The Rise of Vacancy - Part I (by Jeffery Fraser)

East Liberty Development, Inc. was still figuring out how to jump-start the housing market in the Pittsburgh neighborhood when it built 10 houses on Mellon Street across from a handful of vacant and blighted buildings. At $105,000 for three bedrooms, a bath and a half, a two-car garage and a zero-percent second mortgage for income-qualified buyers, the new homes were priced to sell.

None of them did. 

“Nobody was willing to buy on that block until we were able to tell them a good story, something concrete, about what was going to come about across the street,” said Kendall Pelling, project manager for the community development corporation. “We learned from experience that vacant and abandoned properties have a terrible impact on the housing market.”

Others are getting a similar education. Vacant and blighted properties are increasing across southwestern Pennsylvania, the state and the nation, robbing local governments of desperately needed tax revenue, consuming millions of tax dollars, eroding housing values, posing health and safety risks and complicating the already challenging job of reviving distressed neighborhoods.

In Allegheny County, a program for turning tax-delinquent vacant properties into community assets doesn’t come close to keeping pace with the rate at which properties become vacant. And the story is the same throughout southwestern Pennsylvania.

In Homewood, mapping routes to get children to and from school without exposing them to mean streets littered with vacant lots and abandoned buildings is one of the first steps the Homewood Children’s Village is taking as it attempts to improve the educational outcomes and overall well-being of children in one of Pittsburgh’s most distressed neighborhoods.

In Philadelphia, one of the few studies of the price that communities pay for vacancy and blight reports that housing values fall by 6.5 percent citywide and that at least $22 million a year is drained from the city in lost tax revenue and to cover maintenance, police and fire costs.

In Flint, Mich. and Cleveland, Ohio, land banks seize thousands of vacant tax-delinquent properties using laws Pennsylvania doesn’t have, and sells, rehabilitates or tears them down following comprehensive blight redevelopment strategies that haven’t been developed in southwestern Pennsylvania.

If there is a bright side to the growing problem, it lies in the opportunity vacant properties offer to redesign neighborhoods in ways that are better suited to their down-sized populations, such as widening narrow lots found in many former industrial towns to accommodate fewer, but more marketable parcels, and turning empty lots and buildings into greenways, community gardens, recreational space and other amenities that give local housing markets more appeal.

“Any community that has blighted and abandoned properties and sees them only as a strain and a drain is undervaluing the real estate,” said Court Gould, executive director of Sustainable Pittsburgh, which last year published a comprehensive report on vacant property in southwestern Pennsylvania. “We need to be thinking about those properties as stranded economic assets.”

East Liberty Development, Inc. got the message. The new houses on Mellon Street sold after the nonprofit bought the vacant properties across the street and came up with a plan to renovate some of the vacant houses and build new ones on the other lots.

Recent Pennsylvania legislation offers municipalities, community organizations, and even residents a more expansive menu of legal options for dealing with neglectful landlords, absentee owners and the vacant and blighted properties next door.

But when dealing with tens of thousands of vacant properties, effective intervention comes down to a question of scale. And in southwestern Pennsylvania, local government attempts to combat vacancy and blight fall far short of recovering anything but a fraction of the vacant lots and houses found along city, borough and township streets.

Over the past seven years, the Allegheny County Vacant Property Recovery Program has helped put some 500 vacant, tax-delinquent properties into the hands of buyers interested in turning them into side yards, small parks and other neighborhood-friendly uses. At that rate of recovery, the program barely makes a dent.

The percentage of vacant housing in the county jumped from 6.8 percent to 9.4 percent over the past two decades – a trend experienced in every county in the region, according to U.S. Census data. More than 55,000 housing units, including apartments, stand vacant. And the Census Bureau doesn’t count vacant lots, which greatly outnumber vacant houses.

“Even if we did 1,000 properties this year – and we won’t – I would have a job for life,” said Richard Ranii, who oversees the program as manager of the Housing and Human Services Division of the Allegheny County Economic Development Department.

A creeping crisis

Shifting, aging or declining population, weak housing markets, poor housing stock, crime, underperforming schools and other factors that make some communities less than desirable places to live -- all of these factors contribute to vacancy and blight. High mortgage foreclosure rates, decimated job markets other consequences of recession have exacerbated the problem.

