Wilkinsburg boosters foresee brighter future for blighted borough
Tina Stevens operated an African-themed book and clothing store in Wilkinsburg's business district until her ceiling collapsed.
Stevens, 78, of Wilkinsburg said out-of-town owners didn't maintain the building on Wood Street and the roof leaked.
“There was a young woman who was pregnant, and just as she got up from the couch, the ceiling came down,” Stevens said. “I said, ‘That's it. I'm out of here.' I did very well in the years that I was in business. I would have still been there if the building was rentable.”
Once a thriving bedroom community, Wilkinsburg, which borders Pittsburgh, has become a poster child for urban decay.
“When people think of Wilkinsburg, they think black and poor,” police Chief Ophelia “Cookie” Coleman said.
Urban flight that began decades ago was fueled by the industrial decline of the 1980s and a crack cocaine epidemic in the 1990s. The borough's leaders since have struggled against blight, budget deficits and perceptions that Wilkinsburg is simply a place to avoid.
The borough will cover an $800,000 deficit in this year's $12.2 million budget by tapping savings. Council President Patrick Shattuck said the borough built up a $1.4 million surplus by spending less than budgeted and leaving positions vacant, such as some in its administrative office and library.
“All of our goals are to increase revenue,” he said.
At 15,800, the population of the 2.2-square-mile borough is less than half what it was in the 1950s, according to Census Bureau figures. Nearly 67 percent of residents are black; 55 percent are women. Twenty-three percent live in poverty.
Real estate taxes totaling 51.36 mills for the borough, school district and Allegheny County are among the county's highest, and only 37 percent of Wilkinsburg's residents own homes.
For several years, Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation has worked with the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation to restore historic homes with public and foundation funding. The groups have invested about $25 million to renovate seven houses and two apartment buildings, and work continues on five other buildings, said foundation President Arthur Ziegler Jr.
Forty percent of the borough's 10,065 homes were built before 1939, and about a fifth of Wilkinsburg's housing stock is vacant. Rundown houses have broken windows and yards filled with weeds and garbage. About 800 vacant lots, overgrown with brush, pepper pothole-ridden streets.
In recent years, Wilkinsburg hired Pittsburgh to provide garbage collection and fire protection. The Wilkinsburg School District will begin sending students in grades seven through 12 to Pittsburgh Public Schools this fall.
Some say the borough should consider merging with Pittsburgh.
“You have a small community with a very small tax base,” said former state Sen. Jim Ferlo of Pittsburgh's Highland Park neighborhood, who once represented Wilkinsburg. “You have an ailing school district with ever-increased costs. People are leaving the community. It's a compounding dilemma. In the end, I think, there should be a total closure, merger.”
A strong start
Wilkinsburg began as a land grant in 1769 from Pennsylvania to Andrew Levy Sr., who named his 266 acres “Africa,” according to the borough's webpage. Dunning McNair purchased the property, and in 1790 laid out a village that he dubbed McNairstown.
The town along Forbes Road, which stretched 200 miles to Carlisle, provided Pittsburgh's first major transportation link to eastern Pennsylvania. McNair eventually named it Wilkinsburg, after William Wilkins, an Allegheny County judge and secretary of war under President John Tyler, and his brother John Wilkins Jr., a Revolutionary War veteran. The borough incorporated in 1887.
Transportation drew residents, and the population grew with the arrival of the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1851 and, later, streetcars. The railroad at one point carried 6,000 to 8,000 passengers daily from Wilkinsburg.
Wilkinsburg remained a middle-class community with professionals commuting to Pittsburgh and mill workers heading to factories in the Turtle Creek Valley. Its business district was a popular shopping destination, with Caldwell and Graham department store, Faller's Better Furniture and the Walmer Hardware Co.
In 1937, Wilkinsburg was home to two hotels, two hospitals, 27 shoe repair shops, 29 restaurants and lunch counters, six auto dealerships, 18 bakeries, 38 beauty salons and 40 dentists, according to a city directory.
“We were a self-contained city,” said Jim Richard of Wilkinsburg, a historian.
Richard said residents started moving out in the 1960s.
“That happened all over America,” he said. “People had more money, and they wanted to live in a place that was better than they had before.”
‘Not too far gone'
Borough officials acknowledge problems but say they have no interest in a merger with Pittsburgh. They point to signs of improvement.
Shattuck said the school district and borough formed a committee in 2014 and hired a tax collector to go after scofflaws. Delinquent tax collections, budgeted at $600,000 in 2016, are projected to increase by nearly 26 percent over 2014.
Crimes reported in Wilkinsburg have decreased by nearly 28 percent, according to Pennsylvania State Police records. Coleman said aggressive patrolling in neighborhoods reduced the most serious crimes such as murder, rape, arson and burglary by nearly 6 percent over the past five years.
Shattuck said the borough plans to knock down 66 buildings at its eastern entrance on Ardmore Boulevard, starting this year, and rebuild a concrete wall along Ardmore with a $250,000 state grant and $500,000 from its capital fund.
He said the property would be maintained as green space while it is marketed for development.
“I think everybody knows how much of an adverse impact that blight has on up to 17,000 cars a day that pass through that corridor,” he said.
During the past five years, 31 businesses moved into Wilkinsburg, according to Wilkinsburg Community Development Corp. Executive Director Tracey Evans, a former councilwoman. She said the organization is working with business owners to keep them in the borough and improve storefronts with grant money.
Matching grants of up to $10,000 are available for interior improvements such as windows, floors, electrical and plumbing systems, accommodations for people with disabilities and safety equipment.
Hosea Ghafoor, owner of Soul Food Connection along Wood Street, has been in business more than 20 years. He said dilapidated buildings have to go.
“We are looking forward to new people and attitudes that Wilkinsburg can come back,” he said. “The good news is, it's not too far gone.”
Evans touts Wilkinsburg as a convenient location, with access to the East Busway and the Parkway East.
People can find houses for sale in the borough for $5,000 at the low end — or for more than $1 million in the Blackridge neighborhood, Shattuck said.
Young people interested in city living are beginning to shop for housing in Wilkinsburg, officials said.
Wilkinsburg is trying to overcome its image problem with positive advertising, said Evans, whose organization spent $100,000 last year on video promotions.
To survive, she said, the borough must find creative ways to generate revenue, such as outsourcing fire, garbage collection and education. Evans doesn't support a merger with Pittsburgh, or contracting with the city to provide more services, but she said she thinks Wilkinsburg should at least explore those options.
“I think there needs to be a look at how that would work financially,” she said. “I'm sure there are a lot of people who would say, ‘No,' but I think there are a lot of other people who would say, ‘Let's look at it.'
“We need to understand what kind of future there is, and what kind of options there are.”
Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-765-2312 or firstname.lastname@example.org.