A Departure

When Mayor Peduto first came into office and announced his Transition Teams, I knew we were at a turning point. I jumped at the chance to be a part of creating this blog, tracking Pittsburgh’s political process under this new Mayor, and collaborating with Helen, whose ever-thoughtful and constructive point of view I’ve always appreciated. I’ve had an amazing time digging into these pivotal issues but I’m writing this post to announce that I’ll be leaving the blog and shifting my focus to other projects. I’m signing off with a big thank you to Helen, for opening my eyes and being my guide through this process. I know that only the best is yet to come from this project and its extremely talented author.

–Weenta

Out of the Tunnel (2 of 2)

By Helen Gerhardt

I didn’t look away, willed myself to wait for the sergeant to speak as the T lifted us upward out of the North Shore Connector tunnel.

“The police are human, very human,” the sergeant said, “I’ve most surely been on the end of it.” He looked aside again, into some painful memory.

I thought of Richard Carrington, coming home to Pittsburgh after fifteen years of military service to dedicate his life to ending violence in black communities, to building public safety. I remembered the pain and anger he expressed at finding himself repeatedly on that wrong end of the use of police force, treated as though he were an insurgent in his own neighborhood, along with his sons.

Just so, Brian Johnson’s service as Air Force firefighter could not be seen on his black face by the police officers who had stopped him just a few blocks from his home, on his way to volunteer at the local emergency room. The exam he had just taken for the Pittsburgh Police Academy could not be worn as a shield to protect him from being forced against a wall, without any apparent cause, without any explanation afterwards. Twenty years later, as retired black Pittsburgh police homicide detective, he told that story to help shine a light on the causes of community mistrust of the Police Bureau that he had served for two decades.

The sergeant had paused as the T now soared above the ground, watching my face, maybe needing more than neutrality to risk saying more. He knew he was speaking to a white woman who had been a sergeant in the Army National Guard. I thought of my own unnecessary use of force against an Iraqi civilian – I remembered the smile on that brown face fading away into terror.

“Yes, I know the police are human – I’ve been on that other side of a weapon.”

The sergeant’s face changed – what seemed to be a softening, maybe concern for what he saw on my own face, maybe a different set of memories pulling back another way.” A war zone is different, now. Everything’s different in a war zone. You know you’re just trying to survive – the rules aren’t the same.”

“I know I saw a lot of people’s lives get wrecked, for no reason. I know I helped with that.”

“Yes. I saw a lot of that, too. But we didn’t have a choice. We were just trying to survive. ”

I thought of all the police officers and their lawyers that I’ve heard speak of such fear for their lives as motive for the use of force, of how many times I’ve heard Homewood described as a sort of war zone.

The sergeant seemed to be claiming a special pass for us, as veterans, as distinct from police officers, based on our own greater cause for terror.  But such fear could not explain what I myself had done in Iraq, as it did not explain the behavior of the police who had frisked their fellow citizen Brian Johnson, forced up against a wall although he had presented no sign of threat. Such exonerations could not apply either to the behavior of our military at Abu Ghraib, or to the behavior of the state troopers who had stopped Richard Carrington and his passengers without cause and ordered them to strip down to their underwear on the side of a public highway without the least scrap of evidence of wrong-doing.

“I still think we’re the greatest country on earth,” the sergeant said.

“I think we’re as great as we act. And we haven’t been acting so great, these last years.”

“Yes, well that’s true. That is true.” He paused. “But you got to remember who we’re fighting, now. Baathists, Taliban, ISIS, they’ve killed all those innocents, all those babies…”

We’ve killed so many babies,” I broke in, “so many children. So many thousands.”

“Yes.” The sergeant replied with gravity,with pain. “Yes. I killed babies myself. Yes.”

We sat in silence together, rising and slowing with the T as it approached the Allegheny Station.

“But that was a war zone.” Again he claimed the difference. Maybe the defense was the way he held onto life despite what he’d done. He had come so far with me in honesty, in such a brief space in time. I had neither suffered or inflicted as he had – did not bear the level of grief I could hear in his voice. I could not bear to challenge him again, to cause any further potential damage to any foundation for survival he had built.

I reached out my hand to his. “I’m Helen.”

He took my own hand, held it, looking gravely into my face, told me his name, then said. “Most folks call me Sarge.”

He paused. Kept looking me full in the face as people flowed around us, as we remained seated together. “I’ve earned that.”

I nodded.

And we went our ways, he to his daughter, waiting to pick him up at the station so they could cook a meal together for their family, and I onto the Citizens Police Academy graduation, knowing that our conversation had touched us both to the quick, had touched on the root of the contradictions and tensions that I had felt during my own deployment, and on the root of the kinship I felt with the police.

On the North Shore Connector (1 of 2)

By Helen Gerhardt

Last night, on my way to our graduation celebration of the Citizen’s Police Academy, I met a fellow vet, an older black man, fully uniformed in old-style Army green camouflage, boots high-shined, greying hair underneath his stiff-billed cap, sergeant’s stripes on his shoulders. I was scrambling into fancier shoes for the Academy ceremony, holding onto a seat for balance as the T pulled underneath the Allegheny River, through the long, jointed Connector tunnel over to the North Shore and toward the headquarters of the Pittsburgh Police Bureau. As I stood with one foot in a scuffed-up tennis shoe, the other in a high heel, I joked to the Sergeant that the T was my telephone booth, for me to pull a quick switcheroo from one of my personalities to the other. The sergeant was ready to laugh at me.

He asked me where I was heading, to night school at CCAC? To work or from? When I told him about the fifteen-week Citizen’s Police Academy, he said, “Huh. Ok. That’s a good thing to learn about, sure.”

