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Mayor-elect Peduto raises hopes of rebirth in Homewood

| Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013, 11:24 p.m.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
The Rev. Samuel Ware, who heads Building United of Southwestern Pennsylvania, a community development corporation addressing Homewood South, stands near houses at North Richland Street and Susquehanna Street in Homewood on Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013.

Milford Frye wore his election night “Peduto for Mayor” shirt the next morning as he pushed a shopping cart through the heart of Homewood's once-bustling business district.

Frye, 65, got the shirt during Mayor-elect Bill Peduto's victory party, a raucous event that drew more than 1,000 people to Homewood's Greater Pittsburgh Coliseum to cap the most lopsided mayoral win in a generation.

Peduto, 49, of Point Breeze has vowed to make neighborhood rebuilding a cornerstone of his administration, consistently mentioning Homewood, where his grandmother grew up and his grandparents ran a grocery stand. He would consider moving there, Peduto told the Tribune-Review when discussing his passion for the neighborhood's revival.

People in Homewood are paying attention.

“It's good he's talking about us. And it's right. We need his help,” said Frye, whose cart held bags of food from the pantry in Holy Rosary Church.

Homewood has assets — among them, a remodeled Carnegie Library branch and a YMCA, a Community College of Allegheny County branch and the Afro American Music Institute. Yet the neighborhood long has been one of the city's most troubled, scarred by violence, poverty and blight.

For years it has been the city's most violent neighborhood, logging 216 homicides, rapes, robberies and assaults last year, police reports show. The second-most violent neighborhood, South Side Flats, reported 146 such crimes.

A rash of shootings this summer prompted the city to clear overgrown vacant lots because officials said gunmen hid in bushes and weeds to ambush targets. Police increased patrols and plan to install surveillance cameras and gunfire-locating devices in the coming months.

A Troy Hill man died in a shooting last month at Port Authority's Homewood stop along the East Busway.

“I have faith in the mayor, but talk is talk. We're going to hold his feet to the fire,” said Frye, who wants to see more police patrolling streets at night.

Primed for turnaround

Jerome Jackson, head of the nonprofit Operation Better Block, said he can't recall a mayoral candidate talking about Homewood so much.

“If he doesn't follow through, it's probably going to be bad for him,” Jackson said.

Peduto criticized Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's administration for using scarce grant money to subsidize Downtown developers instead of investing in struggling neighborhood business districts and declining residential areas.

“What we want to do is start to create plans for neighborhoods, and then go and find the developers that can do it,” Peduto said.

Some construction work, he said, could be done by people living in poor neighborhoods, providing them with work.

Though it's a daunting task, community leaders say Homewood — once home to industrial kings — is primed for a turnaround.

“We feel it's our time here in Homewood. Under the last two administrations and further back, we have been last to have any type of community economic development, so we have a big plate of issues to address,” said T. Rashad Byrdsong, founder of the Homewood-based Community Empowerment Association, which provides a range of social services. “But I also think there has been a lot of effort to organize and mobilize ourselves from a community grass-roots perspective.”

Jackson's group recently began “cluster planning” to find out what residents want. The process divides the neighborhood into 12 sections and gathers recommendations from people through weekly meetings.

“People always say they want Homewood to be what it used to be,” Jackson said, noting that the population declined fivefold from about 30,000 during the first half of the 20th century. “But when they start talking about it, they discover they don't want to go back to 30 houses on a block, all jammed together. They want side yards, backyards, a parklet on their block.

“More than anything, they want a place that is safe, clean and livable.”

Rebuilding ‘not cheap'

The Rev. Samuel Ware, who heads Building United of Southwestern Pennsylvania, a community development corporation addressing Homewood South, has built 14 three-bedroom homes priced about $130,000 each on a block once occupied by public row houses, near Faison Elementary.

Construction will begin soon on six more houses. Five buyers are lined up.

“It's not cheap,” Ware said, noting that each house costs about $225,000 to build when land acquisition, demolition and construction are factored in. He used grants to finance much of the initial construction, including $1.4 million from the state and $500,000 from the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority.

A supportive mayor can push to allocate city money and lobby for state and federal funding for such projects, Ware said.

Another housing development that benefited from public money is being built on North Homewood Avenue. The four-story, 41-unit Homewood Station senior apartment building is expected to cost $11.5 million. Its financing includes $10 million in federal tax credits and more than $300,000 in URA grants.

Councilman Ricky Burgess, a Homewood native who lives in North Point Breeze, called the project the “most significant investment in Homewood in 20 years.”

Yet it's nowhere near what's needed, Burgess said.

“What Homewood needs is a disproportionate amount of financial commitment and resources,” he said. “I would like to see something similar to what was done in the SouthSide Works, with $150 million in public investment to leverage another $300 million or more in private investment.

“It could become the next great working-class community.”

Investment of that nature does not happen unless a mayor is on board, said Burgess, a City Council ally on whom Ravenstahl relied.

“I believe (Peduto) is concerned about the community,” Burgess said. “I look forward to working with him.”

Tom Fontaine is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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