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There is more than one way to win a race. . .
With that in mind, we have embarked on a long-term project to rehabilitate a formerly abandoned building and an adjacent lot. An intergal part of our project is a process called deconstruction, or green demolition. We'd like to tell you why we think this practice has amazing positive potential for our area and areas like it, but first we should tell you a little about ourselves, our project, and the place we have chosen to be. This page is extremely text-heavy, so please skip around. Use the tortoise and hare links below for an immersive experience. Or if you know something about us already, and you would like to learn about a specific aspect of our project, click on the keywords that follow: deconstruction, allegheny vacant properties program, land trust, visiting scholars, more soon!
Tricky one, because its got its own what and why wrapped up in it. Hopefully the how, also. Starting simply, we are a collective of four people with backgrounds in the arts and arts management. Some of us went to art school together. Some of us went to high school together. Some of us were in an art collective together. Most of us used to live in Brooklyn, NY. Now, most of us live in Braddock, PA. We came here because we were presented with the opportunity to aquire an abandoned building that had been a church. It is very large, and romantic, and more complicated than we expected. Maybe you would like to skip ahead to find out about the building, or the process through which we aquired it, the Allegheny County Vacant Properties Recovery Program? Or maybe you would like to see a picture of us?
Our names are Ruthie Stringer, Dana Bishop-Root, Leslie Stem and Caledonia Curry. Now you can google us. Individually we are artists, designers, farmers, interactivists, communication theorists, neighbors. Together we are an arts based community organization called Transformazium. We have done a few projects, including Points of Interest, and the Family Portrait Project. We made an Activity Book which you are invited to print pages from here. We are excited about using the creative process in combination with locally identified resources to transform ideas into tangible social and economic benefits. We are interested in exploring the challenges of the post-industrial city. We are interested in exploring the intersection of art and neighborhood. We are exploring.
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What are we doing? Lots of things, but right now we are working towards deconstructing a fire damaged parish house attached to our building. That means that we are taking the building apart, mostly by hand, and conserving as much of the materials that went into it as possible. In November of 2008 we attended a deconstruction conference in Buffalo, NY co-sponsored by Buffalo Reuse and the Building Materials Reuse Association. A friend suggested we go, but we didn't know much about deconstruction at the time. We were beginning to know a bit about demolition, though. We have seen a lot of them since moving here.

Deconstruction
Braddock and North Braddock have lost between 70 and 90 percent of their population since the fifties, and many of the homes and businesses that those people lived and worked in have been abandoned. Low property values, the continuing limbo of the mon-fayette expressway, high copper prices (which led to an epidemic of plumbing pipe scrapping), weather, and time have made many of these homes unsavable. When the boroughs have money to do it, these buildings are demolished. In the worst case scenario, the buildings are bulldozed, pushed into their foundations, and covered with a few inches of dirt and clay. This means that everything that was part of the house, including lead, asbestos and mercury, are now in the ground, making it unsuitable for growing food. Also, the land is made less attractive to developers because of the added cost of excavating the buried debris. Even the best case scenario for straight demolition is sad and wasteful: all of the materials that made the house are taken to the landfill, ending their useful life and squandering the embodied energy that was present in the trees that became lumber, the metals that became pipes, wire, nails and screws, and the human thought and labor which brought the structure into being. Sometimes sad things are necessary. For many of our neighbors, the constant sight of boarded up and condemned properties is an exhausting reminder of the decline of the neighborhood. The blighted buildings also further depress the housing market, creating a vicious circle: the more blighted houses that there are, the more there will be. Deconstruction offers another possibility. Here is a description lifted straight from the BMRA website (we hope they don't mind, and we encourage you to visit BMRA.org).

Building materials reuse is one of the most sustainable activities associated with our built environment. Deconstruction is the practice of disassembling a building in such a way that the materials (joists, flooring, siding, fixtures, and more) can be reused for new construction. Deconstruction is a cost competitive alternative to conventional building demolition.

By reusing building materials, many environmental and social benefits can be realized, including:

Reducing the consumption of new resources
Minimizing landfill waste and pollution.
Creating value-added markets from waste materials.
Expanding job opportunities and workforce development skills.