Antiquated tax foreclosure systems can take years to move against delinquent properties, and many accrue several years’ worth of delinquent taxes and penalties. In depressed markets, such Homewood, where the average price paid for residential property was $9,060 in 2009, back taxes and penalties can easily exceed the market value of a house, encouraging owners to ignore its upkeep or to walk away from it entirely.

“There isn’t a place I go where someone doesn’t talk about a problem property they are frustrated with,” said Irene McLaughlin, an attorney and consultant on vacant property issues for the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania and others.

More than 11 percent of the houses and apartments across the United States are vacant, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. In states hit hardest by the mortgage foreclosure crisis, the rate is much higher – 17.5 percent in Florida, for example, and 16.3 percent in Arizona.

Nine percent of the housing in the seven-county Pittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area is vacant, up from 6.8 percent in 1990.

Cities tend to have higher concentrations of vacant property, and Pittsburgh is no exception with nearly 13 percent of its houses and apartments standing vacant. Higher rates are found in several nearby cities. The vacancy rate is 19 percent in Cleveland and Youngstown, Ohio. And 15 percent of Steubenville’s housing is vacant.

Even higher concentrations are found in poor urban neighborhoods and municipalities that have endured decades of economic decline. In other words, the places shouldering the heaviest burden are the most fragile and the least likely to have the resources to do something about it.

Many pay the price

While those living on blight-ridden streets are the most directly affected, studies suggest the economic and social costs of long-standing vacancy are widely shared.

What those costs amount to in southwestern Pennsylvania is unclear. Pittsburgh’s year-old Land Recycling Task Force, planning department and others are working on an analysis of the economic impact on the city, which is expected later this year. And there is no countywide or regional accounting of the total cost of vacant property.

Philadelphia is one of the few places that examined those costs. Its study found that vacant properties reduce market values by 6.5 percent citywide and by as much as 20 percent in high-vacancy neighborhoods, resulting in an average loss in value of $8,000 for each city household. Tax-delinquent vacant properties in Philadelphia owe an estimated $70 million in back taxes, a sum that grows by $2 million every year. And vacant properties consume $20 million in city services a year, including $8 million spent on code enforcement and maintenance.

When housing values plummet, those who are hurt the most include long-time homeowners, many of them senior citizens – the very people who tend to hold together what is left of declining neighborhoods.

“We got a call last year from an elderly woman in one of those neighborhoods,” said Rob Stephany, director of the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority. “She had a $9,000 bid from a contractor to replace her roof, which had started to leak. Her next-door neighbor’s house had sold for less than that, about $7,000. Here was a responsible, salt-of-the-earth-Greatest-Generation senior citizen asking whether she should repair her roof or just ride it out. That is loss of equity.” 

Vacant and blighted properties also play a role in unraveling of the quality of life in a neighborhood and dimming the outlooks of those who live there.

For Malik Bankston, one of the more challenging aspects taking control of vacant properties in Pittsburgh’s Larimer neighborhood and then creating gardens, parks and a safer and more vibrant place to live was convincing residents that it could be done. “It was tough getting a conversation going,” said the Kingsley Center director. “For so long, the neighborhood watched a deliberate kind of disinvestment play out, which resulted in us having one of the highest incidence of vacant and blighted property.”

More than 42 percent of the lots, houses and buildings in Larimer are unoccupied. And, like most neighborhoods with high rates of vacant and blighted property, crime rates are higher than citywide averages – in Larimer’s case, 30-50 percent higher.

In Homewood, where nearly 44 percent of the lots and 28 percent of the houses are vacant, finding ways for school children to avoid them is a priority of the Homewood Children’s Village, which is based on a program in New York’s Harlem neighborhood that concentrates community support and services on mending the social fabric and improving children’s outcomes.

“The impact of vacant and abandoned properties on kids is a real concern,” said John Wallace, a University of Pittsburgh associate professor of social work who spent several years planning the Homewood initiative. “These properties are risk factors for crime, they’re a safety risk and they’re a health risk.”

The “broken window” theory argues that is not by coincidence. The theory, introduced by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling in 1982, has become widely accepted by law enforcement. It suggests that vacant and blighted houses, abandoned cars and other visible evidence of neglect send the signal that nobody cares, erode community controls and leave neighborhoods more vulnerable to crime.

Southwestern Pennsylvania police departments don’t track the relationship between crime and vacant property. And the few local studies that looked at the relationship offer contradictory, inconclusive findings.

