A musician plays at Blue Dust during Homestead Live Fridays in the fall of 2021.
Reawakening: Homestead Live Fridays 2022
By Jordan Snowden
“I feel like when I walk around Homestead; it’s a very special neighborhood. Its legacy of the past echoes through into the present.” Jon Engel, Rivers of Steel’s “on-the-ground guy” who manages many of the forthcoming Homestead Live Fridays’ event logistics, speaks of the former steel mill center with an enthusiasm and passion typically unheard of in non-Homestead natives.
“I have a lot of love for the area and the community that inhabits it and makes it meaningful,” he says. “The Homestead Live Fridays series, as cool as it is, it’s just a very small part of looking at a place like that and going, ‘This has worth and value,’ maybe not necessarily to people who are not of Pittsburgh, of this history, but this has worth to us, and the people who live here, and we have worth to each other, and we gotta stand by each other.”
Homestead Live Fridays is an event series that welcomes newcomers to the neighborhood, letting them in on a secret locals already know—it’s a happening place. Alongside a goal of economic and cultural revival, the upcoming revamped performance series will showcase the small town’s unobserved substance and ample entertainment options that it has to discover.
“People used to think of Homestead as crime-filled, impoverished, and just an all-around bad place to live, work and play,” says Vanessa McCarthy-Johnson, Homestead Borough Manager. “People that actually live here know much better. We have a great community that needs to be highlighted as best as possible. We have new businesses coming in every day, developers creating new housing in various price ranges, and we have great restaurants and nightlife.”
Kicking off May 20 and running monthly through October, Homestead Live Fridays will occur in multiple venues throughout the area’s Eighth Avenue business district, including gastropub Blue Dust, cafes Dorothy Six and Duke’s Upper Deck, and local breweries Voodoo Brewing Co. and Golden Age Brewing Company, among others. Presented by Rivers of Steel and the Steel Valley Enterprise Zone, the event series features local performers, art exhibitions, and activities almost every month from 6:00 – 10:00 p.m.
“This is a huge deal for Homestead,” says Shunta Parms, a Homestead native and current Borough secretary. “A lot of us Homestead natives don’t go to The Waterfront; we hate the train. We look forward to Eighth Avenue for retail, spa, and dining. Homestead Live Fridays will show how rich Homestead is in its history and diversity . . . I appreciate the thought and brainstorming from Rivers of Steel. Homestead is a vibrant, live, and full-of-life kind of town. I’m grateful that others see what I already saw in this hidden gem. That they too can call it home.”
Rivers of Steels represents southwestern Pennsylvania’s eight county-wide National Heritage Area (NHAs), which the National Park Service (NPS) defines as “places where historic, cultural, and natural resources combine to form cohesive, nationally important landscapes.” Yet, while National Heritage Areas fall under NPS, NHAs are large, lived-in landscapes, unlike national parks. Therefore, the spaces need a different type of care and preservation.
“One of the ways that we support Heritage Partners throughout this region is to try to work with them to create exciting things that get people out into the community, out onto main street, walking around to support local businesses,” explains Chris McGinnis, Rivers of Steel’s arts director. “Using the arts is really a mechanism for that. Homestead Live Fridays is essentially a manifestation of that. We’re of course based in Homestead, our offices for Rivers of Steel, but we also have a very close and long-term relationship with this community.”
To that effect, Rivers of Steel launched an initiative called the Mon Valley Creative Corridor. By collaborating with community partners throughout the region, Rivers of Steel works at the grassroots level to stimulate the economic and cultural development of the Monongahela Valley. Homestead Live Fridays, and Homestead First Fridays before that, has become River of Steel’s flagship move for the Creative Corridor.
“Here is a town, Homestead, where we’re based,” says Engel. “It has this business district that’s underutilized; but the buildings are full of character. It’s a town with profound history and community, which deserves to be recognized. So Live Fridays are our part of a movement to invest in this community—through arts programming, we pull people to the business district and stimulate the community.”
When Live Fridays started in 2019 as Homestead First Fridays—which was intended to be the long-term vision for working with Homestead—Rivers of Steel’s collaboration goal with local businesses and community partners was relatively simple: “Do whatever you want as long as it’s going to draw a crowd; let’s just do it together all on one night.” Rivers of Steel put on art programming in an empty lot in Homestead, 309 East Eighth Avenue, which the organization dubbed the Community Plaza.