I was not really surprised by the ambivalence on his face, the sincerity in his voice pulling against doubt. “Yes, I know, with everything that’s been going on.” I was neutrally referring to the news of Ferguson burning, of Mike Brown lying dead in the street, of Eric Garner gasping, “I can’t breathe,” of protests moving through streets in many masses in many cities, of the old news of many decades of police targeting black men for violence, for arrest, and for wildly disproportionate incarceration in packed prisons from California to the New York Island. And to the news of the last fifteen weeks regarding both police and community violence in Pittsburgh.

I was very carefully lumping all of that into “goings on” because I was speaking to a black man who had told me he had lived in Pittsburgh all his life, because I was speaking to an infantry veteran, a man who might well have exercised deadly force over other people of another color than Caucasian. Over many such conversations, I’ve found that many black infantry soldiers often have triggers and traumas regarding the violence that they themselves have suffered at the hands of police, and the violence they themselves have inflicted as “policemen of the world.”

The most memorable of such conversations had been in 2008, on the highway to Pittsburgh from Washington, PA with other three other veterans, carpooling back from a televised meeting of military Pennsylvanians with Barack Obama. We had all been in a very good mood of afterglow after shaking the candidate’s hand. We enthused about how Obama would help other working people. We had all spoken of the centuries of racism that a black president might be able to do mighty things to help end.

Then I’d praised Obama the candidate for his declared intention to close Gitmo, to uphold both Constitution and Geneva Conventions, to end the torture and the obscene cruelty inflicted on Muslims and Arabs from across the globe, to hold the torturers accountable, from bottom to top of the chain of command. I spoke about my National Guard transportation unit delivering water to Abu Ghraib, how shamed and terrified I’d been after the Abu Ghraib news broke in April of 2004, when I had to drive outside of the walls of our camp onto the Iraqi roads where even the children suddenly would no longer look us in the eyes, where attacks suddenly spiked in response to the news, the photos, the undeniable proof that we had followed in Saddam Hussein’s footsteps right there in the torture chambers that we had possessed from him, the torture chambers that in turn had seemed to possess us. But,  I declared, Barack Obama would end all of that.

I did not know that the black woman veteran who was driving the car had also served in Iraq, that she had been horribly wounded, that she had lost many of her fellow soldiers at the hands of Iraqi insurgents. I did know that the car was beginning to drift left across the center line of the highway as I finished speaking, that there was oncoming traffic swerving out of our way, that she was glaring backwards at me, that she was yanking the wheel way back to the right and we were swerving out to shoulder of the road, that this black woman was screaming at me, “NO, NO, NO! Do it, do it, do it to those sand niggers.”

I wasn’t ready to declare any position at all to this man until he’d made his own thinking and feeling more clear.

“Too much sin going on,” the sergeant said, looking from my face to the dark tunnel walls moving by our window. I waited for clarification, for any assigning of sin one way or the other. He looked back at me, waiting for my own response, for my own lean one way or the other.

“Do you mean the police? Or the protesters?” I said, trying to keep my face quiet, open, ready for anything he might want or need to say. And trying to stay safe. Trying to see which way would be safer to lean, right here, right now.

“I mean,” he said, bringing both hands up to heart level, “humanity.” His hands circled outward, moving from his heart downward in a circle and back together at his stomach – a gesture of encompassment, of bringing us all together into the fold of sin, the sin that sprang from the gut of our real-life reactions: violence, grief, loss, rage, violence – all the cycles and recycles of revenge.

“Yes, yes, all of us,” I said back to him. His gesture had reached the core of what I felt. No safety. All of us unsafe for each other.

It would be so easy to skip what I felt coming, the specifics I could see waiting behind that all-encompassing gesture. I wanted to ease out of the conversation, to lighten it up, to shift us out of the tunnel we had just moved into together and just ease on back up above the cold, heavy earth, and wide river and layered histories, to emerge from what might be unbearable layers of heaviness into safety, as the T was doing at that moment, to move away from him and my own memories, without moving seats, politely.  So easy to just let him be a wise old hero that I could leave behind at the Allegheny Station, to go cover the real story I was after.

Even now, I want to skip on ahead  to the next part of the story, to the feel-good graduation of the Citizen’s Police Academy, where I tried to express what I sincerely felt but where I also carefully tried not say too much that might offend, to just have a little fun with people I liked before I came back here to this blog and started struggling  more forthrightly with the tougher stuff we had covered and not covered, with what the class meant in relation to the selective uses of force we are now witnessing in these streets, this city, this country, this world, this humanity. But this man on the T was looking me in the face, waiting to see if I was willing to hear him, right then, right there – to try to connect with what he really meant.

Citizen’s Police Academy – and the School of the Streets

Today is the first day at work for our new Police Chief, Cameron McLay. Our Mayor Bill Peduto has accomplished one of the primary recommendations of the Public Safety Transition Team, the hiring of a Chief with a demonstrated commitment to respectful community policing.

Building relationships is at the core of Mr. McLay’s ideas for solving most of the bureau’s problems. He said “bridging the divide” between officers and the community will be one of his top priorities. …officers in his words, should “police like human beings, not let the badge become the barrier.” (Liz Navratil, PPG, 9/6/14)

If Chief McLay is to be successful, his efforts for such bridge-building will need to be both closely watched and actively supported by community members from the other side of the divides – we must work to connect both with the police as fallible, respectworthy human beings and with our fallible, respectworthy neighbors across the many chasms that too often fragment us from each other and our common concerns.

Most of the police officers who patrol our streets are Pittsburgh’s grandchildren, sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers – raised in a city that has systematically discriminated against black men and women and children for generations, the city that has been called “the  Mississippi of the north.” Too often their behaviors under the extreme stresses of policing quite simply reflect how they were raised, how the larger wheels within wheels of institutionalized racism that continue to grind on at all levels of community life, on the streets and in the halls of government.

