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Garfield's Aggie Brose sees the payoff of more than 25 years of activism

Sunday, July 29, 2001

By Diana Nelson Jones, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Few people are nervy enough to give the mayor a three-day deadline. But on Easter weekend, when two young men were wounded in a drive-by shooting on North Winebiddle Street, Aggie Brose, deputy director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Cor- poration, wrote a letter to Mayor Tom Murphy.

Aggie Brose shows a map of plans for new housing to architect Gary Carlough, volunteer Dion Dupree and others at the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation office. "We sit at many, many tables to change things," Brose has said. "I am not sitting at a table for four hours unless I can bring a resource back to the community." (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

Drug trafficking, random shootings and all-night noise had become too great for her neighborhood group to fight, she wrote. "Our residents, understandably upset, are seeking answers. We are holding the May issue of The Bulletin in order to include your action plan. Please fax the specifics of your action plan by Friday, April 20. Thank you for your prompt attention."

The mayoral election campaign was in full swing then, and Mayor Murphy, who called her deadline "grandstanding," says he did not see that letter. But in June, at Garfield's monthly meeting with Zone 5 officers, Brose announced that the trouble on that block had abated. "You guys are knockin' yourselves out, and I appreciate it."

Dan Quinlan, the Zone 5 commander, said his officers had made 14 prostitution arrests and that most of the customers were not from Garfield.

"Can we publish their names in The Bulletin?" Brose asked.

"Can I get a legal clarification on that?" Quinlan asked.

Lowering her head and raising her eyebrows above her glasses, she asked, "Can you?"

Agnes Jean Brose calls herself an Irish grandmother. She was a Garfield girl who became a Pittsburgh woman, one of those who jumps up to dance the hully gully at weddings, who would sit on the stoop with the other women after the kids went to bed. The daughter of union stewards, she became a blue-collar housewife. Three kids, six grandkids.

But to the people who for three decades have moved and shaken Pittsburgh through population loss, industry loss, urban decay, redlining, reinvestment and urban renewal, Brose defies common description.

"What a woman!" says the Rev. Leo Henry, who was Brose's parish priest at St. Lawrence O'Toole in the '70s. In 1975, he established the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp. with her at his side. With the credo that everyone is accountable, Henry and Brose created what has become a model of neighborhood action.

"She has stuck with it for 25 years," says Henry. "Most people burn out after four or five."

Six feet tall at age 66, Brose is one of few on the A-list of community activists who have stayed in the neighborhood movement since it began. But when Henry made Brose his deputy that raucous November night in 1975, when the neighborhood had turned out for a "meet the candidates" to-do in the gymnasium of his church, Brose had no idea what a neighborhood corporation was or why it would sell stock.

Then a 40-year-old housewife, PTA leader and Democratic committeewoman, Brose listened as Henry took control of the event. Politicians in the room felt a surge of energy in his frenetic voice.

"I, like 99 percent of you here this evening, am not satisfied with the community in which we live," he said. "If we stay together as a unified people, we will begin a people's revolution."

Offended by his mention of political corruption and patronage, candidates began to leave the gym, pulling their patrons from the audience. Brose recalls excitement mixed with high anxiety.

"There was bunting, a band, a bar, and Father was up there talking about revolution. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, he insulted John McGrady [the city controller]. My husband was in the back of the room, and he left."

Henry pledged $5,000 to rent an office in the neighborhood and to hire "the most capable community organizer money can find."

That night the BGC was born. One of the first players in Pittsburgh's fledgling neighborhood movement, it joined a national grass-roots push to fight urban decay and political neglect.

The BGC and other groups collaborated to hire professional organizers and to form the Metropolitan Citizen's Organization. The goal was people power -- to dictate utility rates instead of having them dictated; to say no to bureaucrats instead of hearing no, or hearing nothing. But the coalition did not hold together. If it had, says Henry, "it would have been formidable."

As a parishioner, Brose had organized church picnics, collected money for funeral flowers and delivered food to the grieving households. And she always spoke her mind. Henry knew she would be his right hand. He fed her his confidence and corrected her grammar. He saw in her the quiet revolutionary Garfield needed -- a woman with a powerful sense of place and justice, and unswerving integrity.

"He said, 'Aggie, go out and get me some honchos,'" she remembers. "'I want blacks, whites, old and young.' He had a vision -- that everyone should be able to live with dignity in their own neighborhood, and that everyone was accountable."

