If Amazon came to Hazelwood…

Heather Mull of Hazelwood believes Amazon would do more harm than good if it built a second headquarters in Pittsburgh. (Jessie Wardarski/ Post-Gazette)

Hazelwood is faded American flags, Virgin Mary statues in the yard and Pittsburgh’s recycling plant, where mountains of discarded milk jugs, glass jars and crushed cardboard boxes wind up.

Hazelwood is also a new French bakery, test track for Uber’s self-driving cars, university robotics center and real estate speculators, snapping up properties in hopes that something big lands on the former 178-acre LTV Steel Co. site now called Hazelwood Green.

That something big could be the $118 billion e-commerce juggernaut Amazon, which is eyeing Pittsburgh for a second headquarters. And that worries some residents.

The LTV Coke Works in Hazelwood, as they appeared Jan. 16, 1998. (Bill Campbell/Post-Gazette)

“We know something is coming, but how will it affect our daily lives?” asked Jessica Petho, 34, who grew up near the Glenwood Bridge, where the Monongahela River embraces the neighborhood in a bell-shaped curve.

“There’s a lot of anxiety. It seems like big people making big decisions that will affect everybody else.”

Pittsburgh is among 20 cities that Seattle-based Amazon is considering to build a second headquarters, eventually bringing with it as many as 50,000 jobs and a $5 billion in investment, bigger than the state of Pennsylvania’s budget. Hazelwood Green is one of the sites that city and county elected officials are touting to Amazon.

Hazelwood’s legacy as an industrial powerhouse began in 1853 when J&L Steel Co., which old timers pronounce “Jay-Nell,” opened a plant along the Monongahela, just south of Downtown. Over the decades, the industrial complex lining Second Avenue eventually swallowed up both sides of the river with rail lines, blast furnaces, spike and chain factories, steel rolling houses and coke ovens.

LTV Steel bought the sprawling complex from J&L in 1974 but went belly up in 1986 in what was then the biggest-ever bankruptcy.

As LTV reorganized, the Hazelwood steel works held on until 1998, when it closed for good — a victim of mounting environmental problems and rising foreign competition. The community of Hazelwood took a hard fall with the collapse of the steel industry.

About 800 people worked at LTV when it closed, a fraction of the 12,000-employee workforce in 1960, and the population of Hazelwood withered to 6,000, down 65 percent from 17,308 in 1960, according to a city planning report and a history of the LTV site prepared by the developers of Hazelwood Green and the Heinz Endowments, which purchased the LTV site with other foundations in 2002.

Second Avenue’s smokestacks belching flames and sulfur stench marked Hazelwood’s economic heyday. But the stacks are gone and the neighborhood’s population has contracted further to about 5,000.

The main artery of Hazelwood, Second Avenue, as it looked in 2013. (Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette)

Hazelwood shuttered its last full-service grocery store 10 years ago. In 1970, there were three public schools; none remain now.

The neighborhood’s residents have less education and are poorer when compared with the city overall. Twelve percent of adult residents did not graduate from high school, exceeding the 8.6 percent citywide rate, and about one-third live in poverty, exceeding the citywide rate of 23 percent, according to a 2017 study by the University of Pittsburgh Center for Social and Urban Research.



'Everybody sticks together'

Teaira Collins, Hazelwood community member and mother of five, at Jozsa Corner in Hazelwood. (Jessie Wardarski/ Post-Gazette)

Despite its challenges, Hazelwood is ideally located: Downtown office towers are just four miles away and so is Forbes Avenue, home to Carnegie Mellon and Pitt universities and a neighborhood that accounts for one-third of Pennsylvania’s research output.

A Brookings Institution study last fall dubbed the Forbes corridor in Oakland a hothouse for Pittsburgh’s new economy — one in which scientists and entrepreneurs collaborate in medical device and pharmaceutical company startups and one easily accessible to people who call Hazelwood home.

Longtime Hazelwood business owner Alex Bodnar believes that residents’ voices may not be heard if Amazon, or another major employer, moves into the community. (Jessie Wardarski/ Post-Gazette)

Hazelwood also has a sense of community, in which neighbors look out for each other, said Teaira Collins. Three years ago, Ms. Collins, 43, nicknamed “Tea,” had the first of two back operations, which left her short of cash for utility bills and other expenses.