Like Chief McLay, I’m a transplant to Pittsburgh. I came for a nonfiction writing degree in 2006, determined to recount my yearlong Vanessa painting at the Art Housedeployment as a soldier in Iraq back in 2003-2004 but was pulled back into the present by the struggles I saw going on all around me. Those struggles all too often echoed what I had witnessed in a war zone, as I perceived that even the most responsible and engaged of Pittsburghers were often treated as though they were insurgents rather than potential partners in protecting and serving their communities.

I was very impressed by Chief McLay’s forthright acknowledgement of his need to study the Bureau of Police and to meet with community groups before he made specific recommendations for change.  I must also work to bridge the still-enormous chasms in my own knowledge of this community that I’ve come to care for so much. This blog has been the beginning of that work to study both Pittsburgh’s history and current life – and I will continue to meet for conversations with my fellow Pittsburghers who from both outside and inside the Police Bureau are striving to understand how we together created our current situation and how we might together take better care of each other.

Last week, I began a new chapter of that study as I attended my first day of the Citizen’s Police Academy. When Sergeant Eric Kroll, supervisor at the Police Academy asked us to introduce ourselves, I was struck by how many of my fellow Citizens lived in the ring suburbs, and was particularly surprised by how many of them were real estate agents or real estate brokers – why that might be I will most surely be asking and thinking about in future posts. None of my fellow students were black. And almost all of them expressed the wish to become better informed citizens. Sergeant Kroll presented an overview of the departments we would visit and what we would be taught about in the fifteen weeks of the Citizen’s Academy:

  • History of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police
  • Introduction to the legal system/criminal justice system: overview of the PA Crimes Code, Vehicle Code, Rules of Criminal Procedure
  • Use of force: laws, policies, and procedures that regulate a police officer’s use of force
  • Emergency Operations Center
  • Pittsburgh Police Intelligence Unit
  • Citizen Police Review Board
  • Police K-9 unit: role, training and utilization of police K-9 dogs and handlers
  • Traffic enforcement
  • Special Weapons and Tactical Team (SWAT)
  • Firearms Tracking Unit
  • Office of Municipal Investigations
  • Crime Scene Investigations
  • Animal Law Enforcement
  • Explosive devices: detection and responses
  • Narcotics Unit
  • Safe vehicle operation
  • Firearms safety

So much valuable information to learn and cover, but no mention of three areas that continue to dramatically affect policing in Pittsburgh and that I will continue to research alongside the official syllabus.

Today is Chief McLay’s first day on the job. It is also the day that black citizens across Pittsburgh wait for a verdict in the Leon Fordcriminal prosecution of Leon Ford. That extreme use of force happened three blocks away from my home on Collins Ave in Highland Park, at the corner of Stanton and Farragut, where Leon Ford was shot and paralyzed. That shooting happened just two blocks away from the elementary school where so many of my neighbors kids learn about real life, most certainly not just from books, but by observing adult behavior of all sorts..

I’m sure I’ll learn so much that is highly valuable, both from them and from the police officers and officials who teach our official syllabus. But it does seem clear I’ll also have to keep learning in the school of the streets to hear the fuller story that my neighbors have to tell.

Narrative series: War Zones: Chapter I: Window Frames

By Helen Gerhardt

Two pools of blood – now soaked down into the carpet, now dried, now dark, now two irregular splotches that show where she fell first and where she fell last.

The first splotch is right by where the Christmas tree stood. The last splotch is by the window facing the street. The last splotch is larger. That splotch is where she died.

I am here to help clear the apartment of Ka’Sandra Wade’s last possessions. After her death. Before her funeral. The lamp is not bright. I try to read the remains left behind under that yellowish gloom.

She fell first under the Christmas tree. Maybe, a few days before, mother and son and father had opened presents there together.

She fell last by the window. Maybe, not long before, she had heard two police officers speaking through the glass, but only to the father of her son. They did not see or hear the woman who had called 911 for help.

Sometime after the police left, the father of her son shot her in the head. Ka’Sandra fell, then she got back up from under the Christmas tree. Maybe she was trying to reach the window to be seen, to be heard, by neighbor or stranger.

It is dark outside. Darker than most city streets in Pittsburgh. Vacant houses, abandoned lots, broken-windowed churches, boarded-up storefronts, all dark and blind among the few lit windows along this Larimer street.

Streets and windows empty of the eyes that might have seen the dark shape of Ka’Sandra Wade’s still-living body against the yellowish gloom of the lamp.

We lift the last of her things down the uneven stairs, over the cracked sidewalk, the dirty grey ice, the crusty ridge of salt-pocked snow at the curb. January of 2013. We hurry, although there is no place we need to rush to. We take in more of the neighborhood in brief glances, lit sharp and deeply shadowed in the glare of our car headlights. White paint peeling off yellow and grey, soggy candy wrappers, soda cans, the spiky remains of tall weeds standing dark against the snow. A “Beware of the Dog” sign at the bottom of star-cracked door glass.

No one walks down the street in the hour we take to clear away the last remains. Darkness and vacancy and tension. My heart rate is higher than our movement back and forth from car to apartment explains.

Does the heart rate of Zone 5 police officers rise as they turn to patrol the dark and blighted streets of Larimer? Do they find themselves rushing to be done with any business that they have in that range of their territory? They do not have friendly relations with the residents of Larimer. They do not often walk the streets, do not have the chance to learn the names, the faces, the stories that frame the empty houses and the frequent rounds of gun fire. They are stretched too thin, short of both patrol officers and supervisors. They skim through streets framed by glass and metal, through streets of total strangers.

In Iraq, we soldiers were also stretched thin, often traveling in groups too small and lightly armed to prevent attack. We also absorbed impressions of the country from our moving window frames, in bits and pieces that we did not ask the meaning of. Tumbledown walls, puddles of sewage in the streets, plastic bags hissing across empty pavement.

