A maker can be defined in a number of ways. For many people, the assumption might be that a maker is someone who crafts handmade goods; jewelry, hand-printed postcards, ceramics. But the term encompasses a much larger population of artists, engineers, woodworkers, chefs, and programmers just to name a few of the entrepreneurs that make up this collaborative movement.
Our city has a rich history of blue-collar workers and ambitious individuals and families who came to Pittsburgh to create something from scratch; to build institutions of learning and production from the ground up. But the landscape of the American workforce has changed dramatically and, with it, so has the role of the maker.
In Pittsburgh, you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t fall under the umbrella of maker. With the idea of moonlighting becoming a more and more common practice amongst the average person, makers are arising out of both ambition and necessity.
“There is a creative renaissance happening.” These are the words of the brains and bronze, Kelly Malone, behind Workspace PGH; a Garfield maker space that has become a prominent part of this movement. Workspace PGH has been open since 2016, but Malone is a lifelong maker who got her start in the DIY movement in San Francisco 9 years ago. Workspace PGH offers classes taught by community members that include crafting but also include more practical projects like woodworking that have become hugely popular with Workspace PGH patrons, many of whom are homeowners looking to be able to make things on their own.
This desire to be self-sustaining is something Malone believes to be more prevalent in Pittsburgh than other, more affluent cities like NYC or San Francisco because “it’s ingrained in Pittsburgh culture – most of us that grew up here [when I did] had blue-collar families that made stuff or fixed up their own houses”. Being able to view DIY and crafting as a hobby rather than a means of survival is a result of disposable income; something that is far less common in Pittsburgh than it is other cities. Malone goes on to say, “a lot of people here have learned to support themselves, grow their art, fix a house. Our woodworking classes are sold out and it’s almost all new homeowners. I think Pittsburgh is pure in its maker roots”.
Like any cultural shift, the maker movement is not without its issues. Despite the maker movement in Pittsburgh being far more community driven than it is in other cities, it still has the ability to lack inclusiveness. With the arrival of the maker movement has also come gentrification. While the two are by no means a direct result of one another, they have the ability to overlap in a city experiencing rapid growth and a substantial shift in culture. Workspace PGH and Prototype, a self-proclaimed feminist maker space, have gone to measures to counteract some of these negative aspects.
One of the most important changes that has come with the influx of the maker movement is its inclusion of women as makers. Pittsburgh is a historically working-class town but women, especially women of color, have largely been underemployed and underpaid in our city’s manufacturing sector. Erin Gatz and Louise Larson, co-founders of Prototype, have been actively addressing this inequity by providing a space where the women of Pittsburgh have access to equipment training and educational opportunities that will help women thrive in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields.
When deciding to open Prototype in a long-vacant building in North Oakland that had previously been a family owned metal working facility, Erin Gatz says that “we wanted to see more women starting their own businesses and getting hired to work in the tech industry and we saw a gap in terms of the services being provided, particularly to low-income women, in these industries.”
Since opening their doors to the community in September 2016, Prototype has won grants from Google and BNY Mellon that have enabled them to start the incubation process for 5 women-owned businesses in their space and begin a 6-month long program that focuses on engaging women of color in tech and entrepreneurship.
In less than fifty years, Pittsburgh has shifted from an industrial epicenter known for its vast steel production to a city where creative and scientific entrepreneurs alike have been able to bring manufacturing back down to the individual level; where the goods being produced have become less about the goods themselves and more about the people behind them. With this transition has come a unique opportunity for historically segregated communities to find a common ambition. Maker spaces like Prototype, Workshop PGH, Protohaven, HackPittsburgh, Assemble, Makeshop and dozens of annual events promoting this movement have made it possible for the general public to have access to high-tech and low tech tools and creative resources for the first time.