As their town falls down around them, North Braddock families try to protect children — and lay a foundation for their future.
July 23, 2019
Day 1: The sweet spot
The 2-year-old drags her stroller around Great Start Daycare, looking imploringly into one pair of eyes after another. No one lifts her into the seat. No one pushes her forward.
Finally, she comes to Kee’Mayah West, 8, who helps her to clamber in. Kee’Mayah pushes the stroller across the room, the wheels turning reluctantly. “How does her mother get places with this thing?” she asks.
On this day, June 5, Kee’Mayah occupies the sweet spot known as the last days of 2nd grade. Homework? Over. Summer? All promise, not yet monotony.
Kee’Mayah stares into the mouth of a summer centered on the intersection of Jones and North avenues in North Braddock. Until recently an epicenter of violence, that intersection is calm now. The bullet holes in the wall next door to the day care are freshly spackled over.
Stray a block in any direction, and you’ll encounter abandoned homes drowning in invasive plants. Boroughwide, there are some 400 vacant buildings. Some lean ominously on occupied homes. Some hide drug dealers. The borough can’t afford to tear them down, and Allegheny County denied its latest plea for help.
Kee’Mayah never mentions her community’s problems. But she often talks and writes of other places — Japan, Australia, Ocean City, Md. She breaks down when friends move away.
On this June day, she contents herself with pushing that stroller around a little room.
“You’re adorable,” she tells the 2-year-old.
The toddler looks up, eyes wide. “I’m adorable?”
Day 2: ‘That’s an emergency’
Satoria Nevels moved to North Braddock from Wilkinsburg on March 8. Why? “Honestly, the low rent.” She has a job, but also a son, 3, a daughter, 2, and a freshly filed child support case.
Two days after she moved in, she said, “The house shook.” The back of the abandoned house next door had collapsed against hers, kicking out a support pole from under her back porch.
“It almost busted out the bathroom window,” she says, as the kids play in the tiny front yard on Stokes Avenue. Three months later? “The summertime’s coming. We can’t do nothing in back,” and the porch is closed.
Ms. Nevels and Councilwoman Lena Dixon asked the borough leadership for help. But the borough budget of $3.2 million — almost a third of which pays sewer-related costs — strains to cover police, street maintenance and trash collection. There is no line item for demolition.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in this series, is focusing on a dozen places in which half of children are in poverty. Those places are dribbled across a southwestern Pennsylvania political landscape that Governing magazine, in May, found to have “the most [local governments] per capita of any metro area with a population exceeding 1 million.”
In North Braddock’s case, small size — 1.5 square miles and less than 5,000 people — is aggravated by one of the county’s weakest tax bases.
Informed of Ms. Nevels’ dilemma, the borough asked for help from the county’s emergency demolition program. The county responded May 30, in a letter saying the demolition would be “a worthwhile project,” but “cannot be funded due to limited funding.”
To Ms. Dixon, who lives across Stokes from Ms. Nevels, that’s nuts. “I would think that if a house is falling on another house, that’s an emergency, as far as I’m concerned,” the councilwoman says. “And she’s got two little kids in there!”
This year, besides the plea for funds to raze the house on Stokes, the borough asked the county for $155,000 to level 10 houses. The county’s May 28 response said that “will not be funded.”
Why not? Allegheny County Economic Development this year got 32 applications for demolition money, totaling $1.85 million, and funded more than half —18 requests totaling $976,411. But not North Braddock’s. According to county spokeswoman Amie Downs, North Braddock was slow to spend prior years’ allocations, making it “difficult” to dedicate more.
In March, another denial from the county compelled the borough to tap much of its savings to remove asbestos-tainted rubble at the corner of Sixth Street and Baldridge Avenue, a key entrance to the neighborhood, next to its newest houses.
Next door to the empty lot where that rubble once lay, social worker Christina Van Patter holds her son, not yet 6 months old in June. She credits her husband, artist Nathan Van Patter, for needling borough leaders until they cleaned up the mess.
He’s preparing a gallery show featuring textured portraits of the vacant houses that have become his muses. “There’s something really beautiful about the houses,” he says. “More and more of them are just exploding with growth.”
Day 3: ‘A sob session’
It’s the last day of school for Woodland Hills students, and Kee’Mayah calls it “an awesome day.”
The only downer: A friend is moving to Atlanta. “I don’t like it,” Kee’Mayah says. “I’m never going to see her again. She had a sob session on the bus.”
