#OurGivingSpirit: Sandy Salzman, Neighborhood Superhero
As a 20-year member of the New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC), executive director Sandy Salzman has accrued many good memories. But there’s one memory in particular that stands out in her mind during the holiday season.
“There was a woman who was buying one of our renovated houses… around Gaul street and it was right before Christmas. She was [newly divorced], she had a son. She wanted to have them in their new house for Christmas and we were able to make settlement on Christmas Eve morning. It still chokes me up, you know… On Christmas Eve morning. I don’t know how she did it. She was able to move into that house on Christmas Eve, get everything set up and have Christmas morning for her son. So touching…” Salzman said, wiping the tears from her eyes and laughing softly to herself. “But you know, that’s one story of a million.”
The NKCDC is an organization that works to assist neighborhoods in the 19125 and 19134 area codes. Founded in 1985, the organization runs several programs, including: Assisting residents with purchasing and maintaining homes, running community engagement programs including a weekly fresh produce co-op, encouraging recycling and sustainable living (including a Vacant Land Management department that cleans up trash from vacant lots), managing business in the area, bringing new businesses in and keeping current ones afloat.
“The mission really is, when you boil down to it, to make the neighborhood better,” Salzman said.
A long-time resident of the neighborhood, Salzman was a Girl Scout, which she credits as one of the driving forces pushing her into community service. “You were always supposed to make someplace better than you found it, and I really believe that philosophy,” she said.
Over the years, she’s watched the neighborhood change. “[It’s] obviously a lot different than when I was a kid. Frankford Avenue is a lot different. The core of Fishtown was always very strong… but Frankford Avenue, back when I was a kid, was starting to lose the stores, lose the businesses, the factories were closing down, the textile mills were moving south and then ultimately moved overseas. So there was a lot of abandonment.”
Even before her time, she says her father’s post-WWII generation saw highways boom and vacancy take over as they returned from the war. The neighborhood was in decline and new opportunities afforded under the GI Bill meant that veterans were no longer rooted in the area. “This has been a neighborhood of generations, so people have always lived here, but they stopped coming back,” Salzman said.
As more of the neighborhood became abandoned, vacant lots began to fill with garbage. The NKCDC’s Vacant Land Management efforts were able to fix some of that damage. “If you don’t have a stable neighborhood that’s clean and a place that people can be proud of, people don’t want to move in,” Salzman said. “The land use management really did come in and stabilize the neighborhood — it started cleaning up the lots, it made the neighborhood a lot less scary.” Today, she explains, property value is much higher and businesses are thriving.
Salzman may be the NKCDC’s executive director, but she certainly doesn’t take full credit for all of the improvement the neighborhood has seen since her beginnings with the organization. “I don’t do anything. I run this organization, I’m the executive director, but it’s the staff that really does the work and makes everything happen, and they are just amazing people,” she said. “I get goosebumps when somebody comes up to me and says, ‘This program you’re doing is so great!’”
Through her work with the organization, Salzman and her staff have collaboratively improved an area, filling vacancies, assisting families and supporting local businesses. “I have a great job,” she said, smiling softly, “but I have a better staff.”
The NKCDC offers a forum for cash donations on their website, but it’s not all about the money. The website also offers volunteer opportunities and Salzman encourages people to attend all of the local non-profit events, even just as a guest, including but not limited those events run by the NKCDC.