When James Simon moved into a three-story warehouse in the Uptown section of Pittsburgh in 2000, the area was much different than it is now. Simon said his street, Gist Street, was a hangout for sex workers, and the neighborhood had a dangerous reputation.
At that point, Simon was in the midst of a successful career as a sculptor and a creator of public art. He’d been living in Brazil, but was drawn back to Pittsburgh to help support his family.
It turns out that he had roots in Uptown all along.
“After I’d thought about it, after I’d dug in here for a while, I realized that my dad actually went to Fifth Avenue High School, caddy-corner to my building, and grew up on Dinwiddie Street," Simon said. "So I ended up moving into my dad’s old neighborhood, which I think is pretty fascinating, without even intending it or realizing it at all.”
Just for fun, Simon created a sculpture of a larger-than-life gorilla peeking its eyes over the garage door of his Gist Street studio. Soon, he said, it became a destination for local residents to take photos under Baby Kong.
“Even cops and magistrates would drop by and get out of their car and get under there to get photographed," Simon said. "It was like, ‘Nobody’s really done much here at all on the street in forever. It’s just really a blighted area, and people really like when you do something nice on the street.’ So, that kind of kicked off this whole idea.”
The "Art on Gist Street" project was born, and it would only get bigger from there. Simon and his friend and neighbor John Fleenor have created most of the works, but others have joined in as well. Simon said Gist Street has essentially become an outdoor art gallery.
“There’s a lot of artwork on the streets now -- stuff that I’ve made, stuff that John [Fleenor]’s painted -- and we’ve invited a lot of people from the region, from Pittsburgh, and also internationally," Simon said. "Friends from Mexico and other places have come and done stuff -- completely grassroots.”
Dale McNutt, Simon’s friend and founder of the local small business incubator StartUptown, said the public art and a long-running public reading series at Simon’s apartment were catalysts for change across the neighborhood.
“The Gist Street Readings also brought 80 to 100 people into this community the first Friday of the month. There was just the impetus to bring that creative, intellectual capital into Uptown," McNutt said. "I think it really propelled the neighborhood forward.”
After those two projects took off, Simon and other partners started the neighborhood group Uptown Partners, which Simon says has given the formerly neglected neighborhood a voice in local government. He went on to create two more prominent sculptures that now book-end the neighborhood -- the Welcome To Uptown sign across from the Birmingham Bridge, and the Uptown Rhythm relief sculpture on Duquesne University’s campus.
Simon said he wasn’t trying to create any large-scale change when he started putting up public art on Gist Street, but he’s happy that it has inspired the neighborhood.
“I’m always a believer that public art on the streets is a really good thing to do for people’s environment.”