806 Western Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15233

Letter from the President – November 2015

I usually try and avoid general COME TO THE MEMBERSHIP meeting nagging, although it has become my standard response for folks that don’t like a position that the Civic Council has taken on a given issue. But I’m going to make an exception for this month, because:

  1. We’re electing new officers and it’s really, really important to have a quorum. If nothing else this is a chance to talk to the new Committee Chairs about all the great things you want to start doing and think the neighborhood should be supporting. Notice I didn’t suggest inundating the new folks with “feedback about what you think needs to be changed”. I don’t speak for everyone obviously. But speaking from personal experience, when I was a new Board member, that things which I felt I was most successful at were projects that people already wanted to work on that I could help get off the ground. Once folks get settled in, maybe they’ll be in a position to start hearing about how other folks think they should be spending their time. Maybe…but for right now I am hoping folks limit suggestions to things that you yourself are interested in working on right now (or soon). And just to be clear, I’m not saying that folks should stop giving us “heads up” about problems that need to be addressed, but please (please!) don’t scare the new board members away with an overwhelming number of suggestions for things that aren’t time sensitive before they even start.
  2. And if that weren’t enough, I finally managed to connect with the Permits, Building and Licensing Office for the City. They are sending their Government and Public Relation Liaison, Julie Reiland, to our meeting. They have some cool new technology that makes filing permits easier that she’s going to talk about. As well as generally covering information about the filing, reporting and enforcement process for building permits in the City.

So sorry to be a nag! Hope to see you there.

Catherine Serventi,
President, AWCC

Letter from the President – October 2015

So, once again, I’m expecting people to start pretending that they didn’t see me and walking quickly down the street when I wave at them at the Modern. It’s that time year again…

The Nominating Committee is on the prowl for next year’s Board members.

Ha. I bet you were expecting me to say something about the Christmas tour, because, yes, it’s that time again, too. I’m not the one you have to run from for the House tour. I know that Doug (Guides), Cecile (Trains), and Brandon (Greeters) are armed with their links to the volunteer spreadsheets. If you have your heart set on a specific time or task, you can send a quick note to and we’ll get you hooked up with the right person. Also keep an eye out for Trish (Ways & Means Chair) who has long checklists of tasks and endless details that she really could use a hand with. (Seriously, be nice to Trish, this time in the Tour planning is crazy making. I hear she likes lemon flavored things.) Speaking of…does anyone have a truck we could borrow?

OK, back to Nominating Committee. Joking aside, a lot of time and thought by the Nominating Committee goes into matching people’s skills, interests, and available time to the various Board positions. We need a mix of new folks for their valuable fresh perspectives and people who have served previously so that we can maintain institutional memory (because, honestly you only go back and read previous years’ minutes when you really, really have to…). These positions have important responsibilities attached to them, that can potentially affect the quality of life of everyone in the neighborhood so we’re not just looking for a warm body. If you think that any of the Board positions sound interesting, I encourage you to talk with me, or even better, the chair of the committee you’re interested in. One of the main jobs of every Board member is recruiting their replacement, so I’m sure they’d be happy to chat. At this point we’re already planning for the 2017 Board, so you have plenty of time, to sample some of the different positions but helping out on various projects. OK, maybe folks are totally justified avoiding me at parties.

Quick Buhl grant update: We had an awesome turnout for the first session during the last membership
meeting (and I got my hands on one of the giant maps.) Martha has submitted the grant application and
we’re waiting for feedback. If you’re interested in reading the application including a summary of the ideas discussed, let me know and I’ll send it to you. As soon as the tour stuff calms down, I’m going to ask Nick, our webmaster, to help me get some of the various materials up on the website, accessible for anyone who is interested.

