They’re standing on Troy Hill’s Harpster Street, sitting on folding chairs, sprawled over those ubiquitous Pittsburgh front stoops. Snarfing down the pot-luck fare, largely vegetarian and vegan — three-bean chili and saffron rice; vegan meatballs in red-pepper sauce, carrot cupcakes, hot cider and soda — they’re the Troy Hooligans, a decidedly eclectic, informal, nontraditional bit of guerilla theater here to transform what is one of Pittsburgh’s more isolated neighborhoods.
Due to map — Troy Hill is a two-mile long, half-mile wide plateau above the Allegheny River — and mindset, the ’hood has been strictly for homebodies, an alpine retreat for made guys for more than a century.
Homes were passed down through the generations, in the manner of English country estates, parents to children to grandchildren. Realtors were proud of the fact that properties were rarely, if ever, listed for sale. In the event that a family member didn’t want the manse, a neighbor with an extra child or stray cousin invariably did. Title, tax, transfer — all done in an afternoon.
But things change. People move away. Houses on Troy Hill, once offered at a premium, were aging, going begging.
Not so long ago, when the suburbs beckoned, and living anywhere but in the city was deemed preferable, Troy Hill seemed — if not doomed, then at least a seedy relic of the distant past.
But with homes standing vacant, a lovely river trail below and the trend back toward urban places, Troy Hill is suddenly — if not a hot number, then at least something more than tepid.
Suddenly auslanders, young urban homesteaders, have started to arrive.
Some, like Troy Hooligan Prankster-in-Charge Nicole Moga, came equipped with decidedly nontraditional ideas. Flower-planting. Tree-planting. Block parties.
“It all started as a lark,” she smiles.
Wanting more room than they had in their Bloomfield digs, Moga and hubby Mike Fifth found a fixer-upper with incredibly good bones and fabulous turn-of-the-last-century burnished wood. “We fell in love instantly,” she recalls.
Moving to Troy Hill in ’09, into a house sorely undervalued and underloved, they went to work restoring their Harpster Street haven to its former glory. And they got involved in the life of the neighborhood, planting flowers and trees in public areas, hauling trash, calling the city about abandoned cars.
Oh, they wanted to work with traditional community groups, but found that said groups were somewhat resistant to new ideas.
Like rebranding the neighborhood. One bon mot that died quickly, recalling Troy Hill’s hog-butchery past, was to reposition the neighborhood as Pig Hill. “That,” Moga smirks, “was blasphemy.”
“That also led us to do our own thing,” she smiles.
Never incorporating, naming a board or writing by-laws, Moga, Fifth and some like-minded brigands created the Hooligans, continuing their own kind of agitprop street movement and action teams when necessary.
“I decided to keep it light and casual,” Moga recalls. That meant communicating largely by social media, a closed Facebook site that hosts some 180 like-minded souls. “We do things mischievously. We don’t take ourselves too seriously.”
So unseriously, in fact, that open-air block parties aside, the Hooligans never meet formally. “On purpose,” Moga says. “We want to keep it more casual than that.”
Instead, she’ll put out calls — railing-painting here, tree-planting there — and whoever shows, shows. “This,” she gestures, “is the way to transform Troy Hill.”
It’s a novel concept: neighborhood revitalization that mirrors resistance and insurgency movements the world over, albeit spiffed up by electronics. On the one hand, the entire idea seems loose to the level of coming apart at the seams. On the other hand, perhaps it’s the future of neighborhood activism — four dozen folks magically materializing for seed-bombing vacant lots and hanging dry wall. When you see an opportunity, they say, seize it, the modus operandi being it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission.
A clean street, a repaired storage garage, a raucous, good-vibes block party, and pretty soon you’ve transformed an entire neighborhood.
“We feel very empowered and liberated to do things creatively,” Moga says. “Community development doesn’t have to be all board meetings and grant-writing.” She pauses. “We want to do fun things.”
Fun is the operative word, and it seems to be working.
“People have moved up here,” she adds, “and they’re excited about it.” They walk to trails and town. To the Wigle Barrelhouse. To PNC Park and Heinz Field and the Aviary.
“Those things are neighborhood assets,” Moga gestures, and smiles.