Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Why of YPA

The Why of YPA

by Dan Holland, founder, Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh

The recent killing of Osama bin Laden brought back many painful memories of 9/11, but it also brought back many memories of why I started the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh (YPA) in the first place. On the day after 9/11, on September 12, 2001, I was out for a run and noticed that, despite the horrific events of the day before, people seemed unchanged, unfazed. I heard a driver honking his horn because the traffic he was stuck in wouldn’t move quicker. Then, I saw an old man drop a wadded up napkin down on the ground, as if that’s where litter was supposed to go.

It seemed to me that 9/11 was a wakeup call to make this world a better place. Yet, what I saw troubled me: dozens of communities all around me that looked like bombed out ghost towns—completely abandoned and neglected. The streets had holes, bridges were crumbling, litter and graffiti was everywhere, and old buildings were being torn down simply because they were vacant. Is this the America that we are supposed to be so proud of? Is this the legacy we want to leave the next generation?

More importantly, I asked, how, then, can we make this a better place—truly the best country in the world?

I started YPA in the spring of 2002, in part due to my reaction to 9/11. What better way to honor the lives lost than to do something productive. What better way to defeat the terrorists than to reinvest in one’s own community and show how great this country really is.

Since that time, YPA has grown into an respected organization with a regional presence. We have impacted more than 4,700 people through our programs and services; we have had more than 140 media articles; we have produced more than 22 unique publications; hosted more than 30 interns and volunteers; and spearheaded the creation of three new City of Pittsburgh historic landmarks. More than $80 million has been invested in sites listed on our Top Ten List, creating more than 1,200 jobs.

We have also garnered national attention. YPA inspired the creation of other young preservationist groups in places like Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Seattle, Washington; and Buffalo, New York.

But those are just numbers. YPA has impacted the lives of young people in a positive and meaningful way. An article appeared in the local paper about Noel Jenkins—who served as an intern with us in 2007 as a high school senior, and who now is a senior at California University of Pennsylvania—helping to document history for the California Area Historical Society.

Colleen Schmidt, who now works at a Washington, DC, law firm, started as an intern with YPA while a student at Cal U. Drew Levinson won YPA’s Preservation Video Contest as a young film student; he is now pursuing a film degree at Tulane University in New Orleans.

YPA developed the Youth Main Street Advisors Program in 2006 as a a service learning project that connects students with communities through the creation of a student-produced project about the community’s history, present, and future. One student, who was part of a video production, remarked in 2007: “It’s an interesting thing to do, because as new things develop, and time changes, it’s important to keep a sense of identity, where things came from, who you are, where your roots are. It’s exciting to find out everybody’s viewpoint.”

When we worked with students at Propel Andrew Street High School to write a book about their community, one of them remarked, “as new things develop, and time changes, it’s important to keep a sense of identity, where things came from, who you are, where your roots are. It’s exciting to find out everybody’s viewpoint.”

In 2008, YPA awarded the Promise Award to Norwin High School senior Tansy Michaud, who later went on to film school in Florida. Upon accepting the award, Tansy challenged the audience:

I guess, what I’m trying to say is that there are plenty of youth who would love to be engaged in the future of their communities. They just need someone or some people to help them along. So, to all the adults here tonight who wish the youth in their communities would get involved—I’m throwing the ball back at you. Get them involved. Teach them, ask to hear their opinions, listen, and support them. Your communities will reap the rewards in the end.

These numbers and stories tell only part of the picture. They explain what YPA has done, but not necessarily why. Recently I saw a YouTube video by Simon Sinek, a motivational speaker who said, “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” And that made me think about the “why” of YPA.

So, then, why did I start YPA?

Because I believe that an investment in young people is an investment in our future. We can invest in restoring an old building, but if we don’t invest in the future tenants and users of that building, all we have is an empty shell. That is why I believe that an investment in young people is an investment in human capital.

By taking the time to work with young people, to see the world from their point of view, to walk the streets that they walk, to sit down with them and look them in the eye and ask them, “what do you think?” Or, taking them with you to see and explore the world around them, even if it’s just down the street from their home or school. That’s the kind of investment I’m taking about.

Properly educated and cultivated, young people will be inspired to make a difference in the world, starting with their own communities. This, in turn, will affect investments in infrastructure, in historic buildings, and other community assets. They will vote for candidates who work to improve their communities; they will support businesses that have made commitments to the neighborhood; and they will live and pay taxes in the community where they have invested their time and energy.