The slender smoke stacks of oil refineries loomed in the near-distance to either side of our convoys, flaming at their tips as a more piercing ache of orange light against the glaring sky – I can close my eyes now, years later, and see an orange afterburn, like a lit cigarette slowly being pushed against the retina of my memory. I can still see the flames trailing out into smutty-grey smoke, reaching away in long, diagonal arms that gestured our way forward.

For hours our short convoys would follow behind long lines of gleaming silver tankers – when the road curved to right or left in enormous, gentle arcs we could see that their convoys stretched for miles. Our own wheels fell right in line with the blackened trails of accreted rubber left by many, many tires across the light grey concrete. On either side of the roads, broken-down Iraqi cars had been stripped of every detachable part.

Roadside peddler stands, little shacks constructed of three walls and a roof, nearly all woven from flat reeds, frayed by the constant wind, some falling apart. Most of them were fully open toward the road. Inside we could see stacks of soda cans, pyramids of green Sprites and red Cokes gleaming out at us from the meager shade, as well as big white blocks of ice nearly half as tall as the thin men and women draped across ragged lawn chairs waiting for customers.

Overwhelmed by the heat and tension, I occasionally made half-hearted guesses about who and what I was seeing, but mostly I spaced out, still scanning the road for signs of danger, my brain functioning on auto-pilot, but retreating from the labor of any real thought. This state of mind was not restful – it felt like the agitated, fizzing snow of a television screen that had lost signal. My M16-A1 rifle was always propped on the frame of the truck window, at the ready, that rifle my only ready answer to the flat tension in the faces that looked up at us from the streets we never walked. Empty streets meant danger. An ambush by snipers. A bomb.

Only now, years later, do I read the signs in front of my inner eyes as features on a larger geopolitical map: the oil refineries patrolled by Halliburton mercenaries, the tankers moving out the oil for the multinationals, the blocks of ice that had replaced refrigeration, the roadside stands woven from the flat reeds that no longer grew in the swamps that had been drained by Saddam Hussein in retaliation for the Shi’a uprising during the first Gulf War. Now I know that the cans of soda pop we saw stacked in pyramids must have only partly replaced the contaminated local water that had killed over 500,000 Iraqi children since 1991. The sewage in the streets was our gift to the country. We had bombed most Iraqi infrastructure to rubble and for twelve years the U.S. had controlled the United Nations 661 committee to sanction almost everything Iraqis needed to rebuild: their cars, their refrigerators, their hospitals, their telecommunications, their electric grids, their water plants.

Now I know enough to make sense of the concrete details that denoted how an entire economy and ecology had been ground between Saddam Hussein and the United States in a war of attrition and extraction far more deadly to the Iraqi people than the few short months of the official period of either of our conflicts.

When I carried Ka’Sandra Wade’s last possessions out of her apartment, when I looked at the neighborhood that I had helped her move into to escape the father of her son, I did not yet read the signs that showed evidence of systematic and pervasive theft, of the economic and physical violence that had decimated the neighborhoods and the fabric of community that might have intervened. I did not yet see that my friend had lived in an intersection of war zones.

Two stains on the carpet. Two questions. Why did Anthony Brown shoot the mother of his son? Why did the police leave her to be shot?

Will We Be Priced Out? : Affordable Housing in Pittsburgh

Posted by Weenta Girmay

“What is affordable housing?”

That was the question that begun the round table style discussion titled “Affordable Housing for a Changing Landscape: Retaining Affordable Housing in Pittsburgh.”

*In the interest of full disclosure, I will state upfront that I work for the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation, one of 3 sponsors of this event (other sponsors were BNY Mellon and Neighborhood Allies).

Held at the Kingsley Association Saturday May 10th, the panel was moderated by Paul Guggenheimer of WESA’s Essential Pittsburgh, and included:

  1. Jerome Jackson, Operation Better Block, Homewood
  2. Carl Redwood, Executive Director, Hill District Consensus Group
  3. David Weber, Housing Authority of Pittsburgh
  4. Tom Cummings, Program Director, Urban Redevelopment Authority
  5. Matt Smuts, Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group, Hazelwood Coordinator
  6. Christiane Leach, Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council
  7. Rick Swartz, Executive Director, Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation
  8. Fred Brown, Associate Director of Programming, the Kingsley Association, Larimer

Of the eight on the panel, Redwood answered Guggenheimer’s question most effectively: “affordable housing means you shouldn’t be spending more than 30% of your income on rent.” This is the standard according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and a standard that many panelists cited repeatedly.

Guggenheimer presented a few statistics on the rise of housing costs, including a statistic from U.S. Census Data that concluded from 2007 to 2012, the average median rent for Pittsburgh raised from $529 to $649, a 22.7% increase.

In January of this year, Post-Gazette writer Brian O’Neill consulted with South-side based company REALStats to find that over the past 25 years in the City of Pittsburgh, “The average price of a home climbed 156.8 percent,” a fact that O’Neill proudly saw as an indicator of the city’s overall strengthening housing market. His article ended,

“Mayor Bill Peduto was wise to have his victory celebration in Homewood, and to say in his inaugural speech Monday that our city “glows with the hope of revived neighborhoods.” The next great deal on a home is waiting in a neighborhood yet to rise. 

Soaring home values are a double-edged sword, of course. Property taxes rise. Would-be homeowners and renters get priced out. I’m in my third (and final) home in a ward where the median value has quadrupled since 1988, and I couldn’t afford my asking price if I put it up for sale tomorrow.”

– “Rising Home Prices Tell Pittsburgh’s Uplifting Story,” P-G.

January 8th, 2014

Just as soaring home values are a double-edged sword, so are large numbers of vacant and abandoned property. “The City of Pittsburgh has anywhere from 13,000-17,000 vacant properties,” said Guggenheimer.

These properties can be seen as the ugly scar left from Pittsburgh’s boom-and-bust past, or as a golden opportunity for redevelopment, but a golden opportunity for whom?