The friend wasn’t the only one sobbing. Nicole Glaze, who owns Great Start, shows cellphone video of a huddle of girls at the bus stop, all weeping, none more than Kee’Mayah.
The same phone soon shows a list of sites at which kids can get free lunches over the summer. Ms. Glaze shakes her head. “Big as North Braddock is, there is not one site. I don’t get it,” she says.
An estimated 60% of North Braddock’s children live in poverty. That’s four times the countywide rate. Those who study child poverty suggest that rates higher than 40% often coincide with disinvestment, pollution and traumatic experiences including crime.
Add summer heat and idleness. From Great Start, the nearest park with play equipment is 1.2 miles uphill.
“What are the kids supposed to do? Sit in the house on the computer?” Ms. Glaze asks. “This is how something happens. … How long will it be until the next kid gets shot?”
North Braddock saw three fatal shootings last year, along with seven nonfatal shootings. So far this year, it has seen no homicides, but at least five nonfatal shootings, including that of 24-year-old Jaimire Dutrieuille, who family say was shot while shielding a 9-year-old girl.
Kee’Mayah’s mind is far away. “The Big Hole is in South Africa,” she announces. If she was a professional violinist, she adds, she could visit Japan.
For now, there’s talk of a family trip to Ocean City, she says. “I’ve never been anywhere but Pennsylvania.”
North Braddock’s vitals: A steel town staving off collapse
Billed as “The Birthplace of Steel” because it was one of the first sites on which the Bessemer method was used to mass produce the metal, North Braddock is home to most of U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thomson Works. The prosperity wrought by a mill that once employed 20,000 has long since rusted away. Now the borough — formally distressed from 1995 through 2003 — struggles to deal with crime, adandoned houses and overgrown lots.
Between vacant houses and rentals, homeowner pride is a relative rarity.
Vacant housing units, occupied units rented
Family resources are a fraction of the countywide average.
% of children living in poverty
Income per capita, median household income
Median value of owner-occupied housing units
The borough has little to work with to improve the situation.
Taxable property value per capita
North Braddock ranks 127 out of the 128 municipalities entirely within the county.
% of land value that is taxable
North Braddock ranks 121 out of the 128 municipalities entirely within the county.
% of county property taxes due that are collected
North Braddock ranks last in the county.
Sources: U.S. census data processed by CensusReporter.org, Allegheny County Department of Human Services, Allegheny County Department of Real Estate and Allegheny County Treasurer | Graphics: Chance Brinkman-Sull/Post-Gazette
Day 4: Scaling Cliff Street
Lavetta Turner’s grandsons pile into a kids’ ride-on car and drive down Cliff Street through clouds of dust.
Four vacant homes stand directly across from the home in which Ms. Turner and her husband have, for six years, raised their five grandchildren, ages 6 to 13. As recently as last year the street was the scene of drug deals and gunfire.
One evening, as she left home to go to night school, “There was gunfire right here. [The kids] were eating dinner. … I ran into the house, made them all get on the ground.”
Back then, she says, “I feared for my grandkids to even come outside. … Just kept ’em inside.”
The street has gotten better, in stages. First the borough took down some abandoned houses — though 13 derelicts remain amid 20 occupied homes.
Then 918 Cliff was condemned, for unsanitary conditions.
“There was no adult living there. There was, on average, four to eight kids living there, none of them above the age of 18,” says North Braddock police Chief Isaac Daniele. “Animal feces in the basement. … No power. Mold. There was no gas on, no water.”
Disorder spread. Young criminals used Cliff’s vacant houses as hideouts, he says, making it one of the borough’s most troubled streets.
In November, 918 Cliff was the scene of the fatal shooting of 15-year-old Chammire Smith, for which another 15-year-old boy is charged.
As the Turner kids play on this sunny Saturday in June, landlord Marcella Ray, from Greensburg, directs a crew cleaning up 918 Cliff, and creating those clouds of dust.
“We’ve had some good people, but this was a real drug place,” she says. “Tried to get rid of them, couldn’t get them out.”
Now she’s starting on tens of thousands of dollars of renovations. “There’s bullet shells all over, holes in the walls.”
On Cliff, the chief says, “The crime rate dropped about half.” What could reduce it further? “If they took down some of the abandoned homes.”
Ms. Turner’s grandkids know not to go into, or behind, the abandoned houses.
“It stinks back there,” says Ronneire, 9. “From cats.” Living across from them, he added, “feels weird.”
“Creepy,” adds Rashawn, 6.
What should be done?
