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.”
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.