Throughout the conversation on Saturday, panelists and audience members alike asserted that affordable housing is a struggle most deeply felt by people of color, particularly for the largely black communities in Pittsburgh with high concentrations of blighted property. At the start of the conversation, Redwood was vocal that he felt that there was a concerted effort to push black residents out of affordable housing and outside city limits, stating that in 1980, there were 100,000 black residents in the city, and as of 2010 there were 80,000. He gave the example of St. Clair Village, a 107-acre public housing project in the St. Clair borough of Pittsburgh that was built in the 1950’s, fell into disrepair, and was demolished in 2010.

Tom Cummings qualified Redwood’s statistics and said public housing was built when our city was two times its current population, accounting for some of the vacancy and tear down of public housing.

Christiane Leach, whose organization recently co-sponsored a Health and Housing Fair for Artists, gave a personal example of her struggle to become a homeowner in Pittsburgh, one that illuminated the silent barriers to homeownership that exist for people of color. She had “everything in order” yet was still outbid by “people from China, Korea, California.” This was after 3 years of looking for houses in Homewood, Larimer, and the Upper Hill, all places consistently left blighted and ignored.

“Cash is king,” she said, when it comes to real estate. That is to say, banks told her in order to get the house she wanted, they needed to see the full amount in cash upfront, something that usually only large developers have in hand.

The general term the panel used for these outside developers was “speculators.” Speculators are known to buy whole blocks of properties in struggling neighborhoods. That’s how a guy from Israel bought a whole block in Homewood, said panelist Jerome Jackson. These properties can be kept in limbo for years until the most opportune moment to flip them for profit, raising prices above livable, affordable rates.

Jerome Jackson of Operation Better Block standing in front of blighted properties owned by "speculators" in his neighborhood. Photo from the Post-Gazette.

Jerome Jackson of Operation Better Block standing in front of blighted properties owned by “speculators” in his neighborhood. Photo from the Post-Gazette.

Leach also challenged the root of affordability: poverty. “Why are people making $18,000?” she said. (The Extremely Low income limit for public housing assistance in Allegheny County for a family of 4 is $19,700; the Very Low is $32,800; the Low is $52,500) “This is a matter of how Pittsburgh decides to run itself.”

During the question-answer period, a black woman came to the podium and told a story similar to Leach’s. She made over $40,000 a year, outside the bracket for reliance on public housing assistance, yet like Leach she could not close on a house with city limits. Even with cash-in-hand, she settled on a home that had been foreclosed on in North Versailles. Leach later said she also settled–for a house in Swissvale–which she is in the process of closing on.

The main frustration for these two women was that although they had encountered discrimination in the housing process, it was difficult if not near impossible to prove it. The woman at the podium said that she had been a victim of redlining, and that people of color and women were especially being priced out of affordable housing options. “Thank you for saying that,” said Leach.

***

 Funds dedicated to developing affordable housing come from federal and state subsidies. According to the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, in 2012, over $30 million was cut from federal housing assistance in the state of Pennsylvania.

Given the lack of adequate federal funding, there were a few strategies discussed as to how to “get creative” in generating these funds and keep properties safe from those who would price residents out of their neighborhoods.

Jackson said his strategy at Operation Better Block was to buy the liens on homes so that developers had to deal with his organization upon trying to acquire the property.

Swartz of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation interjected during Jackson’s comments and said this was not going to solve the problem, to which Jackson countered that this was his organization’s way of dealing with the problem, and said that these small-scale solutions could later turn into larger scale solutions.

Swartz strongly disagreed, and said the longer a house was left sitting, the greater its risk in being swallowed up by outside developers. “We need a more active, aggressive, ambitious process,” he said.

He suggested an opt-in/opt-out policy that requires developers to either opt in to making a certain percentage of housing created affordable, or opting out and agreeing to pay a fee that would then cycle back toward subsidizing affordable housing.

He called the process a “delivery system” which needed public policy around it. He envisioned a mixed strategy of building brand new energy efficient housing as well as renovating older properties.

Fred Brown of the Kingsley Association added that he saw job creation possibilities in creating energy efficient and retrofitted homes, adding that the Kingsley Association already trains community members to become energy auditors.

Redwood said inclusionary zoning should absolutely be required of developers. “We’ve got to make [developers] do it. We have the hammer to make them do it…but we’re not using the leverage we have to make them do it.”

However each panelist envisioned it, they were all hovering around the same core belief: affordable housing should be backed by strong public policy that incentivizes or even mandates the creation and continued existence of affordable units.

Considering so much hinged on good public policy in all this talk of vacant, blighted property, I was shocked that it was already into the second hour of the conversation before Guggenheimer brought up the land bank bill, a bill that stirred up and polarized community members and CDC representatives, but which passed city council this April.

Councilwoman Deb Gross, who introduced the bill, stated in an earlier conversation on this blog that it took the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation 15 years to get the titles to 50 homes for their affordable housing development in Garfield, much too long by her estimation. Conversely after a neighborhood is left blighted for years, redevelopment by big companies can hit seemingly overnight (see: East Liberty). Time is of the essence, which is why she felt land banking to be so crucial to Pittsburgh’s future.

When Guggenheimer asked, “Is land banking a possible solution?” discussion was brief. Redwood saw it as “just a tool,” in the larger scheme of the process. Matt Smuts, PCRG’s Hazelwood coordinator said one of the land banks’ more useful provisions is the fact that it requires properties held in the land bank to be maintained to code. That means that existing structures aren’t left to decay and then require teardown before the city can decide what to do with them. There is “suddenly a huge supply of housing” that could be made affordable, said Smuts.

Considering the demand, current supply is low, with long waiting lists for public housing assistance. “For every one affordable housing unit, there are six people looking to inhabit that property,” said George Moses during the question-answer period. Moses, a community activist, was the previous chair of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. He pressed that if there was to be a comprehensive discussion on affordable housing, the developers should be there too, he said, listing them off. One developer he listed was Walnut Capital, a real estate management company who owns 1,000 residential units throughout Oakland, Shadyside and now the newly developing East Liberty. They have a direct hand in much of the Bakery Square development, to which Moses commented, “How come when we talk about affordability and mixed income, we don’t talk about mixed income in Bakery Square?”