Evidence elsewhere suggests the relationship is not benign. Philadelphia spends close to $6 million a year on police and fire calls to vacant properties. A study published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago reported violent crime rates in the city rose 2.3 percent with every 0.01 percent increase in mortgage foreclosures. After a sharp rise in foreclosures and vacancy, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department in North Carolina analyzed its records and found that high neighborhood foreclosure rates predicted higher crime rates, including violent crime, which rose steadily in those neighborhoods, but stayed much lower in places with few foreclosures.

Whether residents of neighborhoods with a high percentage of vacant, boarded-up stores and homes, litter and graffiti have a higher incidence of disease and premature death was a question RAND researchers looked at in 2003. Even after controlling for poverty, they found that those who live in deteriorating neighborhoods have higher rates of premature death and death by cardiovascular disease and homicide than people in neighborhoods that are not in decline.

That was not the only troubling effect they noted. In neighborhoods where residents were seen as willing to work toward a common good, the rate of premature deaths was lower. The one exception was in neighborhoods with a high number of vacant homes and other signs of decline, where the willingness of residents to help out made no difference.

Liabilities to assets

The flip side of vacant and blighted properties is that under the right circumstances they can be used to improve conditions in the neighborhoods they helped lead down a path of decline. In southwestern Pennsylvania, both public and private sector interest in reclaiming vacant property to add elbowroom and a little green to crowded urban neighborhoods is growing.

“With a lot of liabilities, your only option is to eliminate or reduce them. To be able to turn a liability into a asset is a unique opportunity,” said Frederick Thieman, executive director of the Buhl Foundation, which funded the Sustainable Pittsburgh report on vacant property in southwestern Pennsylvania. “Vacant property provides us with such an opportunity.”

Demolition is a common municipal response to abandoned houses. Clarksburg. W.Va. took a low-interest state loan to finance a campaign against the blight that had accumulated during decades of economic decline, tearing down nearly 300 homes. More than half of the 900 vacant houses acquired by a public land bank in Cuyahoga County, Ohio last year have been razed.

“It’s like cleaning the cancer cells out of the body so the rest can be healthy,” said Frank Ford, vice president for research and development at Neighborhood Progress, Inc., a Cleveland neighborhood development agency. “It’s hard for me to say that. Like most of my colleagues, I was a preservationist 20 years ago. We rehabbed houses. That’s not feasible now. The market isn’t going to come back until we clear out the bad stuff and allow it to come back.”

“Greening” vacant lots is an increasingly popular strategy for helping turn around distressed neighborhoods.

In Pittsburgh, the city’s Green Up Pittsburgh program has put hundreds of vacant lots in the hands of community groups and residents who use them as neighborhood green spaces and side yards. Before Larimer residents decided to reinvent themselves as a green community, nonprofits used vacant lots to introduce them to ideas such as community gardens and urban farming. And in Homewood, a community group that began gardening vacant lots a decade ago established its own urban landscaping company and youth training program.

But before any house is rehabilitated or lot seeded with sunflowers, those interested in doing the work must take title of the property, which can be a time-consuming and costly process. In some cases, their local government lends them a hand.

Allegheny County, for example, helps municipalities and others acquire vacant properties through eminent domain-like powers granted in the state’s Urban Redevelopment Authority law and pays for clearing the title, which costs about $3,000.

And Pittsburgh takes tax-delinquent properties through treasurer’s sales, “quiets” the titles and holds them in its land reserve until community groups arrange financing to buy them. But financial and staffing constraints cap acquisitions at 300 properties a year, which represents about 1.5 percent of the vacant houses and lots in the city.

Pennsylvania added a number of legal tools to help combat vacancy and blight in recent years. The state’s new conservatorship act, for example, allows community groups and others to petition courts to appoint a third party to take temporary possession of a blighted property, rehabilitate or demolish it, and then offer the property back to the owner for the cost of the work done or sell it under court supervision to someone else.

But the consensus best practice for tackling vacant property on a large scale is not available in Pennsylvania. Genesee County, Mich. and Cuyahoga County in Ohio are showing how land banking and property tax reform can be used across entire counties to take control of thousands of vacant tax-delinquent properties, keep them out the hands of slumlords and speculators and manage them as community assets.

In June, legislation to empower land banks was introduced in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives by state Rep. John Taylor (R-Philadelphia). The bill, which received the endorsement of Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, is under consideration in the House Urban Affairs Committee.

