Homewood is among the poorest, most violent Pittsburgh neighborhoods. Its failure follows millions of dollars in municipal investment and a spectacular collapse in the late 1980s. Now, Homewood may have another shot at rebirth.

August 21, 2022

Night after night, the squeal of car tires meant Kelly Street had been again turned into a drag strip. The screeching was often followed by violent crashes that have left utility poles dangling free, held only by power lines.

“It’s horrible,” said Doris Keith-Clark, 67, who has seen three cars totaled in front of her house since she moved to Kelly Street in 1992. “They call it Kelly Street Highway. It’s a nightmare.”

Troubled city neighborhoods share many of the same problems — violent crime, drugs, indifference to traffic laws — all of which erode the human spirit. Homewood is among the poorest, most violent Pittsburgh neighborhoods and its failure is especially frustrating because it follows millions of dollars in municipal investment and a spectacular collapse in the late 1980s.

Now, Homewood may have another shot at rebirth.

Mulugetta Birru, 75, an Ethiopian immigrant and redevelopment wizard credited with Homewood’s magic in its run at vibrancy more than 30 years ago, is back in an advisory role for the neighborhood’s biggest housing project in years. He is confident and thinking big, but the neighborhood’s future is far from assured.

Mulugetta Birru led the the Homewood-Brushton Revitalization & Development Corp. in the late 1980s, after initially saying the challenge of helping the area might be too much. (Emily Matthews/Post-Gazette)
Lost decades
Tire marks on Kelly Street. (Emily Matthews/Post-Gazette)

Affordable housing was among the things residents said they needed most when Homewood community groups developed a comprehensive plan a few years ago. The neighborhood, a streetcar suburb of the city until the 1960s, had fallen a long way from the late 19th century, when it was home to industry captains Henry Clay Frick, George Westinghouse and H.J. Heinz.

People clear trash and debris from abandoned lots along Frankstown Avenue during last April's "All-in for Homewood," which was hosted by the mayor’s office and the departments of mobility and infrastructure and public works. (Alexandra Wimley/Post-Gazette)

By the late 1950s, a large Black population that had been displaced in the redevelopment of the Lower Hill moved to Homewood, accelerating white flight to Penn Hills and other Pittsburgh suburbs. Civil unrest of the 1960s left Homewood’s business district pockmarked.

Since adoption of the comprehensive plan, Homewood’s nine community groups have mostly gone their own ways — cleaning trash from vacant lots, building single-family homes and other small projects.

“I didn’t think a neighborhood like this existed in the United States.”
Mulugetta Birru
Adviser, McCormack Baron Salazar Inc.

It hasn’t been enough to change the momentum.

“We need to add 500, 1,000 houses to our community,” said T. Rashad Byrdsong, president and CEO of the nonprofit Community Empowerment Association in Homewood. “We don’t need three or four houses here and there. The community can only do so much.”

During the public meetings for the comprehensive plan, residents were asked, “What’s the headline you want to read about Homewood 10 years from now?” In the face of grinding poverty, drugs and street violence, Homewood residents say, such a question bordered on the surreal.

Bringing back the energy
Landscaper Monté Simmons uses a leaf blower in front of tidy townhouses along Homewood Avenue that were built years ago by the Homewood-Brushton Revitalization & Development Corp.. Mr. Simmons, formerly of Beltzhoover, lives in Red Bluff, Calif., but was in town visiting family. (Emily Matthews/Post-Gazette)

In the mid-1980s, the neighborhood had been prepping for a revival.

By 1987, the Homewood-Brushton Revitalization & Development Corp., under Mr. Birru’s direction, had built 33 tidy brick townhouses near the North Homewood Avenue busway station — a bright line in the sand against encroaching blight.

It was quite a reversal for Mr. Birru, who had been living in Florida before being recruited to Pittsburgh. He had backed away from the position at Homewood-Brushton Revitalization when it was first offered to him, daunted by the challenge of taking on a community at the brink after years of poverty, gun violence and neglect.

“Guys, I can’t do this job,” Mr. Birru remembered telling directors of the nonprofit community development corporation after touring the streets. “I didn’t think a neighborhood like this existed in the United States.”

Eventually he relented and among the skills he brought to the task was the ability to attract support for urban renewal projects from philanthropic foundations, banks and corporations. With an MBA and experience in business, he could speak the language of finance and risk.

The Everyday Cafe, a sunny cafe and coffee shop, has opened near the busway, part of a budding business district. Longtime friends Mario Browne of Penn Hills and Cynthia McCleod of Blackridge, table left, met last month at the cafe to celebrate one another’s recent birthdays. (Morgan Timms/Post-Gazette)

His connections helped to fund a fledgling neighborhood center anchored by the townhouses and the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway station.

