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What Happens to a Neighborhood When a School Closes? – Next City

Over the course of a year, Community Forge signed on twenty-four tenant businesses, about half of which are individual owners who share a space. The other half operates in full classrooms. As word got around town of the price break, more prospective tenants applied. More than half of the lessees receive some kind of subsidy to rent space, which costs Community Forge more than they originally had budgeted for. The occupants’ current rents may sustain the costs of the building and the one full-time and one half-time employee Community Forge has on the payroll, but that comes at the expense of the owners’ livelihoods.

“In some way, we’re not sustainable because we [Skirpan and his wife Jacqueline Cameron] give so much volunteer labor. I’ve never been paid on this project.” Skirpan gets by as an adjunct faculty member at Carnegie Mellon University. While in-kind services is part of their business model, admittedly the arrangement is not good for his own bottom line. This puts pressure on tenants to generate revenues so they can pay full freight or even invest back into the incubator.

Businesses Steeped in the Community

The businesses Community Forge incubates or houses are diverse. In addition to XPogo and Gwen’s Girls, Community Forge incubates GoPhleb, LLC, a mobile phlebotomy company; Barrels to Beethoven, a music school dedicated to preserving steel pan instruction; Pittsburgh Housing Development Association, an organization that helps low- and moderate-income residents purchase a home; Treelady Studios, a music studio; Steel City Indie, a comprehensive media company specializing in films, documentaries, web services, and special events; Pittsburgh Democratic Socialists of America, a chapter of the national Democratic Socialists of America that does local political organizing; and Global Human Performance, which offers athletic training, among other things. There are also several individual artists specializing in visual, conceptual, and therapeutic artwork. In total, two dozen ethnically diverse entrepreneurs and business owners have signed leases.

Johnston’s conversion from a school to an incubator is still very much under construction. Cans of putty and paint litter the gritty hallways. Semblances of the old school are everywhere. The signs of transformation remain in many of the classrooms. Each room has a different look and feel, depending on the needs and the character of the business owner. In my old first-grade classroom, now Barrels to Beethoven, an assortment of steel drums are meticulously ordered in rows from the front to the back of the classroom. The sunlight glistens on the silver drums, giving the room an almost magical ambiance. In stark contrast, Treelady Studios feels like a warm, private home studio, minus the fireplace, of a famous producer. (The company does have a Grammy award on its résumé.) Audio boards and computers surround a single seat in the center of the room. Speakers are hung neatly from the ceiling, giving a decorative feel to an otherwise functional space.

Enter the room of the K-Theatre Dance Complex on the second floor and you’ll see the black vinyl laminate flooring that you typically find in dance studios. Standalone barres line the windows looking outward toward speeding cars whisking along the nearby highway down below. Mirrors line one of the walls where chalkboards used to be, held up by the gutters that once held chalk. The original chalkboards on an adjacent wall were preserved, revealing a list of dance exercises for the day. Above the mirrors and chalkboards and assorted images of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, images of Misty Copeland and other dance greats are plastered randomly over the white walls, photographed at every turn, twist, and arabesque. You get a sense that the pictures project the dreams and inspirations of owner and operator Kontara Morphis.

Andre Perry talks to Michael Skirpan, co-founder of Community Forge. (Photo by Ian McAllister and Mark Hoelscher)

A Pittsburgh native, Morphis attended the Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, locally referred to as CAPA. There, she studied dance, she says, learning the basics of ballet, jazz, modern, and tap. After graduation, she took master classes with the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, and the cast of The Lion King Broadway musical, and performed under the direction of Norma Jean Barnes and Staycee Pearl with Xpressions Dance Academy, a world-renowned dance company. As founder and artistic director of K-Theatre, Morphis teaches ballet, jazz, modern, hip-hop, tap, and theatre to students aged seven to seventeen. Morphis says Community Forge has supported her business from the day she became a tenant in January 2018, by placing her in funding networks, assisting in grant applications, and connecting her to other people and resources in the building.

Morphis says she treats her classroom studio like a conservatory, in that she teaches theory and history in addition to dance. But she is very open to teaching youth who don’t yet consider themselves dancers. “I’m really into working with students who don’t really know that they have the ability to dance,” she told me. “I know the outcomes that occur when children are exposed to dance.” Morphis enjoys teaching students who need opportunities to develop and mature in other aspects of their lives besides dance.

“It’s just like a family environment, so once you’re at K-Theatre it’s like home,” said Calina Womack, one of her former students, now the director’s assistant. “I learned how to come out of my shell more … We tend to stay out of the spotlight for fear of being shunned for being Black,” said Womack. Children need stages to dance and shine on in spite of the outside world that doesn’t see value in them. Still, just like every other business in the region, tenants must connect to other customers, revenue sources, and broader economic forces in the region to grow. Morphis charges $60 per month per child for tuition. With less than two years in operation, it’s hard to envision the scale at which her firm can grow.

Because many of Community Forge’s less-established firms are community-facing service organizations, their growth is somewhat constrained by residents’ abilities to pay.

Creating a New Kind of School

“Every time I come back to this building, I have a flood of memories,” Erin Perry (no relation) told me. Perry is the executive director of the Legacy Arts Project in Pittsburgh. She rented a space for one of her art programs in Community Forge during its first summer of operations. Like me, she also attended kindergarten in room 5, but a decade later, when a married Ms. Hogan still presided but under her married name of Mrs. Smith.

Perry has fond memories of her unusual accomplishments while at Johnston. “I have to humbly admit that I was the stunts champion,” Perry crowed. As a child, Perry took gymnastics lessons, and in gym class at school, Perry showed off to her peers’ and teachers’ delight. “I had my picture on the wall that said I was the stunts champion,” she says, beaming.

She is still performing for Johnston. In the summer of 2018, Community Forge hosted her summer arts program that brought approximately fifty children to her old stomping grounds. As an art administrator, she finds creative ways to forge positive memories and build community. “Art is life. It might sound clichéd,” Perry says, “but art is the act of creating. Every moment we have the opportunity to create something.”

Maybe we should look at Community Forge as a different kind of school, one that demands state, federal, and local funding. Leaders in cities like Wilkinsburg must address the adult educational and workforce development needs that include workforce and business training. In addition, families still need educational services close by, so they work while their children get access to enrichment activities. We’re in an era of lifelong learning. From a public policy perspective, what we consider a school must change to meet the demands of local communities. Community Forge can offer other municipalities with shuttered schools a model.

Communities may not be able to afford to keep elementary schools open, but they also can’t afford to have schools sitting dormant, waiting for outsiders to recognize their assets. Sure, there are other possibilities: grocery stores, job training centers, drug counseling centers, manufacturing plants, art galleries, and more. I even wonder if Community Forge can better take advantage of the traffic that continues to stream by at rush hour. Nevertheless, incubators can help innovate how cities repurpose valuable community assets to meet the economic, education, and social infrastructure needs of the city.

“Are arts for other people, or can arts exist without an audience?” Perry asks, sharing a question she’s constantly grappling with. However, her reflections also inform why we must think carefully about repurposing schools.

“I’m of the mind that art does exist without an audience, that it doesn’t always have to be for someone else,” she says, adding that, for children, we need to create spaces that convey that “who they are is enough.”

A school can exist without an abundance of children. Perry sees the need for Community Forge. The people of Wilkinsburg need a safe place to grow, heal, and develop. Community-focused incubators can become part of the social infrastructure that’s needed in Black-majority cities.

Reprinted from “Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities,” by Andre Perry with permission from Brookings Institution Press, © 2020 by Brookings Institution.

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