Malik Morris (left), the community engagement manager of the Larimer Consensus Group, and Donna Jackson, the group’s board chair, stand on Larimer Avenue in front of the site of ongoing housing construction funded by a federal Choice Neighborhoods grant. | Caption: Rich Lord. Photo by Kaycee Orwig/PublicSource
The Larimer Consensus Group (LCG) was created in 2009 as an all-volunteer community organization to advocate for change in Larimer. Over the years, it has worked to hear the needs and concerns of Larimer residents and create a vision for the future of the neighborhood. ELDI has collaborated with LCG frequently since its founding, partnering on key projects like the Choice Neighborhoods initiative. During that time, we’ve had the pleasure of working with Donna Jackson, current Chair of the Board of LCG, one of the founding members of the organization, and an ELDI board member.
With Donna’s passion and dedication leading the way, LCG has helped usher in a new era for the neighborhood. The Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grant, which was awarded in 2014, has spurred four phases of affordable development, including the newly completed Cornerstone Village Apartments and Liberty Green Park, as well as the redevelopment of the Larimer School and new apartment units nearby. Now, the organization is working with ELDI through the KEEL partnership, a coalition of East End organizations, including the Kingsley Association, East Liberty Housing Inc., ELDI, and LCG. We came together in 2014 to ensure a collective voice and input with the implementation of the Choice Neighborhoods Grant and are now working on the development of for-sale housing in Larimer. LCG has also launched a $1 million workforce development program with Walnut Capital and Bakery Square and is part of the City’s Avenues of Hope initiative to infuse new life into Larimer’s commercial core.
With a long history of community service, including as a 911 operator, we talked to Donna to hear more about her journey to help transform Larimer and what she thinks is needed to create lasting change.
Where are you from?
I’m originally from Penn Hills, but I moved to the city many years ago to gain employment—my first job was working at Kaufmann’s. I now live in Lincoln-Lemington.
How did you make the leap from Kaufmann’s to the work you’re doing now?
It was a long line. I went to school for a short period of time, but then I got married and had my daughter. When my daughter was a little older, I started working at the City-County Building snack bar. Shortly after, I had the opportunity to work for 911. I only worked there temporarily because it is a 24-hour operation, and I had some constraints with my daughter. Afterwards, I went to Trailways. When my daughter got a little older and was able to attend school, I went back to 911. While I worked there, I became the chief steward of our union local and helped people maintain their benefits and quality work surroundings. That happened because, as I was sitting in these union meetings, my voice got heard.
My thing is I’m about people. I’ve always been about people. And when I say I’m about people, I mean I’m always about helping people to do better and be better.
I worked for 911 for many years and eventually retired. My time working at 911 allowed me to see my passion for working with and helping people. What I realized is that we sometimes have something to say but are afraid to speak out, and when I joined the union, it gave me that voice. When I retired, I had the opportunity to start working for city council, and that truly sparked my interest in community building. I worked at the District 9 council office and became the person that went out to the different communities surrounding District 9 to hear what people were saying—what I heard was that everybody had the same concerns that needed to be heard. One day around 2007, Jackson and Clark Partners heard me speak at an event and reached out to me, and that’s how I got caught up with Larimer. They were working with Miss Ora Lee Carroll who founded the East Liberty Concerned Citizens Corporation and was the first person that started the mission to have Larimer recognized. The rest is history. I was able to attend meetings and educate myself on community development and revitalization.
What was the situation like in Larimer at that time?
What happened with Larimer is that the Larimer Bridge got torn down to be rehabilitated in 1981 because it was in bad condition. So, all the businesses that were located along the corridor were losing business since nobody could get through. As a result, a lot of people left and went to Lawrenceville or Bloomfield. That left Larimer vacant, and then they just started coming through with a bulldozer. When Jackson and Clark reached out, we had conversations about what we thought, as people living in District 9, could happen. We started to talk about what we had seen in Larimer and what could be in Larimer. Feeding off the East Liberty Concerned Citizens Corporation, I helped found LCG, and I’ve just really stuck with it. It definitely has been a journey that I’ve enjoyed. I’m not going to say that there haven’t been some bumps, because there have been some bumps, but I feel confident now. I went from being the secretary to the treasurer, and now I am Chair of the Board.
One of the things that I think you have to have when you get into community development is a passion, and your passion has to be for people.
You can’t be concentrated on your own ideas— you have to be able to concentrate on the different venues and the different ideas that you hear and correlate them into a place where people can understand and know exactly what people are looking to do.
What were some of the things you were hearing when you first went out into the Larimer community and started talking to people?