YPA believes in challenging the status quo—that young people aren’t just sitting at home playing video games or hanging out on street corners. They are writing books. They are exploring and reshaping communities. They are nominating historic buildings, advocating for the wise use of scarce resources, and leading reinvestment in our core communities.

Young people are challenging us to think differently about young people.

Now, this whole time, you are probably wondering, what do young people have to do with historic preservation? Shouldn’t we be focused on saving old buildings? Well, in one word: everything.

Young people have everything to do with saving old buildings for three reasons.

First, as I mentioned above, if we don’t invest in our human capital by educating young people about the value of saving old buildings, then we will fail to cultivate a new generation of small business owners, home owners, investors, and donors that support the reuse of old buildings.

Nearly 80 percent of all small business owners are under the age of 40. The vast majority of first-time homeowners are between the ages of 25 and 44. And many lifelong decisions about how and where to spend money are made when people are in their teens, who are poised to have more spending power than any other generation.

Second, YPA is not only enhancing the educational experience of young people, we are shaping and transforming critical economic, financial, and political habits of young people that directly impact our communities. The question is, where will these young people establish a small business, buy a new home, or spend their money—in a Main Street district or historic neighborhood, or in sprawling cookie-cutter communities that drain resources from established core communities?

If we do nothing, the best we can hope for is that young people will somehow, magically discover the value of saving old buildings, but the impact will probably be small and inconsequential. At worst, by doing nothing we send the message that we have given up on young people—and we see the result of that today with crime stats, incarceration rates, school dropouts, drugs, and other problems. If, on the other hand, we make an attempt to engage young people and involve them in the preservation of historic buildings and communities, we stand the chance of profoundly impacting their lives so they make wise decisions about their future.

How will young people perceive an old community—as a broken down wasteland or a land of opportunity? YPA believes that historic preservation is an opportunity to transform neighborhoods—particularly low-income, minority inner-city communities—into walkable, safe, and attractive places to live, work, and play.

Finally, there’s no better way for the older generation to secure their legacy—and everything they have fought hard to achieve—than by educating and involving young people in the current work of historic preservation. I believe that historic preservation is the ultimate multi-disciplinary and inter-generational field because it involves so many different skill sets—from banking and construction to fundraising and organizing—and so many different types of people—old, young, black, white, foreign, and domestic.

So, to answer the “why”: young people are our future. We can choose to ignore them and watch our communities crumble, or we can educate, train, and involve them in preserving the past to forge a stronger future. This is what we mean by our slogan “Give Life to History.”

Sunday, March 20, 2011

South Oakland is a popular place for students of the University of Pittsburgh. The rent is relatively cheap, the location is close to campus and there is a mix of restaurants spread throughout the area. I myself, live in one of these South Oakland apartments. And walking to class on an unusual sunny Pittsburgh morning, I looked carefully at these mostly unnoticed buildings.

As intricate details cover the upper part of each house, the lower half has been modified to accommodate the tenant’s needs. The beauty of these structures has slowly been taken away by the quick repair needs of the students. What we don’t realize is that the architectural beauty of South Oakland is disappearing.

Sometimes as students, we take advantage of what the surrounding area has to offer us. We get so involved with school spirit that we forget that there was a culture and community that was there first. Of course, the change is creating a new, fresh atmosphere within the houses of South Oakland, but there must be a way save the older beauty.

—Francine Morales, University of Pittsburgh student and YPA Intern, March 15, 2011

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Role Universities Can Play in Fostering a Preservation Ethic

Universities are known for their primarily indifferent approach to historic preservation, often favoring a pragmatic development approach based on efficiency and institutional survival.

One need only look to the University of Pittsburgh’s policies in Oakland as a case and point. Examples include: the demolition of Forbes Field, one of Pittsburgh’s greatest cultural resources, to build the domineering Wesley W. Posvar Hall in 1971, to the destruction of the Syria Mosque in 1991 to build a parking lot, and the more recent example of the expansion of Bouquet Gardens and the resulting demolition of one of Oakland’s oldest residences in 2010.

However, the discouraging policy decisions made by the universities need not inhibit students from participating in preservation.

