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Hill District home to city's highest murder rate

| Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2001, 12:00 p.m.

Since Eddie Williams arrived there in 1958, the Hill District has lost thousands of residents, scores of thriving black-owned businesses and its stature as one of the nation's leading black cultural centers.

More than anything, though, it no longer has a sense of law and order, said Williams, 75, who lives on Bedford Avenue.

'Everybody is afraid to stay home, and everybody is afraid to leave home,' he said. 'Just anything goes, and who cares• What do they care about living and dying?'

As of Tuesday, Pittsburgh had 43 homicides - as many as the city had all last year. And no neighborhood has had more of them than the Hill District, with nine.

Many residents said their neighborhood seems to be no more dangerous than any other, but even those people were quick to note that the Hill has fallen far from its glory days of decades ago.

Among the city's homicides this year, few were like the most recent, in which a black woman was found yesterday in Arlington with a cord wrapped around her neck.

Of the 43 victims, seven have been women and all but five had been shot, according to police records analyzed by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. The victims have ranged in age from 14 to 62, and 36 of them have been black.

Of the nine homicides in the Hill, four took place over a five-day period in May. Five homicides have occurred in Homewood, and three each in Beltzhoover and Lincoln-Lemington.

Pittsburgh already has equaled its number of 2000 homicides. That fact illustrates how low the crime rate was last year, police Chief Robert W. McNeilly Jr. said yesterday.

Compared to other cities its size, Pittsburgh remains safe, McNeilly said, adding that police hope the city stays below the average of 50 homicides a year.

'I know there is a concern we have reached last year's number of homicides,' McNeilly said. 'But that often happens when you have years that experience lower numbers. In the following year, it's often difficult to maintain that low number of killings.'

Reluctant to describe their neighborhood as crime-ridden, many Hill District residents admitted it has few remnants of the 1950s and early 1960s, when jazz clubs lined Wylie Avenue and fights were settled with fists rather than guns.

Older residents regretted the lost vitality, while younger ones talked of despair at their current lot.

'These guys just get murdered by their old friends. That's the sad part about it,' said LaVaughn Johnson, 44, of Multrie Street, who said he knew Raymond Germany, who died after being shot July 9 in Bedford Dwellings.

'Your worst enemy is the person that's next to you,' he added. 'I just don't understand that.'

The Hill District's population has plummeted since 1960, falling from 40,163 to just 12,993 now, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics. The percentage of black residents remains about the same at 86 percent.

Residents recounted the renaissance of the Hill in the middle of the last century. They remembered supermarkets, doctors' offices, restaurants, bars and other businesses that used to line the main streets. Now, countless businesses have been replaced with rows of weeded lots and empty buildings.

Serving soul food and live jazz, Crawford Grill at 2141 Wylie Ave. draws men in suits at lunch and holds crowded jam sessions at night. A prime performance site for jazz masters in the '40s, '50s and '60s, the club has started booking major acts again, said Keith Farris, who has owned it for the past year.

Drug problems are no worse in the Hill District than in other neighborhoods, but the area gets a negative image from media reports, Farris said. With its rich history - and a secure, well-lighted parking lot - the club draws people from all over, he said.

'The Crawford Grill is established - it has a rich tradition, it has a rich history,' Farris said. 'People of all walks of life recognize that and respect that. We're fortunate not to have the problem and have that problem affect us directly.'

Drug users have staked out an abandoned building nearby, leaving dozens of hypodermic needles scattered among soiled clothing over the weak, wood floorboards. Outside, young men stand on the corner, talking about police harassment and saying they mind their own business when it comes to drugs and crime.

Waiting for a trim at Buice's Styling Salon further along the block, Phillipe Petite, 50, recalled a time when Hill District residents took a very different view. They made a point of minding other people's business.

'You were not only being raised by your parents, but you were raised by a lot of people in the neighborhood, too,' said Petite, who grew up in the Hill District but moved to East Liberty. 'Getting caught by them was as bad as if you were caught by your own parents.'

Standing along Centre Avenue, just blocks from where several of this year's homicides have occurred, George Moses said he feels safe in the neighborhood where he has lived on and off for the past two decades. Outsiders may judge the Hill District by crime statistics and negative news reports, but it remains home to the people who live there.

In the early morning, people line the streets walking to jobs Downtown. By day, high school students gather at the Hill House for computer courses or meet at Ammon Recreation Center for arts and crafts. Developers have talked of bringing a supermarket and new office building to Centre Avenue, while new townhomes cover the Lower Hill.

'The neighborhood is not the problem; it's folks in the neighborhood who are the problem,' Moses said, adding that many difficulties in the Hill District are caused by people from other areas. 'We still perceive it as a neighborhood. It's always folks from outside who tell us it's unsafe or blighted.'

Sitting on a wall nearby, William Somerville said miscommunication between races, within races and within the community is at the heart of the Hill's change during the past 40 years.

'We don't talk to each other,' said Somerville, 68, who now lives in Oak Hill apartments and has lived most of his life in the Hill. 'Why can't we just put our hearts together and listen to what we each have to say?'

Andrew Conte can be reached at (412) 765-2312. Tim Puko can be reached at (412) 320-7975. Staff writer David Conti contributed to this report.

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