The first things were that people were concerned about the blight. People were concerned about the vacancy and the disinvestment in the community. Larimer started out German and then flipped to predominantly Italian and then Black. Today, it is a predominantly Black, low-income neighborhood. Our thoughts were, “How do we advance this from low income to build wealth?”
Can you talk about the Choice Neighborhoods Grant and how the idea to apply for that came about?
In the early 90s, the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh (HACP) tore down a high rise near Larimer Avenue. It was my understanding that they promised to build another building there but never did. Miss Ora Lee said, “Okay, we need to build new housing.” But the funding was just not coming. Around 2009, we sat at the table with numerous partners to discuss this and how to move forward. Where do we go? Who picks up the ball? HACP had the idea to apply for the Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grant. That’s when the conversation started, and that was a conversation about rental. Nevertheless, we still had the goal to build affordable, single-family housing and market-rate housing. Rental does not drive the wealth of a community, because there really is no investment.
The first few times we tried for the grant we were denied. This was when Obama was in office and the Department of Housing and Urban Development basically stated that if you’re going after these kinds of grants, then you had to change the trajectory of people’s lives. We started ironing that out and broke it up into three different parts. We talked about the neighborhood, we talked about the housing, and we talked about the people. We felt like each one of those needed to be addressed. When you have deplorable rental units, you can’t just build new ones and drop people back down in there without giving them any skills to change, because that will just result in more deplorable housing. That’s why we decided to work with people to make them understand how to become lease compliant, how to become responsible, and how to be a good neighbor. As we looked at the neighborhood, we also thought about the different things that we could do. We called ourselves “greening and cleaning”, because we were trying to maintain the vacant lots that sat around the main corridors of the community. In general, we were having a conversation with the people as we moved forward to get their ideas on what they wanted to see. Choice Neighborhoods gave us the opportunity to replace two housing projects with mixed-income housing.
Now Larimer is entering a partnership through KEEL with ELDI to develop, for-sale housing. Can you talk about what led to that?
Those talks began in 2009. At that time, ELDI was on the board of LCG, and they had the capacity to pick up some parcels of land in Larimer and bank them. However, LCG wasn’t ready then. Since that time, we’ve created a Land Use Plan along with a Strategic Plan. In addition, we’ve worked on the Choice project together with ELDI, and with it moving quite well, the next step is to start creating market-rate housing. Being an ELDI board member, I’ve seen some of the things that they’ve accomplished, and they definitely have the capacity to help us. We’re neighbors. We separate these communities, but the reality is that it’s all 15026. And ELDI being a partner and a next-door neighbor—why not? What they’ve done in East Liberty has been good.
A lot of people say “Oh, that’s gentrification!” and that there’s no affordable housing in East Liberty, but that is absolutely untrue. It’s a balance: they have affordable and they have market-rate. We need a partner that has completed their plan to help us with affordable and market-rate homeownership, plus creating a business corridor.
What steps are being taken to develop Larimer’s business corridor?
We are one of the communities working to build their business corridors up with the Avenues of Hope initiative. Right now, we have Steel City Squash coming in. We also have a store called Grasso’s, which is a meat store. It’s been there since back in the day. And we have LA Grocery, which is a corner store. We are helping them build their capacity up so that people won’t take that walk all the way up to Target.
Are there steps being taken to ensure that those businesses are local or minority-run?
Yes, we’re working with Catapult Greater Pittsburgh. We first started when they were Circles Greater Pittsburgh—an organization incubated at ELDI—to help young entrepreneurs become better businesspeople and open up stores in Larimer and throughout different communities. We also received some money through the TRID from Walnut Capital to start a workforce development program. Every Saturday, we have classes for entrepreneurs or existing business people to help them empower themselves and open businesses in Larimer.
From your perspective, what does Larimer still need to fulfill its community plan?
It’s amazing to think about it—a lot of people have come into Larimer to do different projects. The first project was about sustainability, where we got acclimated to what that actually meant. Then it was about water. Now we’re thinking about how we can pull all of that information together. What’s important? What isn’t? We’re starting, not from square one, but from the middle to pull together a comprehensive plan that can help us keep evolving for the future.
The most important thing is to engage the people living in the community.
We’re going to start having community meetings, hearing exactly what the homeowners and people renting have to say and what amenities they would like to see.
After all your years in community development, what lessons have you learned?
Make sure that you have a strong board and that the board has residents on it, because it’s easy for people living outside your neighborhood to dictate the things that you want to do as opposed to those things that are a necessity. The other thing is that we need to raise money. Funding is always a very important factor in development, to make your mission come to fruition. Sometimes you just can’t look at the philanthropy part of it, you have to do fundraising. We’re learning.