 years ago, and she quotes her aunt when she says, “I always wanted to live in a $100,000 house, and now I do.”
It’s rare that a neighborhood can be so welcoming, yet so wary of strangers at the same time. Their fear is not unwarranted. The rental market is shrinking, and the units that are available are priced to the point that locals can’t afford them. Housing prices have gone up 400%, with some homes topping the charts at almost $500,000. They are right to be suspect of out-of-state tags and folks who scurry in and out of buildings with their collars pulled over their faces.
The key, it seems, is to not just show up but to be here. Get involved. Be engaged. Kim Teplitzky, co-organizer of the Polish Hill Arts Festival, puts it this way: “The best thing we can do is to continue building strong communities. The more of our neighbors who are engaged and participating in civic association activities, whether it’s becoming members or joining a committee, or coming out the Arts Festival, whether you’ve lived there for 40 years or for 2, the more people we have showing up and talking to each other and meeting each other and building relationships with each other, the stronger the community is going to be.”
Halliburton has an Airbnb in her backyard. It used to be the garage. The building was split into two sides. One was the garage and one was the kitchen. It was owned by a Polish immigrant family. They turned the garage turned into a duck barn. As Halliburton explains, “the Polish do a lot with duck, like duck blood soup.”
As the family grew larger they turned the duck barn into apartments. After Halliburton’s family bought the property they gutted the entire thing and turned it into a very cute guest house. Now Halliburton faced a conundrum. Did she charge $750 a month, which she knew she could get, and take another rental off an already squeezed market? How were they to recoup the thousands and thousands of dollars they put into the renovations?
She solved it in the most Polish Hill way possible. It’s now a community house/Airbnb. “When our family comes in, they stay back there. Parents of our friends that come into town stay back there. Bands that come to play at the Rock Room or Gooski’s, stay back there.’
And when no one is staying back there, she offers it up to the Airbnb gods and hopes that her guests will be someone who appreciates her community as much as the residents of Polish Hill do. Another perk? “They go to my local bar and my local coffee shop, and they reinvest their money into my friends’ local businesses, and that’s pretty cool.”
So perhaps the lesson here is that there is a way you can ensure a community stays affordable, but still grows. Brings in money, but does good. Embraces that wild sense of community togetherness and civic engagements, but still welcomes outsiders. The answer might very well lie in a converted duck barn, nestled in a backyard in Polish Hill, between a row of motorcycles and a recording studio.