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Homewood Bound: How A Neighborhood Was Transformed By Disinvestment And The War On Drugs

Homewood was founded by Pittsburgh’s wealthiest families, but it eventually became one of the city’s poorest and most racially segregated neighborhoods.

The change didn’t happen overnight. Leon Haley, 85, moved to Homewood when he was 6, and remembers it being a stable, mixed-income community. He grew up on Mt. Vernon and Kedron streets, attended the now-closed Belmar Elementary School and graduated from Westinghouse High in 1951. He was the seventh of 13 children and the first to go to college. His father and mother had migrated from Virginia because “there weren’t great opportunities in the South for African-Americans.” They found work as a laborer and housecleaner, respectively.

Credit An-Li Herring / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Leon Haley, 85, grew up in Pittsburgh's Homewood neighborhood. He speaks about his childhood memories while standing on Formosa Way in front of St. Charles Lawanga.

“There wasn’t much money, but what they had, they put into caring for us,” Haley said. “We were poor, but we never had the perception of being poor.”

Haley has warm memories of his youth. He played kickball and basketball with his friends and went to the movies a lot — there were two theaters in Homewood, after all — though he always had to be home “as soon as it would get dark.”

“This was a very stable neighborhood,” Haley said. “We developed a kind of community spirit here in Homewood in those days.”

Stable, safe and intimate is how a lot of people in Haley’s generation describe Homewood.

The neighborhood was founded by Judge William Wilkins in the 1830s, who also served as a U.S. senator and secretary of war. “Early Names And Old Landmarks,” written by Annie Clark Miller in 1924, describes the property as having “massive stone pillars … in the midst of a magnificent grove of trees.” The mansion was demolished in 1924, but the community had already established itself as a getaway from Pittsburgh’s smoky downtown, attracting well-off residents.

Credit Paul Slantis / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, University of Pittsburgh Library System
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, University of Pittsburgh Library System
View of a marching band performing near G. C. Murphy's at the 700 block of Homewood Avenue ca. 1950. The Belmar Theater can be seen just up the hill.

Industrialists like Andrew Carnegie and George Westinghouse built massive estates here. But as the 20th century approached, these wealthy magnates and their families left, and their land was sold or converted into smaller plots. German, Italian and Scots-Irish immigrants came to work in the city’s manufacturing sector, attracted by the flat land, cheap housing and easy access to transportation.

Around the same time, African-American families began to move in and establish themselves. Haley remembers the community being mixed racially in public spaces, but still segregated in places like pools and theaters.

“It wasn’t where you were told that you had to sit as an African American, as a black person, in the back. It was almost like: that’s what you do,” Haley said. “So we grew up having to sit somewhat in the balcony or in the back of the theater.”

But Homewood was also wheresome of Pittsburgh’s most prolific black artists, athletes and writers grew up. Westinghouse High Schoolis the alma mater of pianists Errol Garner, Ahmad Jamal and Mary Lou Williams; Chuck Cooper, who went on to be the first black player drafted into the NBA; and jazz composer Billy Strayhorn.

Credit Pittsburgh City Photographer Collection / University of Pittsburgh Library System
University of Pittsburgh Library System
A group of children near Fischer Groceries and Confections look down the street toward another group of children in the 300 Block of Lincoln Avenue.

The Hill meets Homewood

In 1949, the city announced plans to build what the Associate Press called a “revolutionary rain-defying amphitheater.” The facility would originally house the performances of the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera Association, and be known as the “Civic Arena.” 

Credit Pittsburgh Public Schools Photographs / Detre Library & Archives, Heinz History Center
Detre Library & Archives, Heinz History Center
Westinghouse High School, completed in 1924, was a mixed-race school and graduated many of the city's most famous African American scholars, athletes and artists. According to Pittsburgh Public Schools records, the black population jumped from 897 in 1955 to 2914 in 1965 following the construction of the Civic Arena in the Lower Hill District. The facility displaced nearly 8,000 people in the 1950s and 1960s.

The project was planned for the Lower Hill District and by 1961, when it was officially opened, it had displaced 8,000 families living in that neighborhood.

