Creative Pittsburg hopes to flip city’s image
By Lou Fancher
After decades spent purchasing, improving and managing residential properties, Sheila Smith is inviting people to “flip” an entire city.
The city of Pittsburg, let’s say, can anticipate an image “do over” that replaces a no-longer accurate reputation for being overrun by crime and poverty with an up-and-coming, arts-infused, business-enhanced and altogether vibrant East County hub.
A free Arts Café Jan. 18 features guest speaker Jason Griego and launches Creative Pittsburg, a grassroots community organization intent on revealing the city’s burgeoning beauty.
“I know it can work, I’ve seen it happen,” says Smith, 69, whose childhood in Southern California established the semi-retired social worker and real estate businesswoman’s love of water, art, travel and community organizing.
She’s not full of baloney, either. Smith has eyewitness experience behind her bold claims. “When I moved to Fresno, where I lived for 25 years, it was a culturally depressed community and developers ran the city. They didn’t have a lot of arts activities. Now, after a group of businesses and arts organizations went into action, they have Art Hop, an incredibly successful program where they open their businesses (two nights a month). They have 10 to 15,000 people coming downtown for the event.”
If all goes as planned, Pittsburg will have Art Trax, a similar evening arts program that already has 15 local businesses signed on. “They’ve opened their venues for artists to display or perform their work. It should bring more customers to the businesses.”
The completion of the new BART station at the end of 2017 and an improving economy has Smith eager to promote the city’s virtues. “The civic angle of Creative Pittsburg is to show a more positive image. Even people who live in the community on the southern side of Highway 4 don’t know there’s water on the other side. We have a gorgeous marina, a beautiful park, new condos above commercial space and new property development.”
But Smith, who says, “I believe in marketing the community beyond a digital billboard,” recognizes that she can’t perform a one-woman act. Although the effort is still in its infancy, she’s already engaged impressive partners in the endeavor: her son, Alex Rollin, developed Creative Pittsburg’s professional website; Wolf Croskey is hosting the kickoff café at Croskey Real Estate (745 Railroad Ave.); and the Pittsburg Arts and Community Foundation, Pittsburg Chamber of Commerce and Arts and Culture Commission of Contra Costa County are supporting the initiative. A $5,000 grant application, if awarded by the California Arts Council in the next few months, will provide seed money for marketing and developing a membership base.
“I am a firm believer that working together produces more than we can achieve separately,” says Smith. “I guess I’m making it my business to generate some fun and action to attract a new crowd to town. I want to see the vacant storefronts filled with interesting shops and the sidewalks teeming with a younger generation.”
Which is where Griego’s offer to speak about the business of being an artist comes in. Expecting that he will share aspects of a 15-year business plan that has brought him international success, Smith says Griego is interested in artists learning what it takes to make a living. Long-term business plans, interactive relationships with collectors or clients and other topics he will discuss offer application not only to artists, but to budding entrepreneurs, people interested in arts and nonprofit administration or business owners with new or established track records.
“We have large industries—Dow Chemical, POSCO, and other big power plants — they should be supporting good community efforts. We hope they step up to get involved.”
Smith says that the possibility of live-work spaces, a community garden and the Art Trax that will begin April 20 will attract people pushed out of San Francisco, Oakland and other cities west of the 680 border.
“The high prices, the new BART line that comes all the way from the San Francisco airport without changing trains, and a free bus at the BART station that will take people around to parts of the community will make Pittsburg an exciting place to live or visit.”
The Arts Café has as its purpose a community incubator approach to generating ideas to actualize the vision. Smith once served as the executive director of an arts cooperative that provided live-work spaces for artists in remodeled chicken barns outside of Petaluma. Griego sometimes fashions his haunting, achingly expressive sculptures using pulverized cow and chicken bone and resin. Found or forgotten objects incorporated into the design add to the work’s poignancy. In other words, there are no “wrong” avenues when it comes to pathways leading to art, community and vibrancy in Pittsburg.