Mike works with the McKeesport Preservation Society to protect historic buildings and to share the rich stories that accompany these landmarks in Pittsburgh, PA.
Q: What does your organization do and how did you get involved?
A: The organization is called the McKeesport Preservation Society and we work through community effort and volunteer projects to influence legislature and preserve primarily historic buildings, artwork, archives, documentation, miscellaneous artifacts, and things we find in the properties that we’re working to stabilize and restore. I got involved with them when I was looking at houses in Pittsburgh. I wanted to get into the commercial real estate industry and I wanted to start by fixing up historic properties to turn them into low-income housing. I found that a lot of the listings were either way beyond my capability of repair or far outside my price range. I started expanding my search and I came across this one house that I was kind of taken by, but I had never heard of McKeesport before. Then immediately after clicking out of the listing, I was looking through my newsfeed and saw a suggested post from the McKeesport Preservation Society that had posted a link to the exact listing for the house that I had just been looking at. It said, “This is a historic house in the Jenny Lind district of McKeesport and it was owned by a former mayor. Someone who has an interest in historic preservation should buy it and fix it up.” I went back and looked at it thought this made it look even cooler, so a year ago I bought it. I moved to the neighborhood for the summer and ended up messaging the page that posted it and said, “Hey just to let you know, if it weren’t for you I would have never found my house and I never would have ended up buying it.” The person who ran the page said, “That’s awesome, you should email our director.” I did and I went to the first volunteer project just under a year ago now and ended up going to every volunteer project they had over the summer.
Q: It almost seems serendipitous in a way.
A: It really feels like that sometimes. It feels like fate, but it’s really been a whirlwind ever since.
Q: How did you develop your passion for repair? How did you get involved in that originally?
A: When I was in high school, I went to this camp through my church called CHWC, Catholic HEART Work Camp. They take parishioners and youth group members from different parishes all over the country and bus them down to low-income areas and areas with significant urban blight and disrepair. You and your group get assigned to a family and you fix up the house by doing tasks like drywall work, repainting, basic landscaping and things like that. The first time that I went was in Pittsburgh and I just fell in love with the area and the concept. A lot of these areas had huge neighborhoods with lots of houses in disrepair. At the end of the day as we were driving in the bus back from the worksites, we were passing multi-million dollar condos and apartment complexes being built in areas that these people could never afford. I asked, “Why are we doing this when there is perfectly good affordable housing already in existence that is being ignored because no one wants to take the time to fix it?” They say, “Oh, it’s too expensive. What’s the point of repairing it for families who can’t afford that much rent anyway?” But that’s not the point. So much community volunteer effort is available for this stuff. If you give people the opportunity, people will step up and do it. You just need to give them the opportunity and give them the chance. It has always been something that I have been interested in. I didn’t think for a long time that this is something I would end up doing for a living, it would just be a hobby. I realized there is a way to combine that with real estate development and services to make it a hodge-podge career. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since and it’s been a lot of fun.
Q: How do you get the word out about your volunteer projects?
A: Mostly through word of mouth and social media. Every time we put out a Facebook post and it gets shared, we have at least one person message the page looking for volunteer opportunities. There’s a program called Google Ad Grants where if you’re a non-profit, you can sign up for their non-profit services and they give you access to a bunch of different tools. When you google something and you see those first three sponsored results, that is their advertising program. Normally they charge a ton of money to use that, but the program gives non-profits advertising credit. Just through that I’d say we get a dozen, two dozen visits per day. From that alone we’ve gotten three or four volunteer inquiries, two of which have ended up leading to future volunteer projects.
Q: What is your plan for the current property that you own? Are you planning to repair and sell it?
A: I rent out the one I own. It is a single-family home and sometime in the 50s it was split up into a three-unit apartment building where each floor is a separate apartment. When I bought it, the second floor was already rented out and the owner’s son was living on the first floor. The third floor had been vacant for several years, so I stay in the little attic in the third floor when I’m in town.
Q: Are you essentially the landlord of that building now?
A: Yeah, I’m like a partially live-in landlord.
Q: It’s cool that you’re only in your early 20s and you’re already a landlord. That’s a really big accomplishment.
A: It’s one of those things where people are like, “Oh, you already own a house?” But to be fair, my house cost less than what my brother spent on his first car.
Q: But a lot of people our age are still in that rent mindset and they’re not considering owning their own properties yet.