Catherine Serventi
President, AWCC

Letter from the President – September 2015

Hopefully people won’t start hiding from me again. Aside from the fact that we’re still looking for houses for the Christmas Tour (and I swear someone did actually run from me once…you know who you are!), I have another petition for folks to sign. Martha is heading up a grant application through the Buhl Foundation/Sprout Fund One Northside Community grants. At the July Membership meeting we voted to work with an urban planner to build out a plan that we can use to apply from additional funds from lots of different sources. This is different from a 5 year plan or some other medium or long term vision. We want to identify shorter term projects (a year or two) that would significantly improve things in the neighborhood. And then we’re going to figure out how much it actually costs (that’s what makes it different from the usual 5 year plans) In order to make sure it is your life that is significantly improved we need folks to show up at a planning meeting or two (oh yeah, petition, you have to sign the petition so we can get the initial funding). Emailing Martha or cornering me at the Labor Day picnic (after I corner you with the petition) with your great idea isn’t going to cut it for this since we’re going to also need to establish priorities which we have to do in groups. (Because if you let me pick the priorities you’ll probably end up with gas street lights and duck ponds all over the neighborhood – and there will be no parking anywhere because I don’t drive…) So please come to the initial planning meeting, which will be run by someone really good at running these types of things. so I promise it will be productive (and apparently really big maps are involved). If you can’t make this meeting, depending on what some of the initial pain points are we’ll have some more opportunities to get feedback. We’d especially like to make sure that we get input from neighbors such as business owners and employees or renters and landlords who typically haven’t been as active in the membership meetings. I would be interested in suggestions from folks on how to reach out to those people – please invite them personally if you see them. Come for the pizza stay for the neighborhood improvements. And PLEASE contact Trish or Gloria ( if you’re interested in having your house on the tour.

And congratulations to Babb Inc. who was named one of Pittsburgh’s Coolest Offices by the Pittsburgh Business Times. Michael and I got to hang out in their really neat garage space and have pizza with them after their service day on July 15. (See the Above and Beyond article for more information.).

See you all Monday at the Labor Day Picnic,

Catherine Serventi
President, AWCC

Letter from the President – July 2015

So I get to talk to a lot of interesting people since I finally managed to figure out the phone system enough to get the AWCC office number forwarded to my cell phone. One of the most common types of calls we get is from neighbors who have questions about complying with the historic guidelines for renovations. Well, aside from the electric company scammers trying to get me to tell then our account number so they can process our “rebate”: seriously, guys, if you were Duquesne Light you would KNOW our account number ALREADY. Anyway. Those calls from neighbors – coupled with the fact that I seem to have spent more than the normal amount of time this month in meetings that have “Enforcement” as an agenda item – means that I have been doing a lot of thinking about why it’s so important, as a property owner in the neighborhood, to continue to follow the historic district guidelines. So, even though it was, frankly, really frustrating that, in order to replace the person-door on our garage (of which approximately one square foot of was actually visible from the street) we ended up paying more in permit fees than the door itself cost AND we missed the deadline for the May Historic Review Committee agenda so we didn’t actually manage to get the approval in time to get the door replaced for the wine tour which was the entire point of replacing the door in the first place…


My point is that it can sometimes be challenging to explain to new neighbors, or even neighbors who have been here a while, WHY those rules are so important to follow even though they can be inconvenient and expensive. There’s some really interesting (well at least to me, but I’m kind of an archaeology nerd) work being done looking at the positive effect that enforcing historic preservation guidelines have on local property values. If you’re the kind of person that finds abstract evidence based arguments compelling a quick Google search on “historic preservation property values” should keep you happy for a good long while. Honestly, though, I’d really like some help making a more visceral case to folks about why the guidelines are important whether it’s a new neighbor or our new building inspector from BBI. I think, for the neighbors who have spent the last 30+ years watching their hard work come to fruition, the need to enforce the historic guidelines is obvious. But when we moved in even 7 years ago, Allegheny West was already gorgeous; our street was described as “the most beautiful street in Pittsburgh”. Our house was (and still is – we appreciate your patience!) one of the few houses not completely restored on Beech.

I realized this month though that the only photos I’ve seen of Allegheny West are either from the very early days of the neighborhood, 1870-1910 – before urban “renewal” (ha!) and the collapse of the steel industry wreaked havoc – or more recent photos meant to showcase the neighborhood for tours or the website. What I haven’t seen and what I’m hoping neighbors (you!) can provide are essentially the “before” pictures from the time period when the historic preservation guidelines went into effect. Before AWCC spent 50 years putting on tours and buying and stabilizing properties with the proceeds. Before neighbors got together on Saturdays to literally hand build brick sidewalks. Before folks wrote grants and property owners paid assessments to completely redo Western Avenue’s infrastructure. As part of the lead up to the 50th Anniversary of AWCC we’d like to share some of those “before” pictures. If you have photos of your house, interior or exterior, or even better, of the street, from “before” it was renovated please send them to: We’d like to start a section in the newsletter and on the website of “Then and Now” so that we have something concrete to point to about what can happen to our neighborhood without the protection of the Historic District guidelines.

