Crawford Square one of many vibrant new Hill projects
Monday, April 12, 1999
Lisa Collins was skeptical seven years ago when it was suggested that construction of Crawford Square was a bellwether of a brighter future for residents of the Hill District.
Her cynicism was a product of another highly touted development, the construction of the Civic Arena in the late 1950s. That project wiped out businesses and homes in the once-vibrant Lower Hill and displaced 8,000 predominantly poor, black residents. To Collins, a resident of the Terrace Village public housing development, this looked like more of the same.
"I thought they wanted [black people] out," Collins said. "I thought they were going to bring whites in. But then I started seeing black people moving in and I started thinking, 'Maybe they are trying to do something for us.' "
The first phase of the Crawford Square development - homes and townhouses available for rent, ownership and rent subsidies - were snapped up quickly after completion in 1993. So, too, were those in the development's second phase, completed in 1995.
In the meantime, Collins' daughter, Tiffany Bryant, with whom she lived, got herself off welfare and became a nurse's aide through a program at Mercy Hospital. With a new job, she and her mother desperately wanted to get out of Terrace Village, the kind of place where cramped, uninviting apartments, loud noise and fear of crime made dreaming of a better tomorrow difficult.
They got their chance, moving in December to one of the 24 new rental townhouses on Wylie Avenue, between Davenport and Wooster streets.
The move was only about a mile in distance but to a whole new world of possibilities. In this new development, dreams could be dreamed.
Collins is skeptical no longer. She has never been happier or more optimistic about life: hers, her daughter's and the Hill's.
So much so, in fact, that she plans to buy a home in Phase III of the Crawford Square development, now under construction.
"I see now there are so many programs to help us buy houses. They are pushing for us to stay here. That's a big change," said Collins, standing in the living room of her comfortable red brick townhouse.
"It started with Crawford Square. I thought that would be it, [but] there's going to be commercial development. It makes me want to stay [in the Hill]."
Giving Hill District residents an opportunity for a better life without leaving their neighborhood is the goal of a massive redevelopment program begun earlier this decade. By next year, it is estimated, the amount of new residential and commercial development will exceed $300 million.
At the same time, the combination of attractive new developments in a neighborhood conveniently nestled between Downtown and Oakland is drawing new residents.
For the first time since urban renewal cleared the Lower Hill, setting in motion a cancerous blight that spread throughout the Middle and Upper Hill, people aren't leaving the neighborhood, they're moving in - black people and white people alike.
"The ultimate goal is to have a diversified, vibrant, vital community, one of all races and all social strata, living together," said Elbert S. Hatley, executive director of the Hill Community Development Corp.
Count Collins among the believers: "This is the most positive change I've ever seen in the Hill District. [In this development] everyone is working or doing something positive.
"These new houses are giving the young people an opportunity to better themselves rather than staying in the projects. There's a mixture of young and older people," she said.
"This is where our roots are but there had been nothing here for us before. I really don't want to go anywhere else.
"For convenience, the Hill District is the place to be."
Symbols of hope
Like brightly colored flowers in an otherwise untended garden, new housing developments and refurbished commercial buildings dot the landscape in the Hill District. Where vacant land and abandoned buildings once whispered despair, the pockets of new buildings shout out the hope and optimism thereabouts.
Lots that are vacant and the structures that are crumbling seem to cry out for the same attention as has been rendered to Crawford Square, Colwell Street Townhomes, The Firehouse, Loendi Townhomes, Milliones Manor and the Wylie Avenue Townhouses - all residential developments built in the Hill District since 1990.
In fact, by the midpoint of the next decade, it is expected that more than 2,000 units of new housing will have been built in different areas of the Hill, including massive demolition and construction projects in the Bedford Dwellings and Allequippa Terrace public housing complexes. Also planned are new retail, office, restaurant and entertainment projects.
What sets the Hill District developments apart from those elsewhere is that, in the Hill, the community is the prime mover in deciding what type of neighborhood residents are going to have. That commitment to so-called "bottom-up planning" is so strong in the Hill because history's lessons are being acknowledged: When the community wasn't involved in the Civic Arena project in the late 1950s, its neighborhood was torn asunder.