Several blocks away, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Subway, Rite Aid pharmacy, Athlete’s Foot and Dairy Queen franchises opened alongside locally owned stores in a neighborhood business district that was coming to life. In those years, the neighborhood had its own newspaper, the Homewood-Brushton Informer, and its own talk radio station.

“Things were really happening,” Mr. Birru said. “Homewood was my toughest job ever, ever.”

It all collapsed in a breathtaking fall, fueled by the crack cocaine epidemic and urban gang violence of the early 1990s. By then, the corner of the neighborhood bounded by Collier Street and Formosa Way had been dubbed the “killing fields” for its drugs and violence.

“It was just demoralizing.”
Neil Dorsey
Dorsey’s Record Shop

In 1992, Mr. Birru was tapped by former Mayor Sophie Masloff to lead the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority, leaving a leadership vacuum in a community just getting to its feet.

The Dairy Queen closed in 1993 in a dispute over a lease, and Rite Aid was shuttered two years later after a manager, making an afternoon deposit at a nearby bank, was abducted, robbed and shot to death.

In 1997, two men were sentenced to life in prison for the manager’s killing. There are no drugstores in Homewood anymore.

Neil Dorsey, whose family has owned Dorsey’s Record Shop in Homewood since 1946, brought the Dairy Queen franchise to the neighborhood in 1988. For the next five years, he said, he never drew a salary; every penny went back into the business.

Neil Dorsey's family has owned Dorsey’s Record Shop in Homewood since 1946. He recalls the setbacks during the late 1980s and early 1990s that stalled a push to economic revitalization. (Emily Matthews/Post-Gazette)

Mr. Dorsey, 76, said he was heartbroken when his lease for the property was not renewed by Homewood-Brushton Revitalization, the nonprofit he helped to start in the early 1980s. The lease dispute came two years before his business loan would’ve been paid off.

“It was just demoralizing,” he said. “It was devastating to the community. It was on pace to do something.”

After the Rite Aid manager was killed, Family Dollar scuttled plans to open a store in Homewood. Mr. Birru had moved on to direct the URA by then, said Howard Slaughter, CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Pittsburgh and a director of Homewood-Brushton Revitalization when Mr. Birru was recruited to lead the organization.

“Mulu was the guy,” Mr. Slaughter said. “He was the leader. We were doing everything. When Mulu was there, it was happening. When he left, there was a lack of leadership.”

Ernest Ruffin of Homewood talks in 2005 about the killing of 15-year-old Ernest Tolliver outside a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Homewood. (Lake Fong/Post-Gazette)

Kentucky Fried Chicken, among the last symbols of the new Homewood, closed after a 15-year-old boy was shot to death in 2008 while waiting in a car with his mother in the restaurant’s drive-thru. A 20-year-old Hill District man was charged with homicide, but was later acquitted by a jury.

‘Stop the bleeding’
Efforts to spur revitalization in the late 1980s were hurt by a surge in drug and gang-related violence. By the early 1990s, the corner of the neighborhood bounded by Collier Street and Formosa Way had been dubbed the “killing fields.” (Emily Matthews/Post-Gazette)

All the while, people were leaving Homewood.

Its population today is 6,442, down by about half of what it was in 1990 as the number of empty lots metastasized to 2,500. Forty-four percent of Homewood is urban prairie today, according to the Homewood Community Development Collaborative.

The city over the years intermittently tried to break the free fall, but the efforts were too little, too late to spark the turnaround that city officials envisioned.

City detectives in 2008 mark the bullet casings in the 7600 block of Race Street, Homewood, where two people were shot and killed. (John Heller/Post-Gazette)

In 2003, former Mayor Tom Murphy targeted some 120 derelict buildings in Homewood for demolition. Ron Graziano, then the city’s chief building inspector, said the move was a way to “stop the bleeding” in the community.

Nine years later, in 2012, then Mayor Luke Ravenstahl announced that decrepit townhouses on Collier Street and Formosa Way would be torn down, but not much changed.

Blue demolition notices dot rowhouses on Hamilton Avenue in Homewood. (Emily Matthews/Post-Gazette)

Today, Hamilton Avenue near Collier Street is lined with vacant row houses dotted with demolition notices, feeding other problems. One morning earlier this year, in late April, the body of a 41-year-old mother of four children was recovered from an abandoned house on Bennett Street a few blocks away.

The Medical Examiner said she died from an overdose of fentanyl, cocaine and other drugs.

The Homewood Avenue busway is seen as a key to transportation needs in the community, as it seeks to rebuild. Rachel Watts of Green Tree is seen waiting for a bus last month. (Emily Matthews/Post-Gazette)

Further chilling investment in Homewood was the shooting death in 2013 of a 21-year-old Mount Oliver man by a 16-year-old neighborhood youth during a robbery at the busway station — the very anchor of the community’s revitalization in the 1980s. The youth is serving a 40-year to life sentence after apologizing to the victim’s family in confessing to first-degree murder.