But costs are an issue. Genesee County and other land banks are able to recover much, if not all, of their operating costs through sales and the collection tax liens and penalties.

Start-up costs are another matter. While a land bank in Pittsburgh is estimated to cost $3.7 million a year to operate, it could take another $15 million to clear the titles of the more than 7,500 vacant properties in the city’s inventory, according to an unpublished report prepared for the city Land Recycling Task Force.

Spending that kind of money makes many municipal officials nervous, particularly when most face serious budget shortfalls. “We run into that all of the time,” said Dan Kildee, a former Genesee County treasurer who now directs the Center for Community Progress, a nonprofit that specializes in vacant property issues. “But it ignores the costs taxpayers already pay for vacant property and abandonment. You have to measure the cost of change against the cost of the current path that we’re on. Anybody who argues that the current path we’re on is the right one isn’t examining the full cost of vacant and abandoned property.”

(Matt Stroud of PittsburghTODAY.org contributed to the reporting for this article).

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Salute of Jeff Lantz and fellow photographers

In December 2007, Pittsburgh Today introduced a new home page design that featured as a centerpiece images from our 22-county region.  Jeff Lantz of Springdale has been one of our community contributors from the very first week.  In recognition of the excellence of his work, for the next two weeks we will be running five photos of his that poignantly capture the tragic April 4 events that cut short the lives of three Pittsburgh police officers.

 Jefflantz
(Jeff Lantz at home with his dog)

Lantz heard the news report and hopped in his car to record the events in Stanton Heights.  On his own initiative, he stuck with story through the week until the officers were laid to rest following a moving service on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh.  You will notice three other Lantz photos on the site that were part of our most recent sequence which will continue until mid-June.  You may also see more of Lantz’s photography at www.flickr.com/fuzzzy.

In the Pittsburgh Today photo viewer you’ll find a ‘Where is it?’ button that includes a county map and information about the subject of the photo.  It is designed to reinforce the idea of Pittsburgh: a major, beautiful, vibrant and diverse region of the United States that involves parts of three states.  This viewer is also a communal enterprise and Lantz has not been alone in making contributions, but has as associates individuals and organizations also involved in activities with a regional reach. 

We are very appreciative of the regular contributions of Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, under the leadership of Arthur Ziegler and Ethan Raup; the Port of Pittsburgh, Jim McCarville and Mike Brinza; Rivers of Steel Heritage Area, Jeff Leber; and the Pittsburgh Filmmakers, Charlie Humphrey and Sue Abramson.


Thank you all very much,

Region Indicators Organizing Committee

One Place at One Time (by John G. Craig Jr.)

Most indicator programs issue reports, more often than not bi-annually. Pittsburgh Indicators depends on a web site that is updated every time new data become available with the result that it is changing weekly. An unfortunate by-product of this important emphasis on timely information is a lack of appreciation of the volume and comprehensiveness of information available on www.pittsburghtoday.org.

Thanks to the magazine Pittsburgh Quarterly and the Pittsburgh Foundation, which have supported indicator work since its inception, a new 20-page report has been made available in the magazine's winter issue that addresses the problem. It does so by pulling together an overview of all the data available in topic areas and accompanying it with explanatory material on the significance of particular indictors.

There is also information on the organizational structure of Pittsburgh Indicators as well as brief essays from experts in various areas of Pittsburgh life on why they are involved in the project and why particular information is worth paying attention to.

To view the entire article click here, to get a hard copy of the report pick up a copy of the magazine.

The indicator report is presented in a format that permits its easy separation from the rest of the publication, permitting its retention as a separate piece of reference and reading material. As always, all criticism, proposed improvements for the web site and its content and the direction of the project are particularly welcome in this Forum.

A healthy region key to healthy cultural life (by Charlie Humphrey)

I have been talking arts indictors with John Craig and Rudy Weingartner the past two months, but it has occurred to me that the program is important for more than the data and polling it can develop on the region’s cultural life.  This piece that I wrote for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette three and a half years ago goes directly to that point:


Forum: Money makes art (not vice versa)


Pittsburgh's cultural community must place regional economic development above its own short-term needs, says Charlie Humphrey, or face long-term collapse


Sunday, September 07, 2003


There's nothing like a five-day trip to Syracuse and Rochester, delivering kids to college, to make someone sit up and take note. If you want to see what Pittsburgh will look like, should the city's current budget crisis continue, then make that half-day drive. A $60 million deficit, as much that is, will be just the beginning.
 