The Rev. Thomas Smith, pastor of Monumental Baptist Church, came to the Hill in 1985, but he's well aware of the negative effect of urban renewal more than a quarter-century earlier. One of his first projects in developing his ministry was an assessment of the community, which showed in no uncertain terms just how devastating the Civic Arena construction had been to property and psyche alike.
Moreover, Smith need only look at some of the lots in the blocks surrounding his church on Wylie Avenue to see the blight that had been set in motion four decades earlier.
"It cut the heart out of the black community," said Smith, sitting in the church's Mission Outreach building. "We've never really recovered from that. We took the position there needed to be some alternatives for people who want to stay here."
In an effort to build a strong, diversified community, the plan calls for attractive, affordable housing developments populated by people with a wide range of economic means. To keep the new developments from being either gentrified or inhabited solely by the disadvantaged, there are homes for purchase, homes for rental and homes with rent subsidies.
Hatley drives past some of those new developments, as well as areas of blight, on his way to work at the Hill CDC. As he enters the corporation's attractive, refurbished three-story building on Centre Avenue and glances next door to the New Granada Theatre, he again is reminded of the new tension in the Hill between rebirth and decay. Crumbling now, the once-stately Granada building had housed a movie theater and the Savoy Ballroom, where jazz greats such as Billy Eckstine, Lena Horne and Erroll Garner held sway a half-century ago.
Still, Hatley can smile, knowing there are plans to restore and rehabilitate the Granada, one of the few historical and cultural landmarks left standing in the Hill.
At the same time, he is acutely aware that in addition to building new buildings and revitalizing existing structures, it is crucial to rebuild lives - of those who need jobs, of those who need to get off drugs, of those without hope. He knows that only in so doing can the community achieve any long-lasting success. That's why there are programs, either now operating or planned, for job development and training, education, health and drug rehabilitation.
"We need to identify people loitering and provide them with training, employment or services necessary for them to make a change in their lives," he said.
The moving force behind the new philosophy for developing the Hill is the 8-year-old Hill District Consensus Group, a consortium of neighborhood social service agencies, development groups, businesses, institutions, churches and individuals that meets monthly.
"Our focus has to be community economic development. If people are not empowered to the extent where their lives are changed for the better, then all of the development doesn't matter," said Hatley, whose organization was one of the founding members of the consensus group.
"We're talking true co-ownership in development. The key here now is to make certain everyone is at the table providing input to the process."
"Too often," Smith offered, "redevelopment efforts divide people over resources. In so doing, people never have the possibility to develop a sense of community. That estrangement is the reason for the problems we see in our neighborhoods.
"We're moving in the right direction, but only if people in the neighborhood are able to have the relationships that must exist. Without that, it's just another gentrified community."
The largest development, Crawford Square, is also the most visible, situated as it is just above the Civic Arena, beginning at Crawford Street. If you've gone to an event at the arena or parked in its lot, you've likely seen the development's westernmost boundary and how it presents an attractive, well-maintained and landscaped gateway to the Hill.
Since 1993, 274 rental units have been built at Crawford Square, and all have been occupied. Also, 57 houses have been built and sold. A third phase - 74 rental units and 18 to 20 for-sale houses - is now under construction.
Even from a distance, it's easy to be caught up in Crawford Square's attractiveness. There are detached homes for sale and townhouses for sale and rent, all projecting an air of comfort in colorful brick and bright trim. Yards are landscaped and trees line the sidewalks. You'd be hard pressed to find a scrap of litter here. Turn around and the beautiful city skyline seems to float below, as if the development were built on a cloud.
But drive a few more blocks deeper into the Hill and it's easy to see the work that still lies ahead. There are empty lots, boarded-up buildings, abandoned homes, graffiti and a daily assortment of heroin addicts.
Still, the fact that those problems are being addressed gives the community a vibrancy that can easily be felt, if not adequately defined.
Investors, both public and private, are feeling it too. The success of such a large residential development in a neighborhood where some critics said it couldn't work has generated more investment, proving the adage that nothing succeeds like success.