We'd like to add that in neighborhoods like Braddock and North Braddock deconstruction offers an opportunity to recognize wealth and possibility in what is generally seen as poverty and blight. Just as ore is taken out of the ground or wood is taken from a forest, materials can be harvested from these buildings, generating revenue for our neighborhoods and creating jobs in an industry that is poised for tremendous growth as we confront the environmental and economic challenges that face us.

We are just beginning this process. If you would like more information about deconstruction and building material reuse, here is a link to our deconstruction pamphlet. And here are a few links to other organizations practicing deconstruction:

Wikipedia article on building deconstruction
Building Materials Reuse Association
ReUse Consulting
Architectural Salvage of Detroit
Buffalo Reuse
Kevin Brooks Salvage
Construction Junction
Waste to Wealth

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When did we start? Well, we started thinking about spending a finite amount of time working on deconstructing our building in late January 2009, and actually began the six week project in early March. We had no idea at the time how much we could accomplish. We had no idea what we would be capable of doing. Setting a time limit for the project made it much less overwhelming, and provided us with an experimental learning experience which we are now able to base future plans on. We worked for five hours a day, three days a week, for six weeks. Our goals at the outset were to:

1. Begin the deconstruction of a fire damaged portion of the Transformazium.
2. Communicate our process, our strategies, our excitement, our limits and our strengths to an expanding community that shares our interests and our concerns.
3. Build on existing relationships with people we have met who are interested in deconstruction, are practicing deconstruction, or who are affected by the major issues that deconstruction addresses.
4. Make new relationships, get advice, and share resources.


At the completion of the initial six week block, we hosted a gathering for neighbors that we thought would be especially interested in Deconstruction. Our guests included council members, informal community leaders, demolition professionals, gardeners, local business people, and people already involved with various green initiatives. Visit our Deconstruction Gathering photostream on our Flickr page!

Another "when" that we are asked about is "when will you be finished?". That is really a two-parter. The agreement we made with the county when we acquired the building through the Allegheny County Vaccant Properties Recovery Program gives 18 months from November '08 to remove the blighted parish house, as well as to secure the building and patch the roof. So it will be done by then. But the second part of the question is about when the Transformazium will be a functional, active, arts-based community resource center. We don't know, but we are thinking extremely long-term.

Don't worry! This is not a bad thing! The long process of acquiring the building, and the transition into the longer process of renovating it has given us time to learn about the place that we have chosen to make our home (which we will talk more about in the "where" section). Not having access to the building has been an incredible blessing because it has allowed us to form meaningful relationships with our neighbors and to become more intimately familiar with the particular economic, political, emotional, social, intellectual and environmental problems that give this place its character. We have designed projects that are not dependent on the structure of the building, that explore the problems mentioned above, as well as the problem of our transition from curious outsiders to invested neighbors. Hopefully, this has made us a more visible and accessible organization. When we are finally able to use the Transformazium in some capacity (rough estimate: one to three years?) we will benefit from the strong foundation that we are building now.

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We live in Braddock, PA and North Braddock,PA. Here is a map. Here is a link to a Wikipedia article about Braddock. Here are links to census data for Braddock and North Braddock. They are from 2000, so some some things have changed. It will be interesting to compare with the 2010 census.

The Building
The Transformazium is in North Braddock, on the corner of Jones and Hawkins. You can see a tiny little bit of the part of the building we are deconstructing on the far right side of the picture. The first date on the cornerstone of the building is 1852. It was originally a United Bretheren Church. We don't know a lot about its early history, but we want to know more. Maybe you know something about it that you would like to share with us? Or maybe you are a historian who would like to do a research project in North Braddock, PA? If so, be in touch info@transformazium.org. Ask us about our visiting scholars program.

The last incarnation of the building was as a church with a small congregation. It housed several social programs including a food pantry and a residential rehab center for drug treatment. The owner of the building and leader of the church has been described to us by some as a charismatic man with good intentions, and by others as a con man who stole hundreds of thousands of dollars and disappeared.