For the past two years, the arts community has been hard hit by the downward shift in the economy. Nothing in this scary mess is unrelated. As the city goes, so too will go the arts.


Meanwhile, Pittsburgh remains a better place than upstate New York largely because it started off as a better place, with resources and assets that far exceeded those two towns, even in their salad days. But these assets will not remain in their present form forever. As a member of the so-called cultural community, I find it painfully clear that we have become trust-fund babies, bestowed with riches and advantages unlike any other city in America. And unless we work now to build opportunities like those that existed in Pittsburgh at the turn of the last century, we will squander this legacy of privilege.


We have been cruising on the strength of the foundation community and the profound vision of its creators. Extraordinary wealth was created here, greater than any seen before in the free world. Much of it stayed in the form of trusts and family legacies. And now, it is only through the contemporary vision of its current leaders that we have not become a cultural wasteland. By propping up the cultural community, the Heinz, Mellon, McCune, Hillman, Pittsburgh and other foundations, and more recently the Allegheny County Regional Asset District, have made this city inhabitable. More than inhabitable. They have sustained its proud legacy of culture. I, like many others, am grateful.


But here's the punch line, which will surely alienate me from family and friends: Civic resources should be primarily directed toward those things that will allow us to establish new industries which can carry the banner forward in the next century.


Art and culture are not really an industry, as much as we like to claim they are. The arts business is instead a byproduct of successful industries, made possible by those with a clear sense of responsibility to community, and the critical elements that distinguish one community from another. Sure, the arts create jobs, and they contribute to the local economy in ways both measurable and immeasurable. But art is not a core industrial value that will save us from ourselves.


Note, also, the distinction between the arts business and art itself. Where art flourishes, so too the arts business. And where art flourishes, so too does community development. But we can't rehabilitate an eroded economic infrastructure from the arts. The arts will thrive, in the long run as a business, when the rest of the region flourishes economically.


This is a simple cause-and-effect argument. You don't fix a flat tire by tuning the engine. Much of the arts-and-economy case is predicated on little more than butter-or-guns logic. When most arts organizations generate half or less of their budgets from earned sources, that means that contributed income does a significant portion of the heavy lifting. It's money that could be spent though any number of conduits.


Let me say again: I believe that this has been money well spent. Keep spending it. But remember that a significant amount of arts spending is actually philanthropic spending, in one form or another.


The arts will not be the answer to our region's economic or social problems. Neither will retail development. The Waterfront in Homestead, as successful as it is, simply trades money around that is already here. And as with sports teams, a great deal of that retail money ends up somewhere else. Just ask the business owners on Forbes and Murray avenues what they think. Flourishing retail, like the arts, should be the result of a healthy economy, not the engine that drives it.


This is heresy in the view of many of my colleagues, who somehow want to argue that the arts are more important than food and water. Art will happen, no matter what the economic circumstances. It won't necessarily flourish, and it won't be nearly so evident, but human nature is such that art will emerge no matter what happens.


Even in Syracuse. Look, we're way ahead of Syracuse. But if young people don't want to live here because they can't find a job, who's going to take advantage of what little art gets created?


I have argued, in this paper and elsewhere, that a healthy democracy and a healthy arts community are inextricably related. And I continue to believe that government has a specific responsibility to support the arts in a major way.


But in the triage of priorities, the vast majority of arts support will come from private sources. It's been true since the Medicis in Italy, and it is true now. If the private sector stumbles, the arts will falter.
   
The point here is that we, in the arts community, need to take bold stands for issues and initiatives that do not directly benefit our field. In fact, we should be spending a significant percentage our time helping to find innovative ways to strengthen the economic base of the region.


That means we need to be vigilant around issues like slot machines (bad idea), taxes other than the amusement tax (good idea) and public transportation (any idea?). It may very well mean that we have to tighten our belts for a few years, operate smaller or postpone capital projects, and make room for projects that will directly encourage regional economic growth. It may mean asking for less now, so that we may be in a position to ask for more later.


We have become accustomed to our own unwavering sense of entitlement, an attitude that exists in the elite halls of art as well as the provincial firehalls of labor. Like so many children living on a steady allowance from sources of vague paternity, we have failed to take responsibility for the family jewels. And we cannot will ourselves to success through regional branding, a kind of wishful thinking that suggests that if we all drink the same Kool-Aid, we will become what we think we should be.


