Homewood residents rally to rebuild their community

Bob Bauder
| Sunday, Sept. 1, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Homewood residents fed up with chronic crime, poverty and urban decay are stepping up to do something about it.

From a one-woman effort to clean up her block to others providing safe havens for kids or training unemployed adults for construction and landscaping, residents are pitching in to rebuild one of Pittsburgh's most blighted communities.

“This is truly a boots-on-the-ground grassroots effort up here,” said Dianne Swann, founder and executive director of Rosedale Block Cluster, a nonprofit that employs residents to mow vacant lots and do landscape work for customers. “We have a vested interest in making it work. Otherwise, our kids are really going to start dying in the streets again.”

Officials say grassroots programs are a start but it will take much more to change the neighborhood.

“Those efforts, if left alone without significant investment within the community, will fail,” said Councilman Ricky Burgess, who represents the neighborhood. “There needs to be development dollars, in addition to social service dollars, so you can build stores and build homes and build the community.”

Racial unrest in the 1960s and a crack cocaine epidemic in the late 1980s and early 1990s eroded Homewood. Businesses and homeowners moved away, leaving behind a neighborhood plagued by crime and poverty.

Breaking bleak statistics

Homewood's population, predominantly black, dropped from about 30,000 in 1940 to 6,400 in 2010. The most recent data available from the city Planning Department show unemployment in 2000 ranged from 37 percent in Homewood South to about 43 percent in Homewood West, compared with 5.9 percent for the rest of Pittsburgh. Median income was $15,000 to $25,000.

The University of Pittsburgh's Center for Social and Urban Research reported in 2010 that Homewood had become home to more than 1,000 vacant houses.

Rhonda Sears, 46, who has lived in the neighborhood for most of her life, tired of waiting for outside help. Sears planted flowers in a vacant lot near her home using a $1,000 city grant. She received another Love Your Block grant this year to make a second garden.

“I had an interest just to beautify where I live, because it's a reflection on me when you see a vacant lot out there all covered by weeds,” Sears said.

A homicide on Race Street in 2008 prompted Elwin Green and others to band together for a street cleanup. Residents of the 21-block street mow vacant lots, clean up litter and plant flowers and trees.

Green, 61, who chairs the Save Race Street Committee, said his motives were spiritual and financial. As a Christian, he has a God-given duty to help his neighbors, he said.

“No. 2, I'm a homeowner, and I want to increase the value of my home,” Green said. “I realized 20 years ago that I have a $200,000 home in a $20,000 neighborhood.”

Green established a website, homewoodnation.com, to provide news and information and motivate conversation about Homewood.

Rebuilding with apprentices

The Homewood Renaissance Association, created this year by the Rev. Eugene Blackwell and his wife, Dina, will open a $4.5 million Renaissance Center in a donated building on Frankstown Avenue to provide worship space, classrooms, a recording studio, shops and a business incubator.

The organization's All 4 Life program teaches construction trades to men who otherwise might not work, and explains how to start a business. Working with Massaro Corp., Rebuild Together Pittsburgh and Hosanna Industries, the men receive on-the-job training rehabilitating homes in the neighborhood. The goal is to rehab 25 homes a year, said Blackwell, pastor of House of Manna Faith Community in Homewood.

“The goal is they will be equipped to live in and maintain the houses they develop,” he said.

The Community Empowerment Association, headed by T. Rashad Byrdsong in a former Homewood school, provides similar training in trades and job preparation.

Public safety officials said such efforts help deter the type of violence that happened in Homewood last week, when shooters firing from overgrown lots wounded three people. Public Works Department crews cleared many lots afterward.

“I think that grassroots efforts down at the lower level are better than some of the bigger projects,” Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Mike Huss said.

Violent crime in Homewood has decreased 15 percent over five years, police reports show. Homicides, rapes, robberies and assaults dropped from 253 in 2008 to 216 last year. From nine homicides in 2008, Homewood experienced three in each of the past two years, statistics show.

Better with time

Residents say Homewood is changing for the better.

The neighborhood appears cleaner than in the 1990s, when some lots contained trash piled three stories high, they said.

Yet grassroots organizers caution it will take time to transform Homewood.

“We didn't get into this situation overnight, and we're not going to get out of it overnight,” said Jerome M. Jackson, executive director of Operation Better Block, a nonprofit that encourages block cleanup and helps develop strategic plans for community improvement.

“It's a job that's going to require a lot of folks and a lot of input from residents,” Jackson said. “It's going to require a lot of money. There's no magic way to do that.”

Bob Bauder is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-765-2312 or bbauder@tribweb.com.

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