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People Power: Millvale Residents Driving Ecodistrict Development

Recently the Millvale Ecodistrict Pivot Plan was honored with two national awards from the American Planning Association—a 2017 Silver Achievement Award for Environmental Planning, and an APA Sustainable Communities Division Award. Firmly established as a regional leader in sustainable planning and redevelopment, Millvale’s national reputation has been growing since the Borough’s participation in the EcoDistricts.org Incubator program in 2015. A visit to Millvale and a few casual conversations with the locals will bring to light its quirky, unique character, which shines through Millvale’s people and places.

jack's video millvalePlaces like Jack’s Discount Videos, the oldest video rental shop in the world. Opened in 1976 by owner Jack Ceney, who says he’s seen Millvale at its best and at its worst. His shop was flooded in the 2004 hurricane that destroyed many buildings in Millvale’s Town Center, but he was determined to reopen. Millvale is also home to a Hobby Shop that’s full of model trains and has been open since 1938! You can learn more about some of the businesses in Millvale on the Borough’s Business Directory page.

danielle spinola, tupelo honey teasAlongside the old fashioned stores that remind us of Millvale’s past and give it that special vibe, new but equally unique businesses and organizations are flourishing. Next to the Millvale Community Library sits Tupelo Honey Teas—a splendid little café with a full catalog of organic loose leaf teas as well as a delicious vegetarian and vegan selection of comfort food. These are the people and the places powering the Millvale Ecodistrict identity. We asked Tupelo Honey Teas owner, Danielle Spinola to share her story to mark the awards with a local perspective.

Danielle writes:

Millvale.

My hometown, the place where I grew up. Also called Milldew.

The 80’s and 90’s weren’t kind to Millvale. As kids, we knew no different, riding our bikes in Beekim lot, walking to Yetters candy store, picking out records at The Attic. Then our grocery store closed. We lost Grebb’s bakery and both butcher shops; the town began conforming to the Milldew nickname. Then came the 2004 flood. Hurricane Ivan. The town was under water and everyone said this was the end. Millvale wasn’t coming back. They were wrong.

People look at “lower income” areas and see weakness. They don’t see the strength of the people, the hard work, the love of thy neighbor, the tenacity it takes to lose everything and begin rebuilding the very next day. Millvalians know it will be OK. They don’t need gentrification to prove what they’ve always known. Millvale is one of Pittsburgh’s best kept secrets.

I left Millvale for college, an uncommon next step for most Millvalians, and I’m the first person with my father’s surname to graduate, a fact he told me as joyful tears streamed down his face on graduation day. Two short weeks later he was taken from our lives.

After the loss, I went on my own journey; travelled the world, worked several jobs, got married, had babies, and in the midst of all that, started a business, Tupelo Honey Teas. My gut told me it belonged in Millvale.

Tina Walker, my childhood neighbor and the head of the MCDC, and New Sun Rising’s Scott Wolovich and his brother Brian introduced me to the Ecodistrict Pivot Plan. Solar Energy, Water Management, Food, Air Quality, Transportation, and the big one: Equity. I met Zaheen Hussain, the Sustainability Coordinator for Millvale. Milldew had a Sustainability Coordinator! I couldn’t wait to sign on.

tupelo honey teasIn the summer of 2015 I was accepted into New Sun Rising’s food incubator program and began to consider relocating Tupelo Honey Teas to Millvale and adding a café. I wanted to return to Millvale the quirky, unique stores from childhood while simultaneously helping with the town’s food insecurity.

Then space opened up beside the Millvale Community Library—the center of the Ecodistrict Plan. My shop runs on solar power. Girty’s Run, named after my mother’s ancestor, runs through the backyard. We’re two blocks from the community gardens where food from our café’s summer menu will be grown. We are close to the riverfront trail, where we can connect our hidden gems to those unfamiliar with Millvale.

Millvale Ecodistrict Solar Installation

Millvale’s solar energy capacity was expanded in April 2017 with a PV array above the Millvale Community Center

The Ecodistrict plan has breathed new life into Millvale. It has come so far with the help of the residents and businesses—the exact reason the Equity part of the plan is most important. This plan was designed so the people who built this town, the ones who didn’t give up on it, are taken into account. My heart and soul are very much Millvale; I can tell you it is my raison d’etre. Millvale is quite simply the best place on earth.