Fiasco Art Center sits near the highest point in Pittsburgh. Though still a work in progress, the building is resplendent in colorful murals. Founders Noelle and Ben Tolman are hopeful Fiasco can be a key part of Observatory Hill’s ongoing renaissance — without the negative side effects of gentrification they witnessed in their former home of Washington, DC.
The Tolmans are familiar with the pitfalls of artists moving in and raising property values. Ben, a full-time visual artist, alludes to the “10-year cycle” of artists and LGBTQ+ residents improving neighborhoods and then getting displaced by wealthier residents. The couple is taking steps to short-circuit this pattern. “We’re not going to build this into anything you’ve seen in a typical art center,” Ben tells Pittsburgh City Paper. “It’s all an experiment in community-building.”
The couple and their growing family of dogs and cats moved from the DC area in 2019 in large part because Pittsburgh was one of the few places where they found a sizable property capable of accommodating their dream. In this case, that place is the former Incarnation Academy middle school, constructed in 1954 during Pittsburgh’s peak population years.
The building is still mid-transformation. Urinals from a recent bathroom renovation now serve as planters in the schoolyard where the Tolmans’ dogs play. The former gym is halfway to becoming a hangout space and functions as an ad hoc gallery for artist Rick Bach’s work (Bach, who used to live locally, helped put Pittsburgh on the Tolmans’ radar).
Noelle hopes that creating a neighborhood hub will help neighbors feel included in their plans. “I grew up in Brazil, and I grew up hearing things like, ‘this is too expensive for you’ or ‘this is for people who understand about art’ or ‘this is for rich people,” she says. “We want people [here] to understand that art is culture, and culture is us.”
The Tolmans want to lower perceived barriers to their space by making community central to their vision for Fiasco. Though COVID-19 concerns and ongoing zoning questions have delayed some of their plans, the couple hopes the gym space, which houses a stage and sits adjacent to the former school kitchen, can eventually become a coffee shop. “I have no interest in making money off the space,” Ben says, adding he and Noelle are currently financing it at a loss through his art and her translation work. “It’s about building a permanent cultural space in Pittsburgh.”
Observatory Hill, Inc., the local neighborhood association, shares many of the Tolmans’ hopes for the community. Both would like to see the Five Points business district get busier without displacing locals. To that end, Observatory Hill, Inc. has taken an active role in securing several commercial properties — including the locally infamous Moriarty’s storefront — and converting the floors above into spacious public housing units.
“We’re now on phase two with another five houses. One is complete. Three of the five are going to be affordable housing,” Observatory Hill, Inc.’s president Jeremy Lawler tells City Paper. Work continues on the commercial district. Ida’s Sandwich Shop and the Northside Chronicle now occupy two storefronts, and Lawler and others hope to attract a restaurant that serves alcohol.
Getting the neighborhood reactivated is a group effort, and Lawler says art is an important part of it. Through events like the June 25 house tour — the first such event since the pandemic began — Observatory Hill is taking an organic, block-by-block approach to community building. Lawler notes events like the upcoming Aug. 4 Neighbor Friday, which will continue on a monthly basis through the summer.
“You get to talking to people, you find out what their interests are, and then hopefully they can help better the community, too,” he says.
The Tolmans took a similar approach when preparing to open Fiasco in 2019. “We’re outsiders, obviously, so we sent probably 200 or 250 letters to all the neighbors just introducing ourselves [prior to moving in],” Noelle says. Potluck events followed the move, and the Tolmans say local kids enjoy access to several outdoor spaces. Tonka trucks left over from playtime remain parked on the Fiasco lawn, and area young people have painted several surfaces on the site.
As with other deconsecrated religious buildings in Pittsburgh, Fiasco faces the challenge of breathing new life into a building strongly anchored in many locals’ memories. Noelle says the school building’s long vacancy left the neighbors eager “for something to be done. They didn’t want this just falling apart.”
If the house tour was any indicator, the neighbors are pleased with what has followed. Some 200 to 300 area residents passed through Fiasco during the event. “What they’ve done with the old school is phenomenal,” Lawler says, noting that the house tour overall was “a smashing success.”
Above all, the plan is for Fiasco to remain accessible. Rather than individual studios, Ben hopes to organize spaces by use, and plans include a print shop, ceramics lab, and even a recording studio. He currently works out of what will become the Fiasco frame shop, which boasts a spectacular view stretching from Downtown to McKees Rocks. “We want to make this space as dense with art as possible,” Ben says.
Realizing this vision could take years, the Tolmans aren’t necessarily in a hurry. They’re self-funding upgrades like the bathroom renovations and their recent addition of colorfully striped siding to the former rectory, which will someday host a rotating artist residency. The neighborhood is key to seeing these plans through.
“The neighbors here keep us in check,” Noelle says. She says Incarnation alumni still drop by to check in on their alma mater, and nearby locals check in periodically to chat or offer help with projects. “The neighbors are very involved, and we have a lot of support,” Ben says.
“The people of Pittsburgh have been great to us.”