ELDI’s executive director Maelene Myers never set out to work in community development, much less lead the revitalization of a key Pittsburgh neighborhood, but once she commits to something, she doesn’t waver.
That commitment began almost 27 years ago when she signed on to become the executive director of East Liberty Development, Inc. (ELDI), at the time a struggling organization that had seen two directors resign within a year and was criticized for not being representative of the community. Meanwhile, East Liberty—at one point considered Pittsburgh’s “second downtown” and home to a tight-knit residential community—was facing high crime and unemployment rates, deteriorating housing, and a lack of opportunity for its residents.
Coming from Cleveland where she worked for six years as the executive director of Hough Area Partners in Progress, a community development corporation in the inner city, Myers was no stranger to creating positive change amidst difficult circumstances. When she began her work in East Liberty, she drew on her lessons learned in Ohio to set a new course for the neighborhood. That all started with a three-year community planning process that captured the community’s vision for the neighborhood and the work required to attain it.
“She was willing to do what so many others were not,” said ELDI Board President Rev. Patrice Fowler-Searcy. “She made sure that those who lived in the community defined their future.”
As ELDI prepares to launch its 20+ year retrospective impact report that reflects on the remarkable journey of the neigbhorhood—from crime and blight to a thriving mixed-income community—we sat down with Myers to hear the story in her own words. She recounts her incredible trajectory from a single mother on welfare to leading one of Pittsburgh’s most successful community development corporations and shares what she thinks is needed to ensure a bright future for East Liberty and beyond.
Who spearheaded the search for a new executive director of ELDI?
East Liberty was in such a state of disarray in the late 90s that the stronger neighboring communities—Highland Park, Bloomfield, and Shadyside— were starting to get impacted by all the crimes and drugs, so they demanded the City of Pittsburgh find someone, and they were not going to tolerate any of the people in Pittsburgh, because ELDI had already gone through several executive directors.
When I came to tour the area, I didn’t see what the problem was at first. It was not nearly at the level of crime and blight that I was accustomed to. But I recognized right away how important East Liberty was from a downtown perspective. It must have been a very significant piece of Pittsburgh if they would wait so long for someone like me to come along.
What I could see from the beginning was that the neighboring communities and City were not asking the right questions. They were looking for this new person to come in and clean up the past, but the community had shut ELDI down and turned its back. So, I spent my first visit to East Liberty meeting people and talking. I spoke to one of East Liberty’s main community organizers at the time. He gave me his perspective about what happened and why it happened. He told me how East Liberty was a Black neighborhood and how housing and jobs were the community’s biggest concerns. I heard what he was trying to say. I told the communities that something had to be different to get me to take the job, because it was clear that ELDI was extremely out of touch with the community. One of the things I did know was that if I made a commitment to do it, then I was going to stay the course and see this thing through, but I had to have some assurance about support from the City, the foundations, and ultimately, city council to make sure changes could be made. We ended up coming to an agreement, and now I find myself here 27 years later.
What ultimately made you stay?
I learned from my work in Cleveland the difference between community control and community buy-in and support. And I did not want to be a person that would use the community, but one that would embrace and work with them. That’s what got me excited, because when I went to talk to those families in East Liberty and told them I was considering taking the job but that I couldn’t do it alone, they told me, “Ms. Myers, if you stay, we will work with you. What we need is for you to commit to us and keep us informed.”
One thing they made very, very clear to me was that they wanted a different community. They recognized that being in a low-income community with many one-income families was not working. They wanted a mixed-income neighborhood, using Shadyside as an example of what they wanted it to be, and they recognized that they could not do it on their own.
So, I said, “Okay. I’ll take on the job.”
How did you begin to formulate a plan for the neighborhood?
First, we had to reconfigure the board of directors and bring in some new staff to begin doing the work. I had to start with a clean slate. It had to be a community-driven organization, and we had to bring in some diversity.
I remember the first community meeting we held at the Regent Theater (now the Kelly Strayhorn Theater). There were around 250 seats, and it was packed, down to only standing room. We started by having each individual person stand up and say their name and what’s important to them, and our staff went around the room to write down every comment. We started at 6 pm and were still there at around 9:30 pm.
As we began to talk, people were angry. I told my staff to let them talk. We were not there to argue with them. We were there to hear about what’s important to them. They would go on until they got tired, and then the next person would speak. After the first several rows you could see the animosity and anger start to calm down, and people began to stand up and say, “I’d like to see this. We want housing, we want food, we want stores.” We would write all of this down, and if something was repeated, we would put a checkmark by it. By the time we got around the room, we had stuff covered everywhere on the walls. The community had so many wishes. As we began to wind it down, I said, “I have a question for you: Where do we begin?”
The community members said, “Where do we begin? You mean where do you begin?” I said, “No, that’s not how this works. It’s not me. It’s going to be us.”
So, I left them with that, and we had another meeting two weeks later where we got into groups, and I gave each group a category—from housing and jobs to graffiti and trash. We ended up having eight committees led by community members to ensure their wishes were represented.