A: That’s one of the main things we’re trying to accomplish in our volunteer programs. When people come out to these projects, they ask how much these houses cost and a lot of people don’t realize how doable it is. My house was actively being rented out and I didn’t have to do that many repairs. What a lot of people don’t realize is that some of these houses are a fraction of what I spent.
Q: These are things that are actually possible and within our reach.
A: Absolutely. It’s cool because a lot of people who have volunteered through the program have already committed to buying in the future, if not their primary residence at least a project house in the area. A friend of mine is dead-set on buying a house in my neighborhood. The house directly next door to me is the last vacant house left on my street and it’s been abandoned for the last 30 years. The city has this program where if the abandoned lot is touching your property line and it’s causing damage to your property—and it is because there are overgrown roots coming up underneath my garage and cracking the floor—you can buy it for a fraction of the assessed value if you have intentions of fixing it up. So I started that process the week after I moved in. My current plan is to either sell it to my friend at-cost, or if we can’t save the structure because it’s in pretty bad shape, to knock it down and move his mobile home from Washington down into that lot.
Q: I like the approach of your organization where instead of just making something brand new, why not fix what’s already there? What do you think it is about society that calls for more preservation?
A: Especially in McKeesport, there is so much interest in history here. Both my house and the director of the organization’s house were both originally owned by mayors of the city. There’s a website called newspapers.com that has an archive of many major newspapers in the country and they’re working to add more. All you have to do is search an address and every article that has ever mentioned that address is available. Just by searching addresses on this website, we’ve managed to find three dozen of the original owners of some of these houses, some of whom owned significant businesses in the city. There’s a house for sale near our main project house that was the photography and art studio of a significant African-American photographer in the country named Percy Garland. His wife was also an editor of the Pittsburgh Courier. A lot of the original fixtures in the studio are still in the building. That’s one of my favorite things in the city.
Q: It’s cool how you’re piecing together these buildings for modern use, but you’re also piecing together the stories behind these places as well.
A: It’s like investigative journalism, but it reveals something about them which you can actually see.
Q: I think that’s something we need to hold onto as a society and as a generation because history has so much it can teach us and it offers so much value to what already exists today.
A: A lot of people talk about how expensive it is to repair these buildings, but if we had this mindset earlier on, it wouldn’t have gotten to the point where it’s so expensive to fix them. If we had this sense of preservation from day one, then a lot of these buildings wouldn’t have gotten to the point that they are now. Just because they are expensive to repair doesn’t mean that they aren’t still worth it.
Q: What are some of the upcoming goals for the McKeesport Preservation Society?
A: One of the main things we’re trying to do right now involves a building called the McKeesport roundhouse in the downtown area right next to where the steel mill site used to be. Back in the 80s after the mill closed down, they tore down most of the commercial buildings down there, but one remaining building from the actual mill site is the roundhouse where the trains came in and out and were stored for transportation of the steel products. It’s one of the only surviving roundhouse buildings in the country, especially from that era. It has an intact concrete roof that hasn’t been redone, which is unheard of for that time period. We’re working with an organization called the Monongahela Valley Transportation Foundation to buy the property so we can have it and turn it into an interactive transportation museum. We want to have exhibits on everything from trains, barges, boats, to early street cars. We want to have an interactive learning center where kids can see the trains and exhibits, have classrooms where they can have talks on transportation and engineering, and a community center where people can come hang out. We’d like to have a giant LEGO room where kids can build train tracks. I’m really excited for it. It’s got a long way to go, but the senator’s office recently got word of our efforts and intentions. We went in for a meeting with Senator Brewster and he basically said that he can’t give us money, but if we can find funding ourselves he’ll support it in whatever way he can. That was very cool and I’m hoping it works out.
Q: Even when you’re faced with obstacles during the process, what is the mindset you hold onto to keep moving forward and to keep maintaining that momentum?
A: People in government or in the community are all just people and everyone is going to have a conflicting point of view, but there will always be people who have the same mindset you do. As long as you can find a group of like-minded people, there is nothing you can’t do if you put your minds to it collectively. We have people from all different walks of life in this group and everybody has the same goal of restoring the community and preserving history. For every road block we run into, we have five moves forward. Every road block is discouraging, but you have to live for those leaps of faith and those hurdles where you move forward and make progress.
If people are interested in getting involved in this kind of work, google your city name and “community development” or “historic preservation” and go from there. There is so much information and every city has an organization like ours that does this kind of work. If this is something that interests you, you can find information on it and you can find people who will help you get involved and make a difference.