En español | When I was 55, I committed to help revitalize Braddock, PA, a devastated borough of Pittsburgh, using my expertise as a tax attorney and real estate developer. We have created a model for community-driven revitalization that could be replicated in other communities.
The problem I am trying to solve
Once a vibrant town, Braddock was the Silicon Valley of its day. But when the steel industry collapsed, it lost 90 percent of its residents and 90 percent of its buildings. Three years ago, I was inspired to shift my focus from maintaining a thriving legal career to leveraging my skills to rebuild the town. I joined forces with Braddock Mayor John Fetterman (now Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor) and chef Kevin Sousa. We cared about the residents who remained and wanted to attract others back.
The first project was resuscitating an initiative to create local jobs, provide culinary training and use locally grown produce — the Superior Motors community restaurant. The project had stalled several years prior, but by resolving complex infrastructural, financial and construction obstacles, I helped to revive and expand it. We opened a new world-class restaurant in a place that hadn’t had any restaurant in over 30 years. We have hired between 50 and 70 percent of the staff from the area at well- above-average wages, offered a deep discount to locals, and launched a job training program to enable community members, including people released from prison, to find meaningful employment. Due to its community mission and outstanding cuisine, Superior Motors received national and global acclaim in 2018, including being among Food & Wine magazine’s top 10 restaurants in the U.S.
We are now focused on bringing the town’s eight-story Ohringer furniture store back to life as Ohringer Arts, a complex of residences, studios and rehearsal space for community-minded artists. We also plan on opening a chain of casual dining restaurants, in which our trained workers will take complete operational responsibility and participate in ownership.
The moment that sparked my passion
Three years ago, at 55, I attended a church service where the pastor urged his congregants to stop making excuses for getting involved when someone asks for your help in community transformation. The pastor said that when he ran track and the starter said, “On your mark, get set, go,” you couldn’t say, “I’ll go later — my stomach hurts.” When we get our next calling, don’t make excuses, he urged us. A day later, I was approached about bringing Superior Motors to life. It has literally changed my life and the community.
Advice to others who want to make a difference
When an opportunity comes along to help others and you’re on the fence about whether to say yes or no, take that step forward. Step out of your bubble and comfort zone. Focus on a cause that is not your own, one that helps people of a different race, color and/or religion. Learn what life is like from a different vantage point, from someone else’s oppression. Step up to the plate and try to make a difference in their lives. You won’t regret it.
Why my approach is unique
Instead of having outsiders dictate how a community will be revitalized, the Braddock revitalization projects provide a pathway for those with deep community roots to actively participate, shape goals and outcomes, and most importantly benefit from the change. We are also mindful about the possible effects of gentrification. Unlike other communities that have displaced existing residents, we are trying to ensure that current residents of Braddock get the first opportunity to take new jobs. We also are discussing with the city council a proposal to freeze property taxes for long-term residents so they are not forced to leave when property values rise.