Catherine Serventi
President, AWCC

Letter from the President – June 2015

I thought I understood what kind of work went into putting on one of our house tours. After all, I had been working on the tickets sales for something like 5 years; sat in on countless committee meetings; set up a couple of spreadsheets for managing volunteers; even lead a tour or two (it’s probably best for everyone if that doesn’t happen again). Once, I even dressed up in 40lbs of velvet in August (and showed up at the wrong house with a group of 20 people – seriously, I’m not guide material).

Yeah, I had no idea.

No idea just how many people have to come together and contribute time and talent to pull off one of these tours until I added the perspective of the home-owner. And it’s the spring tour (which is basically the starter tour) – and it’s just our garden not the house so we’re not quite all in. Even still, there are a crazy number of people helping me and Gene at our house, just to make sure visitors get in and out of the garden with a glass of wine and an appetizer for 3 sets of tours. And there are 7 (7!) other houses. And 2 tours a year. And the neighborhood has been putting these tours on for over 30 (30!) years. I can’t even fathom just the raw number of volunteer hours those pretty little tour booklets represent.

By the way, if you’re feeling stalled on a home improvement project I would definitely recommend putting your house on tour. I think we’ve finished more projects (yay, no more chain link) in the last 3 months than we have managed to finish in the last 2 years. But as much as our new gate makes me smile, what I appreciate even more is that every time I think I can’t be surprised by our neighborhood, that I’ve lived here long enough to really understand how lucky we are to live here, I am yet again amazed by what our neighbors have managed to accomplish and sustain over decades of dedication.

Lots of other stuff is going on too! Please join us at the Tuesday membership meeting for an update on what’s going on with Lake Elizabeth and other updates for the Commons, a new One Northside project to catalog neighborhood resources and, fingers-crossed, a proposal for the Stables building that looks very promising.

Catherine Serventi
President, AWCC

Letter from the President – May 2015

I think I’m going to get a t-shirt made that says “I go to meetings, so you don’t have too.” – (maybe all the Board officers need a tag line?). And every time I go to a meeting that I think turns out to be a waste of time, I get to meet someone doing something really cool. At a GTECH meeting about neighborhood grants that I attended to see if our neighborhood would qualify for something, I found that Bridget Little from Manchester is picking up where Dr. Jean left off: continuing her work to make that area safer and prettier for all the folks coming off the train and into the Northside neighborhoods. I’m hoping she can make it to one of our neighborhood meetings to talk about the project some more. In the meantime, for the folks who were encouraging us to add the Cassatt Garden to our monthly clean ups, Bridget has a website set-up where you can volunteer to help: We’ll keep the monthly clean-ups focused on areas actually in Allegheny West for now, although we’re happy to support efforts all over the Northside.

Speaking of efforts all over the Northside. At the most recent Buhl Foundation meeting, I ran into Annette Trunzo, who – it turns out – is the leader of the northside-wide group that is tackling litter. She’s done an incredible amount of research already on all sorts of urban design questions around which signage and receptacles are the most successful. Considering that Allegheny West just got a huge grant ($13,000) from Councilwoman Harris, at least part of which is intended for new trash cans of our very own, it was really serendipitous timing. If you’re interested in helping Annette out, let me know and I’ll put you in touch. The committee is putting together a plan to request funding from the Buhl Foundation.

Finally, while I’m in general happy to “spare” folks from meetings, we still need to have a quorum at the Membership Meetings to make decisions and get things done! This month, the committee chairs will be handing out a budget proposal to be voted on next week. Think of it as “shopping”, not budgeting. My personal feeling is that a budget is one of the most public signals of what an organization values and what they want to accomplish for the year. The more people that have input into the process the stronger the organization will be!

Catherine Serventi
President, AWCC

Letter from the President – April 2015

So I go to a lot of meetings (A LOT!). And, not that I would admit this out loud, but I kind of like them; it turns out that they’re a pretty good stand in for a social life1. Obviously the folks in the neighborhood are cool to hang out with – frankly you all make me laugh – and it’s a bonus that the meetings often end up being at some nifty local restaurant like Carmi’s or the Allegheny Sandwich Shoppe or sometimes lemon loaves or chocolate mousse just appear (seriously, you guys should be coming to these meetings: I’m not telling you which ones, you’ll just have to try for yourselves). It also turns out that there’s a ton of really interesting ideas that get talked about in these meetings: the Candidates Night on April 14th; potentially developing the Stables into swanky condos; mulch (so complicated!); train trips to West Virginia, etc…

One meeting really stood out this month, though. I went to a talk at the Allegheny YMCA given by Diana Brucco of the Buhl Foundation. Honestly it was mostly to see if I could get some tips on for resubmitting the Sprout Fund grant that had been rejected. (Turns out 2nd time was the charm and we can now put our knowledge of mulch to good use on Tree Well day, April 11th). I was stunned to discover that the survey, that I had sort of half-heartedly filled out last summer had, turned into a $60 million commitment over 10 years to all the neighborhoods on the Northside. Even us!

