North Siders buoyed by interest in their community
The Spring Garden and East Deutschtown neighborhoods, once thriving parts of the North Side, became victims of progress 30 years ago, longtime residents say.
The construction of highways — Interstates 279 and 579 and Route 28 — that bring thousands of suburbanites into the city each day for work isolated the communities and triggered their decline. Neglect by city government accommodated the slide, residents say.
“When they came through with 279, they tore the community apart,” said Bernie Grady, 53, vice president of the Community Alliance of Spring Garden and East Deutschtown. “We lost half our business district on East Ohio Street. We lost all our business districts on Madison Avenue and East Street. With that highway, we got separated from the rest of the world, it seemed like.”
The area is trying to right itself through the work of residents and the alliance.
About $125,000 in state and city grants has been put aside to begin construction early next year on a community “gateway” at East Ohio and Chestnut streets and Troy Hill Road.
The plan calls for crosswalks, landscaping, trees and a 40-foot artistic monument of stone and steel with a large globe on top.
Grady said the estimated cost is $1 million, but the community likely will scale back if it can't raise the money.
Grady and his neighbors found allies in Mayor-elect Bill Peduto, who identified the neighborhood as one needing revitalization, and in City Council President Darlene Harris, who represents much of the North Side.
East Deutschtown is part of East Allegheny, according to city planners, but the highway cut it off from East Allegheny and residents consider it part of Spring Garden.
Change slow to come
Harris said Madison Avenue and East Ohio Street were thriving business districts when she was a child. She remembers corner candy stores, restaurants, saloons and butcher shops.
An ice cream cone factory in a now-vacant building on Madison and the vacant Allegheny Social Hall on Concord Street held regular dances and welcomed a Santa Claus at Christmas.
She said dedicated volunteers are helping the neighborhood to slowly improve.
“The neighborhood is changing,” she said. “Younger people are starting to move in, and they're fixing up the houses down here.”
The neighborhood group completed a master plan last year using a $20,000 grant from the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority.
It identified the biggest problems as substandard housing, lack of commercial development, vacant lots and blight.
Residents and business leaders say absentee landlords — 48.7 percent of Spring Garden housing is renter-occupied, along with 58.5 percent in East Allegheny — and drug dealing have compounded neighborhood problems.
Pittsburgh police statistics for 2012 suggest the neighborhood is one of the city's safest, but residents say crime is a problem.
Spring Garden ranked 68th out of 90 neighborhoods in serious crimes such as murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault, with a total of 50. East Allegheny, however, was the 12th-worst neighborhood with 269 serious crimes. Police reported no murders or rapes in 2012.
“I've been robbed once or twice with a gun and burglarized 13 times,” said Bob Spehar, 69, a retired city police officer who owns Marshall's Exxon and convenience store on Spring Garden Avenue. “It's just a depressed area. There used to be people walking up and down the street. We need housing, and we need more businesses.”
Housing a top priority
Grady said his group is focusing on beautification, attracting housing occupied by owners and rehabilitating old homes.
That aligns with Peduto's ideas.
“Spring Garden to me is a residential community. To restore the community, the first thing we need to do is restore the housing,” he said. “It would be a combination of demolishing blighted buildings, sealing others that can be saved and building new homes.”
He pointed to the Dinwiddie area of the Hill District as an example of how a neighborhood can put housing between existing structures. Downtown-based Trek Development Group offers a market rate and low-income, single-family homes and townhouses with a rent-to-own option.
The process requires long-term commitment, according to William J. Gatti Jr., a partner at Trek.
“Our approach is a block-by-block, lot-by-lot style where we try to weave in new with old,” he said. “We restore where we can and weave in new construction where we need to. It takes longer, it's more difficult and more time-consuming.”
Gatti said the firm hasn't considered Spring Garden for possible investment.
“I need to take a ride over there one of these days,” he said.
The neighborhood has 19th century frame homes and brick rowhouses, but many have fallen into disrepair.
Only about 4 percent of Spring Garden's buildings are rated in excellent condition by the Pittsburgh Planning Department.
About 21 percent of East Allegheny's buildings are rated excellent.
Peduto said the narrow Spring Garden Valley, once home to the city's meat packing industry, presents a different problem. Homes are situated among large industrial buildings and smaller businesses.
He said the city could partner with North Side leaders and offer incentives for businesses and light industry to move in.
That sounds terrific to Don Waltmire, 63, who has operated Waltmire's Pharmacy and dollar store on Spring Garden Avenue for 30 years.
“This is probably the most depressed area where I've ever worked, and I like it the best,” he said.
“It's just good-hearted, hard-working people.”
Bob Bauder is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-765-2312 or firstname.lastname@example.org.