Redwood said what he would really like to see is an overall assessment of how many more affordable units are needed in Pittsburgh.

Swartz said foundations are always looking for the next critical project worth funding, and proposed that foundations could also make grants available to CDCs to subsidize a portion of affordable housing units in partnership with a larger development company.

Cummings said in his experience these types of public-private partnerships have produced the best results.

I thought to myself, perhaps prior to or in conjunction with foundation-funded housing units, could a foundation-funded study looking at average income levels in Pittsburgh produce the concrete numbers Redwood was looking for? Looking for reliable, accurate, up-to-date statistics on affordable housing in the City of Pittsburgh was difficult enough in writing this article—I’m not sure what kind of concrete data CDCs or individual citizens have to draw from in order to lobby for policy changes.

One of the final questions at the podium came from a member of the Housing Alliance of PA. She stated that inclusionary zoning was one of the items recommended in the transition team reports. She asked if anyone in the mayor’s office was working on this issue, and as it so happened, there was a woman in the audience from the mayor’s office who was able to field her question. The mayor’s representative said yes, inclusionary zoning was submitted as a recommendation as a part of the transition team reports, but that “there was no official stance on it as of yet.”

Calm and soft-spoken as can be, the woman replied, “Well don’t you think given what we’ve heard today, there should be?”

Grey, Green and Everything in Between: ALCOSAN

Pittsburgh has a problem with combined sewer overflow, yet after years of negotiations and planning, the question of what will remediate the problem is still up in the air.

Posted by Weenta Girmay

In January of this year, The Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN)’s plan to stop combined sewage overflow, the plan that took “more than 10 years of research, collaboration and analysis” to develop, was rejected.

The plan was a part of ALCOSAN’s contractual agreement with the EPA that it would act to stop combined sewer overflow and meet the standards set by the 1972 Clean Water Act.

In an official statement following the plan’s rejection, Mayor Peduto said he felt the plan as it was submitted didn’t go far enough. He’s asked the White House “for an opportunity to build a stronger plan, a plan that incorporates a ‘green-first’ approach to save ratepayers money, improve our neighborhoods, and create good local jobs, all while improving water quality and reducing flooding.”

I spoke with Emily Alvarado, a representative from the Clean Rivers Campaign, an organization that advocates the benefits of a “green-first” approach to the problem.

Grey Infrastructure vs. Green Infrastructure

When talking about sewage overflow, there are “green” solutions and there are “grey” solutions. Namely, the “grey” solution to managing storm water was the a $2 billion dollar plan to build 3 underground tunnels that would collect sewage overflow. These storage tunnels would then treat the overflow by pumping it into expanded ALCOSAN facilities. The creation of these tunnels was the focus of the plan ALCOSAN submitted to the EPA.

“Green” solutions refer to a variety of storm water management strategies.

These strategies include:

  • permeable pavement instead of concrete pavement
  • bioswales (green landscaping designed to hold surface runoff)
  • rain barrels and rain gardens
  • the planting of trees and other plants that retain water through their roots

The Clean Rivers Campaign calls for investment into green solutions first, followed by implementation of grey strategies where necessary.

“If we start down the path of building tunnels, we’re not going to have a single dollar left over for green. We’ll never figure out what we’re able to succeed or achieve with green solutions. So they might end up being this added value where you put a rain barrel on a street and you say ‘we invested in green,’” said Alvarado.

The “green” plan is more sustainable, yet because its strategies are varied, it makes it inherently more difficult to implement from a policy standpoint. These are the 4 big reasons why:

Green strategies require more coordination

Sewage overflow sees no boundaries: the integrated sewage system connects Pittsburgh to 83 surrounding municipalities. That means that if the City of Pittsburgh wants to use green in order to meet EPA standards, it will take regional coordination and consolidation between various municipalities if green solutions are to have any impact at all.

Green strategies include aspects that are difficult to quantify

As it stands, there are no proven cost savings to green solutions, but Alvarado says there are many added benefits in green that don’t exist in grey, including job creation, improved street scapes, and alleviation of blight.

“If you live in one of the many communities in this region that has rampant blight, that has been disinvested in for years … and we can make a 3 billion dollar investment that will bring long term local good construction and maintenance jobs to your neighbors that will help to beautify your community…that’s going to be a smarter investment to make than just paying your sewer bill and getting the same service you’ve always gotten.”

Alvarado says jobs that are a part of a grey plan to build tunnels are more specialized and are more likely to be contracted from outside of the area. Jobs related to green infrastructure would create good construction jobs throughout those 83 municipalities that would take place over a longer stretch of time.

“The way we envision large-scale solutions is that ALCOSAN would contract with municipalities; ALCOSAN would fund the project and enter into contracts to determine the work that needs to be done,” said Alvarado.

Green planning requires scalability

A rain barrel here and a rain garden there will not create a quantifiable solution. “If we get to the point where every time Pittsburgh is paving its streets, they’re paving it with permeable materials the costs are going to go down because we have a system in place to make that happen,” said Alvarado.

These solutions implemented on a large scale are what will get results.

Alvarado pointed to the example of The Saw Mill Run Integrated Watershed Management Project, which Peduto has publicly supported. The project encompasses 12 municipalities, demonstrating both the scalability and the type of multi-municipal coordination required for innovative green design to work. A $9 million dollar plan to support the project is in the works.

Green strategies require strong leadership

When asked what was the most important thing holding back implementation of green strategies, advocates of green solutions responded with “confidence” and “strong leadership.”

The most important thing Mayor Peduto has done in just the first short months of his term was to make smart ALCOSAN board appointments, said Alvarado.

