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The evening of March 3, Homewood residents and business owners gathered in the upper floor of the neighborhood Carnegie Library. They were rolling out a campaign aimed at revitalizing the image of their community, a place plagued by poverty, decay and violence for decades.
Two weeks later, the state ordered nonessential businesses to close because of the fast-spreading coronavirus.
It was a harsh blow to the campaign, which includes initiatives to help revive the neighborhood’s battered business corridor, North Homewood Avenue.
“We were supposed to be on the ground in Homewood, going door to door, and explaining the work we wanted to do,” said Sadik Roberts, whose marketing firm, Pyramid PGH, co-developed branding, a logo, website, social media and other components of the initiative dubbed the Homewood Experience.
Not everything stopped. A couple of workshops to help businesses apply for grants went on, as did an art project that includes three new, colorful murals painted by local artist Camerin “Camo” Nesbit on buildings along or near North Homewood Avenue.
But some of the Homewood Experience had to be put on hold as the primarily Black community took a disproportionate hit from the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Allegheny County, the cumulative COVID-19 case rate for Black individuals through Jan. 19 was 5,000 cases per 100,000 compared with 4,400 for Asians and 3,500 for whites, according to data from Carnegie Mellon University’s Create Lab and the Black COVID-19 Equity Coalition.
The unemployment rate for Black individuals nationwide was 9.9% in December vs. 6% in February 2020 before the pandemic struck. The nation’s overall unemployment rate in December was 6.6%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“The positive image campaign has taken a back seat with so many people’s lives and livelihoods on the line,” said Demi Kolke, senior corridor manager for revitalization at Neighborhood Allies, a nonprofit that works to bring equity and resources to Homewood and other distressed communities.
Almost a year later, the devastation here has been uneven.
Neighborhood mainstays on North Homewood Avenue, like Dana’s Bakery and Salik’s Hardware have survived, while others — especially bars and eateries — have seen sales plummet.
Pre-COVID-19, North Homewood Avenue was a destination for students, staff and others attending classes and events at the University of Pittsburgh’s Community Engagement Center and Community College of Allegheny County’s Homewood-Brushton Center. Now most classes and events are held virtually.
Businesses such as a PNC bank branch have reduced hours and are operating with restrictions.
“Honestly, it makes me kind of sad,” said Kiya Heard, manager of the Everyday Cafe on North Homewood Avenue.
The cafe shut down from March to mid-June under state orders and since then has operated takeout and dine-in with restricted capacity and reduced hours.
Pre-pandemic, the cafe catered events for CCAC a few blocks away and, “We used to have poetry nights and different events with people here wall to wall,” said Ms. Heard.
Derrick Hemby, owner of the Galaxy Lounge and D&C Sandwich Express on Kelly Street, one block off of North Homewood, has suffered both professionally and personally from the coronavirus.
Three days before Christmas, his brother, 63, died from COVID-19.
His 86-year-old mother was diagnosed with the virus but beat it, he said.
“Now she has a broken heart, so she’s really hurting.”
He employs six people, about half the number he had before COVID-19 temporarily closed his businesses in March. His lounge can accommodate about 200 people for events, but those have been scaled back dramatically because of social distancing restrictions.
The business received a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan of $25,000 that “was probably only about 10% of what we needed,” said Mr. Hemby.
He plans to apply for the new round of PPP funding that Congress approved in December, but said, “We’ll be playing catch-up for the next two years. Now all the creditors and utility companies are calling and we’re making payment arrangements.”
An avenue of hope
North Homewood Avenue is one of seven urban business corridors that the city and Urban Redevelopment Authority have dubbed Avenues of Hope for future investment.
The avenues are pedestrian-friendly main streets in primarily Black neighborhoods that will receive investment for housing, facade renovation, workforce connections and small-business support.
One project already underway here is the Givner Building at 627 N. Homewood Ave.
The former home to a radio station, barber, dentist and other offices is being redeveloped into six apartments on the upper floors and retail space at street level. A restaurant, Roux Orleans, is slated to occupy one retail spot, said Jerome Jackson, executive director of Operation Better Block, the project developer.
Dana’s Bakery had initially planned to occupy another but is staying in its current site, said Mr. Jackson.
While the pandemic delayed work on the Givner Building and other Operation Better Block neighborhood development projects, “We’re trying to get back on track,” he said.
The nonprofit owns a North Homewood Avenue building where it maintains offices. It received a $93,500 federal Paycheck Protection Program loan, which allowed it to pay salaries and keep all 11 employees on the payroll through the pandemic, Mr. Jackson said.
Another nonprofit, Homewood Children’s Village, which leases office space upstairs from Operation Better Block, got a PPP loan of $234,200 to pay rent and maintain a staff of about 30 people, said Walter Lewis, president and chief executive.
Through the pandemic, the organization has delivered meals to people in need, operated community learning hubs for students attending virtual schools, and distributed laptops for education.
“I know the pandemic has absolutely impacted [businesses] from a financial standpoint,” said Mr. Lewis. “But it won’t take Homewood Avenue out. I feel very hopeful about us investing in our business community.”
Gatherings on pause
CKV Suites, a 1,200-square-foot event space on North Homewood Avenue, was closed from March to June.
Pent-up demand generated record bookings in September and October for smaller-than-normal birthday parties, baby showers, funerals and community meetings, said owner Vernard Alexander.
Another surge in COVID-19 cases in late fall and another state-ordered shutdown in December put the business on pause again.
Mr. Alexander has a full-time job and side gigs including business development and social media marketing that have generated enough for him to make his rent on the Homewood space.
He worries skepticism in the community about COVID-19 vaccines will delay a business rebound in the neighborhood.
A Kaiser Family Foundation survey released in December found 35% of Black Americans would probably or definitely not receive the vaccine even if it was scientifically proven to be safe and was offered for free.
“A lot of people are taking a wait-and-see approach,” Mr. Alexander said.
“Personally, whenever my number is up, I’m definitely going to take it.”
Joyce Gannon: firstname.lastname@example.org