Dave Feehan hunches a bit deeper into his coat and, hands in pockets, nods across the street toward a parking lot at the corner of Liberty Avenue and Gross Street. Come next month, he envisions the lot being choked with people and vendors ranging from urban farmers to blood-pressure screeners, breakfast baskets to CAPA buskers. Feehan is betting that over the spring and summer, hundreds and maybe even thousands of people will spend their Saturdays enjoying a new Bloomfield open-air market.
When Feehan talks, people listen. He's got chops all over the place — in community organizing, neighborhood revitalization and downtown redevelopment — with success stories that stretch across the country and beyond. He's practiced his art and alchemy from Des Moines to Detroit, from Kalamazoo to Kingston, Jamaica.
For more than 40 years, the bearish, avuncular Feehan has worked from street-level up and from the boardroom down, making cities more humane, more livable, more financially stable.
The Minnesota native cut his teeth working in Pittsburgh and McKeesport in the late '60s, an era when cities could depend on massive federal grants to jumpstart change. Not any longer. Now it takes good old-fashioned elbow grease — and wise investing — to get things moving.
In Des Moines, for example, Feehan found a moribund town, but one with a great deal of potential. Starting with a few ground-level ideas, like an open-air market, Feehan was able to attract some $3 billion in new development. "It was dead," he says of Des Moines. "It's a nice little city now."
By 2009, Feehan found himself perusing big pictures and cajoling investors. But the work felt too high-up, too distant: "I wanted to get back to working with people again," he recalls.
Serendipitously, Pittsburgh's Urban Redevelopment Authority hired him as a consultant, asking him to look at eight Main Streets. How, the authority asked, can we attract more customers and businesses to Lawrenceville, Friendship, the Strip, Mount Washington, West End, South Side, North Side — and today's lesson, Bloomfield?
Feehan, who was living in Washington, D.C., at the time, jumped at the chance. "Here I am back in neighborhoods!" he says. "And having the best time."
Nationwide, trends are bringing investment back to cities, and local neighborhoods like Lawrenceville and Friendship are already witnessing strong growth. Others need a bit of a kickstart, a jolt from the jumper cable. "We've figured out how to fix downtowns," Feehan says. "But we haven't yet figured out how to fix struggling neighborhoods.
"This," he gestures, "is the new frontier. This is the place that's exciting and challenging."
"Bloomfield is an important, iconic Pittsburgh neighborhood," Feehan adds, "one of the 10 best Little Italys in the United States."
For so many Pittsburghers, Bloomfield is familiar yet alien. Although there are new Asian eateries, coffee shops and bookstores, the elderly stay put, and housing stock decays. Time and tide take their toll on shingles and sidewalks; seniors living on Social Security can't afford necessary fixes.
"This neighborhood," Feehan says, "deserves better."
If he has his way, better is upon us. First, he has helped find money for Liberty Avenue sidewalks and facades — amazing what a spit-shine and spiff-up will do for an urban streetscape.
Second, there's his Saturday market, what Feehan predicts will be "the social event of the week." Pulling fresh produce from a 25-mile radius around Bloomfield, the market will be the perfect spring-summer draw, Feehan predicts. With booths for banks, housing, health care, "everything will be here that makes people — and neighborhoods — healthy," Feehan says. "It'll be the place you want to be on a Saturday morning."
When the market opens in mid-May, Feehan expects 30, perhaps 50 vendors. By season's end, he predicts there could be as many as 100.
"We started small in Des Moines, too," he says. "It grew to eight city blocks, 300 vendors, 20,000 people a week. If we draw 5,000 people a week here, times 26 weeks, that's more than 100,000 people. That's a lot of foot traffic. That's a lot of cabbage changing hands."
"If this works — and I know it can work — it will be a cornerstone for a revitalized Bloomfield." Feehan stares at the wind-swept lot. "We've got one chance. I don't want to screw it up."