Artists revitalized Penn Avenue by creating Pittsburgh's longest-running monthly art festival

Multimedia artist Born Shamir creates new work for Unblurred crowds at Assemble. Photo courtesy of The Bulletin newspaper

Next Pittsburgh, Article by Nick Eustis

Usually a car-centric main road traveling from Downtown to the East End, Penn Avenue transforms the first Friday of each month. The sidewalks in Bloomfield and Garfield overflow with people. Vendors set up booths selling everything from handcrafted jewelry to homemade candles, plus everything in between. The smell of international cuisines from the many food stands travels with the breeze. 

Street musicians, from bagpipers to DJs, fill the air with joyful noise. Groups of friends gather outside the many galleries jovially chatting away, while inside, the spaces overflow with people enjoying art — viewing, purchasing or making their own. While scenes like this are commonplace nowadays, they would be hard to imagine less than 30 years ago. 

In 1995, 70 percent of storefronts on this stretch of Penn were vacant, and those that were occupied largely catered to the surrounding working-class community. Crime was prevalent and the neighborhood had an unsavory reputation.

Aiming to revitalize this distressed corridor, community leaders came together with ambitions to increase foot traffic and incubate independent storefronts. A 1997 study of the area planted the seeds for how to do that, as it revealed an above-average concentration of artists in the neighborhoods who were looking for affordable places to live and work. 

This spurred Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation and Friendship Development Associates to start the Penn Avenue Arts Initiative in 1998, an unorthodox, multi-pronged strategy to bolster local businesses through the arts.

“The Initiative was born out of a dire necessity to figure out what Penn Avenue could become now that it was no longer a traditional retail district,” said Rick Swartz, executive director of Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation. “We really had to create something that would be unique to our community, because we had 60 buildings in an 11-block stretch that had vacant storefronts.” 

The Initiative began with the purchases of 18 abandoned buildings between 4800 and 5500 Penn Ave. After renovation, the properties were sold below market rate to a variety of artists and collectives. Local artists were commissioned to create public art along the avenue, like “The Bride on Penn Ave,” designed by Jill Watson and painted by artist Judy Penzer, and Kevinn Fung’s “Tuesday’s Heroic Paragon.”

But Unblurred First Friday has proved the Initiative’s crown jewel. 

With the goal of “unblurring” the windows people see as they drive by, the many gallery spaces and businesses along the corridor display new collections of art, stage events and host a wide array of vendors and entrepreneurs. For artists and craftspeople trying to get their foot in the door, it provides an on-ramp to a new level of visibility, putting their work on display for thousands to see. Those looking to set up a table simply pay a nominal rent fee, usually under $50, to one of the many spaces that open their doors for the festivities.

“It’s a lot of artists’ first time exhibiting, having an opportunity to display their work to a crowd of that size,” says D.S. Kinsel, co-founder of artist collective BOOM Concepts. Since starting over 25 years ago, the Penn Avenue Arts Initiative, with Unblurred First Friday as its primary program, has grown from a grassroots, community-driven effort to the largest and longest-running monthly art festival in the city. The thousands of people who’ve walked this block of Penn Avenue, whether they merely passed through or moved in for good, have left an indelible imprint over the years. 

One of the most instantly recognizable is the beautiful glass mosaic work adorning the Irma Freeman Center for Imagination. Co-founded by Sheila Ali and named for her grandmother, also a beloved local artist, the Irma Freeman Center serves as an all-purpose space for creative alchemy. In addition to hosting exhibitions of established local artists, it hosts community events of all stripes, from live music to summer camps.

“The original idea is that it wouldn’t be just a gallery, but an education center, open to the public,” says Ali. “We always collaborate with locals, so if they want to do a poetry reading, a play, an adult spelling bee contest, we can do that.”

That access to creative tools is a driving principle of many institutions along the street. Look at VaultArt Studios, a collective representing 16 artists who each face unique physical challenges.

“Vault was started as a way of providing career coaching and career support to people who would like to be artists but also have disabilities,” says Cicely Murray, artist mentor at Vault.

Throughout the year, the artists at Vault create work on different themes, which then are sold at Unblurred each month. All of the proceeds go to the artists, helping to support members of a community who need it, and it’s proved one of the most popular galleries during First Friday.

But Penn Avenue is not just about visual art. Mario Quinn Lyles opened Level Up Studios in 2016, after earning a place in a pilot program run by the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, another of Penn Avenue’s cultural jewels. 

“Our mission is to be Pittsburgh’s only hip-hop and street dance exclusive studio, working to keep that culture alive here in Pittsburgh,” says Lyles.

Level Up offers classes in styles including jazz, krump, even Bollywood. It also hosts its own recording studio, offering free nights once a week for up-and-comers ages 12 to 18, and paid mixing sessions by appointment. 

And it’s not just aspiring painters or pop stars finding their place along Penn Avenue.

“There’s been a growth of independent restaurants, as well as a growth of clothing and fashion on the avenue,” says Kinsel. “It’s led to a more vibrant avenue, more occupancy on the avenue.”

As well as longtime institutions like People’s Indian Restaurant and Pho Minh, more recent additions to the neighborhood include Bantha Tea Bar, Korean fusion restaurant Soju and colorful nightlife spot Mixtape

Together, they are realizing the Arts Initiative’s goal to transform Penn Avenue through the power of human creativity. For those who adore this little slice of the Burgh, the results are plain to see.

“Penn Avenue and the Arts Initiative have been really critical to the success of the arts ecosystem here in Pittsburgh,” says Kinsel.

“I feel like it’s always been a place where you can feel accepted no matter who you are,” says Megan Shalonis, a local artist.

Nick Eustis is a writer and photographer who loves finding and telling the extraordinary everyday stories of Pittsburghers. When off the beat, he enjoys obsessing over drag queens and the latest music.

Read Article in Next Pittsburgh.