The Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition, a nonprofit, nonpartisan community organization founded in 1972, has new leadership at the helm. For the past four months, Squirrel Hill Jewish resident Maria Cohen has guided the East End community minded group as executive director and overseen familiar programs while exploring methods of promoting civic partnerships.
Shortly after her official Aug. 1 start date, Cohen and SHUC joined local organizations (Uncover Squirrel Hill and I Made It! Market) on this year’s final two Squirrel Hill Night Markets. The evening events, held on Aug. 24 and Sept. 28, welcomed hundreds of vendors, whose jewelry, food and other wares occupied tables across upper Murray Avenue. Apart from the lively evening affairs, Cohen and the group additionally hosted SHUC’s annual membership meeting, celebrated local honorees at the Squirrel Hill Treasure Dinner and organized public meetings for neighbors to discuss potential renovations to Phipps Garden Center as well as tax increases.
Among the slew of events, on Dec. 3, at a SHUC convened gathering, residents learned more about a possible 2.3% real estate tax bump. Pittsburgh Public Schools is considering the move, which would increase taxes $23 for every $100,000 of assessed land value, reported Print.
Providing a pathway for people to come together and better understand the neighborhood is within SHUC’s purview, explained Cohen: The role of the Coalition is to “disseminate information and help get the word out.”
Apart from acting as a mechanism for spreading information, SHUC is a liaison between parties, as many times, when an issue arises, “it’s really hard right now having to figure out who to connect with in this age,” said Cohen. Residents should reach out to SHUC, “we may not have all the right answers but we’ll try to be supportive.”
Cohen is excited to connect citizens with their local council person or a particular city department, or advocate on behalf of Squirrel Hill residents.
“SHUC adds to the fabric of Squirrel Hill in many ways. It convenes residents to discuss important issues and development projects. It helps disseminate news and information to the public. It advocates for neighborhood improvement projects. And, along with Uncover Squirrel Hill, it acts as a town square, bringing neighbors together around the Night Markets and Lunar New Year events,” said Councilperson Erika Strassburger. “I’m grateful that I have the board and staff of SHUC as community partners.”
Cohen relishes the role as partner, and hopes to use those relationships for empowering others and the community around her. Individuals and groups are often seeking ways to bolster their surroundings.
One primary mechanism for improving local life is performing litter patrols, she explained.
Recently, during a designated “Make a Difference Day,” students from the Campus School of Carlow partnered with SHUC on the volunteer program and helped clean trash and beautify the area.
Litter patrols are easy ways for volunteers to get involved, explained Cohen.
Although she hopes more organizations reach out to support SHUC’s efforts, the Squirrel Hill resident is well aware that garbage pickup isn’t for everyone.
There is also tree planting, she explained.
Local residents, and those who enjoy the neighborhood, can benefit from a statewide TreeVitalize grant program that promotes increasing urban forestry. The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation Natural Resources provided grant enables local residents to have trees planted in front of their property for free. Those interested in tree plantings, or learning more about the program, should contact SHUC.
Prior to coming to the Coalition, Cohen worked in business and marketing. She completed an MBA in international marketing and finance at DePaul University and held positions as a senior account manager at HLC International and in marketing and brand management with Del Monte Foods.
Such fiscal understanding is a boon for the coalition, explained Mardi Isler, SHUC’s president: “She’s very interested in the business community and has joined the board of Uncover Squirrel Hill, which is a help when you talk about cross-pollinating what the business community and the coalition can do together.”
Uncover Squirrel Hill is a business member based organization, which was originally developed by the late, then councilperson, Bob O’Connor, that seeks to provide a voice for local merchants by connecting businesses with city administration.
Whether SHUC provides volunteers during Uncover Squirrel Hill’s Holiday Wine Walk, or helps the business community gather individuals to help clean streets before and after events, Cohen is attuned to the value of SHUC and Uncover Squirrel Hill collaborations, explained Isler: “It’s a good partnership and something she understands, and she’s looking for ways to increase the number of activities we do together.”
One of Isler’s first acts as president was organizing a search committee to replace outgoing executive director Marian Lien, who after nearly five years at SHUC left the organization to become director of education for inclusion and global awareness at St. Edmund’s Academy.
“We basically started at the same time, and it’s been wonderful. I really enjoy working with her,” said Isler. “Maria has adopted so quickly to all that the Coalition does. It’s a testament to her professionalism but also to her personality. People like her. They open up to her, and she gets along well in working situations so it’s been a good experience.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.