“We had art vendors and art performances that created something interesting and visual. It made people feel like an event was happening,” explains Engel. “So other businesses—more than two dozen of them—on or near Eighth Avenue filled in with their own programming. It was pretty successful, but not as focused as what is planned for 2022.”
Then the pandemic hit, and it gave the Homestead First Fridays team a moment to recalibrate, think about the first year, and reflect on what went right and what went wrong. One of the most significant changes was moving the event series from the first Friday of every month.
“There’s a lot of competition for first Fridays in Pittsburgh,” says McGinnis. “Homestead Live Fridays gives us more flexibility. We also wanted to double down on live music; that’s a cornerstone of the series now. It was the easiest route for a lot of partners and organization businesses in town to connect with the program. Not everyone has a roster of artists, but the capacity to host a small band or a solo act is much more doable.”
However, McGinnis emphasizes that Homestead Live Fridays is not solely a live music event series. There will be outdoor art and experiences, workshops, vendors, and numerous other activities that are non-music-related, like outdoor exhibitions.
The inaugural May event, for example, is centered around hip hop, aptly titled “Hip Hop Homestead,” and will include spray can art and breakdancers. The theme stems from Rivers of Steel’s graffiti art program, which pulls inspiration from local graffiti writers, urban explorers, and guerrilla artists—the underground culture found in Carrie Blast Furnaces and other post-industrial sites in Pittsburgh after the steel industry collapsed.
“When all the mills closed and were vacant, people still gravitated to them, including graffiti artists,” says Engel. “What I really appreciate about Rivers of Steel is that they honor that post-industrial era, the art traditions and way of life that could only come about in Pittsburgh, and places like it, that maybe don’t get the attention they deserve. That is to say, we have that historical relationship to this art . . . it just follows naturally to dip into that heritage. They come from our relationships, which ultimately come from our history of the town.”
Other Homestead Live Fridays themes include Circus on the Street, which will feature circus performers; August’s Skate Park Block Party, where downtown Homestead will be turned into a temporary skate park with food vendors; an ethnic food, music, and dance event called Eighth Avenue International; and finally, closing out the 2022 performance series is October’s Hot Metal Halloween, which will include an aluminum pour and horror movies.
“I’m looking forward to the themed events and hope that part will stick around—Hip Hop Homestead, Circus on the Street, Skate Park Block Party, Eighth Avenue International, and Hot Metal Halloween—best themes ever,” says McCarthy-Johnson. “I love the idea of the arts meshing with local businesses as well. I’m excited about the whole series! This is the year for me to be much more involved and try to see how we as a local government can help make it successful. I want Homestead to see local government and understand that we are here to increase the quality of life in our community.”
Outside revenue and recognition are other vital aspects of Homestead Live Fridays—bringing enthusiasm back to a place steeped in rich history and community. Not only from the people who live there but the people from other areas of the City of Pittsburgh.
“It’s about changing the perceptions of a place, sharing the stories about what is exciting and how you can experience something different,” says McGinnis. “By having public space activated in a positive and creative way it provides opportunities for local residents to recognize value and interest, hopefully in the places that they live, and for those who don’t live there, they recognize these places as forward-thinking and creative communities that are open to doing things differently. So it’s twofold, and all those things have both community and economic implications to them.”
Some financial aspects of Homestead Live Fridays have been alleviated thanks to the help of the Steel Valley Enterprise Zone, a private, nonprofit local development corporation located in Homestead. Working in partnership with Rivers of Steel for the event series, the Steel Valley Enterprise Zone is partially underwriting some of the live music bands and artists set to perform in Homestead.
“I hope this series gets the word out about Homestead and brings in lots of visitors who will check us out, see what we have to offer, and come back to try other things,” says McCarthy-Johnson. “I also would like our residents to appreciate what we have to offer and participate in our events. I also want to showcase how important the history of Homestead is to the residents. Homesteaders are proud of the rich history and culture you find here. We are a small community who has long memories.”
Jordan Snowden is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh whose work has been published in The Seattle Times, Pittsburgh City Paper ,and elsewhere. She also runs @jord_reads_books, a book-focused Instagram account where she connects with other bookworms. In her free time, Jordan can be found with a book in her hand or DIYing something with her husband.
If you liked this, you can also check out Jordan’s previous story for Rivers of Steel—History, Function, & Artistry: Embracing Architecture.