Friday, August 3, 2012

First Person / Mark Schneider: The passing of a presence - Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Pittsburgh was on a high in 1979, the year Mark Schneider moved here. The Pittsburgh Pirates won the World Series that October and the Steelers were heading toward a Super Bowl victory in another three months.

Mark was just 22, and had joined Volunteers in Services to America (once known as VISTA, now AmeriCorps). He was assigned to help revitalize a North Side neighborhood, marked then by stretches of dilapidated, abandoned buildings. He was the tall -- very tall -- skinny kid who soon contended that Pittsburgh could be as great as its sports teams.

Friends were reminiscing this past week -- just days after his death in a bike accident in Frederick, Md. -- about the man who became a leader in the transformation of slag heaps and dumps into residential communities, as well as in the construction of PNC Park, Heinz Field and the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

This was the Mark who bought his first white shirt at a Goodwill store so he could look presentable when he drove his orange VW Beetle to the nation's capital to lobby for congressional approval of a federal grant for better housing on the North Side.

Even then, he knew how to make his point.

"Mark took pictures of abandoned, dilapidated structures and put them in front of our congressmen," said Barbara Burns, for whom Mark worked in the East North Side. Today, we know that community as East Allegheny. "People were writing off our neighborhood. Not our tall, skinny Mark. He had this foresight -- and I'm just glad we were smart enough to know that."

They got the grant.

Mark was a presence, and it wasn't just because he towered over just about everybody. There wasn't much, if anything, that deterred him. He was a devoted Pirates fan who would buy the cheap seats, but then -- somehow -- figure out how to trade them for better seats.

We're now into the early to mid-1980s, when Tom Murphy (later mayor) was a state legislator and Tom Cox (later deputy mayor) headed the North Side Civic Development Council. "Along comes Mark, looking for something beyond VISTA. How do you pass up this talented guy?" Mr. Cox asked.

This was a time when Washington's Landing was only a salvage yard with a rendering plant and an abandoned railroad car stuck somewhere in the middle. Mark spearheaded a public/private partnership that started with construction of an office building.

Today, Washington's Landing is a blend of private housing and businesses, as well as the Three Rivers Rowing Association.

"Then Mark gets it in his head that we have to do the brewery -- the old Eberhardt and Ober Brewery that was just a pile of bricks," said Mr. Murphy. A salvage dealer had bought it for the bricks. Undeterred, Mark figured out an appraisal that convinced the dealer to sell to Tom Pastorius. Only there was no such thing as a microbrewery license in Pennsylvania.

So Mark and Mr. Pastorius appealed to Mr. Murphy to get new legislation. Today, the Penn Brewery is a popular microbrewery in Troy Hill.

By the time Mr. Murphy was elected mayor in the early 1990s, Mark had joined the private sector.

"Mark understood real estate better than anyone," Mr. Murphy said. Schooled on the streets of Pittsburgh, he developed an uncanny sense of deal-making. "I took such pride in watching him grow from a young, idealistic person who didn't lose his idealism as he became more sophisticated."

Each of us has that person we call friend, the one who weaves in and out of our lives, sometimes purposefully, other times serendipitously. Mark was both.

As a reporter for the old Pittsburgh Press covering urban issues, I got to know Mark as I wrote about the steady transformation of Pittsburgh. He soon convinced me to buy a house high on a North Side hill, down and around the block from the small bungalow he bought when he was first married.

"If you're committed to Pittsburgh, you have to invest in Pittsburgh,'' he insisted.

I am still in the house in Fineview, and from this perch at my desk on the second floor, I look out at PNC Park, the convention center and a panoramic view of Pittsburgh. On quiet Sunday afternoons in fall and winter, I can hear the roar of the crowd from Heinz Field.

In the past year, Mark undertook a project to develop housing on a brownfield in Manchester -- much the same way he saw the successful future of the former slag heap that is now Summerset at Frick Park.

"Mark wasn't happy unless he was challenged,'' said Ms. Burns, who later was a member of the Pittsburgh Public Schools board and city council.

"Mark was always gutsy, willing to take risks,'' said Mr. Murphy. "But what I loved about him is at the end of the day, he was driven with public purpose. That's what he taught us."

Ellen Mazo, a former Post-Gazette reporter, is director of government affairs at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. Friends will gather at 11:30 a.m. today for a memorial service at PNC Park. Sunday's PedalPGH, which Mark co-founded, will be dedicated in his memory.
First Published August 4, 2012 12:00 am

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