Street art fair latest effort to continue bringing life back to New Kensington

·7 min read

May 23—The heart of New Kensington's business district beat a little stronger Saturday, and the city showed signs of artistic life.

Painted chairs and parked cars lined the 900 block of Fifth Avenue. Its sidewalks featured tables of dolls, jewelry, paintings, caricatures and basket raffles.

The sound of women singing could be heard up and down the block. Doors that were shuttered for what seemed like decades, some because of the pandemic, were open.

It was the response to New Kensington Arts Center's inaugural Spring Fling.

For event organizer Carina Lobel-West, the weekend felt like a breath of fresh air coming into a maskless face.

"It's time to wake up from the covid," Lobel-­West said. "We celebrate living artists. It's wonderful if you can afford to buy one of those hoity-toity (pieces from) the artists that have already passed on. We need to celebrate the artists that are alive and support them. That's why I did it.

"Bring out the community. Bring out the families. Bring out your relatives, your friends."

Old-timer sees revival starting

Resident Larry Rowe has lived in the city for more than 70 years. He recalled when there were several clothing stores, theaters and much more along Fifth Avenue.

Rowe also witnessed the economic and social decline since the 1960s, '70s and early '80s.

He feels the 2020s will be a prosperous decade.

"What I see is a different New Kensington," said Rowe, a retired Valley High School teacher. "More like an art, music and restaurant (atmosphere). Back in the day, there was a hotel, the Ken-Mar. It was different, two banks on the corner, (G.C.) Murphy's 5-and-10.

"What I see is a change and a different breed. The city needed something. A shot of penicillin, and this could be it. We'll find out whether this is going to hold on. The art is beautiful."

The arts center, at 950 Fifth Ave., was open for tours. One of its displays featured the work of Tommy West, a retired Navy photographer and Lobel-West's husband.

After 45 years, where did the town go?

West said he returned to New Kensington in March 2011 after being away for 45 years and didn't recognize the area.

"When I came across the C.L. Schmitt Bridge (Ninth Street Bridge) and coming down the ramp looking at the town, I'm like, 'Where the hell did New Kensington go?' " he said. "When I left here, this place was booming. There was no place to park on the streets because cars would take up all the parking spaces. People were walking shoulder to shoulder on the street.

"As I was coming across the bridge, it looked desolate. That blew me away. But it inspired me to try and do something to bring New Kensington back to what had once been."

West met up with a group of fellow photographers at a Tarentum museum, joined the photography club and helped found the arts center about six years ago.

Arts center walls are now lined with paintings, drawings and other media from people 8 to 80 years old.

Organizers wanted to have a spring fling last year but couldn't because of the pandemic.

"With the influx of covid last year, it really put a damper on everything," West said. "We were able to keep our doors open here. Now that things seem to be taking a turn for the better, we're trying to start taking things back out to the street and getting folks motivated to come around and spend money, participate and socialize.

"Whatever it takes to have a healthy atmosphere in our environment. That's basically the general idea. There's a lot of talent in the community, and we're trying to bring it out."

Steven Thomas of Lower Burrell and a handful of his friends made the trek into New Kensington for a birthday party. He said his family used to make frequent trips to the city, but he hasn't felt the need to come down in years until now.

"This town used to boom," Thomas said. "My whole family grew up 20 minutes from here. This used to be a mall for them. On Thursday nights, everything on the strip was be open until 9 p.m. This used to be the busiest place you could (be) besides (Downtown Pittsburgh). All these vacant business fronts like in Vandergrift and Leechburg. My grandmother is 97 years old. She used talk about coming down here to get materials and make new dresses and go out for the weekend.

"It's good to see some kind of positive energy here."

New businesses trickling in

About eight businesses have opened up in New Kensington since 2019, including Tonie's Massage Therapy Retreat along Fifth Avenue.

Owner Tonie Vaughn-Clemons participated in some of the activities at the spring fling event. She was hoping to see more than the several dozen people who visited the city Saturday.

"It peaks the curiosity of some of the New Ken residents," she said. "I find that 80% of the people that support down here are from out of town. ... These streets should be packed right now with New Ken residents. I don't know (why there are not more people here). I feel there are a lot of out-of-towners are starting to get brave enough to come in. This should be packed with New Ken people that we know."

Rowe said the city has a bit of a negative reputation, and there are a lot of people trying to change that.

Lifelong resident Jim Thomas, 83, said some folks are still hoping for the return of days gone by instead of seeking new opportunities.

"Everybody's waiting for Alcoa to come back," he said. "It left here 50 years ago. All the people who were waiting, most of them died now. The new generation will probably be better. I was born here. We had all kind of jobs with the glass company in Arnold and Alcoa here and General Electric. All kind of stores were open. You didn't have to go to Pittsburgh for anything. You could get it in New Kensington."

Keep the flings coming

Thomas said the city needs more events like spring fling to keep the momentum going.

Bill Hall, arts center treasurer, agrees.

"We certainly made a lot of friends today." said Hall, 74. "'B.C.' — before covid — we had a lot of friends then. I think we're breaking some ice. I really was frightened myself about whether it was time (to have an event), but outside we felt a lot better about having good family fun. I just came from dancing if you could believe it. My hip believes it. Some folks were nice enough to say I did a good job."

Businesses that participated in the spring fling include Steel City Coffee, Voodoo Brewery, Original Hot Dog Factory, Knead Community Cafe, Lynette's Mad Custom Cakes, Ashley's Kitchen and Sweet Tillies, a bakery specializing in baklava.

Afro Love Pgh provided African dance classes by dance teacher Melissa Jenkins of Highland Park, Pittsburgh.

Trovo Co, a vintage home decor and repurposed wood store at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Tenth Street across from Voodoo Brewery, reopened in March after a major renovation.

This November will mark its two-year anniversary. Trovo in Italian means "I find."

Owner Nicole Vigilante said she was not directly involved in the spring fling, but praised its organizers and hopes to be involved in other city events.

"I think it's great," Vigilante said. "Anything that brings people down here is good for everybody. The people are just wonderful. The community is just excited to support the growth that's happening down here."

The spring fling is another of many revitalization efforts in the city to occur within the past year or two.

Businessman Michael Malcanas bought more than a dozen buildings, mostly along Fifth Avenue, and has been repairing and remodeling them into functioning business spaces.

Michael DiVittorio is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Michael at 412-871-2367, mdivittorio@triblive.com or via Twitter .