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Perceiving is believing: A major obstacle to the renewal of East Liberty has been its dangerous reputation

A Story of Renewal: Fourth of five parts

Thursday, May 25, 2000

By Mike Rosenwald, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It's midweek, midday, still a little chilly. Peter Bolanis, in a windbreaker with caked chocolate lining his sleeves, is standing near the counter of a display case loaded with chocolate and other goodies in the candy store his family has owned for more than 40 years.

Should people be afraid to do business in East Liberty? "I don't think so," says Pittsburgh police officer Kevin McNamara, who has spent his six years on the force in police Zone 5. (Joyce Mendelsohn, Post-Gazette) 

There are few businesses that have survived the changes in East Liberty -- from being the city's second downtown, through urban renewal and now to a community poised for rebirth. Bolan's Candies has certainly endured, but today, like most days, is pretty slow.

"Rarely does anyone walk through that front door," Bolanis said, shaking his head.

Depending on whom you ask -- city planners, the mayor, shop owners -- there would be a variety of reasons given why. But invariably the answer that pops up is that shoppers don't want to venture to East Liberty because they think they'll be mugged or worse.

"People think it's not safe," says Sam Arabia, the longtime owner of Sam's Bostonian Shoes, right across Penn Avenue from Bolan's. Sam's has been around for more than four decades.

Bolanis said, "It's driving business away, for sure."

"Perception is everything," said Al Blumstein, a nationally known criminology professor at Carnegie Mellon University. "People don't even want to have a sense of vulnerability. If there's a perception of problems, that can be very serious."

In 1999, there were 21,419 Part I crimes in the city. Part I crimes are serious offenses, including murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary and larceny. Of those 21,419 crimes, 911 were committed within the three census tracts commonly referred to as the heart of East Liberty, which includes the shopping district along Penn Avenue where Bolan's and Sam's have been all these years.

These numbers suggest that about 4 percent of the serious crimes in the city occur in East Liberty, while 2 percent of the city's population lives there. Blumstein said a neighborhood would be considered a true problem area if the percentages went beyond 6 percent. "The fact of the matter is East Liberty is not as bad as it could be, but it's still not very good," Blumstein said.

A Story of Renewal:
The PG's look at Pittsburgh's history of urban renewal

Previous installments:

Part 3: The land that retail forgot

Part 2: East Liberty Then: Initial makeover had dismal results

Part 1: The story of urban renewal

Online graphic: Pittsburgh vs. East Liberty crime stats


Of the 1,310 aggravated assaults in the city last year, 76 were in East Liberty. Of the almost 1,600 robberies, 94 were committed there.

Last year, there were 48 murders in the city. One was in East Liberty. In 1993, the recent year with the most murders -- 80 -- in the city, just four were in East Liberty. Between 1990 and 1999, there were 507 murders in the city, 24 of which were in East Liberty.

Some of the perception about the dangers of East Liberty perhaps stems from its proximity and association with other parts of police Zone 5 -- Lincoln-Lemington, Larimer and Homewood.

Violent crimes in those neighborhoods and others are handled at the city's Investigations Bureau, which is in East Liberty. Until roughly a year ago, it was common for television crews to report crimes "live from East Liberty" when they filmed in front of the detectives bureau.

City Councilwoman Valerie McDonald and others now discourage the practice, claiming it distorts perceptions of East Liberty.

"Sometimes I don't even try to correct people," Bolanis said. "They just have it in their heads that that's the way it is."

At this point, Bolanis has heard people say negative things about East Liberty for so long that he's not even angry anymore.

"How long can I be ticked off, really?" he said. "How long can you stay mad for? I'm more ticked off that there's no business here."

There is reason to be upset.

Whitney Finnstrom, a community planner at East Liberty Development Inc., one of the nonprofits working to redevelop the community, says "the idea that East Liberty isn't safe -- that perception has practically killed us."

Pittsburgh police Officer Kevin McNamara said visitors to East Liberty should be as cautious as they would be in any area. "But should they be afraid? I don't think so."

McNamara, on the job for six years, has spent all that time in Zone 5.