“Some moved further up the Hill where housing was provided,” said Heinz History Center Director of African American Studies Sam Black. “Some moved to East Liberty, but a larger [number] moved to Homewood.”

Most of these families were lower-middle class and African American. Black said they were promised money to help move, but rarely received it, resulting in poor conditions at their new homes.

“You have multiple families living in packed-in homes,” Black said. “And so you begin to have this sort of shift from a predominantly white community to a black community.”

The arrival of so many black families startled white Homewood residents, said Black, and coincided with “white flight,” or the movement of white families to the suburbs.

Credit Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America / In collaboration with the Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond
In collaboration with the Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond
A 1937 map of Pittsburgh ranks the quality of properties throughout the city. Many experts say these types of maps had a disproportionately negative impact on predominately African American neighborhoods that still last today.

Those shiftsare reflected in a 1937 Home Owners’ Loan Corporation map that ranked Pittsburgh neighborhoods by their desirability. It’s known as one of the original examples of “redlining,” a racist real estate practice that prevents minorities from acquiring home loans. Parts of Homewood and other now- predominantly black neighborhoods were ranked as third or fourth-grade locations, or the least valuable communities.

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
William Baker moved to Pittsburgh to pursue better opportunities after growing up in the South. He stands in the parking lot of his longtime corner store and car wash.

William Baker, who has owned Baker’s Dairy in Homewood for the past 54 years, said he remembers an Italian business owner trying to sell his corner store when “a lot of black people started moving here.”

“They wanted to sell immediately,” Baker said. “Then a lot of prejudice started ...  this area started changing.”

Drugs and deterioration

Credit Charles "Teenie" Harris / Carnegie Museum of Art
Carnegie Museum of Art
Reverend J. A. Williams, looking at cornerstone of Baptist Temple Church with group of girls and boys, Frankstown Avenue, Homewood, 1946. The photograph was captured by Charles “Teenie” Harris, who documented Pittsburgh’s African American community from ca. 1935 to ca. 1975. His archive of nearly 80,000 images is one of the most detailed and intimate records of the black urban experience known today.

Those trends continued after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, when riots across the city led to the arrests of 1,000 people and the looting of more than 100 businesses.

In 30 years, Homewood’s population dropped by more than half to 9,000 two decades ago. The neighborhood now has a nearly 60 percent vacancy rate.

Geraldine Massey grew up in Homewood. Her former brother-in-law, John Edgar Wideman, wrote about the neighborhood in award-winning novels. Massey recently visited a home she once lived in with her ex-husband, Robby Wideman, and said she remembers when the community started to decline.

“It started to change in the late [19]80s, early ‘90s,” Massey said. “The guns came into the community, crack cocaine came into the community.”

Robby Wideman was put away for years after he participated in a robbery that led to a fatal shooting in 1975.

Wideman’s sentence was commuted in May and he was released last month. His older sister, Laticia El, said his story became more common in Homewood as the War on Drugs took hold. The phrase is used to describe the government-led push to remove illegal drugs from communities. But the campaign focused on criminal punishment, and it disproportionately targeted young black men. Nearly a generation of them were taken from neighborhoods like Homewood and put behind bars.

Credit 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Geraldine Massey talks about her life in Homewood and marriage to Robby Wideman, the brother of the award-winning novelist John Edgar Wideman. Robby's prison sentence was recently commuted. Massey says drugs came into community in the 1980s and 90s and changed the environment.

“You can talk to almost any child and if their father is not in jail, their uncle, their cousin, their brother, every family has been affected,” El said.

She hopes when her brother and other formerly incarcerated men return, they’ll mentor young people and help them forge a path much different than their own.

This story is Part 1 of a series exploring how Homewood, and residents who have spent time behind bars, are trying to rebuild after the War on Drugs.

Katie Blackley is a digital editor/producer for 90.5 WESA, where she writes, edits and generates both web and on-air content for features and daily broadcast. She's the producer and host of our Good Question! series and podcast. She also covers history and the LGBTQ community.