My own assumption before attending this talk was that programs from these grants weren’t really intended for “affluent Allegheny West2”. But the focus of Buhl Foundation’s work around education, quality of place and employment apply just as much to the folks in our little corner of the Northside as anywhere else. Frankly, if nothing else the folks in our neighborhood have a lot of expertise to offer to folks in other neighborhoods who are embarking on work similar to what was started here 20 years ago. But what really impressed me was the fundamentally practical way the Buhl folks have approached setting priorities and implementing solutions: ask me about the work they’re doing around food programs in schools – it’s super cool but too complicated for a newsletter article. They are definitely interested in hearing what we have to say. I left that talk not wanting to be left out of plans that have such an incredible amount of potential. And so of course, I’m doing what we always do when we’re excited about something: I’m setting up (yet) another meeting – this time with Buhl Foundation. Expect to hear a lot more about this!

  1. Feel free to remind me that I said I liked meetings when I’m getting grumpy two hours into any random meeting. I’ll probably roll my eyes at you (such a bad habit!) but you’ll know it’s just because it’s probably the 3rd night that week that I’m at a meeting – getting inspired all the time is exhausting!
  2. From this article. I’m not sure I entirely agree with that characterization. even if the stats say our average income is higher. It’s way more complicated than that.

Letter from the President – March 2015

I just got back from a really fascinating Bylaw Committee meeting and I can’t wait to tell you all about it!  (No wait…come back…hmm maybe this is why people avoid me at parties…?)

Seriously though, I realize that bylaws are pretty much something only a process nerd could love so I won’t go into too much detail.  First I want to say, I really appreciate all the time that Jim and Gloria and Bob have been putting in to modernize these; you have to be pretty darn dedicated to take on this type of task.  To make the bylaws seem less annoying, I try and think of them as a roadmap for how we, as a community, make decisions.  In my mind good bylaws keep people from getting lost when they are trying to make things happen. If we set them up right, they will make it easier to get things done in a transparent and efficient way and at the same time make it clear who is accountable for the actions we take. I’m happy to report, that I can safely say now that we’ve actually went through the bylaws line by line tonight, that we’re actually in pretty good shape.

But there are a few things that we think could be clearer such as:  how we determine who is eligible to vote; how money is spent; and how the committees are set up.  We think these area could be clearer or reflect better how we get things done now as opposed when the Bylaws were last amended back in 2004. If I’ve succeeded in getting you excited about the bylaws (ha, ever the optimist) you can see the current bylaws at: We hope to have a draft with the changes we’ve been talking about for several months at the April meeting if we can hammer out the wording to our satisfaction, but May at the latest. And I really am happy to talk to you about this (preferably with a glass of wine in my hand..or yours).

A few more selected updates:  We’re still waiting to hear back about the grants that were submitted for the tree well projects. Trish, Holly and Mary did an such a great  job on the flower baskets that we’re up to 18 baskets at this point, 10 more than the 8 that we had been hoping for. We’ll publish a complete list of sponsors next month, but in the meantime you can see the current list at It’s not too late to sponsor a basket!  Planning is underway for an Allegheny West Candidates night, tentatively scheduled for 4/14 (if we can convince anyone to show up). The Membership Committee has an incredibly ambitious set of events planned for this year that you’ll be hearing about (and man, that meeting has the best snacks ever, just saying, you know…in case you choose your committees to volunteer with based on the food.)  We have the Wine Tour down to a science – tickets are on sale at You heard it here first!  I could keep going…

Honestly,  I figured as Treasurer that I had a pretty good idea of what was going on in the neighborhood, since I figured most things would need a check. Wow, two months in and my eyes have been opened!  I’m truly amazed, especially for such a small neighborhood, by the number of people who are off just doing their part to make our neighborhood a better place.

I trust everyone will keep surprising me… 🙂

Catherine Serventi
President, AWCC

Letter from the President – February 2015

So I have this idea….actually I have a lot of them, all of which came from talking to other folks about ideas they are excited about for the neighborhood. Thanks to everyone who responded to my last President’s message as well (although now I’m slightly intimidated that people are actually reading these.)

