Homewood youth tap solar energy as ‘gateway’ to betterment

When Jordan Blackwell and DaVontae Garner hit the studio to polish their latest rap composition, the Homewood teenagers were faced with the challenge of trying to rhyme “kilowatt-hour.”

The duo emerged from the session with a 3-minute song — loosely inspired by Drake’s “Energy” — that helps explain why Homewood residents were turning their heads on Frankstown Avenue on Thursday.

Community leaders unveiled “Renaissance Gate,” an installation of solar panels mounted in a run-down lot where a rusted sign marquee used to stand. The panels were aesthetically angled to both take in sunlight and surround the steel frame of an arched gate, which 14-year-old DaVontae said symbolized a gateway to a new Homewood.

“It means hope,” he said. “I’m hoping that it will change the way people have been acting, change the community, make it a bit nicer.”

The panels sit on an unshaded corner across from the 12,000-square-foot community center owned by the Homewood Renaissance Association, a group that provides resources to the neighborhood. The panels will produce about 6,500 kilowatt-hours of electricity for the building, and electrical outlets in the poles holding the panels will provide onsite round-the-clock charging for phones and other portable devices.

The project embodies the intersection of science and art, which is crucial to instill in students at a young age, said Rodney Heard, one of the educators at the six-week Art+Energy Summer Camp, where a group of 19 Homewood students — ranging in age from 8 to 17 — guided the development of the artwork from conceptualization to installation.

The project is the first finished installation for the Land Art Generator Initiative, a nonprofit founded by married couple Robert Ferry and Elizabeth Monoian to develop large-scale public artworks that double as utility-scale renewable energy generation.

The camp was organized by a collaboration of the Land Art Generator Initiative, green buildings nonprofit Conservation Consultants Inc. and the Homewood Renaissance Association. The groups secured funding from the Heinz Endowments, Google Grants and the Three Rivers Community Initiative to oversee camp activities and pay for the materials and installation costs. There’s no short-term maintenance with solar panels, but Ms. Monoian said she would check on it periodically.

The first week of camp, which cost a nominal fee, featured a series of field trips highlighting Western Pennsylvania’s variety of energy production.

The students visited FirstEnergy Corp.’s Bruce Mansfield coal-fired power plant and Beaver Valley nuclear power plant, both located along the Ohio River in Shippingport, to learn about the traditional ways of producing electricity.

To see the recent strides in sustainable architecture and clean energy sources, they went to Chatham University’s Eden Hall campus in Richland, the Energy Innovation Center in the Lower Hill District, and Conservation Consultants on the South Side.

Before designing “Renaissance Gate,” Ms. Monoian said the students analyzed the existing sign structure and created prototypes out of Popsicle sticks, clay and construction paper to shape the solar panels — all while discussing how to express their experience in the neighborhood.

“The structure, to them, looked like a gate, something for them to walk through. So that became the concept,” Ms. Monoian said. “To them, it’s a portal for walking through an old Homewood to a new Homewood.”

Last week, North Side-based Underwood Solar stopped by to install a steel frame and the mounts for the panels. On Thursday morning, the group was working on the final touches.

The Homewood campers said the artwork is unlike anything they’ve seen in a neighborhood scattered with graffiti and murals.

“We looked at it as if it has meaning,” DaVontae said. “Graffiti’s just graffiti; it ain’t nothing but just spray paint. This sculpture, you walk past it and be like, ‘Oh, that’s amazing.’ ”

Terrell Williams, 11, said turning a blighted sign into a piece of art symbolized the ability of the community for positive development.

People sometimes think “nothing good can happen in Homewood since it’s such a violent place,” Terrell said. “But since we’ve built these solar panels, people can start to see how much better it is as a community.”

In “Solar Energy,” Jordan and DaVontae trade off lines about how improving the neighborhood can coincide with saving the planet.

“Block out the sun with the smoke, then it’s gonna be polar,” Jordan, 14, methodically raps over the beat. “The whole world would be better off if we just went solar.”

DaVontae follows with a verse: “Stop the violence, this is science. People come together, let’s build an alliance.”

Daniel Moore: dmoore@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2743 or on Twitter @PGdanielmoore.

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