Can Homewood Rebound From Decades Of Neglect?

Mar 2, 2016

Pittsburgh has seen an economic turnaround in recent years, but not every neighborhood has been part of the renaissance. 

Homewood has seen more population loss than any neighborhood and economic development for decades has been nearly nonexistent. Its reputation has become one of crime and poverty, which plays out regularly on the nightly news, with reports of murders in the 1-square-mile neighborhood on the northeastern corner of the city.

But when you ask William Baker, he sees a community on the rise.

“I’m seeing new housing, new stories, new businesses, new entertainment, new churches,” said Baker, who has owned Baker’s Dairy on Hamilton Avenue in Homewood for 50 years. From his chair behind the counter of the corner grocery store and deli, he beams with optimism.

Both perceptions are true at some level. There are a lot of shootings, but there’s also a lot of new development, according to Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto’s Chief of Staff Kevin Acklin.

“We think for the first time in multi-generations, we have an opportunity for economic growth in Homewood,” Acklin said. “It’s an example of a neighborhood that has long suffered, not only from a lack of attention from City Hall, but actual disinvestment.”

Acklin said the city does not want to dictate what will happen in Homewood. Instead, city officials want to work with the residents. 

“Our view is that, that development that is coming into Homewood needs to be done in a manner that empowers the people in the neighborhood, that have lived through the hard times. And there are a lot of good people,” said Acklin, who added it will only work if the residents come together and work together.

Cherylie Fuller understands that.

“This is going to be a stressful process,” Fuller said, executive director of the Homewood Concerned Citizens Council. “Development is stressful, particularly when people have been in the community a long time and they don’t want to move.” 

Fuller’s is one of seven groups that were joined together last summer under the umbrella group, The Homewood Community Development Collaborative. 

The task is huge. According to the US Census Bureau, the population of Homewood has dropped from about 35,000 in 1960 to an estimated 6,000 in 2014. About half of the property in Homewood is either owned by the city or the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), and many more parcels are so delinquent on their taxes that the past-due bill is greater than the value of the land. 

That means if a developer wants to start a project in Homewood, it has to go through the city. And the city, according to Operation Better Block Executive Director Jerome Jackson, will not approve a project unless the developer gets a letter of support from his organization.

To get that letter, the developer’s plans need to fit into the master plan created by Operation Better Block, as part of the Homewood Community Development Collaborative, which was developed through months of community meetings.

The first step was to ask the residents of each of nine residential “clusters” to verify if the maps they had were accurate. Once it was clear which properties were occupied, boarded up or vacant, the residents were asked to give their opinion as to what should be the priority for each parcel.

“And then we took them back and combined them into some kind of a map and then in between meeting one and two, my staff went out door-to-door to take that information and say, 'Hey, this is what we talked about in meeting one. What do you think?'” Jackson said.

They then held another meeting and went door-to-door again, before holding a third meeting where the final plan was presented.

Jackson said, in all, they reached 2,600 of the 2,700 households in the community and hosted 500 different residents at the community meetings -- 90 percent of them attended all three meetings in their clusters.

But for all that input, some people are still nervous. Like Earl Davis, who cuts hair at Wade’s Barbershop on Kelly Street. He said he has seen the development in East Liberty and Lawrenceville and he doesn’t like it.

“I’ll put it this way, at one time I lived in an apartment in East Liberty on Highland Avenue and I was paying $425 rent. Right now, they have a big sign up front, 'One bedroom starting at $1,200 a month.’  The development I see is pushing everybody out who is currently in the area, because we won’t be able to afford to live here,” said Davis.

Davis said he owns property in Homewood, but he rents it out and lives in Verona.

Bob Pigg lives in Wilkinsburg, but frequents Wade’s. While getting a trim recently, he said he fears his neighborhood is next.

“They're coming right on up the valley, this is what you call the ‘Big Valley,’” Pigg said. “They are going to take over the valley.”

When asked who “they” are Pigg added, “Who do you think? You are.”

Davis tried to clarify.  

“What he’s saying is that this is an all-black community and now, every day we see white people walking through, you’re taking pictures of all the different little spots and they come by here and take pictures of the building and what not,” said Davis, imagining that the plans are already finalized. “I feel like I’m part of a chess board getting ready to be moved out.”

Jerome Heflin also cuts hair at Wade’s and lives in Homewood. He compared the situation to what happened to Native Americans, then shook his head and said that drugs and jail time have pulled the community apart, to the point that it can’t organize and fight back.

Back at Operation Better Block, Jerome Jackson said he understands their concerns, but sees a different future. It’s a future where Homewood continues to be a majority African-American neighborhood. 

“What we are looking to do is to create a cultural destination of African-American culture,” Jackson said. “Looking at food, and restaurants, and services and those kinds of things. So maybe like a Lawrenceville, but with a different flavor and a different focus.”

When talking to Homewood residents, East Liberty and Lawrenceville are constant bench marks. A place that they do not want to see duplicated.

Jackson said the collaborative nature that has been built will make sure that does not happen. He also said the stigma of being a violent neighborhood might actually help shape the development for the better.

“Crime in our neighborhood is like a double-edged sword,” Jackson said. “It stops folks from coming in, but it also gives us time … to get to where we need to be, so that we don’t have that happen. So that folks are not coming in buying property and doing whatever.”

The city and the URA have assembled a multi-acre site on Hamilton Avenue, across from the Library that it could use for a large anchor development. Many of the groups that form The Homewood Community Development Collaborative have their own smaller redevelopment plans already underway, including the Homewood Renaissance Association

“We don’t always need the outside to tell us what we want and what we need,” said Dena Blackwell, CEO of the Homewood Concerned Citizens Council. “We know what we want and what we need. You can come and help us do that, but do that without the premise that you are going to take over.”

Blackwell does not want to see a Homewood with 35,000 residents. Her group is focused on helping homeowners take control of the vacant lots next to their homes to create side yards and gardens, which would reduce the number of available homes. They are working on façade improvements for existing homes, and have a goal of 20 home rehabs each year. 

The Collaborative’s master plan calls for an equal mix of low income, subsidized and market rate homes, with a goal of the casual passerby not being able to tell the difference.

“I’ve always seen it as a place that was going to be an example nationally of how to transform a community and reconstruct it by using the people who are there, and then inviting people in to join who is there,” Blackwell said.

Projections vary as to how long it will be before the residents can hold up Homewood as a national example. Some say 10 years, others three years and Blackwell said today. It’s also unclear how much it will take to fund all of the work, but that number starts in the range of $150 million.