In heart of Homewood, an empty lot filled with meaning
The lot was overgrown and neglected, and Demi Kolke was determined to do something about it.
Kolke, an employee of Operation Better Block, started by doing her homework. She learned that the property — an L-shaped corner lot at 558 Dunfermline St. in Homewood — had been vacant for decades. Last anyone in the neighborhood could remember, there was a three-story apartment building with a donut shop on the ground level. They made the best cake donuts around. But that all went away around 1970. It had been vacant ever since.
Next, she confirmed the lot owner's name: Kenneth Stubbs.
She learned that Stubbs lived in Penn Hills but had grown up in Homewood. He owned many properties in the area, including a car sales lot and an auto body shop just down the road from the vacant lot.
Kenny can be hard to track down, those who knew him told Kolke. And he might not cooperate. He's had some run-ins with the city, including the time the URA invoked eminent domain to wrestle some property from him.
Still, Kolke was determined. She figured out his routine, where he spent his days and how she might “accidentally” — and repeatedly — run into him.
She found him one day at his auto body shop.
Stubbs eyed her with suspicion.
“He was very skeptical,” Kolke recalled. “He was looking at me like, ‘Who are you and what are you doing in Homewood?' He wouldn't even tell me he was Kenneth Stubbs at first.”
It didn't matter. She knew it was him.
She knew all about him: that he had raised seven kids in the neighborhood; that even after he moved away he returned twice a week, at least, to visit his mom; that he had a reputation of being difficult with outsiders and strangers; that he had an altruistic streak and was known to organize community giveaways.
She also knew she could get the city to demand he cut down the weeds on his lot.
But she didn't say so. She wanted Stubbs on her side.
“I just said, ‘Here's the deal. My name is Demi, and I'm what you're going to have to deal with,'” Kolke said. “I really had to prove myself. I was down on those blocks every other day for two years, talking to people, showing that this is real, that Operation Better Block isn't going anywhere.”
It was a hard sell.
Stubbs and Kolke were different people from different worlds.
He was black, old school, a bit eccentric, a man known to walk down the street in crocodile boots and a cowboy hat. She was white, young and deeply optimistic. She came from a town of 200 people in North Dakota with zero stoplights, and when she moved to Pittsburgh for grad school, she wondered why strangers did not reply when she said hello to them on the street.
And Kolke said hello to everyone.
Stubbs? He just wanted to be left alone.
Kolke stuck at it. And eventually, Stubbs realized that the girl from North Dakota was legit.
He agreed to cut down the weeds.
He even tore down the old patchwork fence and put up a new one.
Kolke had won.
But instead of leaving, she kept coming back. There was more to do.
By sticking around, Kolke and Stubbs eventually became friends.
Unlikely friends, but friends nonetheless.
“It took a while to get him to open up,” Kolke said. “But when he did — he had an office on Hamilton and I'd go there to see him, and he would show me family pictures and talk about his mom.”
They met, as friends, on a regular basis. Then, two years after they met, Demi's phone rang.
It was the morning of Feb. 23, 2014. She was walking her dog. A colleague broke the news:
Mr. Stubbs had been murdered.
He'd been shot once, in the back of the head, execution style. Passersby found his body in a wooded area in Penn Hills. He was 53.
Kolke was numb.
“I had never experienced anything like that,” Kolke said. “My first thought was that it was a joke. I couldn't believe it.”
Nearly three years later, county police have made no arrests.
“Kenny was a joker, a comedian, a really easy-going person,” said Charles Adams, a lifelong friend of Stubbs. “If he had it and you needed it, you got it. You didn't have to ask for it. He would come to you with it. ... I don't know anyone in the neighborhood who could tell you a story that would distress you about Kenny. It was a big loss. Especially the way it happened.”
In the months after his murder, Demi continued her work in Homewood.
She helped residents apply for and receive funding to make home repairs. She oversaw the installation of a parklet for kids. She continued knocking on doors and asking residents what they wanted in their community.
And she kept an eye on Stubbs' properties.
One day, a For Sale sign appeared on one of his parcels. She called the real estate agency and asked about the corner lot. It didn't make sense, financially or logically, but she wanted to buy it.
“I'm emotional and emotion-driven,” Kolke said. “They asked why I wanted to buy it, and I said it has sentimental value to me. We were friends.”
They didn't understand why this girl from North Dakota wanted to buy a vacant lot in Homewood, but they agreed to sell it to her for $5,200.
She decided to turn it into something for Kenny.
A gathering place, she thought. A place free of garbage and weeds. She envisioned green grass so she and others could walk barefoot, landscaping, a place for performances and parties and outdoor yoga.
She would call it Kenny's.
She believed the community would welcome such a place. Last summer, she tested her theory.
She and some friends who have July birthdays held a party. They cut down the weeds, rebuilt the fence, hired a DJ and hung lights. They spread the word, and the neighborhood turned out. The party went on even after darkness fell.
Longtime residents like Charles Adams told Demi: This is how Homewood used to be.
It's the Homewood that Kolke and others are trying to rebuild.
And at the center of it all, Kolke hopes, will be Kenny's, a community gathering spot dedicated to the memory of an unlikely friendship.