On January 15th, 2005, there was a fire in the parish house, which is where the rehab center was located. We don't know what happened to the people who were living there at the time. They did not come back for their belongings. We don't know if the owner/administrator of the rehab program left before the fire or after. I am not sure why I am telling you these things about the history of this building and the questionable character of its former owner, except that I feel angry that someone would abandon a building, a community of patients in need of rehabilitation, and a neighborhood and take no responsibility for it. I don't know what the circumstances of the former owner's life were that led him to make the decision to leave. I would like to have compassion, but I am angry and frustrated that this building and the community it is part of were not valued and cared for. I am not one to get sentimental about buildings. Before I became partly responsible for this building, I can imagine myself walking past, thinking it was a shame, maybe taking a picture that aestheticized its decay (in fact I did do those things). Now, living here, it means something else to me. I am not sure I can put my finger on it, or your finger. But it is something about choice. The choices that we make individually and together are what make our neighborhoods what they are. I am coming from New York City, where personal freedom, personal expression, personal choice feel like absolute rights. It works there, because there are so many people making choices all of the time that all of our choices together make a city that feels seamlessly created. In a place with dramatically lower population density, I feel each choice I make as having more weight. We are responsible for each other in a different way. Sometimes this feels incredibly uncomfortable for me. But sometimes it feels more powerful, and more real. It is the thing that is idealized about small town living: the opportunity to build meaningful communities along side our neighbors.

Allegheny County Vacant Properties Recovery Program
After almost four years of abandonment, we acquired the building through the Allegheny County Vacant Properties Recovery Program, which is administered by Allegheny County Economic Development. Here is a link to the ACVPRP web page, but don't expect much in the way of information or an easily accessible application. One of the reasons that it took us 18 months to complete the purchase of the Transformazium is that finding information about this program was incredibly difficult. When we finally had completed it, we found out that we were the first group of individuals to successfully acquire a building this way. The program is generally used by individuals to acquire side lots adjacent to their property. The program is also used by development corporations (in Braddock and North Braddock it is the Mon Valley Initiative) to acquire buildings that are either renovated or (more often) demolished and replaced with new housing.

The Allegheny County Vacant Properties Recovery Program allows the county to forgive outstanding back taxes and liens on abandoned properties so that the properties can be purchased for the most recent assessed value of the property. Our building was burdened with over $400,000 dollars in back taxes and liens. We could never have assumed these costs in addition to the renovation costs that we anticipate. Through the ACVPRP, we purchased the building and a lot across the street for about $20,000. If it were not for the ACVPRP, the building almost certainly would have continued to deteriorate until it was completely unsavable, and it would have been one more building to be put on the demo list.

On the other hand, this was a privately owned property that was seized from its owner by the county essentially through eminent domain. The borough in which the building stands will never see the tax money owed to it, and any grieved parties on whose behalf liens were placed on the property (unpaid contractors, or spouses seeking child support, for instance) will most likely never recieve payment. A community must be certain that the benefit of returning a property to ownership is worth these costs, and a program that exercises such authority must be overseen with fairness and lengthy deliberation. Here is a description, from the Allegheny County website, of where this authority comes from, and how the members of the board which oversees this program are chosen:

The Program was first started in 1984 in Braddock as a program of the Redevelopment Authority of Allegheny County (RAAC). The program eventually operated in the following communities with the date of initiation in parenthesis: Wilkinsburg (1985); Rankin (1990); North Braddock (1992; Carnegie (1992); Homestead (1995); Pitcairn (1999); and McKees Rocks (1999). In 1994, the Program was reorganized so that all participating municipalities were encompassed in the Allegheny County Vacant Property Review Committee (VPRC), instead of maintaining separate Vacant Property Review Committees for each municipality. Allegheny County operates multi municipal Vacant Property Program. The Program is authorized under the Urban Redevelopment Authority Law of Pennsylvania, Act 94 of 1978, as amended (35 P.S. Section 1712.1). The Program is also locally authorized via Ordinance, September 23, 1993 Board of County Commissioners Action (#1247-93). The ordinance was amended on July 5, 2000, via Legislative Action (of the County Council) to reflect changes in membership.Section 1 of the ordinance now requires that the members of the County’s Vacant Property Review Committee shall be appointed as follows; One member appointed by the Allegheny County Executive; One member of County Council appointed by said body; One member of the Allegheny County Department of Economic Development’s Housing Division, appointed by the Director of ACDOED; One member of the Allegheny County Department of Economic Development’s Planning Division appointed by the Director of; One member appointed by the Redevelopment Authority of Allegheny County Board; One member appointed by the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development; and One member appointed by the Allegheny County Health Department, through its Director.