As Homewood slid backwards, the South Side, Lawrenceville, East Liberty and Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar flourished with millions of dollars worth of new homes and businesses. Homewood grew increasingly impoverished, with 29% of residents reporting less than $10,000 in annual income in a survey released in 2020. Median income in the neighborhood was $19,642, less than half the city median of $40,715.

Big ideas, good bones
Another community asset is the Community College of Allegheny County Homewood-Brushton Center on North Homewood Avenue. (Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette)

Despite the challenges, Homewood still has good bones — institutions that could anchor a future for the neighborhood: a Community College of Allegheny County branch campus, a Carnegie Library and a medical center with plans for a $20 million expansion that could include opening the neighborhood’s first pharmacy in decades. The Everyday Cafe, a sunny cafe and coffee shop, has also opened near the busway, part of a budding business district.

Mr. Birru, who left the URA in 2004 after 12 years to head the Wayne County Economic Development Corp. in Michigan, is back in Pittsburgh as an adviser to St. Louis-based inner-city housing developer McCormack Baron Salazar Inc. The developer plans to build 60 rental units on North Homewood Avenue.

It’s among the neighborhood’s biggest housing development in years.

Mulugetta Birru, an adviser to developer McCormack Baron Salazar Inc., stands in front of the North Homewood Avenue lot where the firm intends to build 60 rental units. (Emily Matthews/Post-Gazette)

“There’s nothing we’ve done in the city unless we had a big vision,” Mr. Birru said on a walk through grassy lots where the four-story, $25 million development will be built. Piecemeal development of one, two, three single-family homes — a strategy pursued by Homewood’s community nonprofits in recent years — hasn’t been enough to spark real change, he said.

Three-quarters of the new rental homes will be affordably priced, Mr. Birru said. And that’s not all: McCormack Baron has its sights on Homewood.

“They don’t just want to do one building,” he said. “They want to do more.”

A news helicopter, then word of a shooting
A makeshift shrine to Dayvon "Day Day" Vickers, shot and killed at age 15 in April at the corner of North Homewood and Frankstown avenues. (Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette)

Demi Kolke remembers 15-year-old Dayvon Vickers as a neighborhood kid who’d come around the grassy lot on Tioga Street that she helped develop into a parklet. He was curious and eager to help out, dropping by first on a bicycle and later, when he got older, on a dirt bike he’d bought with money saved from selling bottled water on a street corner.

She’d known him since he was about 5 years old, occasionally driving him to Home Depot in East Liberty to buy spray paint for his bicycle, always a different color, she said.

“He was so good-spirited, just so eager,” she said. “He couldn’t wait to learn. ‘What are you doing; can I help?’ It was just the sweetest thing.”

On March 30, as early rain gave way to clearing skies, Ms. Kolke, 35, helped to organize an anniversary remembrance at Kenny’s, the name she gave her Tioga Street parklet. The remembrance was for 27-year-old Kenneth Baptiste Jr., who was shot to death on that day in Homewood in 2019.

Kenny’s parklet was named for another Kenny, who also died in gunfire, Kenny Stubbs, 53, a neighborhood businessman who owned the property and who was shot and killed in Penn Hills in 2014. No arrests have been made in that case.

Demi Kolke, seen here with her daughter, Journey, 4, helped develop a grassy lot on Tioga Street into a parklet. The lot on the corner of Tioga and North Dunfermine Street is now called Kenny's parklet. (Emily Matthews/Post-Gazette

Mr. Baptiste’s mother, father and brothers were at the parklet that day. Geron Anderson, 24, of the Hill District, faces trial Aug. 22 in Mr. Baptiste’s death.

Ms. Kolke remembered Dayvon speeding by on his motorbike around 4 or 5 that afternoon. This time he didn’t stop.

A little while later, the thrum of a news helicopter was heard overhead, along with police sirens. The cookout went on with crying and laughter and a balloon release.

Soon, word spread that Dayvon had been shot in the head while riding his motorbike several blocks away.

“I just didn’t believe it,” Ms. Kolke said.

Eighteen-year-old Shaun Scott, of Wilkinsburg, who was 17 at the time of the shooting, has been charged with homicide in Dayvon’s death.

Ms. Kolke, who lived on Kelly Street, had already made up her mind and moved out of Homewood a few weeks before Dayvon’s death. Having a 4-year-old daughter changed things, she said.

“When it was just me there, I could still operate on one level,” Ms. Kolke said. “But when she came into the picture, I safely couldn’t do that anymore.”

Kris B. Mamula: kmamula@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699.

YMCA summer campers ate shaved ice last month outside Dana’s Bakery on North Homewood Avenue, Homewood. (Emily Matthews/Post-Gazette)


Kris B. Mamula

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