ACH Clear Pathways finds new purpose for former Irene Kaufmann Settlement House
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Coming full circleACH Pathways continues to serve community at Kaufmann House

ACH Clear Pathways finds new purpose for former Irene Kaufmann Settlement House

Not for profit cuts ribbon on expansion

Tyian Battle and State Sen. Wayne Fontana cut the ribbon the Kaufmann House’s completed new construction. They were joined by Battle’s mother and ACH Board Chair Frank Rapp. Photo by David Rullo.
Tyian Battle and State Sen. Wayne Fontana cut the ribbon the Kaufmann House’s completed new construction. They were joined by Battle’s mother and ACH Board Chair Frank Rapp. Photo by David Rullo.

Tyian Battle doesn’t practice Kabbalah or gematria, but if she did, the number 360 might have special significance.

Battle is the executive director of ACH Clear Pathways, a not-for-profit in the Hill District that provides after-school and summer arts programming for disadvantaged youth. And while the community leader does not practice Jewish mysticism herself, nor is she Jewish, there’s no denying she has found value in the theme of the circle and its 360 degrees.

On July 22, ACH Clear Pathways cut the ribbon at the Kaufmann Center Building — the former Irene Kaufmann Settlement House — completing its $4 million expansion, which includes an additional 2,700 square feet.

The new construction is a culmination of Battle’s vision that started 12 years ago. As she recounted, out of work and on family medical leave, the executive director who grew up in the Hill District started a program with family and friends to provide music, dance and karate lessons for children in honor of her 7-year-old son, Amon C. Harris, who died of a congenital heart defect. Harris had wanted to take martial arts, but Battle couldn’t afford them at the time. She didn’t want other families to suffer the same fate.

The program bounced between several different locations before ACH acquired the former Kaufmann Center from the Hill House in 2020.

Battle recalled coming before a judge overseeing the Hill House bankruptcy and discussing the value of the building.

“The judge made me stand up and he said, ‘Please tell me your mission and what you want to do with this community asset,’” she said.

The building, she noted, is a community space with a clear purpose.

“It was always meant for the arts, and I want to continue that,” she said.

The Irene Kaufmann Settlement House has a long history in the Hill District, according to Eric Lidji, director of the Rauh Jewish History Program and Archives at the Heinz History Center.

Laying the original cornerstone for the Irene Kaufmann Settlement House auditorium, which is the building that is now “The Kaufmann Center.” Photo provided by Eric Lidji.

He said the building was founded by a precursor to the National Council of Jewish Women, the Columbian Council. And while the house has moved and expanded, Lidji said that by the early 20th century, the organization offered numerous services people remember today.

“Athletics, of course, but a lot of arts and culture, as well as nursing, child care and general social work for the neighborhood.”

The building that ACH now owns contains the original auditorium, built in 1928. Lidji said that it was part of the Little Theatre Movement and was considered one of the best facilities in the city for amateur community productions.

“At that time, the Jewish community was still pretty large in the Hill but was starting to decline,” he said. “It was one of the last major Jewish investments in the Hill District.”

Lidji spoke at the ribbon cutting, calling the building “sacred space.”

“Sanctity is when we dedicate something for good,” he said to those in attendance. “This spot is sanctified because it has been serving the same good since the spring of 1900 all the way until today. That’s what it is. That’s what it was and that is what it is going to be forever.”

Battle has worked to maintain the history of the center and respect its Jewish origins when possible. That includes hanging found artwork from the original Settlement House.

She also has a more substantial memory to go with the paintings.

ACH Clear Pathways Executive Director Tyian Battle keeps a chunk of the Irene Kaufmann Settlement House’s bath house pool found during construction. Photo by David Rullo.

When construction began on the new expansion and workers were excavating a courtyard, they hit what was the original bath house’s pool. Battle kept a chunk of the floor so the memory wouldn’t be lost.

“It’s just so profound,” she said. “I was raised thinking this community was African American, but no. To be here today, it just gives homage to the ancestors of the Jewish community that made this place what it is and how generations of nonprofits continue to keep this place going.”

In keeping with the tradition of social work started by the Columbian Council, ACH has created a space for children to learn music, dance, painting, theater, martial arts, writing and other forms of art at no cost during the school year. During the summer, there is a program that includes lunch and activities like swimming that does require a small fee.

There are 75 students enrolled in the program, down from the 100 that Battle said she can teach. COVID-19 meant she had to reduce the number of children served, but she is looking to start building back the number of students.

Artwork by Rochelle Blumenfeld that continues to hang in the Kaufmann House. Photo by David Rullo

The executive director said that she has had to work to earn the respect of the community who knew her when she was younger and are protective of their community.

“Some only know me from hanging out on the street or growing up at the rec center,” she said. “They don’t know my work, but I want us to be successful. I refuse to let this go down the drain.”

Tyian Battle speaks at the ACH Clear Pathways ribbon cutting ceremony. Photo by David Rullo.

If it’s taken some time for the community to believe in Battle and her mission, many of the invited guests and speakers at the groundbreaking — including Jake Wheatley, chief of staff for Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, state Sen. Wayne Fontana, musician Roger Humphries, former Pittsburgh Steeler Franco Harris and Neil Weaver, acting secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, which supported the construction with $2 million from the Keystone Communities and Neighborhood Assistance program—had no such issues.

Blake said Wheatley put her in touch with Fontana to discuss the Kaufmann Center.

“I threw on one of my best outfits and went to his office. He was so genuine and made me feel so comfortable,” she remembered.
For Fontana, the math was simple.

“We have a building that needs occupants. She has community activities. Why not put them together,” he asked?

The state senator said the project was a combination of city, county and state officials working together, a fact board president Frank Rapp confirmed.

He recounted chasing Gov. Tom Wolf through a parking lot with ACH’s executive director for an impromptu meeting, something he said Blake called “The Hill District Way.” Wolf was impressed and agreed to help.

Wheatley said Blake is like his little sister and recalled an early conversation in a barbershop.

“I told her she is what we want to hold up as an example for our young ones, especially in the Hill, where she’s born and bred,” he said. “She saw something, and she did something in her community that will stand the test of time.”

Weaver said the arts are essential to the Hill’s history and ACH brings that history full circle into the present.

“By instilling passion for the arts in young people, it’s bringing it into the future, as well.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org

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