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A Conversation with Mark Harvey Smith

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Mark Harvey Smith grew up on a DuBois-area farm, but the real-estate consultant is now an advocate for, and practitioner of, urban pioneering -- the resettling of undervalued markets. Smith, 43, started out in commercial real estate. Since then, he and his partner, Mark Lowe, have owned, renovated and lived in buildings in Uniontown and Wilkinsburg. In April, Smith published Boldly Live Where Others Won't: An Introduction to Urban Pioneering (Publishamerica).

 

 

Your urban-pioneering roots are in farm country?

I grew up in the 1970s, watching the downtown of the small town where I grew up falling apart, while the malls were being built. Anybody can build a new building in a cornfield. But to go into an inner-city neighborhood that has had its share of problems and try to rebuild that, in some creative way that actually works -- I sort of sought that out.

 

You moved to Wilkinsburg in 1999?

[Developer Kasey Connors] had been restoring properties here since 1977. We looked for a place initially to rent where we could do this office. We lived on Jeannette Street part-time, still had our place in Uniontown, and rented this place, and did that for about a year. A year later we made a deal to buy the whole place.

 

What about financing?

We didn't go to the bank and get a mortgage -- given our circumstances no bank would have given us a mortgage right away. We bought it on a land contract. We have yet to buy a property through a real-estate broker using conventional financing. Everything has been sort of creative. That's why I talk about that a lot in the book: You don't have to have a lot of money to do this.

 

Does the do-it-yourself approach include renovations?

Any of the buildings we've done, except for some of the major things like a roof in Uniontown and electrical systems, we did most of the work ourselves, and most of the work has been cosmetic. Mark and I are by no means construction experts, but we're handy enough to do minor things. A theme throughout the book is, "How do you do this?" If you don't know what you're doing, the best thing to do is talk to somebody who's done it. They're more than willing usually to share that knowledge.

 

What about gentrification?

That's a word I hate. It's not a word I use in my book at all. I was at Pittsburgh PrideFest, signing books, and Tim Vining, who [ran] the Merton Center, came up and said, "You know, the title of your book is potentially offensive. There are people living in those neighborhoods already where you're saying 'Boldly Live.'" I said, "Yeah -- I'm one of 'em. I'm not talking about this as an outsider, looking in."

 

What do you want for Wilkinsburg?

We don't want it to become the next Shadyside. Our ideal is not a neighborhood that prices itself out of reach of most people, and displaces the people that have lived here. I think to some extent you want property values to improve. There's an opportunity here to create a diverse neighborhood, and I mean diverse by lifestyle, by income and by race. That's what cities once were -- what made them tick in the old days, before cars came around to move us around and separate us. Older communities, older housing stock, present an opportunity to alleviate some of those problems.

 

That's why I use the multi-unit property, the two- to four-unit thing, as the ideal, because it creates home ownership, it accommodates the renter market, as opposed to pricing them out, and by living in the community, we are not absentee landlords.

 

You seem to see urban pioneering as a calling.

A refrain throughout my book is, "It's not for everybody." Some people think we're nuts. A lot of people think we're nuts. Right now we're leaving a neighborhood that's on the rise in Uniontown to consolidate here, on Rebecca Avenue. The worst block of Rebecca Avenue, I might add, at least visually. So why are we doing that? Number one, our jobs are demanding more of our time -- it's just become expensive and difficult to maintain two homes. Number two, this is the neighborhood, this is the property that needs our attention. That's just our thing, that's what we do. I think it's what keeps us in Pittsburgh. I kind of like to buck the trend.

 

What should potential urban pioneers ask themselves?

What are you looking for? If you want to go to a neighborhood to take advantage of rising property values, urban pioneering is probably not for you. There are communities that will gentrify, and you can take advantage of that kind of thing, but that's not the population I'm looking for. Some people do not want to live in a diverse neighborhood. They're looking for the next white-bread community.

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