Always polite but not always so quiet, Brose grew into a brilliant strategist. Stanley Lowe, one of her early mentors and a driving force behind Pittsburgh's fight for equal lending from banks, says of Brose, "She understands the comprehensive nature of a mixed community and has the heart to care for the poorest of the poor.

"I'd go to the ends of the earth for Aggie Brose."

Sugar and salt

As tall as she is, Brose walks with a straight back and moves around a room as if pushed by a stiff breeze. She calls Jim "Jimmy," Tom "Tommy" and Bill "Billy," no matter who they are. She touches people absently on the arm while she's talking. If someone sneezes during her presentation around a boardroom table, she says, "God bless you" without breaking her verbal stride. After one meeting, a woman who approached her looking slightly distraught asked, "Do you have a few minutes?" and Brose cupped the woman's chin in her hand.

Aggie Brose listens to the concerns of Garfield residents Buffy and Dan Momberger and Shirley Oden after a public safety meeting at the Youth Development Center. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

On the phone, Brose has a confidential voice that dips in and out of murmurs and light laughter. Her storytelling voice is theatrical, with inflections for mimicry. The all-business voice is quick and clipped, without digressions, but she always says, "If you'd be so kind ..." and adds words like "honey."

A plaque on her desk reads, "Put sugar in what you say and salt in what you hear," an attitude that betrays Brose's natural style; hardly the type of radical most people have in mind when they hear the word.

At a spring convention of Neighborhoods USA, which was held in Pittsburgh, Brose addressed a session titled "Vacant Lots, New Strategies." About 150 people from cities and towns across the nation listened as Brose walked up and down the aisle, gesturing, making eye contact, animated as a talk-show host. Eyebrows darted upward when she said Pittsburgh has 17,000 vacant lots.

"We have 60,000 vacant lots in Detroit," a woman said from the audience.

Brose nodded curtly. It was clear she wasn't comforted. The reason for vacant properties is failed housing, and in her town, 17,000 is not an acceptable number. She has wrangled for years to get titles cleared so that properties can be developed into new homes. But the bane of the neighborhood is slumlords, she says.

"Every bill on the books protects the negligent landowner," she said. "We are lobbying the state Legislature for urban-blight bills," to require that people's credit reports reflect tax delinquency.

Her audience grabbed hold. They began asking questions. They began talking to each other. At the end of the session, people surrounded Brose, asking her to speak to their groups.

Brose remembers the day of awakening, when Henry "dragged me down the street to the Giant Eagle," she says. "He said, 'What do you see?' and I said, 'Hmmm, Giant Eagle.' He said, 'No, what do you see? Look at the paint!'"

It was cracked and peeling, she says, "and I hadn't realized. This was stuff we had started to accept."

"Garfield has never been the garden spot of America," says Henry, who is now retired. "But it was going down from something."

In the '60s, Penn Avenue was chockablock with commerce. In 1970, the population was 10,246. Census projections for 2000 cut the number in half.

In 1970, the racial mix was white, four-to-one, with old Irish-Catholic families of six and eight kids whose fathers were firemen, policemen, motormen. But white emigration had already begun, taking with it a huge chunk of Garfield's economy.

A Garfield girl

Aggie Burns had been raised on Dearborn Street. Her mother worked at Paper Craft; it's gone now. Her dad was a steward at the truck barns. In 1957, she married Tommy Brose, who worked at Model Coat and Apron on Penn Avenue, a job he could walk to from their home. The Broses raised three children on Dearborn, just up the street from where she grew up.

Brose was, and is, what writer Catherine Kinneavy Smith, a former local resident, described in an essay years ago as "a Pittsburgh woman," one of her mother's generation who lived by a sense of duty -- casseroles after funerals, the immutable cleaning day -- and leapt to the dance floor at weddings.

Mary Ann Bond, now a staff member for city Controller Tom Flaherty, lived across the street from the Broses and has remained on Dearborn. "Aggie was always sweeping her stoop," she says, "and sweeping all the way to the corner."

It was a tight neighborhood weave. Says Brose, "Jimmy, my brother, married my best friend. My sister and I both married best friends. You sponsored each other's kids, you went to all the weddings and funerals, you never wanted for a baby-sitter, you never had to call a repairman, you didn't need for a social. When you put the kids to bed, the women went out on the stoops."

"Playing catch-up"

In 1969, the federal government chose Garfield to receive one of its first code-enforcement grants, supposedly to stop further deterioration. But the result was devastating. Some people had dirt cellars, no railings on the steps and windows without pulley ropes. Houses had been passed down through generations. When people were confronted with the news that their homes would not pass inspection, they were incredulous, Brose says. "People said, 'This is my house. Who are you?'"

