Pittsburgh has been named the most livable city in America. Twice. But Is Pittsburgh a most livable city for everyone who lives here?

We posed the question to grassroots activists in our midst, people who are on the streets of our underserved communities and raising their voices as a chorus to make our city the best it can be for all who live here.

They are doers all. Some are local business owners. Others seek to create multicultural venues, instill community pride, stand up for the rights of children–and serve up health and wellness with fresh juice.

Here is what they are doing and what they had to say.

A hero in the community

Betty Lane is the face of Larimer and one of its most admired citizens. Known to all as “Ms. Betty,” she has been a consummate organizer and advocate for the community for 40 years running.

Her stamina and passion for her neighborhood is unwavering. If she isn’t planting vegetables and flowers with the Larimer Green Team, she’s emailing city public works about a problem on a vacant lot or shoveling sidewalks with the 52Lots project and the Redd Up Action Team.

Lane rarely misses a community meeting and she always arrives early, often dressed in flowing colors. The Larimer Consensus Group is her primary focus. She assisted with the neighborhood-wide survey for the Choice Neighborhoods Program, a HUD initiative that recently awarded a $30 million grant to build affordable and market rate housing and improve services for residents.

“What I want for Larimer is for it to look greater than what it looked like when I moved here in 1970,” says Lane who has lived in Pittsburgh all her life and received a master’s degree in social work from University of Pittsburgh. “There were lots of homes here then. And Families. Homeowners took pride in the community. Even the alleys were spotless.”

Lane has lots of ideas on how to make this happen. The community has an abundance of beautiful brick homes that deserve to be fixed up, she says. “There’s strength in those brick and mortar homes. Hopefully this land banking will allow them to take a closer look at that.”

This week she will be attending a meeting of the Co-Housing Group—a new initiative popular in other cities that would identify land on which to build a common home for 20 people who would agree to buy into a communal living arrangement.

“It’s a new concept that we hope will take off here,” she says. “The homes include a central living area. People can choose to have meals together or not. The goal is to allow people to choose their own neighbors.”

Programs like 52Lots and the “side lot” program need to continue since they offer residents incentives to beautify their properties, she adds. Her own home is an example of community pride. A small vegetable garden that grows along her front curb is shared with everyone.

“I’m trying to be a role model,” she says. “People can’t always make it to meetings. They will say, ‘Ms. Betty, give it a break.’ But then I will see them in front of their own place trying to spruce it up.

“It’s all about getting that momentum going,” she adds. “It’s not the only way, but it’s how I get people involved. They see that I’m serious. I want our neighborhood to be beautiful and clean. My community is my canvas.”

Betty Lane with neighbor Tony Mainiero in Larimer. Photo by Brian Cohen.

Betty Lane with neighbor Tony Mainiero in Larimer. Photo by Brian Cohen.

A proponent of local businesses
To the west of Larimer in North Oakland, Justin Strong is putting the final touches on his property, the AVA Lounge and café, a restaurant by day and 45-seat BYOB performance space by night. He hopes to have a full bar operating by October.

Strong believes the most important component of a strong neighborhood is an economy that embraces local businesses and entrepreneurs, not big box development.

He formerly owned the beloved Shadow Lounge in East Liberty, a coffee shop and late night bar that promoted a wide range of entertainment, everything from music acts like Mac Miller to fiddlers, poets, and open mic nights.

Then Councilman and now Mayor Bill Peduto, a regular patron and supporter, had called it a “community center.”

Following a sudden and mysterious series of noise complaints, Strong closed Shadow Lounge in 2012. While AVA will be similar to Shadow Lounge, it will be better in many ways, he says.

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About The Author

Contributing Editor

Deb is an award-winning journalist who loves ancient places and cool technologies. A former daily newspaper reporter and Time-Life Books editor, she writes mostly about Pittsburgh. Her stories have appeared in Fast Company, Ozy and Pittsburgh Magazine.

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