“He’s put in demonstrated leaders in green infrastructure and also people who understand the way that green infrastructure can tie with community development, to achieve maximum benefits and he’s made those kinds of appointments to the board.”

These appointments include Brenda Smith, Executive Director of the Nine Mile Watershed Association an organization that gets communities involved in storm water management and Greg Jones, Executive Director of Economic Development South, an organization that coordinates community development across municipalities.

What Do the Next Steps Look Like?

Alvarado says a green plan would start with a Regional Green Infrastructure Opportunity Assessment that would identify hotspots for implementing green solutions.

“We are working closely with the Peduto Administration to pursue the kind of study that could ask the questions of where are the places where this region would be best suited to maximizing green solutions?”

A paradigm shift is necessary if Pittsburgh and the surrounding municipalities want to solve the problem of sewage overflow, making strong leadership and innovative leaders all the more important.

“Historically ALCOSAN has viewed itself only as a place that takes whatever comes to it and treats it,” said Alvarado, but implementing green solutions means that they’ll have to stop thinking of themselves as an entity that meets water at the end of its journey, and more as an entity that works to manage water at the moment of rainfall, which is what green solutions are all about.

Turning to green infrastructure would place Pittsburgh amongst innovative, forward-thinking cities. “This is a place where Pittsburgh can be a leader and I think that’s the vision that Peduto gets,” said Alvarado.

 

Conversation with Richard Carrington: Part II: My civil rights aren’t as important as your civil rights?

Richard Carrington on far left, serving on CPRB in 2007

Richard Carrington on far left, serving on Citizen Police Review Board in 2007

As our fellow Pittsburgher who does not feel safe in his own home streets, in Part II of our recorded conversation Richard Carrington had far sharper words to share both with fellow citizens and our Mayor. As former CPRB board member, he spent years confronting the systemic reforms needed to hold police accountable and to retrain our public servants in the most basic respect necessary to keep the peace. Carrington addresses the nationally publicized cases of Jordan Miles and Leon Ford which represent a far wider pattern of civil rights violations and police brutality that have become all too common here since the consent decree was lifted in Pittsburgh.

And he tells stories of his own painful experience of aggressive and humiliating racial profiling that should be heard in his own voice, the story of his own refusal of a command to strip on a public highway during a police search that he had given no cause for. He describes his feelings when he was unable to protect his own son from being searched on the streets of his own neighborhood, pushed up against a wall, backpack torn open, books thrown on the ground, while Richard was threatened with jail for trying to intervene with a question. Richard Carrington’s controlled rage and concern should ring in our ears.

My civil rights aren’t as important as your civil rights? And you want to know why I won’t cooperate…? I won’t cooperate with you because you don’t treat me equally. And if you want me to treat you with respect, treat me with respect…Do not get it twisted. I know the need for police. I know the need for law and order. I also know the need for equality and fairness. We don’t have it out for the police. The police have it out for us. And we’re responding to them.

Many of Carrington’s personal stories illustrate Law Professor David Harris’ warnings about the patterns in which plainclothes squads in unmarked cars often act in far more violent and disrespectful ways that depart from all normal police procedures. Such concerns have been echoed from police themselves, heard here at the blog in my conversation with retired police detective Sheldon Williams and shared even more publicly by current Zone Two commander Eric Holmes. Leaders from the Coalition Against Violence met with Holmes and Carrington reports…

…I haven’t seen anybody as forthright as that Commander… This man gave us…a block of information that literally stunned us, that he does not believe in these jump teams, that he would prefer they be removed, that they would at least be under his command so he had some say-so….

Tonight Pittsburghers will travel from many neighborhoods to a city-wide meeting to hear our Mayor speak about our public safety.   Carrington challenges both elected City officials and many prestigious black community leaders to come out from behind the buffers that protect them from the demands of community members for change and from the direct experience of the streets that they are supposed to help protect. He challenges us all to look in the mirror and to “work together with one common cause to pull ourselves up from this struggle.”

Audio of conversation with Richard Carrington, Part II  25 minutes

COMPLEMENTARY OVER AT THE PITTSBURGH COMET: Bram Reichbaum’s interview of Jerome Jackson, director of Homewood’s Operation Better Block, who, like Richard, has also been dedicated to “clothing, feeding, education, mentoring” – to caring for children as a “communal responsibility.”

 

 

Conversation with Richard Carrington: Part I: How do we keep our children safe?

IMG_20140310_133233Posted by Helen Gerhardt

Over the twenty years since he returned home to Pittsburgh from military service, Richard Carrington has dedicated most of his life to ending violence in communities decimated by poverty, by the War Against Drugs, by systemic racism and by a brutally inequitable justice system and industrial prison complex – by pressures that too often pit men and women who should be allies against each other, sometimes to the point of mutual murder.  As member of the Coalition Against Violence, as partner to the Black Political Empowerment Project, as former member of the Citizen’s Police Review Board – and as a frequent target of racial profiling by the police – Richard has dedicated much of his life to building personal and systemic accountability within the black community, in the Pittsburgh Police Bureau, and in the larger political framework of our mutual choices. He has just been appointed to the interim land bank board, reflecting the awareness that violence, blight, poverty and vacancy are all deeply interrelated, deeply reflective of a system that has often violently exploited, neglected, and abandoned black communities

When so many fathers have been sent away to prisons for nonviolent drug offenses, tearing apart the fabric of families and neighborhoods, many young men and women have called Richard Carrington, “Dad.” As the daily practice of mothering is inseparable from Joy Kmt’s activism and artistry, so Carrington’s days are fired and shaped by fathering. He has directly cared for multitudes of young Pittsburghers, not only through the organization he directs, Voices Against Violence, but by providing them his own home, his direct guidance, his tough love, his affirming respect:

