Pittsburgh and Hamilton, two Steeltowns, two cities forced to struggle with decline of their traditional manufacturing economies, two cities trying to find a new way. Pittsburgh is frequently held up as a model of economic redevelopment. Three major magazines have named it America's most livable city. Major tech companies such as Google and Apple have located there. CBC Hamilton went to Pittsburgh to find three success stories that might have application here, from a warehouse full of artwork to a neighbourhood plan that turned an area known for drive-by shootings into a family-friendly hangout. This is the first of those stories.

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One floor features light exhibits, including a room where you run your hand along the wall and take a seat, and as your eyes adjust, a constellation appears before you.

On another floor, there's an exhibit called Written Room, where fluid Farsi spreads over the floor and walls, and golf balls roll around the floor.

Steel to Steel: Bright ideas from Pittsburgh to Hamilton

Today: The Mattress Factory

Tomorrow: A non-profit foundation that saves historic buildings

Thursday: A community plan for economic revitalization

On another floor, there's Greer Larkton's beautifully spooky work. It's a model of the artist's apartment, filled with lushly painted dolls and a corpse in the corner covered in the late transgender artist's pill bottles.

This is the Mattress Factory, an old warehouse renovated to become five floors of art installations. It's a concept that works in Pittsburgh because of its vibrant art culture and its wealth of vacant industrial buildings. It's a concept that could work in a city like Hamilton.

The Mattress Factory draws about 75,000 people per year, ranking alongside the Andy Warhol Museum for art tourism in Pittsburgh. Located in the city's Mexican War Streets on the north shore, it fills a previously vacant warehouse and, more recently, three other vacant buildings. It has installations from about 15 artists, and artists from around the world clamour to show there.

Mattress Factory's economic impact:

  • The museum draws more than 75,000 visitors per year.
  • Its visitors and staff contribute about $3.2 million to the local economy.
  • The two largest income categories of visitors are people who earn either less than $10,000 per year or between $50 and $75,000 per year.
  • 37 per cent of visitors surveyed had bachelor's degrees and more than 20 per cent had graduate degrees.
  • The majority of those surveyed visiting for the first time classified themselves as "casual patrons" of the arts.
  • More than half of visitors said they'd visit at least one other attraction on the north side.
  • Housing prices in the central north side have gone from $60,000 in 1997 to more than $100,000 in 2006. It is "very plausible" that the museum's presence and programs have made the neighbourhood more attractive to buyers.

Source: Carnegie Mellon economic impact study

Stephanie Vegh, executive director of the Hamilton Arts Council, dreams of something like that here.

"I'm a big fan of Mattress Factory's programming," she said. "It's a great model. Pittsburgh is one of those cities that's a good model for Hamilton as a rule because of amount of industrial space and the culture that defines people there.

"Absolutely, I think it's a great model."

Purchased for $10,000

The Mattress Factory took root in 1977, when artist Barbara Luderowski bought the vacant warehouse for $10,000. Pittsburgh still had a bad reputation then, and was known as "the ass end of the world," Luderowski said.

She moved in to the building and lived there, setting up a vegan food co-op and her own woodworking studio. Other artists wandered in and out. The goal, she said, was to create a community of like minds.

Soon, she registered for non-profit status. Word spread, as did sources of revenue. The Mattress Factory charges admission ($15) and has a gift shop and café. But it also relies on government and community foundation grants, as well as extensive fundraising. Its largest fundraiser is a summer garden party.

In the Mattress Factory's early years, Luderowski and co-director Michael Olijnyk placed two ads in art magazines. Other than occasional calls for specific exhibit proposals, they haven't had to advertise since.

Their last call netted more than 600 submissions from artists. Only six were chosen. Artists travel from around the world to exhibit because they're treated so well, with both resources and unfettered freedom, Luderowski said.

"Michael is an artist and I'm an artist," she said. "The language is there. The thinking process is there."

Donors to the Mattress Factory include:

  • Allegheny County Community and Infrastructure Tourism Fund
  • AT&T Foundation
  • Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Community and Economic Development
  • Heinz Endowments
  • Institute for Museum and Library Services
  • Lambda Foundation
  • National City Bank Foundation
  • National Endowment for the Arts
  • National Endowment for the Humanities
  • Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts

Source: mattressfactory.org

"We give them a space where they can create with unprecedented help."

Through fundraising and frugal financial management, the Mattress Factory has grown. It now occupies three other buildings in the neighbourhood, including two storefronts of installations and temporary lodging for up to seven visiting artists.

Housing prices increase

The work is all encompassing, said Luderowski.

"It consumes you. The kind of drive it takes to be an artist where you don't focus on any part of your life other than what you're doing, for me that really circulates around this."

But she is also aware of the impact it has. In 2006, Carnegie Mellon did an economic impact study and found that ithe museum contributes $3.2 million to the local economy. It likely inspires visitors to check out other neighbourhood attractions too.

Housing prices in the central north shore have also increased. In 1997, the average price for a single-family home was $60,000, which in 10 years nearly doubled.

"While we cannot specify the Mattress Factory's precise contribution to this trend, it seems very plausible that with its presence, programs, projects, and events are playing a role in exposing would-be residents to the area, even as they improve its attractiveness as a place to live," the report said.

A Hamilton dream

Jeremy Freiburger, chief connector at Cobalt Connects, was part of a 2010 delegation that went to Pittsburgh with then-mayor Fred Eisenberger. The goal was to hear about ideas that could be applied to Hamilton.

The Mattress Factory wasn't part of the journey, he said. But he believes the concept could fly here. That was the vision of the 270 Sherman when it was developed, he said.

"Hamilton could definitely support the creation of that work."

Vegh hopes so. In a perfect world, she said, it would be on the waterfront.

"Space is always such a huge challenge for artists here, and we have artists who have the skills and technical ability all working in much smaller spaces," she said. "To have space that lets them work on an industrial scale could be a real game changer."