“Fix it,” says Ronneire.
“New houses,” says Ronald, 9.
“I want a park,” says Rashawn. “Water park.”
“I want slides, swings,” adds Ronneire. “Monkey bars.”
“This could facilitate a lot of children in this area,” says Ms. Turner, estimating there are three dozen kids living on Cliff Street.
Her grandchildren may grow out of playgrounds before they see one here. Councilman Mike Breaston has been working for five years to get a tiny park built on Hawkins Avenue, half a mile from Cliff. Thanks in part to financial help from his brother, former Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Steve Breaston, the borough bought and cleared some lots, but it’s waiting for a $100,000 grant to finish the job.
Day 5: Next up, rockets and tanks?
Next door to Great Start, Freddie Brennan and his sons spend a Sunday afternoon renovating the inside of a former cellphone store that rivaled Cliff Street as North Braddock’s worst hot spot. He’s turning it into a barbershop, with a game room and weight room, but it’s a heavy lift.
“All these right here are bullet holes, from when [the store] got robbed,” he says, pointing to a wall on which he’d patched punctures.
In that November robbery, bullets also pierced the leg of a 46-year-old man, and the back of 85-year-old James Dent, who later died as a result. Shortly after the robbery, county police searched the store, taking out two guns, electronic scales and marijuana in vacuum-sealed bags, according to an FBI agent’s affidavit.
In February, according to a state court affidavit, detectives watched Thomas Cole, 45, enter the cellphone store he operated. When they approached him, detectives wrote, they saw him throw two bags into a doorway. One was full of jars of marijuana, and the other held a stolen, loaded Bushmaster XM15 semi-automatic rifle, they wrote. Cole carried a loaded Taurus PT809 handgun, they added.
Cole, a felon, is jailed while federal prosecutors work the case.
No more do dozens of young people gather nightly around the cellphone store. Mr. Brennan has convinced one young neighbor to go to barber school, and is working on two others. If they pass, he’ll offer them chairs in the shop.
If society doesn’t “give these kids a chance, it’ll just go on and on and on,” he explains. Today it’s handguns. “The next generation,” he worries, “will have rockets and tanks.”
Day 6: Drawing Betty Boxoplenty
While her to-do list calls for “Nothing” on the first weekday of summer vacation, Kee’Mayah instead works at a large pad, drawing her latest character, named Claudette Schoffstall. Daily she draws and writes about a host of characters, including Bill and Betty Boxoplenty, ages 10 and 11, members of a fictitious seven-person family living in Virginia.
Often the other kids in the day care watch over Kee’Mayah’s shoulders. “They’re looking at what she’s done,” says her great-grandmother, Evelyn West, 75, who teams with Kee’Mayah’s single father, Sherman West, to raise the girl. “She’s a leader.”
During the school year, Ms. West works 11-plus-hour days as both a crossing guard and as Ms. Glaze’s assistant at Great Start. Those modest paychecks, plus some Social Security, support the family while Mr. West applies for maintenance jobs.
Will they take that vacation to Ocean City, as Kee’Mayah hopes? Ms. West hedges.
“Financially, it’s a little rough,” she said. “By the time you pay all your bills and your mortgage, you’ve got nothing left.”
Kee’Mayah will make T-shirts at the Braddock Carnegie Library’s print shop, will go to Kennywood and likely see a movie or two, says her great-grandmother. And she’ll make that one-block trek from home to day care, but not much farther.
“I don’t let Kee’Mayah roam up and down the streets,” Ms. West says. “She always wants to go outside, but I don’t let her go out by herself.”
Day 7: ‘Stay out of that garage’
Chief Daniele pulls up beside the hulking, vacant house just behind Great Start. “I know I shut that door the last time I was here,” he says, as he approaches a wide open side door.
He and Officer Larry Butler walk in, stepping gingerly and eyeing both the debris and the holes in the floor and ceiling. “Your feet will fall through and sure enough, you’re not paying attention, you’ll go through the floor,” the chief said.
Because police often chase suspects into the vacant houses, the fire department has inspected most of them, marking the most dangerous with a square and an X or a diagonal line.
Amid the wreckage of this house is a relatively clear mattress. People are “mostly coming in to shoot up, is all,” Officer Butler speculates.
The borough hired a company to raze this house, the chief said. But the contractors inadvertently destabilized an occupied house next door, so the work remains on hold. Meanwhile it’s becoming a “hot spot.” All the chief can do is ask the public works crew to board up the door.