Some people tried to sell, but the number of violations made it impossible. Many couldn't afford to bring their homes up to code.

"People just walked away," Brose says. "Several hundred houses were demolished in the first round. It looked like bombs dropped."

The cause of Garfield had become too weighty to inspire effective public policy. By 1970, the place was becoming unglued.

"Father [Henry] felt that we were slowly declining into a ghetto state," Brose recalls. "When the BGC formed, we started playing catch-up."

Problems had stacked up: vacant homes, loss of middle-class incomes, abandonment of retail, indifference by all but a few lenders and irresponsible landlords.

As the BGC began buying vacant lots at treasurer's and sheriff's sales, it encountered drug-dealing, prostitution and, most horrifying, violence. By the '90s, Garfield had bred street gangs shooting at passing cars, shooting at each other.

In the early '80s, the BGC had no track record of building new homes. Its staff and volunteers organized around individual issues and sought financial help.

Its greatest early impact may have been simply showing policy- makers that Garfield had a voice, Brose said.

It still is. Funding for Penn Avenue might have been shelved this spring, but 50 people from the neighborhood showed up at the meeting at which City Council voted to fund them.

Since the early '80s, the BGC has helped low- and moderate-income residents buy homes with soft second mortgages through a partnership with the Urban Redevelopment Authority. The URA puts down the difference between the market price and BGC's cost. When the buyer sells, the URA gets 75 percent of the net.

In an ambitious move, a coalition of Garfield and East Liberty groups has developed a $140 million, 650-home plan that depends on the federal government for 25 percent of the funding. That approval is pending.

More imminent is a plan for 50 new homes to be scattered throughout the neighborhood. The BGC teamed up with the Garfield Jubilee Association and won funding for it through a competitive statewide application process. Shovels should be in the ground by the fall, said Brose.

At a public safety meeting last month with Zone 5 police officers, including Dan Quinlan, Zone 5 commander, center, Aggie Brose thanked police officers for their additional patrols on a street where a drive-by shooting had occurred on Easter weekend. "You guys are knockin' yourselves out, and I appreciate it," she said. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

Dennis Davin, director of housing for the URA, says the two groups are "trying to bring back their neighborhood" and could not get ahead with the bit-by-bit approach. "In their opinion and in ours, Garfield needed a massive influx of new development to turn it around. Garfield is worthy, yes, and this kind of thing is spearheaded because of someone like Aggie. She has gotten our attention and our funding.

"She has a way of getting everyone together and sitting on them until things begin to happen. She'll say, 'C'mon, honey, you gotta do this for me,' and I do. How can I say no to her?"

The BGC is held up as a model among neighborhood groups for having sewn its vision to every aspect of the neighborhood. It holds job fairs and clinics for home buyers, with credit counseling for first-time home buyers. At a recent job fair at West Penn Hospital, eight people accepted job offers. It runs a youth program and supports a youth football team. Four or five Zone 5 police officers attend each monthly public-safety meeting that Brose begins at 5 p.m. sharp. The monthly Bulletin, which Henry founded in 1975, is self-supporting to this day.

The BGC gets $10,000 a year from memberships. Minimum dues are $5 a year. Its bulk funding comes from state tax credits, Mellon Bank, the Pittsburgh Partnership for Neighborhood Development, block grants and the United Way. PNC Bank supports youth outreach programs.

Penn Avenue has come out of submission in recent years. Restaurants have opened, artists have arrived, and more are being courted. The BGC has two sales pending in a collaborative effort between Garfield and Friendship to encourage artists to buy buildings as living and working space.

For any group that she can get into a van, Brose leads tours of Garfield. Leaning forward in the front seat, pointing and talking as fast as the van's speed would let her, she led a tour of the Friendship Development Associates one evening this summer.

"That was where my three children were born," she said as the van rolled along Dearborn. She poked the air. "That one's being demolished, that one is full of citations, that one is empty, that's the Walkers, those ones are all being taken out, we're negotiating for these, their son's a principal, we just signed a sales agreement on this one." Brose had fallen silent for a moment. The van passed broken windows, bashed-in doors. "Look at them houses," she said.

The van crested the hill at Schenley Avenue and drove through Garfield Heights -- public-housing units stacked and stark, dust where grass should be, gaping doors and a poignant little postage-stamp garden. At the elderly high-rise, which has been condemned, she said, "The plan is to never build a high-rise again. Government created this problem, and nobody ever reached back in and said, 'Come, there's a bridge to the way out.'"