Here’s a few things folks were interested in:

  1. Parking (but I think I’m going to have to start with something easier, like world peace, but I promise we’ll get back to that.)
  2. Helping new folks feel welcome, and making it easy for them to get involved with the neighborhood.
  3. Projects to make the neighborhood even more gorgeous, like spiffing up the alleys and helping everyone maintaining their tree wells.

As you can tell from the breadth of our membership meeting agendas, folks have already hard at work on some of these projects. Just one example, some of our neighbors on Tuesday will be presenting a proposal for hanging flower baskets on Western that they’re hoping for neighborhood support for, so please come and express your opinion (in a friendly, good humored way, of course.)

Another idea we will be discussing, is an application for some funding to purchase mulch and potentially even flowers and fencing and having an “Allegheny West Tree Well Day” as one of monthly clean up events sponsored by the Friends of Allegheny. From my perspective there’s an incredible wealth of gardening knowledge in our neighborhood that I’d like to take advantage of. I’d be more than happy to wheel a barrow full of mulch up the street for a neighbor, especially one who is new in town and hasn’t had a chance to figure out where to even get mulch. And, of course, there will be a potluck. As a bonus, I swear I will stop showing up to social events with paperwork for people to fill out after I file for the grant.

Some of those same gardeners have suggested that the April clean up would be the ideal month, and we’ll hear about the results of the grant application in late February so we’ll have lots of time to plan a blow out of a clean up.  By the way, these Buhl Fundation funds are open to anyone on the Northside, so if you have another idea you think could benefit from $1000 I’m happy to help you out with the application (but you have to take the petitions to the mixer.)

Hope to see everyone at the Membership meeting next Tuesday, with more ideas they’d like help making happen.

Catherine Serventi
President, AWCC

P.S. Carol R., I have ordered the tiara, you have to come to the meeting now.

Letter from the President – January 2015

I have to admit, I’ve been really nervous about my first President’s message (which is why this is so late, sorry Fran!). I have some big shoes to fill. Bob Griewahn has done an inspiring job as President the last couple of years, so I hope folks understand while I get up to speed. The rest of the Board, as you might expect since they’re Allegheny West neighbors, has also been wonderfully supportive and generous with their time – patiently bringing me up to speed on where we are on all our ongoing projects.

As one those people who make’s New Year’s resolutions (and even keeps some of them!), I’ve been talking to lots of folks in the neighborhood about what our resolutions for the neighborhood should be. But I’ve only just started figuring out what would get folks get really excited. Based on the conversations so far, here are some of the the things we’re working on for this year.

  • Encourage more folks to come to the meetings and take a leadership role for neighborhood activities. One idea was to have more external speakers come to the meeting, and so have folks lined up for the meeting in January (PennEnvironment) and February (Sarah Quinn from the City Historic Preservation Office). Please share any ideas for speakers or even just what might make you want to come to the meeting.
  • Put the finishing touches on Western Avenue and identify what our next big project is. The Buhl Foundation has made a huge financial commitment to the North Side, on the order of $40 million dollars over the next 4-6 years. I want to be sure we participate.   What are the things in the neighborhood that you think that Civic Council could have the most impact on that would personally make your life better?
  • Modernize our bylaws, so that folks with good ideas see the Civic Council as a place to get support to put great ideas into action. Good bylaws should make it clear how how we can work together to make things happen and not stand in the way. Gloria, Bob, and Jim have been working through them, and we hope to have a draft available to comment on by the March membership meeting. If you have specific concerns that you want to be sure are addressed don’t hesitate to ask me. (That was my best attempt at making bylaws exciting.)

We’re still looking for feedback about how we should be spending our time and resources to improve the quality life in the neighborhood.  Obviously, this is not a comprehensive list, there are ton of other things on the Council’s plate as well. If there’s something not mentioned here that you think should be a top priority please let me know.

I have a confession – I’m a bit of an introvert. At the same time I know it’s really important for me to get to know folks in the neighborhood.   I’m going to work on coming out from behind my computer screen and starting conversations with folks, but it would help me if the extroverts among us could help me get to know folks as well.

Here’s how to get a hold of me if you have any ideas that you would like the Civic Council to support  or are not sure who to contact on the Board with a specific question. It’s easiest to get a hold of me by email (seriously, introvert): If you prefer the phone, you’re more likely to catch me in the evenings between 7:00 pm and 10:30 pm or on weekends: 412-418-2027. I’m in meetings a lot during work so I often can’t answer the phone during the day. I’m both excited and nervous about this year – let’s have some fun!

Catherine Serventi
President, AWCC