Artists transform empty lots with community baking events
Pittsburgh has plenty of vacant lots, the “missing teeth” between neighborhood buildings.
Neu Kirche Contemporary Art Center is in a part of Pittsburgh, the eastern section of Deutschtown, that has its share of such lots.
Neu Kirche itself is a reclamation of sorts. The crumbling former First Immanuel Evangelical Church and adjoining buildings were repurposed for inexpensive art studio space.
“These buildings were slated to be demolished,” says Lee Parker, founder and executive director of Neu Kirche. “I bought them in 2014. It was a wreck. We've been programming while renovating.”
As with the vacant church, Parker saw some opportunity in the neighborhood's weedy, debris-strewn lots. They became “Fallow Grounds for Sculpture,” a multipronged project to give these spaces some life.
One of the projects in the works — a collaboration between Monique Redmond and Layne Waerea of Auckland, New Zealand — is an interactive creation called “Northside Civil Encounters.” Another, from Kansas-born Pittsburgh resident Amy Masters, is a classic “Roadside Attraction” for the neighborhood with a kitschy photo-op point of interest.
The most visible at the moment is the “Tripoli Street Bakeyard.”
We don't tend to think of sculpture in terms of its usefulness, but the “Tripoli Street Bakeyard” is a very useful piece of sculpture.
Michelle Illuminato, a professor at Alfred University in New York state who lives part time in Pittsburgh, came up with the “Tripoli Street Bakeyard” concept.
Illuminato built a handmade cob bake oven, which is mound-shaped and wood-fired. It looks, amusingly, a bit like a tiny cave for some fairy-tale creature. You can bake a pizza in it or a loaf of bread. A long semicircular picnic table points at the oven like an arrow.
The oven is open to the public to use, but Illuminato plans to be present to help people learn how to bake with it.
“Basically, when Lee invited me, I thought about an idea for a club, a baking club,” Illuminato says. “I'm already known as a yeast-pusher.”
She's looking for locals who want to join the new Bake Club to learn how to use the oven.
“Tripoli Street Bakeyard,” Parker says, “is an art project on vacant lots to highlight other uses for blighted areas. The community has really gotten involved. They do all the gardening and upkeep.”
The space will be programmed with events like Italian Night Happy Hour on July 19 and an Open Bakeyard on July 31.
“We worked for six weeks to gain the trust of the community,” Illuminato says. “It belongs to them. Success for a piece like this is its ability to be useful to people. If someone wants to put a grill down there, I can back off and let it have its own life.”
The bakeyard has already drawn a good number of visitors, she says.
“I'm thrilled that it will be here until October, and could stay later, for people to learn about baking and food production,” Illuminato says.
In a nice coincidence, the “Tripoli Street Bakeyard” is next to a quite extensive organic community garden started by the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh. This vacant lot was turned into a bountiful plot of produce and even a mini-orchard, of sorts.
“I've fought tirelessly to keep it a perpetual greenspace,” Parker says.
Neighborhood kids play there and pick fruit to eat all the time, she says.
Meanwhile, across town
Another approach to the bakeyard concept is the Braddock Community Oven, near the art gallery Unsmoke Systems in Braddock.
“People connect with bread,” says Shauna Kearns, who directs the use of the Braddock Community Oven. “Often they'll tell a wonderful story about something their grandmother used to bake, and we'll try to re-create that every week until we get the recipe right.”
The main difference is that the oven in Braddock is huge.
It was constructed by Vermont-based Wandrian Ovens, now called Boreal Heat, and the Trade Institute of Pittsburgh, and completed in spring of 2015.
“Its an oak-door brick oven, 5 feet by 7 feet,” Kearns says. “It's a very large oven.”
“Steve Shelton runs a 10-week masonry program at TIP for men and women who've ‘made mistakes in the past,' ” Kearns explains. “Digging and building the foundation of the oven was part of their program in summer 2014. The work they do is so important and changing so many lives in the Pittsburgh area.”
Kearns, 27, a baker who came to Pittsburgh for food studies at Chatham University, had experience with community ovens in her native Toronto. She lives a few doors down from the oven and manages its use.
Kids from the Braddock Youth Project, who work with various urban farms in the area, bring some of what they've grown to bake into the bread.
“Herbs, rosemary bread,” Kearns says. “Cinnamon buns do really well. Lots of sourdough.
“This winter, there were five or six apprentices who came every Thursday for the entire afternoon from a Propel Charter School. They learned a different component of the baking process: avoiding fire, mixing dough, baking the bread.”
Although the oven is mostly for Braddock residents, the bread can be found for sale at locations throughout the town, from the farmers market to Bell's Market.
Michael Machosky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or 412-320-7901.