As a young Malik Bankston trekked along Larimer Avenue on his way to the East End Library, he’d walk through the smells of fresh bread and cigar smoke in the then bustling Italian American neighborhood.
More than a literary education, Mr. Bankston discovered the fabric that holds communities together. Mr. Bankston’s life is his calling, and his decades of work have influenced the lives of countless residents throughout the East End. For his extensive career in community activism, Malik Bankston is GBA’s 2019 Luminary award winner.
When Mr. Bankston became Executive Director of the Kingsley Association in 1998, that deeply woven community of shops, schools, and restaurants had begun to unravel.
“As African Americans began to make up more of Larimer’s population, you saw subtle but dramatic shifts in the kinds of political, capital, and social investments that happened here,” Bankston explains. To fight against the tide of disinvestment, Mr. Bankston worked to implement new educational and cultural programs at Kingsley, laying the groundwork for serious change.
The tide began to shift when Kingsley elected to invest $9.5 million in erecting a new headquarters in 2004. By 2014, the now rooted Association hosted The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as they awarded Larimer a grant of $30 million to develop mixed-income housing with a focus on sustainability. As part of the Larimer Consensus Group (LCG), and along with their City of Pittsburgh and Housing Authority partners, Kingsley provided vital supportive services to longtime residents, while the development team has used the grant to improve housing for residents in older, sometimes dilapidated homes, while attracting new renters to the area.
However, even before the HUD grant, plans for rebuilding Larimer included an explicit emphasis on health and environmental vitality.
“It was the people in this neighborhood who informed that sustainability conversation, who gave it life, who helped to define and identify the things that were the most important,” he emphasizes. With The Kingsley Association and the LCG’s guidance, the community developed plans to use the grant money to address storm water in a more environmentally conscious way, add park space development, and create urban farms in addition to the new residences.
As part of the Larimer Green Team, Mr. Bankston had already begun to realize the successes of that vision. In 2008, he connected Grounded’s (formerly GTECH) soil remediation project to the neighborhood’s community garden, making it more fertile for other kinds of flora and providing a rich metaphor for the neighborhood’s revitalization.
“Sunflowers are known to improve the quality of soil, so we planted a whole field of them to harvest the following summer,” Mr. Bankston recounts. The community then learned how sunflowers are pressed for their oil and turned into biofuel, which powered a neighborhood truck.
“This work raised the level of understanding of what sustainability could be, what it could accomplish,” he adds. “Once you scale a project with community participation, you can transform an entire neighborhood.”
Mr. Bankston’s rich investment in Larimer’s history, combined with an innate need to support those around him, has shaped the arc of a truly astounding career. He refuses to fully retire, and in reality, he can’t. As he walks along those same streets, he’s stopped every couple of steps by residents waving hello or pulling over to greet him. In his own way, Mr. Bankston has sewn himself into the community.