Though he doesn't patrol the East Liberty sector much anymore, he's well aware of what causes people to believe the community is unsafe. Much of it has to do with what Mayor Murphy calls the "architecture of the community," namely three public housing high-rises, poor traffic patterns and wide sidewalks, all of which contribute to unsafe feelings for shoppers.

One of the ways to enter the East Liberty shopping district is under the East Mall Apartments, the troubled 17-story housing project that straddles Penn Avenue. Community advocates want to tear it down. (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette) 

As he pulled out of the station in his police cruiser one day, the first place McNamara checked was a few blocks away from the station, one of the high-rises that police commonly refer to as the Crack Stacks.

The name derives from the police perception of drug activity that goes on in the high-rises.

The first is the East Mall Apartments. One of the ways to get into the shopping district is to drive underneath the building. Invariably, McNamara says as he drives by, there are people hanging out in front. Some, he says, are up to no good.

Housing projects are often associated with high drug trade and crime. In this case, East Mall both fits and feeds the perception that there are problems in East Liberty.

Most Zone 5 officers make two stops a week at this particular building, McNamara says.

The other two troubled high-rises, on the other side of East Liberty, aren't as notorious. In January alone, there were six arrests at East Mall -- ranging from three robberies (two armed) to aggravated assault and burglary.

"I've declared war on those buildings," said Councilwoman McDonald, who along with the mayor, is lobbying for the buildings to come down. "Those buildings are nothing but a warehouse of problems. They are an urban nightmare, a black eye to East Liberty. When that wrecking ball comes, I want to pull the lever."

McNamara drives slowly under the building, checking to see if it looks as if any of the half-dozen people are selling drugs. They turn away when they see the police car approaching, and McNamara correctly predicts they'll turn around for a peek a few seconds later -- a sign they're up to something, in his view.

He keeps driving into the shopping district, which on this day, despite the rain, finds people hanging out up and down the wide sidewalks.

Part of the idea of urban renewal was to create a mall-like atmosphere, and in the business corridor of East Liberty the sidewalks seem as wide as the streets. And, people congregate on them.

There is a general sense of fear that people get when they see groups of black men standing around, says Zone 5 Cmdr. Maurita Bryant, who is black.

"If people see a bunch of black guys standing around, they think something's up," Bryant says. "Well, that's not true."

McNamara says: "Perception, as they say, is everything. People go to Shadyside to shop and think there's no crime there. They're wrong. Every community has crime. If there are people, there's crime."

On days when the weather cooperates, there are typically a dozen vendors lining these sidewalks, selling everything from hats to T-shirts to luggage.

Some of the displays are professional looking; others, as Bryant says, are "tacky."

She says that while some vendors call police about crimes, others are "annoyances," hanging out and generally contributing to East Liberty's troubled perception.

To help solve that problem, East Liberty Development recently received a $75,000 grant to develop more professional-looking vendor businesses. The grant will provide standard setups, much like those in malls, and clothing identifying licensed and registered vendors.

"We want to weed out the scam artists," East Liberty Development's Finnstrom said.

Many of the people McNamara and other officers wind up dealing with in East Liberty are not residents. They are clients of the dozens of social service agencies in the area.

There are three probation offices, a handful of drug and alcohol rehab centers, food shelters, abortion clinics and a pharmaceutical research company, where people come to make a quick buck.

Finnstrom said: "There are too many social service agencies and not enough legitimate businesses."

For now, except for The Home Depot, Bolanis said, "There's really no big place to shop yet."

But Bolanis, along with the staff at East Liberty Development, the mayor, Bryant and McNamara, say the perception of East Liberty as a crime hub will decline as more development comes to the community, particularly "big box" retailers such as The Home Depot.

Kmart and Whole Foods Market, for example, are very interested in locating in the neighborhood, adding to increased interest among real estate developers and building a buzz of optimism in the community.

And there's a sense among all parties -- police, retailers, developers, the mayor and now even the community -- that East Liberty can again be a vibrant business center.

"I hope it comes back," Bryant said. "Used to be that there was no place in the city like East Liberty."

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