It was four years ago that filmmaker Chris Ivey listened to Alethea Sims speechifying after a paintball attack on her home, East Mall. The attack was leveled by policy makers, neighborhood advocates and elected officials at a "celebration" event at which they shot paint at the ugly building and threw confetti and felt well-meaning.
After all, they were destroying a bad model of public housing, with plans to replace it so poor people could lead more attractive lives, more integrated with the greater East Liberty neighborhood.
East Mall was demolished, Alethea Sims went to a public housing apartment across Penn Circle and waited. She also organized residents and inserted her foot in the door of the room where the suits met in order to get them heard.
Today, she was in the "reserved" row of seats at a ground-breaking ceremony that brought out the same public officials and their successors, but this time, she was happy.
A new building will replace the North half of East Mall and she will be in it in about 14 months. Not only that, she was one of the neighborhood advocates who sat at the table for every planning session to make sure this development -- mixed-income rentals with retail on the sidewalk -- would address the needs of residents who never had a voice.
Chris Ivey was there today to film the event and talk to her again, continuing his documentation of East Liberty's transformation in the series "East of Liberty."
Former East Mall residents will have first dibs on East Liberty Place North -- 54 apartments, 38 of them reserved for low-income people. It's 75,000 square feet, with space for six retailers.
Ms. Sims said the East Mall residents she has heard from "are all a definite maybe" to return. She is a definite and has picked out a top-floor eastern corner. The building is four stories.
The Community Builders developer is working with the Urban Redevelopment Authority and nine financing partners. The building will be certified by the Green Building Council and cost about $13 million.
Most ground-breakings are insipid events, with a line-up of suits saying what a great day it is, how proud they are and how it wasn't just me but a whole team of people and naming elected officials so no one is miffed. But this ground-breaking, if you knew a little about what happened to bring it about, rated a little higher. It was an emotional milestone for the many people who had to pull the process through an arduous obstacle course during a financial meltdown.
As the market changed, focus and purpose changed, and everyone who was committed had to be reconsulted and repersuaded and tax credits had to be refigured and all the complicated formulae for affordable housing financing had to be tweaked and all the residents had to be assured that their interests were in the mix and then it had to be done all over again, but differently.
"Probably only a thousand people had to work very hard to make this all happen," said Rob Stephany, who was in on the oriinal planning when he worked for East Liberty Development. He is now executive director of the URA. "There were a lot of emotional times in church basements with Alethea and CORE [Concerned Residents of East Liberty] making sure we understood this is a place where people live."
Ernie Hogan, ELDI's director of housing, said ELDI is keeping its promise to the residents who were displaced from all the demolished public housing in the area. "We have 300 units back in the system, and we are planning 200 more."
After a group of dignitaries, including the mayor, pitched gold-plated shovels into some dirt and threw it into the construction site, Chris Ivey trained his camera on Alethea for an interview.
"At the paintball party, where we met," she told him, "I said I would throw confetti when someone hands me a set of keys. In 14 months, I will have my keys. I'll be going back home."
Walkabout congratulates everyone who is happy about East Liberty Place North and wants to point out that "Eastside" is missing from the name.