To promote preservation in Pittsburgh students can apply to become an intern for course credit or a volunteer for local non-profits like the Young Preservationists Association. Additionally, local universities offer Certificates in Historic Preservation or Preservation Majors (see links at the bottom of the page). Perhaps most important is education of the public on the importance of preservation and the role it can play in fostering community identity, conservation, and redevelopment. Student organizations can help spread awareness of the preservation cause around campus.

YPA has the potential to fill this role at local colleges and universities through a chapter network with one group at each school. Student interns or volunteers could run each chapter from YPA. Individual chapters could hold events on campus and get together with other chapters for YPA’s big events like the Preservation Summit.

Often, when asked about my major the question I get is, “What is historic preservation?” I would love to see that question change to “How can I get involved?” As an Architectural Studies (Historic Preservation Track) and Urban Studies student at the University of Pittsburgh, I recognize that major improvements have been made to the Historic Preservation program in the past few years, including the addition of a Historic Preservation Major. But, the University of Pittsburgh currently has no extracurricular student group or club devoted specifically to historic preservation.

I would like to see a new club or group devoted to preservation that could help connect students to preservation opportunities and raise awareness of preservation on campus and the city as a whole (perhaps a group that works with YPA). Moreover, I would like to see more hands on involvement and first-hand experience in my program. Visiting sites, preparing nominations, and perhaps specific preservation labs could be ultimately beneficial for students and help prepare them for graduate school or professional work in the field.


Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation:

University of Pittsburgh Architectural Studies Program:

University of Pittsburgh Historic Preservation Certificate:

Lee Riccetti, Pitt Student and YPA Intern, March 4, 2011

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Hope Rises in Homewood

Elwin Green walks us down his street, Race Street, in the middle of Homewood. It is mid-morning, the sun is shining brightly and the day is perfect for taking photos, meeting the neighbors, and assessing the potential of this street. Race Street is an five-block-long street of modest four-square brick Pittsburgh homes, like any street in the region.

However, Race Street, like much of Homewood, is plagued with an image problem. Sure there are some vacant properties--many of which could be fixed. But with people unable to obtain home improvement or home mortgage loans, public safety issues, and low self-esteem, Race Street, like Homewood, faces an uphill battle for legitimacy and its future.

Yet, the story does not end in a downward spiral of despair. Residents are fighting back. They are organizing, involving a diverse array of stakeholders, and, most importantly, getting the young people involved.

Race Street is a subset of efforts to revitalize Homewood that have galvanized around the Homewood Children's Village concept (Http://, a direct descendant of the Harlem Children's Zone founded by Geoffrey Canada ( A public kick-off event for the Homewood Children's Village was held on September 14, 2010. Hundreds of people packed the gym at Faison school to watch a touching video, "One Square Mile," and to hear the elaborate plans and committees that have been organized. The room was filled with incredible optimism and hope.

Today (September 23rd), however, the U.S. Department of Education announced their latest round of grant awards, and the Homewood Children's Village was not chosen for federal funding. Yet, there is still reason for optimism, not just because Homewood's latest plan has the backing of elected officials and other community leaders.

Hope rises in Homewood because of the young people who are involved, who were well represented at the kick-off event.

The celebration ended with an original rap performance by four young people, who closed out their set with the catchy tune "Welcome to the Village." Yes, welcome to the Village. It was an amazing display of community cohesion and promise--which can only be sustained if the young people are involved.

We cannot, must not lose another generation to the streets, to the vacant buildings and empty lots, and to hopelessness. If we fail our children, we fail ourself.

Let's involve our children, get involved in their world, protect them, and make them feel welcome in all aspects of our lives. It is through them our legacy survives.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Advertising Signs and Historic Preservation

An important historic preservation issue is not getting the attention it deserves: advertising signs and how they affect historic neighborhoods and business districts.

Decades ago, signs were painted on brick walls to promote a business in the building or located nearby. These signs can be found across the Pittsburgh region today, but most have faded away and are commonly referred to as “Ghost Signs”. They unlock a piece of history and add great character to an otherwise nondescript part of a building.

The advertising industry shifted long ago to a more “in your face” attitude in locating and designing current billboards. Most of these are brightly lit at night so that they are center of attention. In the city of Pittsburgh alone, there are over 900 billboards lining our streets and neighborhoods (with greater numbers found in low-income areas). These signs try to pull our eyes away from what Pittsburghers cherish so much: the city skyline, tree covered hills, river views and our neighborhoods.

