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'Vacant Home Tour' Reimagines Blight

It's not your typical walking tour: A resident-led project in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania explores the history of a community through its blighted properties.
June 2, 2016, 12pm PDT | Elana Eden
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James R. Martin

Founded by Carnegie Mellon students in 2014, the Vacant Home Tour tells the story of blighted properties in Wilkinsburg—a borough of 2.3 square miles with nearly 800 vacant parcels.

Each year, residents volunteer to research the history of vacant properties on the route, put together resources and workshops, and act as tour guides for other community members.

One aim of the project is to "dematerialize" the empty structures, reorienting tour-goers to the human value of former homes. In a Q&A with the Center for Community Progress, organizer Marita Garrett explains:

When people drive or walk by a boarded up home, that’s all they see. By sharing the stories of these homes — the people who lived in them, the businesses they ran in the business district, the holidays that were celebrated in the home, the children that grew up there, the architectural details that made each property so full of character, the gardens that grew in the yard — the Vacant Home Tour aims to honor the value of these properties regardless of what the future holds for [them] (restoration, demolition, or continued vacancy).

Residents old and new—including some featured properties' former occupants—participate in the tour as both guides and visitors, enabling a community-wide conversation about the neighborhood’s past and future. Another key goal of the project is to "reframe the issue of blight as an opportunity rather than a problem," Garrett says:

Blight negatively affects communities, not just because it’s dangerous, but because it can make residents feel hopeless. For those of us who weren’t there during its heyday, it’s hard to imagine Wilkinsburg ever had a heyday. But that’s why preserving that history and that narrative is so important. Wilkinsburg was once the most affluent communities in southwestern PA, so what happened? How can it come back? How can it come back in a way that is equitable for all people? And how can we prevent communities from this type of drastic decline in the future? These are the questions that the Vacant Home Tour raises, and though we don’t have the answers, we are starting the discussion.

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Published on Monday, May 23, 2016 in Community Progress Blog
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