Am I suggesting that we not fund the arts? Of course not. Am I suggesting that the arts, as a field, recognize where their long-term support will come from? Yep.


If that means less for the arts now, so that we can re-establish Pittsburgh as an economic powerhouse for the next several generations, then I say: hell, yes.


The arts will always exist and, frankly, must exist, through patronage. As this or that trendy issue forces arts administrators to contort themselves into a variety of things they are not, like economic development powerhouses or social engineers, the ideal of art-for-art's sake is diluted to something far less significant.


We live on the dole, and it shall always be thus. As an arts community, we need to take strong positions on issues that have little or no direct impact to our own bottom lines, for the future sake of our own bottom lines, and in the name of great art.


Charlie Humphrey is the executive director of Pittsburgh Filmmakers (charlieh@pghfilmmakers.org).

Pittsburghers, don’t underestimate the importance of the arts (by Rudolph H. Weingartner)

Before I moved to this city almost twenty years ago, a former Pittsburgher told me, "You will like it a lot in Pittsburgh.  Rosenblooms have the most wonderful corn bread and access to the arts of all kinds is very easy, because there are a great many arts organizations, relative to the modest size of the population." Well, those heavy round loaves are gone, together with those who baked them, but just as my friend told me, I found a lively arts scene when I came here and still find it so.

But my impressions are surely not the best evidence for what is actually the case. Accordingly, in order to override anecdotes and hunches with hard information, the Regional Indicators Consortium undertook a survey, in the fall of 2006, about how the folks of our region participate in the arts. That region is the Tri-State area of 22 counties, roughly speaking the cluster around Allegheny and Washington, which has felicitously been referred to as the city state of Pittsburgh. Comparisons of Pittsburgh with the country as a whole are possible, thanks to the fact that we patterned our survey after those done by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1997 and 2006. But since the Pittsburgh survey used the methodology of the earlier of these, comparisons with the 1997 figures are more appropriate, in spite of the passage of years.

The research that was undertaken is very rich in detail; only some highlights can be singled out here. However, those interested in gaining more knowledge about the arts in our region are invited to peruse the information posted on the Consortium’s website, www.pittsburghtoday.org, where they should click on the moving panel labeled Arts.

Museum and gallery visits stand at the head of Pittsburghers’ attendance at arts events. Nearly 37% of those surveyed say that they made at least one such visit during the year. This Tri-State number is boosted significantly above the national level by the particularly avid participation of the residents of Allegheny County.

Indeed, arts attendance in Allegheny County is higher than in the Tri-State area as a whole – in attendance at musical and non-musical plays, at performances of jazz, opera, ballet, and other kinds of dance. It takes little imagination to guess that opportunity is at the root of this fact: more museums, galleries, and different performance groups are located there than in the rest of the region. This fact makes it all the more interesting that in the Ohio and West Virginia counties, the percentage of people who attend performances of classical music exceeds that of Allegheny County, while the entire Tri-State area easily trumps the national statistics.

Looking at the entire picture of arts attendance, the city state of Pittsburgh exceeds national norms, often by much, in all but two of the different arts events that were surveyed. The percentage of ballet goers in the nation and here is about the same–and very small. The percentage of those who attend other types of dance performances is considerably smaller in the Tri-State area than nationally. I have no explanation for that difference.

It is widely held that people who practice one or another art are more likely to pay heed to other artists in galleries or performances, although I know quite a few musicians who have no interest in attending the performances of their colleagues. On the assumption that these are exceptions, and even though the claim of a correlation of practice with attendance is largely speculative, it still says something about the artistic vitality of a place if we know what proportion of the population is in some way active in the arts. For that reason, like the National Endowment of the Arts, we looked at this dimension as well, both as to what percentage of people had had lessons in one or another art and what fraction are actual practitioners.

There is not enough room here to give an account of all the subdivisions, so let me focus on just two. Pittsburghers certainly aim to be musical folk. Distinctly over half of Tri-State residents are taking or have had instruction in classical music, on one instrument or another, including voice. This well exceeds the national statistics; and while Allegheny County is again in the vanguard, the percentages of each of the areas within Greater Pittsburgh are very hefty, indeed. As to training in the visual arts, Pittsburgh and the nation are essentially on a par at just under 30%.