That was the easy part. Being able to deliver on what they were asking us to do was the hard part. I asked the board and the City for their commitment to achieving those things. That’s how this started. We continued to have those committee meetings, and I spent my first three years doing that to make the 1999 East Liberty Community Plan. I keep the original version in my office as a reference to remind me that there is no timeline. As I said to the City, there is no rush because I have to do this based on community input and what’s important to them, so I don’t know how long it’s going to take me to turn it around, but I do know we will start with this plan.
What stands out to you about that time?
I remember at the end of one meeting, I was at the blackboard taking notes, and one of the senior ladies jumped up and said, “Ms. Myers, how do we know you’re going to stay?”
I said, “Well, what do you mean?”
She says, “So many of those people like you have come and gone. How do we know you’re going to stay?”
I turned around and said, “But why wouldn’t I stay after the work we’ve done?”
I said, “No, no, I’m going to be with you. We have so much work to do, and I need your support. I need your energy. We have to make this come to fruition. There’s no way in the world I’m going to turn my back and leave. There’s not a job that I can imagine leaving for, and besides, that’s not the kind of person I am. I’m going to stay the course.”
I turned back to the notes, and when I went home, I was overwhelmed by that.
I began to build the staff and team behind me that has made me who I am—and to this day I still remember that commitment.
After that first community planning process, how did you work to ensure that the community would have a say in future developments?
When the work was done and the community was happy with where the plan was headed, I decided to create an independent committee that’s still around to this day—25 years in the making—called the Community Planning Committee. The community planning committee is made up of a mix of ELDI board members and community members, and it helps ensure that we are transparent. Any project that’s going through East Liberty goes through that committee. I also created the real estate investment committee to ensure that our real estate decisions fit the community plan. That’s what we’ve been doing for the past 27 years, and it’s proven to be very amazing. I’m proud of those two community calls to transparency, and the City of Pittsburgh still look towards those committees for support.
What is your response to people who say that East Liberty has been “gentrified”?
All the people who couldn’t get out of East Liberty were the ones that built East Liberty’s community plans. The seniors, the veterans, the unemployed, all the people from the high rises who said, “I want better. We deserve better.” That’s how the plan was written, why it became important, and why ELDI became the steward of that plan.
When I walk outside now and see a new population that some people say are “gentrifying” the neighborhood, well that wasn’t what people thought back in 1996. They used Shadyside as a model of what they wanted—walkable streets, stores, family friendly. They didn’t want to see the drug wars. They wanted to be able to walk down their street. They wanted the heyday that they had become accustomed to before Urban Renewal. They wanted to be able to enjoy the East Liberty, that in their minds, was Pennsylvania’s third downtown. And they wanted me to help them figure out a way to fix that, never going back to those dark times that shut down the neighborhood and made them feel like Black people didn’t matter.
East Liberty today was built for those legacy residents who stayed course, who lost so much to be able to benefit from this. People coming in now are probably not going to know how bad it was. They probably aren’t going to understand what those residents went through to make it possible for them to enjoy now. The families that stayed the course are very grateful, because their home values increased, they have equity, and the neighborhood is walkable and beautiful. It’s everything that they said they wanted to me in the 90s. And I made sure that it was their vision, not mine. I try to make sure everyone that I work with understands that they’re working on behalf of the community and that we’re simply a tool to get things done.
Now that the East Liberty of today is made up of a different population, how do you make sure that the community vision stays up to date?
We have worked to do that by, first of all, creating an updated community plan in 2010. More recently, to make sure we’re continuing to stay in tune with community needs, we transferred some of our community planning duties to the
We also spun off two organizations: Rising Tide Partners and Catapult Greater Pittsburgh to ensure that the East Liberty community and other communities across Pittsburgh can benefit from new opportunities coming into the area. Rising Tide Partners is helping communities acquire the land needed to do the work of community development while Catapult is handling the people side of things, helping to stabilize families and build generational wealth in East Liberty and beyond.
You have dedicated more than 25 years of your life to East Liberty. What does this work mean to you?
This journey has not been an easy one. When that woman asked me if I would stay the course, I had no idea how long that course would be. I never saw myself being here 27 years later, but I made a commitment to making sure this plan became a reality, and now I can say that this plan is 95% done.
Looking at where I started, I never thought that I would end up in the position I’m in today, so I’m humbled by that, and I still finding myself learning. I learned that I don’t have to know everything. That’s not my job as a leader, and now cultivating the strengths of my board and staff is a real joy of mine.
Working in community development is tough. You are working with people with less means and opportunity who have been left behind, and you have to stay the course with people. They need to be able to lean on you and know that you care about them. So, it makes me happy when they say, “Thank you. I didn’t think I could have this kind of store. I didn’t think we could have some of the things that we have here.”
For me, the best part is knowing that I have done something that the community entrusted me with and that, with my amazing staff and board, we all took pride in transforming the community together.