Pounding on doors

In the early days, the BGC pushed its agenda stridently, taking its yellow bus to Grant Street to protest the inaction of city and county officials. In this style, the neighborhood movement gave rise to a collective called the National People's Action that converges each year in Washington, D.C. It protests for the urban struggle against big business, banks and policy-makers. As an active member, Brose has pounded on some heavy doors.

"I knocked on Phil Gramm's door because he called us extortionists," Brose says of the Texas senator. "I said, 'You don't need CRA [Community Reinvestment Act] funds, but we do.' We were 'extortionists' because we were holding banks accountable."

In 1997, 800 protesters approached Alan Greenspan's front door. Brose's longtime friend and fellow activist Nancy Schaefer relates the story:

"Aggie asked, 'Who's in charge?' and the people chorused, 'You are!' So Aggie does the electric slide up to the front door. This is two weeks after Greenspan and Andrea Mitchell were married." Mitchell, a correspondent for NBC, answered Brose's knock. "Aggie says, 'Hello, are you the new bride?' and Andrea says, 'No, I'm Andrea Mitchell,' and she looks out and sees all our signs. One read, 'How come if you're on your honeymoon, we're the ones getting screwed?'

"Aggie saw her alarm and touched her arm and said, 'It's OK,' and the group left the doorway."

Meanwhile, a policeman had shown up. He asked for a permit.

Schaefer continued, "Aggie said, 'You know we don't have one. But let me ask you something. Do you own your own home?' and the policeman said, 'No, I don't.'" Brose made her pitch for the virtue of neighborhoods taking ownership, beginning with homes.

"The policeman agreed to take our letter to the door," Schaefer said. "It was classic Aggie, so quick on her feet. And I saw her like that every day, just like Stanley [Lowe]. It's not just a job for them, it's who they are. It always starts with the personal. And you have to care enough, to say, 'Maybe I need to do something.' And you have to have the ability to lead. Aggie has it in spades."

Fair housing

Few days go by that Brose isn't five minutes between meetings on opposite ends of town or running into the office to make some calls before running back out. Her datebook looks like one of those journals a prisoner who doesn't have much paper keeps, written in small letters with everything crowded together because each day's square is only so big. She spends hours a day, sometimes each day of the week, at boardroom tables and in meetings, and sometimes people in the neighborhood will ask her what she actually does.

"We sit at many, many tables to change things," she says. "I am not sitting at a table for four hours unless I can bring a resource back to the community."

In 1977, the Community Reinvestment Act required banks to lend in poor neighborhoods, but it was a sleeper of a law, and its language didn't specify how banks should be accountable. Without teeth, the law did not prevent a bank from redlining -- not lending in low-income areas.

By the mid-'80s, the neighborhood movement had seized on the need to put teeth in the law and pushed for revisions.

Because loan data is open to scrutiny, activists can research a bank's practices and, if they see a pattern of bad faith, file a protest to delay a merger until the bank works out a contractual agreement with them to address their reinvestment needs.

Under Lowe, with Brose as his deputy, the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group became a nationally recognized force on behalf of marginal neighborhoods. The PCRG now has agreements with 13 member banks and meets regularly with their representatives.

Brose presides at monthly PCRG work-groups, where representatives from neighborhood groups meet to plan strategy.

In the fight for limited funding, the only effective way to spend it is to plan housing for "diverse incomes and diverse color," she says. "That would be a healthy neighborhood. We should not have communities of one income anymore."

But the road to a healthy neighborhood is strewn with blight, and almost nothing makes Brose flare up faster than slumlords.

She spent a recent day in Harrisburg meeting with legislators to push for anti-blight legislation that would hold negligent property owners accountable. One way is to put liens on their credit records, she says. Currently, unpaid property taxes do not show up on a person's credit rating.

"I've got empty houses in my neighborhood with doors hangin' off," she says. "And this man at the meeting is saying not to use the word slumlord. I said, 'I'll quit saying it when they're no longer in my neighborhood. And if you're such a great landlord, what are you doing at this meeting?'"

When called to discuss his association with Brose, John Taylor, president and CEO of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition in Washington, D.C., asked, "Has she been arrested, or is she running for something, I hope?"

At a conference in D.C. in the early '90s, Taylor saw Brose for the first time among a group of activists, most much younger -- "black and white with an edge," he said, "and I thought, 'What's this middle-American housewife doing here?'"

In the past decade, he has watched Brose take on financial institutions, regulatory agencies and senators. "She has such integrity. She has guts. She deeply cares about issues of justice. I think she walks on water."