…safety comes through example of “You matter to me. And because you matter to me, I will do whatever I can to make sure that you know that you’re safe”…the example of simple protection, concern and care, consistency….They know that the struggles come…but they have somewhere to come at the end of the day where nobody’s going to be belittling them, nobody’s going to be tearing them apart, nobody’s going to be exploiting them…

Few people are willing to give so much – in a field known for high burnout and self-protective professional boundaries, Richard speaks of how and why he has been able to so directly father so many neglected, traumatized youth scarred by abuse, violence, systemic poverty and Pittsburgh’s deep-rooted racism:

…I often tell people I wake up in the morning and I go about the business in the direction that God has pointed me in. I do it with the best of my heart…I simply have to follow the path…and what gives me an advantage over a lot of people who try to delve into this field of serving underprivileged and underserved and abused youth, is that the end of every day God releases that day’s activities from my mind…so when I start tomorrow…I’ve already forgotten what took place yesterday: I did it, I served the need, and I move forward and so I’m not dwelling on what happened yesterday – so I don’t have a lot of build up inside of me of 25 years of all the..negativity and corruption and just belittling of our kids. I don’t deal with that, I deal with their issue for today and I move on when tomorrow comes…

Most simply put, Richard is driven by a sense of mission. As he once risked potential death in his military service, he now lays his day-to-day life on the line in service to his mission to obey the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.”  And his mission has borne fruit – he has seen almost every young person who has lived in his home complete high school, go on to college, and then commit to careers, to families, to community, to life. Voices Against Violence has had similar, clearly practical successes, with stunningly high graduation rates:

Everything was built around taking them to the next level, allowing them to see their future before we ask them to participate in it. Most of these kids can’t see their future…We teach them the importance of an education and that knowledge is power in the world that you live in. And unfortunately, whether it’s a good bad or a bad world, it’s the world that we live in. You have to adapt to your surroundings.

As with Joy Kmt’s wide-ranging explorations and reflections, what Richard shared in our conversation was too large to fit within the bounds of any clear cut compartment or topic – this audio post will be Part I, just nineteen minutes of the three hours he so generously shared with me, and of the days and months and years that he shares with his community – and his kids – our kids.

Audio: Part I, Richard Carrington the father (Nineteen minutes)

 

Conversation with Reverend Ricky Burgess: land bank as weapon or tool?

Council member Rev Ricky BurgessPosted by Helen Gerhardt

Reverend Ricky Burgess has lived in Homewood for most of his life – his family moved there when he was nine months old – and he has pastored at the Nazarene Church for three decades. He has watched a lot of change in Homewood over those years.

“I have seen its destruction,” he says, “…when I grew up there it was a multi-ethnic, diverse community. Homewood Avenue was one of the major business districts in the City of Pittsburgh and it was filled with people. Every house had multiple families living in it – my own house, my father rented the second and third floor out so we had three families in the house I grew up in…I’ve watched it decay and become poor and violent. The violence and economic devastation are the events that led me to run for Pittsburgh City Council.”

Public safety, economic development, racial and class equity – as so many of the conversations at this blog have made clear, these issues are inseparable in Pittsburgh. As Council Member, Reverend Burgess has attempted to reform policing, working with many organizations across the City to address the development of what he calls a “crisis” in police-community relations. As Chair of the Housing Authority, Rev. Burgess has worked to comprehensively plan development that interlinks not only affordable, mixed-income housing and economic growth, but also social services, employment, and education.

In this audio conversation, Reverend Burgess expresses grave concerns about how the land bank legislation introduced by fellow Council Member Deb Gross might allow exploitative development and displacement of residents from the communities that have for so long been “left to rot” by local government. He has met with many community groups over the past weeks, heard their concerns and partnered with fellow City Council Member Daniel Lavelle to introduce amendments.

With a long-time debt of damaging neglect to make up for, Burgess asserts the special responsibility of Council to address three central concerns for communities that would be most affected by a land bank: protection, participation, and benefit.

Of course, as numerous people on both sides of the debate over this potential land bank have declared to me, “the devil is in the details.” On at least one thing we and many other concerned Pittsburgers are agreed. As the Reverend put it: “If there was ever a time when we need residents to stand up and speak out on the protection of their community, it’s now.”

Audio of conversation (twenty minutes)

UPDATE (or more accurately, my own OAR in midstream.)

During this initial research phase, I’ve been reserving most of my own opinions on the land bank legislation as I listen to a wide range of voices, perspectives, and concerns, only a fraction of which I’ve been able to present here at the blog in these audio recordings. But I do find myself moved to interject one of my big concerns about one of the amendments proposed by Reverend Burgess and Daniel Lavelle.

(7) City Council Approval. City Council, by unanimous vote, must approve all proposed dispositions of Real Property of the Land Bank.

Such a requirement seems designed to keep land bank dispositions as tied up by lengthy political wrangling and territorial feuds as by all the property title tangle the bill was designed to unravel. These doubts have been borne out by both recent Philadelphia landbanking experience and by thoughtful warnings by such land banking practitioner-scholars such as Frank Alexander. In Land Banks and Land Banking he writes:

A land bank must have adequate authority to target properties for transfer, and to complete transfers, without seeking additional approvals from other levels of local government. If the local government’s governing body, such as the city council or county commission, insists on final review and approval of each property transfer, one of the purposes of a land bank is largely undercut. Such approval requirements will either increase substantially the length of time required for a disposition, undercut the coherence of disposition policies, or both. Instead, a land bank’s controlling documents, as approved by the local government’s governing body, should establish the core public policies and delegate to the land bank board and staff the authority to administer its activities.

 CORRECTION TO MISINFORMATION IN COMMENTS BELOW:

In two of the comments below, I asserted that a land bank would be able to apply for federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program funding – true in the past, but I did not do enough research on the current status of the program. Thanks to Shawn Carter, Chief of Staff for Council member Rev. Ricky Burgess, for pointing out that the fourth year of NSP funding was not approved by Congress.