On balance, the Vacant Properties Recoveries Program is a good and necessary mechanism for dealing with abandonment and blight. Its major downsides as we see them are that it replaces one unwieldy beuracratic structure with another, it is a dificult system to navigate (or even to find out about), and is much less available to individuals than to large deveopment corporations. It is not useful for making existing homes available to individual homeowners.

So what are the other possibilities? How do we decide together to care for the buildings in our communities and ensure that they are owned, in order that our communities can grow and prosper? How do we ensure that possibilities for home ownership are available to all different types of people? I would like to live in a vibrant community that is economically, racially, and culturally integrated. How can we make that happen?

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Why are we deconstructing the parish house?
  • Because it is fire damaged.
  • Because we find ourselves with more time than money.
  • Because we are excited about deconstruction as a possibility.
  • Because we are excited about deconstruction in our lives as a reality. We are doing it! With hands and muscles and tools!
  • Because deconstruction as a practice is directly in line with our mission of using the creative process to transform ideas into tangible social and economic benefits. We are excited to have the opportunity to explore the ideas that we have been working with and struggling with since coming to Braddock in 2007 in such a direct, experiential way.
Why are we living and working in Braddock, PA?
  • Because we see possibilities here (the big ones mostly: space and time) that were not available to us in the places we were coming from.
  • Because we have the opportunity to explore the relationships of art and community, individuals and community, individuals and art, as well as our relationships with each other.
  • Because we are excited about the new relationships we are making.
  • Because we want to contribute the resources that we bring to our new community. We identify these resources as the problem solving skill set of the creative process, our personal experiences as empassioned, engaged people, and our relationships with "art" and the larger art community.


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How are we Deconstructing the parish house? Slowly! Carefully! Creatively! Passionately!

We are deconstructing the parish house with these tools:
  • Crowbars. Little and big.
  • Sledge hammers.
  • Framing hammers, claw hammers, and masonry hammers.
  • Hand saw.
  • Shovels.
  • Buckets.
  • Brooms.
  • Ladder.
  • Flashlight.
  • Hammer drill and impact driver.
  • Muscles!
  • Respirators, gloves and goggles!!!


How are we participating in our community actively?

With action:
We have completed two major community arts projects, Points of Interest and the Family Portrait Project.

We are currently working in partnership with the Braddock Library and a local business owner to implement a community silkscreen studio.

We have worked with the Braddock Youth Project to create agricultural programming for the summer 2008 youth employment program.

With communication:
We have been committed to building relationships with as many of our neighbors as possible. We cannot overemphasize the importance of making eye contact and saying hello.

We have made a publication, Transformazium Activity Book, which explores our ideas and our processes.

We are currently at work on our Vehicle for Communication project, which will transform our Ford short bus into a roving information kiosk and resource discovery/delivery vehicle.

With ideas:
Visiting Scholars Program
We are developing a visiting scholars program. It is still in the germination stage, but we are very excited about it. We hope that the visiting scholars program will expose us to new ideas and envigorate our thinking. We hope that it will encourage an intellectual division of labor. Often times our enthusiasm outstrips our capacity for investigation, making us feel like losers. When we have scholars investigating our interesting problems we will get a lot more done.

Our first visiting scholar was Jacob Bielecki. He was investigating community land trusts. We are hopeful that a creative interpretation of existing land trust models will provide a possible solution to the problems of property abandonment in combination with the economic challenges faced by residents of our area. We will be adding information about Jacob's research soon! We promise!

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You Have Three Photo Galleries To Choose From!

Before We Started Deconstruction Action Shots Fixing the Stairs