When it comes to practice, the percentage of Pittsburghers performing classical music is reported to be only half of the national statistics. This disparity is so startling that one must suspect the research that produced it. The percentages of jazz performers are of course also small, with Pittsburghers plausibly somewhat ahead of the nation.

In the practice of painting and other graphic arts, Pittsburgh is surprisingly above the nation. With the Ohio and West Virginia counties well ahead in our region, at nearly 20%, our city state beats the country by a full five percent. This fact alone explains why the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh (consisting of nearly 500 visual artists in a 150 mile radius) has been thriving for nearly 100 years.

Pittsburgh has of course been long known as a sports city, one that is willing, moreover, to put its money where its sporty mouth is. Within thirty years, two sports sites were reduced to rubble, demolitions that emitted bursts of dollar signs, like the “stars” we see when bumped on the head. PNC Park and Heinz Field emerged from those ashes, soon to be joined by another Phoenix, to arise from the remains-to-be of the Mellon Arena.

And yet, Pittsburgh is even more arty than it is sporty – and that without such massive public support. Our survey shows that while in the Tri-State region nearly 41% had attended a sporting event during the year (virtually the same percentage as in the country as a whole), an impressive 58% had attended an arts event, compared to a national 51.6%. In part because of the greater accessibility of both arts and sports, Allegheny County had over 48% attend at least one sports event, while a whopping 65% enjoyed at least one communion with the arts.

For access to the Pittsburgh survey's summary tables, click here.

Rudolph Weingartner is the chair of the Arts Indicators Committee (rudywein@comcast.net)

Arts in Pittsburgh (by Rudolph H. Weingartner)

Additional data from the Pittsburgh arts survey are now available. These data reveal numerous facets of Pittsburghers’ relationship to the arts that are not particularly surprising, but there is a considerable difference between reliance on anecdotal evidence and guesstimates, on the one hand, and seeing statistics that are derived from surveys that have been undertaken with considerable care, on the other. To access the summary tables, click here.


But before turning to some of these not-so-surprising findings, here are a couple that might not have been anticipated by all observers. Pittsburghers attended more arts events than is the national norm. This makes the city known for its enthusiasm for sports also a center of the arts. Indeed, the citizenry of Pittsburgh’s attendance at sports events is about the same as that of the nation. More unexpectedly, however, Americans’ reputation as a nation of jocks may not be so well founded. Their turnout at sports events is actually lower than their attendance at arts events, with Pittsburgh quite close to the 1997 national figures.


It may surprise some but not others that in Pittsburgh, as well as nationally, more women are consumers of art than men, mostly in all varieties of art. It would be interesting to find out why that is the case. To a lesser degree—and not as consistently—women are also more likely to be practitioners of the arts than men. A guess has it that if we possessed statistics going back into history that this is a more recent trend. Perhaps at some future time, that famous 1988 article by Professor Linda Nochlin “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” will need to be rewritten.


On the other hand, when one looks at the ages at which people practice one or another of the arts, the older that people get, the less they do so, with probably a multiplicity of reasons for that decline. However, more predictably, in the Pittsburgh area as well as nationally, the age group in the middle—from 35 to 64—has the largest percentage attending arts events. There is one signal exception to this generalization: in Pittsburgh the over 65s have the largest percentage attending concerts of classical music.


When one looks at the effect of education on participation in the arts, the fact that attendance at art venues goes up with the amount of education these “consumers” have had is surely anticipated. But that the same is true in quite a few domains for the practice of art is not so predictable.


Well known to the people who run Pittsburgh’s art organizations is that relatively very few people actually subscribe to arts events. (This is undoubtedly true nationally; however, the NEH surveys did not inquire about subscriptions.) Operetta subscriptions—and they are not for many performances—are the highest at a meager 2.9%. Even museum memberships, nowhere near as costly as subscribing to a season’s worth of performances, comes to only 5%.


Finally, it is hardly a surprise that the larger a family’s income, the more likely they are to buy works of art. But just how widely is buying art regarded to be a luxury? It is noteworthy that nationally (taking the more comparable 1997 figures), a third of those with an income of less than $50,000 report that they have bought works of art. Although in Pittsburgh, only 14% of that income level report having purchased works of art.


(It should be noted that comments on racial differences in the relationship to the arts, if any, are inappropriate, since the number of respondents of African-Americans in the Pittsburgh survey is too small for the percentages to be significant.)


Posted by Rudolph H. Weingartner, Chair of the Regional Indicators Arts Committee.