Marita Garrett has been Wilkinsburg Mayor for a year now, but she’s been impacting Wilkinsburg since she made it her home eight years ago.
In 2013, she ran for a seat on Wilkinsburg Borough Council and won, taking office in January of 2014. In 2016, she became vice president of council. In 2017, she claimed victory over the three men also running in the Democratic primary for Mayor of Wilkinsburg, ultimately winning the whole thing.
If people thought her leadership was going to bring big changes to Wilkinsburg, they were right, but maybe not in the way you would think. To Garrett, the key to growing a successful Wilkinsburg wasn’t courting out-of-town developers or businesses; it was building on what they already had and making it better.
Beverly Garrett is the volunteer coordinator for the Free Store Wilkinsburg. Her last name is not a coincidence—she’s Marita’s mother.
“I know I’m her mother, but this much is true: she is a presence. The Mayor before was in office for 12 years, and he was hardly ever visible. People didn’t even know he was mayor. I didn’t even know. She has elevated the role.”
Garrett wasn’t going to be a silent Mayor. She was going to be out there, in the community, talking to people, finding the service gaps and filling them. Which is exactly how Free Store Wilkinsburg came to be.
“When we first started the Free Store, we kicked off in 2015. I remember Giselle (Fetterman, who started Free Store Braddock) posted ‘I have a lot of baby formula, if anyone needs it’. So I get it, and then I said, wait, now who do I give this to? It took me two days to get it to the people who needed it. And I thought if it took me 2 days, and I’m connected, the person who really needs the formula just really needs to know where to go.”
So they expanded to allow connecting people to the services they need, and they added on to what was offered at the Free Store. As Beverly explained, “At first we only provided clothing, but people needed more. So we started getting household goods. But people needed more. We started getting furniture. Then we started doing food. Then we created a partnership with The Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank. Then 412 Food Rescue came on board.”
Driving around Wilkinsburg is an experience for the senses. There are brightly colored murals around almost every corner, beautiful architecture, and folks bustling around the wide sidewalks. There is also the inescapable blight that dots almost every block, sometimes making it seem like the entire block itself is full of crumbling houses. Because Wilkinsburg has been around for a long time, many of the houses still retain a haunting beauty that transcends even the thickest ivy. It’s a depressing reminder of the population flight out of Wilkinsburg over the past decades.
Progress against blight has been made, though. Two years ago, Wilkinsburg Council created a blight committee and in the past 18 months they’ve been able to apply $1.8 million toward cleaning it up, with more to come this spring. All told, over 110 blighted properties have been demoed.
Another way to combat blight is through getting people to invest and maintain their own homes. As Garrett is quick to point out, “We have a high tax burden here. We’ve worked with other governing taxing bodies, like our school district. We’ve also worked with our community development corporation on programs such as residential and commercial tax abatements to offer up to residents and also to keep our residents in their home. We’ve taken steps to alleviate the tax burden as much as we can.”
Garrett was referring to the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation (WCDC). Formed in 2008, the WCDC quickly set about making it easier to do business in Wilkinsburg and to help get the word out on things that were already happening. One of the big wins was toppling the liquor license ban that had been in effect since 1870 (except for two years in the early 1930s). You do notice a lot of churches in Wilkinsburg, and that isn’t by accident. Founded by religious European immigrants, Wilkinsburg had such a reputation for its churches that it was once referred to as the ‘Holy City.’
Now, though, you can sidle up to the counter at Salvatore’s, a pizza house that has been on Penn Avenue since 1984, and get a beer with your pizza. They are the first, and currently only, operating business with one of five liquor licenses allotted to Wilkinsburg when the ban was lifted. The hope is that the remaining four will attract a few new places to join Salvatore’s.
You can’t talk about Wilkinsburg and its future without talking about schools. Aside from the blight, it’s the most visible manifestation of a borough in distress. In the past couple of years, the School District closed all but two of their schools, leaving their 6-12 grade students to be farmed to Westinghouse High School. reaching an agreement with Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS). They are also eligible for PPS magnet schools.
Now in its third year, Garrett thinks the partnership is a positive for the community and students.
“Students have exposure to more extracurricular activities, like debate club, students have an opportunity to attend magnet school. Our current school board was able to lower school taxes, it’s been so successful.”
Johnston Elementary School sits overlooking Wallace Avenue in Wilkinsburg. The century-old school saw it’s last class in 2013, when it was closed due to low enrollment and plummeting performance ratings. It sat vacant, like many properties in Wilkinsburg do, a somber reminder of better times for the community.
Then in 2017, Community Forge, a nonprofit dedicated to creating opportunities for Wilkinsburg, purchased the building. Just like that it went from blight to hope. Community Forge didn’t build a new building, they were building out an existing vacant school, making it better.
Good All Over has long been the slogan of Wilkinsburg, emblazoned on the back of train tokens back when there was still a train line. It’s still the slogan there, hanging from lamposts along each street. And it’s been ingrained in the heart and mind of Mayor Marita Garrett.
“There are a lot of great things happening in our community that we can build on as a foundations. There are already great things going on. We are great already and we will continue to build and be even greater.”