A minority majority

Brose volunteered for 12 years with the BGC before she was hired full time in 1988. She has stuck by Garfield even though she drives home to Stanton Heights every night. She and her husband moved several years ago to be near their daughter, Jeannie, and son-in-law, Pat.

"Tommy said, 'I'd like to live next to the kids,'" she said, "and I said, 'You're kidding. I thought I'd die in this house.'"

Brose has taken severe heat from the community for her move, but her board rejected her offer to resign.

Over the years, friends and associates have urged Brose to run for office or to work for them. Only briefly, in 1986 and '87, when she worked as neighborhood liaison for then city Councilman Richard Givens -- her brother-in-law -- did she stray from her focus on Garfield.

She is on no fewer than 15 boards, task forces, committees and coalitions. In 1983, she helped organize and was president of the Save Nabisco Action Coalition, which opposed Nabisco's efforts to close its East Liberty plant. Her involvement more recently helped land Atlantic Baking Group Inc. on that site. She now sits on Atlantic Baking's labor-management board.

Sixteen-year-old Lauren Byrne found her grandmother in a lot of old clippings when she was doing a research paper on Garfield for school. "Every time we have to name the one person we admire most, it's usually my grandmother. I go with her to things, just to watch everything she does and everything she says."

Jim Cunningham, a professor of social work at the University of Pittsburgh, has often made Garfield a classroom for his students, many of whom have served internships in the BGC offices.

Cunningham got his start in neighborhood organizing in Chicago. He considers the BGC the premier neighborhood group because it plans comprehensively, has myriad partnerships and raises its own money.

"The problem is, it's three whites -- Aggie and the two Ricks [Swartz, the executive director, and Flanagan, the youth coordinator]. They have never worked hard enough to find black leadership to bring along. But they're doing everything else right."

Even so, he said, "it may take another 25 years" to see recovery in a place as fraught with troubles as Garfield has been. "Investors have to realize it, too, and hang in there."

In 1984, a group of Garfield residents told City Council that the BGC, with a predominantly white board and white staff, was not responsive to the community at large. At the time, two of the BGC's nine board members were black.

Brose called the dispute "a family feud taken Downtown." She countered by saying, "We're building 18 new homes and 17 are being occupied by minority families."

Today, seven of 14 BGC board members are black. Some of the same people who complained to city council in '84 are working with the BGC and other groups on housing plans.

City Councilman Jim Ferlo has been an antagonist but says he considers Brose a friend. "Criticism from some is that [BGC is] a staff-driven organization, more recently given that staff has moved out of the community. But Aggie has kept the vision, and she runs the gamut, from the block to the nation."

The new Garfield

In 1994, Garth Taylor and three other young men from the neighborhood approached the BGC for help in establishing a football team to join the East End League. Rick Swartz liked the idea. He told them the BGC needed their connection to young men in the neighborhood and said, in return, the team could use BGC's nonprofit status to receive donations. BGC made its own $1,000 donation and has each year.

The Garfield Gators joined the East End League and had more than 185 kids show up last year. "The fact they're willing to work with us young guys is invaluable," Taylor says.

A case manager for the after-care of juvenile offenders, Taylor lives with his wife and two sons in one of the BGC's refurbished homes on Dearborn Street. He says he has disagreements with the organization.

"When they were labeling bars as nuisances, some were and some weren't, and this antagonized the neighborhood." Of the youth program, he said, "I think it's effective -- I'd just like to see it migrate up the hill a little.

"But I don't think that in communities like this, ones that are black and white, that there are many groups who do what they do. They are effective, stand-up people, and that Aggie is a stand-up gal.

"The BGC is lucky to have us, and we're lucky to have them."

People who got out of the movement hail Brose's longevity, as if it is an ordeal or a stint, like the Peace Corps or the military. But Brose seems to thrive in the mess of it all, as if a problem is a picnic and she is a fly. She says merely, "I want to see all the way through something I started, y'know?"

She points at Garfield from the front seat of a van as if everyone riding with her can see what it used to look like or what it can look like. She displays maps of color-coded new house plans as if they were pictures of her grandchildren.

"Twenty-six years ago, we were set on fire to realize how important this is. Father Henry had a vision, and now, after all these years and all this work, I can see the new Garfield just up ahead.

"This school official was afraid to go out to a corner where kids were playing hooky. He said, 'I'm not going there, I don't carry a gun.' Well, I go there.

"When you look at any good community, you see leaders, you see them everywhere. What if you have a community of 200 leaders? No one could trash your neighborhood then."

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