"Crawford Square has really served as an economic generator, a stimulus for other development which subsequently did occur," Hatley said. "It is a springboard for commercial and retail development."
Now that the housing stock is being replenished, attention is turning toward businesses to serve residents, new and old.
"Crawford Square gave us great confidence," said city Councilman Sala Udin, a lifelong Hill District resident who has been actively involved in the redevelopment plan. "[But] we need a mix of commercial, office, institutional. The key is the next piece - commercial space on Centre Avenue."
The plan is to redevelop the Centre Avenue corridor as a commercial district, from Erin Street to Kirkpatrick Street.
Groundbreaking is slated for this spring for what is hoped will be the linchpin of that commercial development: a Shop 'n Save supermarket.
"That will boost a lot of development," Udin said.
The Hill does not have a supermarket and construction of one, to be operated by an African American, is seen as yet another major step to making the Hill a self-sustaining community once more.
With new housing developments, an influx of new residents, programs to deal with social problems and a new positive attitude, the Hill has much to offer investors, Udin said.
"The first selling point is that it's an unserved market, and then you have the cooperation of public officials and the community in helping to make the environment conducive for business," he said. "Two to three years should give us sufficient time to put together a plan to attract entrepreneurs and open up a critical mass of retail outlets all the way up to Kirkpatrick."
In addition to rebuilding its commercial district, Hatley said, the hope is that the Hill will regain some of the esteem it had from the 1930s to the 1950s, when it was a nationally known center for black culture, night life and entertainment.
"The vision that the community has is of a thriving, vibrant community where people can walk the streets and feel safe and secure about their surroundings, where they can shop for goods and services and go to places to dine as a family," he said. "A community where there is ... entertainment, cultural activities, facilities for banquets for nonprofit groups and wedding receptions.
"A community where you can feel the warmth and exchange of the human experience, of sharing between those who live here and those who come here to enjoy themselves."
Making a home
Since moving here from Gary, Ind., three years ago, DeWitt and Stephanie Hickman Walton have rented a home in Crawford Square, biding their time before buying a house. The couple wanted to be sure before making a large investment.
DeWitt, assistant to the international president of the United Steelworkers of America, and Stephanie, a lawyer, looked at homes in Squirrel Hill, Highland Park and Point Breeze.
And then they made their decision.
They're not going anywhere. They and their son, Jason, 15, love it right where they are - so much so, in fact, that they're building a $215,000 home in Crawford Square.
"The Crawford Square area is a tight-knit community," Stephanie said. "Everyone is vested in the community and wants to be here. It feels like home."
The couple is enthusiastic as they give a tour of their under-roof-but-still-unfinished home situated on a 45-by-105-foot lot on Bedford Avenue. It has three bedrooms, 21/2 baths -one with a whirlpool - a living room, dining room, large kitchen with an island, game room, family room and a deck. And their work Downtown is just a short walk away.
"Just look at that view," DeWitt said, as the city skyline impressively filled the window in the master bedroom.
But for the Waltons, the people of the community are even more important than a gorgeous view, a beautiful home and unequaled convenience to Downtown.
"There are all kinds of people here," Stephanie said. "This is not some exclusive, gated community. There is a very active homeowners association.
"We see the community continuing to develop. It's nice to see it from the beginning. We'll be the welcoming committee for those who come after us."
DeWitt, whose brother is a Gary, Ind., police officer, said the couple is aware of drug dealing elsewhere in the Hill, but "we believe, at the same time, there's real life, vitality and energy here. Masses of folks are interested in a quality place to live and [Crawford Square] affirms that."
Moreover, on a personal level, living in a diverse community like the Hill is a perfect fit for the couple because they work with various organizations serving the poor and homeless.
"We wanted to make an investment in the community and not just an economic investment but a social investment," DeWitt said. "[Building in the Hill] just flows from the things we're interested in."
The couple, who said they are learning of the Hill's rich and varied history, see a vibrant future ahead for the neighborhood.
"Come and take a look," DeWitt advised any doubters. "We believe the development will sell itself. If you want real affordable, quality, comfortable living, this is it.
"This is what a community is supposed to be. It speaks well for Pittsburgh."