It is often cited that billboards are a major distraction to drivers, but they also are a visual distraction to pedestrians. Unlike watching television or reading a newspaper or magazine, billboards are front and center where someone can’t turn to a different channel or flip to the next page. That is one of the reasons the billboard industry does so well and why businesses constantly advertise with this medium.

In recent years, the signage industry has been moving focus to new electronic technology that has moving, flashing and color-changing elements. Primarily using Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs), the light from the billboards is often seen for miles, especially in the Pittsburgh region with our topography. New York’s Times Square and the Strip in Las Vegas are examples of places designed for these bright flashing signs. Our residential neighborhoods and historic main streets should not fall into the same category.

Currently, new legislation is being developed to bring the zoning code up-to-date with the new technology. The City of Pittsburgh Department of City Planning has been working with legal and lighting consultants to draft new regulations for electronic signage. The Planning Commission will have hearings on the issue in October. This would be the perfect opportunity for you to get involved and have your thoughts about these signs heard. Involvement from residents will be critical!

It is time to stop ignoring these signs and take action to reduce the visual blight on Pittsburgh’s landscape. Change must happen from both businesses and residents alike. Businesses need to understand that their historic main street is being plastered with clutter. Residents should demand the views from the streets be protected and not sold off for profit.

What happened to the simple painted signs on brick walls that showcased the Mom and Pop store? Instead we now have signs brightly shining into windows at night and billboards on rusting steel supports or tall poles that bring down property values. Most officially designated historic districts in municipalities have the most restrictions on advertising signs and generally don’t allow them at all. That leaves the majority of the city vulnerable and our historic urban character at risk.

To find relevant documents and more information on this issue, visit the Department of City Planning’s website (, under the “Electronic Advertising and Message Signage” heading.

—Chuck Alcorn, YPA Board Secretary

Thursday, August 12, 2010

YPA's Take on the Civic Arena

Historic preservation is at a crossroads. The current generation of preservationists is now grappling with preservation of the recent past. How we as a movement deal with the built environment of the past 50 years, as well as how we relate to our own colleagues will define the future effectiveness of our movement.

The definition and methods of preservation have been appropriately expanded beyond bricks and mortar. In addition to architectural and cultural significance, we must consider the social, political, and economic implications of our engagement.

The aim of the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh is to approach each instance with an appropriate objectivity. There are moments where casting a vision is necessary, and others when supporting the vision of others is of paramount concern. We do not seek to define what is right or what is wrong.

On the contrary, we hope to provide an atmosphere for dialogue and an exchange that leads to a heightened and inclusive discussion. YPA’s mission is to provide the tools to the next generation as they continue to craft their own definitions of preservation.

The effort to save a Modernist icon like the Civic Arena will not be the last time that preservationists will have to face this challenge. But we should encourage a strong, unified, and inclusive dialogue for such important preservation issues.

As published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Aug. 16, 2010:

Friday, July 16, 2010

Preserve our Cities, Preserve our Culture

I just started working part-time at the Andy Warhol Museum as a gallery attendant. My job is to look at the people who are looking at art. Although I’ve only been working a few short days, I’ve already noticed a trend in many of the guests. Many of the visitors don’t even really look at the artwork that is displayed. They seem to just enjoy breezing through the seven floors, soaking in the museum atmosphere of wide, open emptiness with a sprinkling of culture and color, while of course, holding hands with their date.

Visitors will stop and read descriptions of intriguing pieces of art to learn some background and many of them are shocked by “Oxidation Painting” (a painting Warhol made by urinating on a copper-coated canvas), but it seems that many people just come to the museum for the atmosphere, to be surrounded by culture.

I’m sharing this because I believe that the cities and towns that we live in are comparable to a museum. When you visit a historic town, you feel the atmosphere change. You are suddenly a part of the history that town has seen. Walking through old streets in the ancient city of Aachen, Germany, you are reminded of the Roman Empire that once ruled the world. These feelings can’t be mimicked in brand new developments and high-rises. They are the stories in the walls of houses that have seen wars, peace and change. The sensation of being in a place that remembers things is something that must be preserved.

Like a museum, we must tend to our property and take care of it, as not to disturb this ambiance. Otherwise we will stop and look around one day and nothing will catch our eye or intrigue us about our culture, because all we might see are Walmarts and condominiums.

—Meghan Leinbach, YPA Intern & student at the University of Pittsburgh