She turned to a Christian outreach center on her block, where the Rev. Tim Smith helped pay her past due bills and fix a leaky toilet, as well as buy diapers, chicken nuggets and milk.

“I walked over there. The door was open,” she said. “I was in tears. That’s how I grew up: Everybody sticks together.”

She doesn’t want Hazelwood to lose that sense of community if Amazon arrives, but her bigger concern is jobs: How many local youth will the Seattle e-commerce giant employ?

“If you employ our residents, we don’t care if you come,” she said, “but pay them right: $30,000 a year.”

Ms. Petho, a freelance artist and an Amazon Prime member, shared her concern.

“They keep throwing the jobs thing at us, but I wonder what kind of jobs the typical Hazelwood resident will get.”

The Hazelwood housing scene

Comparing Hazelwood home prices to the rest of the city
Average home prices, Hazelwood vs. Pittsburgh, 2008-10*

Created with Highstock 6.0.7HazelwoodPittsburgh200820092010$0$25000$50000$75000$100000$125000

*Excludes all sales under $500 and sales of vacant land. Amounts adjusted for inflation (BLS CPI) appear as 2010 dollars.

A lot of Hazelwood homes sold for under $10,000 in 2010

Created with Highstock 6.0.762%62%14%14%9%9%15%15%$500-10,000$10,000-25,000$25,000-50,000$50,000+

More houses sitting empty
Vacant housing units, 1980-2010

Created with Highstock 6.0.793%93%89%89%84%84%81%81%7%7%11%11%16%16%19%19%Occupied housing unitsVacant housing units

Source: University of Pittsburgh Center for Social and Urban Research | Graphic: James Hilston/Post-Gazette

A really big potential neighbor

Hazelwood. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

Rev. Smith said he wants Hazelwood to be part of the conversation about Amazon’s possible move to the neighborhood.

That’s something he said has not happened in other poor communities facing big development projects. He said it’s not easy to make room for a new neighbor — one that is by revenue more than seven times bigger than Pittsburgh health care giant UPMC, Pennsylvania’s biggest employer.

“It’s not clear how you get ahead of something like that,” said Rev. Smith, 58, who put down roots in Hazelwood in 1980. “It’s so market-driven.

“If Amazon comes, everything speeds up exponentially: cost of living, space taken up, housing issues. And it’s not all bad.”

Freelance photographer Heather Mull thinks the bad will outweigh the good if Amazon chooses Hazelwood Green for its second headquarters.

Ms. Mull, 48, who bought a 1920s-era Sears and Roebuck catalog home on a quiet Hazelwood street in 2005 for $55,000, said she is especially worried about the increase in property values that would accompany Amazon’s presence, driving up property assessments and making it harder for the neighborhood’s elderly to hold on to their homes.

“I don’t see why people are falling all over themselves to give money to the richest man in the world,” Ms. Mull said about Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. The region’s leaders have resisted efforts to disclose details of the incentive package offered to the company.

“I don’t want my neighbors to move out if they don’t want to.”

Enthusiasm, tempered

Danielle Parson-Rush would welcome Amazon because of the restaurants, grocery stores and other amenities it would bring in spurring further community revitalization. Her husband, LaWarren Rush, is on the right. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

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A few doors down steep Hazelwood Avenue from Ms. Collins’ home is a three-story brick house that Danielle Parson-Rush bought in 2006 for $30,000 — just $1,000 over its sale price in 1983. But the house needed work, including sealing off four wood-burning fireplaces that were in poor repair, which allowed her to move to Hazelwood in 2009.

Unlike other residents, Ms. Parson-Rush, 37, director of community affairs at a charter school, said she would fully welcome Amazon because of the restaurants, grocery stores and other amenities it would bring. She’s encouraged by the changes she sees in Hazelwood and believes Amazon would spur further community revitalization.

“There’s a new community going on, a lot of kids, a lot of vacant buildings being torn down,” she said. “I see the boys in the summer coming with their helmets and uniforms from football practice. There’s always a softball game up the hill a little bit.”

But she tempers her enthusiasm.

Having a voice in the community is possible partly because of Hazelwood’s hollowed-out size, Ms. Parson-Rush said.

That voice could be snuffed if a corporate giant like Amazon is allowed to absorb all the bandwidth.

“Amazon could become the voice of Hazelwood and we’d become servants to the new machine that’s in town,” she said. “I would not want Amazon to do that.”

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