Back at Great Start, Kee’Mayah plays with another girl in a tidy, pretend kitchen. It’s safe here.
Ms. Glaze knows that some mothers are leaving kids with older siblings or boyfriends. She tells wandering kids to stay out of the vacant structures. “I’m just the one yelling at them, ‘Stay out of that garage.’ … My thing is just trying to keep the kids out of those areas, because it’s not safe at all.”
Allegheny County says it can’t be savior to struggling North Braddock
The county has said no to an emergency request for funds to tear down a house leaning on a home where two toddlers live.
When North Braddock’s leaders look for a hero, their gaze turns first to Grant Street. Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, though, maintains that his powers are limited, and that the potential saviors of Mon Valley towns sit in Harrisburg and Washington, D.C.
The borough is unable to tear down its 400-odd abandoned houses. Its police make as little as $12.87 an hour, no benefits. Some in its leadership hope that proposed fracking on U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thomson Works will bring revenue, but many residents worry about resulting pollution.
“We need Robin Hood to come in, take from the rich and give to the poor,” said borough council Vice President Michael Dobrinich, in a June interview.
Mr. Fitzgerald said he understands the problems of communities like North Braddock, and is doing what he can with the few arrows in his quiver.
It’s hard to give a community “some hope that there can be revitalization and growth” when it is littered with abandoned structures, he said in a June interview.
“It’s obviously got challenges,” he said of North Braddock. “And many of the communities that we’ve talked about in the Mon Valley struggle with [maintaining] the tax base needed to provide services.”
Since 2013, the county has funded 27 projects in the borough totaling more than $2.6 million, according to Mr. Fitzgerald’s spokeswoman. A $100,000 county grant approved last year is now going toward the demolition of a row of houses on Bell Avenue, in the heart of the borough. The county may yet approve $100,000 to cover construction of a proposed playground.
But this year, the county has said no to the borough’s request for $155,000 to raze 10 more houses, and to an emergency request for funds to tear down a house that is leaning on a home inhabited by a mother and two children, ages 3 and 2.
“At the time of application North Braddock still had awarded, unspent demolition funding making it difficult to warrant awarding more funds,” wrote county officials in response to questions about the denial.
Borough officials responded that their demolition contracting is handled through the Turtle Creek Valley Council of Governments. That COG’s director said that demolition contracting is always complicated and can involve delays, but the projects are getting done.
County officials argue that federal rules limit the amount of community block grant money that can be used for demolition, and thus they were able to fund only roughly half of the demolitions proposed by 32 municipalities.
Can the county — which has touted its fiscal stability and healthy reserve fund — reach deep and fund demolitions from its own pocket?
No, said Mr. Fitzgerald. “Those resources aren’t really available,” he said, because of the county’s limited revenue-raising power. “The only thing the county really collects is property tax.”
The county’s operating budget of $932 million includes $474 million in taxes, including $373 million in property taxes, but also sales, drink and car rental levies. The rest of the budget is almost entirely money from the state and federal governments, and departmental earnings, charges and fees.
Mr. Fitzgerald has joined Gov. Tom Wolf’s call for a Restore Pennsylvania fund filled with revenue from a severance tax on natural gas wells. And he’s hoping for a federal infrastructure funding bill.
He’s also supportive of a pending state bill that would allow municipalities to disincorporate and rely on counties for services. And he’s a cheerleader for consolidation of services — including policing — among multiple municipalities, but is leaving the details and decisions to local leaders.
North Braddock council President John Vahosky is looking for more. “Somebody bigger than North Braddock has to come in” and chart a path, he said.
The borough is participating in talks on a regional Mon Valley police department, and is open to ideas, said Mr. Vahosky. “But we need somebody of a higher power to come in and say, ‘This is what has to happen,’” he said. “If they leave it up to the municipalities and individuals, you’re not going to see it happen.”
Mr. Fitzgerald’s stance that the county has limited tools to solve the problems of distressed communities is unlikely to stem the requests for help.
“The way I see it, the county owes us” for both the borough’s historic importance in building the region, and for its new role, taking in people driven from the city by gentrification, said Lisa Franklin, Democratic nominee for a seat on North Braddock’s council. “That’s what I’m going to Fitzgerald with,” she said. “Make sure that Greater Pittsburgh looks as good as inner Pittsburgh.”
Laura Malt Schneiderman contributed. This story was produced with assistance from the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism‘s Data Fellowship. The Economic Hardship Reporting Project supported Stacy Innerst’s illustration.