Our Executive Director, Maelene Myers is celebrating 20 years with ELDI! We want to say a huge thank you to Maelene for her dedication and leadership over the past 20 years. Last month, we celebrated in style with a bit of cake and music at the Ace Hotel. Read on to see some photos from the event and to learn more about Maelene’s history and journey with ELDI.
Ask around about Maelene Myers and a few words pop up again and again. Steadfast, unwavering, tenacious, outspoken, fearless, bold, humble — these are the words that colleagues and community members use to describe the woman who has been at the helm of East Liberty Development, Inc. (ELDI) for the past twenty years. As Executive Director of ELDI, Myers has guided East Liberty through rougher times and into the place of revitalization we see now.
When Myers took the position at ELDI in 1996, the organization was in turmoil and East Liberty had seen better times. Coming from Cleveland where she worked for six years as the Executive Director of Hough Area Partners in Progress, a non-profit community development corporation in the inner city, Myers faced an ELDI that had seen two directors resign within a year and was criticized for not being representative of the community. Meanwhile, East Liberty was facing high crime and unemployment rates, deteriorating housing and an environment known for drugs and alcohol.
Despite these challenges, Myers was not fazed. Before undertaking any development activities, she set out on a three-year community engagement and organizing effort that aimed to understand what the community wanted and the work required to attain it.
The Rev. Patrice Fowler-Searcy, Associate Pastor for Mission Ministries at East Liberty Presbyterian Church and ELDI Board President and member since 1998, witnessed Myers’ resolve from the beginning;
“She was willing to do what so many others were not. She made sure that those who live in the community defined their future. She’s been on the other side of development in a community, therefore, she understands that the community must drive the transformation in order to achieve sustainable success.”
Three years of listening to the community and discovering its needs resulted in the 1999 East Liberty Community Plan. Skip Schwab, Real Estate Investment Officer at ELDI, explained that the plan clearly articulated two major insights: 1.) The concentration of poverty was not healthy and 2.) The existing low-income residents wanted to live in a mixed-income community.
These central tenants of the plan served as Myer’s proverbial north star for the challenging tasks ahead of attracting the right developers to the neighborhood while developing East Liberty in a way that was inclusive and avoided the over-centralized planning that had occurred during urban renewal.
“We need to figure out where all these pieces fit,” Myers was quoted saying in a 2001 Post-Gazette article addressing the topic of big retailers interested in coming into East Liberty.
This focus on getting things right is what Schwab notes as one of Maelene’s key strengths; “Maelene has recognized that multiple development partners can work collaboratively and incrementally over time to realize a community plan and vision rather than trying to initiate neighborhood change with one master developer.”
Born out of the first plan were the first development goals of the neighborhood including the redevelopment of New Pennley Place, The Spinning Plate Artist Lofts, the conversion of the former Sears site into a Home Depot and the establishment of the East Liberty Farmers Market, all of which were accomplished.
In the bigger picture, ELDI’s mission was to continue the fight to decrease crime, de-concentrate poverty, develop mixed-income housing, boost economic development and to address traffic and parking concerns. Key to all of those goals was improving the reputation and image of the neighborhood while ensuring East Liberty remained welcoming to long-time residents.
This was not a mission Myers approached lightly. Colleagues recognize her for how she stood her ground and never backed down from the vision set out by the East Liberty community.
Rick Swartz, Executive Director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation (BGC), got to know Maelene through several collaborations between ELDI and BGC, including the development of the Penn Avenue corridor. He witnessed her resolute demeanor firsthand.
“If you’re someone who makes a habit of wavering, you’re not going to find a lot of common ground with Maelene,” he said. “That’s not to say that what she thinks is always what will happen in the end. But she is not going to be moved off of her position by folks who want to engage in theatrics or histrionics, as opposed to serious conversation.”
This no-nonsense attitude can be traced back to Myers’ early life in Akron, Ohio. Nearly 36 years ago, as one Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story from 2000 recounts, Myers organized tenants to march in protest of pooling water in the basement of her subsidized apartment complex. This earned her a place on a subsidized housing committee and led to a community development job with the North American Cultural Center in Cleveland.
As Dr. Mona Generett, former Vice President of Community Development for Dollar Bank, sees it, that sense of responsibility drives Myers to speak up for the residents of East Liberty who aren’t always able to speak up for themselves.
“Maelene cares about the people of her community and its institutions to the extent that those institutions care about and are inclusive of community residents,” Generett said. “Both Home Depot and Whole Foods learned that there would be no free passes when difficulties arose in attempting to employ community residents. Both received ELDI’s assistance in screening and training community residents and creating a good workforce. What looked impossible was made possible with Maelene’s guidance and direction.”
One of the biggest steps to deconcentrating poverty and making East Liberty a safer placer to work and live was the demolition of the neighborhood’s Section 8 high-rises — Liberty Place, East Mall and Penn Circle Apartments —the last of which came down in 2009. These high-rises, which were constructed in the late 1960s and early 1970s during early attempts at urban renewal, had quickly deteriorated and declined into hotbeds of crime in the neighborhood.
Bringing them down allowed ELDI to make way for a Target and mixed-income housing at Pennley Commons, New Pennley Place, Penn Manor and East Liberty Place North and South.
Around the same time, ELDI began a process of buying up nuisance properties that were responsible for large percentages of crime in the neighborhood. Documented in a 2013 crime analysis of the neighborhood conducted by analytics and consulting firm, Numeritics, this crime hotspot strategy was responsible for reducing overall crime in the residential area of East Liberty by 49% and doubling residential property prices.
But as property prices slowly inched back up closer to the city’s average, Myers worked to ensure a healthy stock of affordable housing and supportive services remained in the neighborhood.
Sojourner House MOMS, a supportive housing complex for women offering addiction and counseling services, was one of those initiatives. So was Dad’s House, a supportive housing center that helps men get back on their feet after times of crisis. In 2010, ELDI also began partnering with Open Hand Ministries, an organization rehabbing homes and connecting them to families in need of affordable housing, and Circles, a program working to break the cycle of generational poverty through intentional relationships.
Myers sees these kinds of developments as equally vital to the neighborhood as any of the more high-profile developments like Target or Whole Foods. Finding that balance is Myers’ struggle and the struggle of countless community development organizers before her.
In her twenty years with ELDI, Myers has had many notable victories. The East Liberty area has seen a resurgence in shopping and employment opportunities, new affordable housing for over 800 families and individuals and improved transportation access marked by the recent opening of the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway and the conversion of Penn Circle back to a series of two-way streets.
One of the most notable victories, in Jane Downing’s opinion, is the change in market conditions. As a Senior Program Officer for The Pittsburgh Foundation, an organization that provides endowment funds for community projects throughout Pittsburgh, Downing has noticed a distinct difference from the early years working with ELDI compared to now. She notes; “Deep public subsidies are no longer needed to encourage development.”
While the revitalization of East Liberty increasingly garners national attention and praise, Myers is not one to take the credit. As Generett put it, “She is not fond of the spotlight. She would rather the accolades go to the members of her team.”
And as the ELDI team continues to guide East Liberty into its next era, Myers intends on sticking around until the original 1999 Community Plan vision of an equitable and diverse mixed-income community is realized.
As Swartz puts it, “She sees herself as a change agent. Until the quality of life is good for all, her work will not be done.”
Photos by John Colombo.
A version of this story will appear in next month’s issue of The Bulletin.