Paul Johnson and the MWSS: Preserving the NorthsideIn advance of City of Asylum/Pittsburgh’s Jazz Poetry Concert, Sampsonia Way is speaking with the five Northside community leaders who will be emceeing the event. This is the third installment in the Jazz Poetry Emcee interview series.
Paul Johnson moved to Pittsburgh’s Northside in 2005 and has since taken on a variety of roles. He’s the President of the Mexican War Streets Society (MWSS), a board member for the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group, a member of the development committee of the Central Northside Neighborhood Council, and owner of Lagom, LLC, a real estate development venture. Mr. Johnson spoke to Sampsonia Way from the MWSS’s offices in August about his reasons for moving to Pittsburgh, his various efforts to help build up the Northside, and why the weekend of Jazz Poetry is important for the community.
What made you want to move to the Pittsburgh?
I had been in the construction industry for many years in New York and wanted to do something smaller. It took me two years of research to find Pittsburgh, but I fell in love with it and decided to come.
Why the Mexican War Streets in particular?
This neighborhood, including Allegheny East as well as Allegheny West, is probably the most architecturally coherent neighborhood in the city.
I just stumbled on the neighborhood when I was looking on the web. I saw photographs from the Mexican War Streets Society’s website and I said “Wow, that looks like the Upper West Side of New York, or Brooklyn.” I came out here and a lot of it was beautiful, but a lot was on the fringe. I decided to work on the fringe, developing properties.
What is the MWSS currently working on?
We’re a preservationist group, and we have an annual house tour that raises funds to spend on the community. We provide $5,000 a year to the West Park renovation, plant trees on the streets, and give money to the Sharry Everett Scholarship Fund–which helps kids from this neighborhood to go to college. We also landscape and tend the “Mechanic’s Retreat Park,” across from the coffee shop on Buena Vista.
Now we are very excited about a new project: Giving grants to low-to-moderate income families who live in the neighborhood and need help with the restoration of their houses.
This is our pilot project, so we’re going to give one grant this year and hopefully more in the following years. Of course it helps the historic nature of the district, but it also helps the homeowners who are having difficulty maintaining their houses.
What are some of your favorite spots in the Northside?
I think West Park. It’s about a mile long and half a mile deep, and that’s an asset. Now it’s under restoration, and the next part of the project is to rebuild the fountain, which is directly across from the hospital.
There is also the Community College of Allegheny County, the New Hazlett theater, and hopefully the old library can be reused.
We also have a new library on Federal Street and there’s the War Streets themselves, which have two coffeehouses and the Monterey Pub, a great place. There’s going to be a lot more coming.
Why is the weekend of the Jazz Poetry Concert important for the Northside?
It’s an amazing weekend. The event also coincides with Writers in the Garden, the house tour, and the Mexican War Streets’ gala, which is on Friday night. And the Steelers are out of town, so that clears up traffic a bit.
Can’t make the concert? Watch it live via Livestream here.