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Could Development Be Shaping Health In The Hill District?

Jake Savitz
90.5 WESA
Centre Avenue in the Hill District on Monday, Oct. 23, 2017.

In October 2013, the Hill District held a triumphant groundbreaking: the opening of Shop n’ Save, the neighborhood’s first grocery store in 30 years.

At a ribbon cutting for the 2013 event, Michael Jasper, then chairman of the Hill House Association Board, said: “This is not something that’s been a day or a week in waiting, or even a month or a year, this is something that’s been decades in the making and it’s finally come to fruition.”

Historically, the Hill District was a diverse and thriving neighborhood, loaded with small grocers, stores, and jazz clubs. But it had struggled since the 1960s, when an urban redevelopment project to build the Civic Arena severed the neighborhood from downtown. By 2010, the median household income for the neighborhood was under $28,000.

Health outcomes in the neighborhood, concurrently, have not been great. According to 2010 Census Tract data and the Allegheny County Health Department, median age of death in the Middle Hill is about 72, and obesity is estimated to be about 60 percent. Compare that to Shadyside, where median life expectancy is 10 years longer and the obesity rate is estimated to be under 15 percent.

The opening of the store presented an opportunity for researchers at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit policy research organization. By conducting a before- and after-study of health and well-being in the Hill District and in demographically similar Homewood, they could illuminate the impact of opening a supermarket in a food desert.

The results? While health in Homewood didn't get better, Hill District residents saw improvements in a few metrics. Sugar intake went down, as did general caloric intake.

"And one would think, well, this is because of the grocery store," said Tamara Dubowitz, a researcher at RAND.

"But when we looked at the role of the grocery store and the residents in the Hill District who went to the grocery store and residents who didn't want to go to the grocery store, there was actually no change in diet."

This was puzzling, so Dubowitz started working on a new study, slated to be published in the Annals of Epidemiology journal in November. So far, the data show that since the Shop 'n Save opened, Hill residents are not just more satisfied with their neighborhood, there's evidence that some markers of socioeconomic status and well-being are improving.

This led the researchers to start looking at other changes in the neighborhood, including a new library, YMCA and a new housing development.

"Even though it might not seem like this is directly related to diet, we think that it might be," Dubowitz said.

The RAND data suggest that neighborhood investments are linked to higher quality of life.

"You can't understand diet without understanding transportation, and you can't understand diet without understanding access to education, or housing or the infrastructure of the community," she said.

One key investment to the neighborhood was the Thelma Lovett YMCA, which opened in 2012 on Centre Avenue. It's an expansive facility -- it has a pool, a basketball court, a rooftop garden and cardio and strength equipment. They have a couple thousand members, many from the Hill District.

Executive Director Aaron Gibson sees the YMCA and the supermarket as just a start.

"I think you have to let investors and developers in to start investing in this corridor, this is a major, major artery," Gibson said. "It really saddens me that there really isn't a whole lot of storefronts like you have on Butler Street or in Bloomfield."

Any comparison to Lawrenceville, of course, raises fears of gentrification.

"When we go to meetings, as soon as they mention the word gentrification, [people] are really up in arms," said La’Vette Wagner, who worked with RAND on gathering data for the health study. "Several people in the community use that word to scare people, and several people use that word to say this is what's coming, it's good."

But for Wagner, the health study and the growth have personal meaning, since she grew up in the neighborhood. "A part of me misses the Hill District I knew growing up," Wagner said. "The stores, the things we did have, I saw those things disappear."

Finding a balance between encouraging growth and maintaining affordability for current residents is a tricky one. According to the RAND data, very few people in the study moved out of the Hill between 2011 and 2014, and the data don't point to those moves happening because they were priced out. For her part, Wagner feels positive about the changes.

"Everything is for the good now, and I'm hoping a lot of residents will see that and not see it as something bad, but to see it as something we really need," Wagner said. "we want the Hill to thrive, we want to see it up and coming."

In many ways, it would be a return to the days of past for the Hill District.

Coverage of issues of social justice and racial and economic equity in Pittsburgh on 90.5 WESA is generously supported by the Heinz Endowments.  

Kathleen J. Davis covers news about just about anything at WESA. She’s also the primary reporter and producer of WESA’s weekly series Pittsburgh Tech Report. Kathleen originally hails from the great state of Michigan, and is always available to talk about suburban Detroit and Coney Island diners. She lives in Bloomfield.
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