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.

Conversation with Marimba Milliones: Land bank or land grab?

Marimba Milliones: CEO and President of the Hill Community Development Corporation, board member of the Pittsburgh Reinvestment Group

Marimba Milliones: CEO and President of the Hill Community Development Corporation, board member of the Pittsburgh Reinvestment Group

For residents of the Hill District who have experienced top-down urban redevelopment unfold the will of the powerful and wealthy with the help of City government, who have watched the destructive impacts of redlining in their own neighborhoods, who have watched bulldozers legally roll over their own homes, churches, and businesses,  who have watched their children migrate to the suburbs, displaced by profitable Penguin parking lots and vacant properties neglected by big banks and speculators – for those who have called the Hill their home over the past decades, such personal histories inevitably set the stage for crucial questions about the potential powers of a land bank.

As Hill CDC President and CEO who now helps manage development in the Hill District neighborhoods where she was raised, as daughter of long-time Hill District activist and leader Jake Milliones, as articulate leader who has worked for years to help develop the Hill District Master Plan with many other allies and antagonists, Marimba Milliones raises such tough and crucial questions in this conversation. She also makes suggestions for amendments to the land bank legislation introduced by City Council Member Deb Gross that might assure Hill District leaders, community groups and residents that they will co-author the script for their own community-directed re-development: Audio: 23 minutes

Who will own the homes in Homewood?

Rev John WelchDuring our longer conversation about public safety and policing, Reverend John Welch, former President of the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network and current police chaplain, spoke briefly about the changes he has seen in Homewood since his childhood, and his concerns about the future of his neighborhood as it might be affected by proposed land bank legislation – for better or for worse. I’ve excerpted that commentary here:

Audio  (three minutes)

Conversation with Deb Gross: Land bank as tool for community empowerment?

Deb Gross imageI’ve been recording conversations about the potential impacts of land bank legislation introduced by District 7 City Council member, Deb Gross. Here are her own hopes for how the legislation might enable the revitalization of communities throughout Pittsburgh as blighted and abandoned properties might be brought back into circulation. She also responds to widespread concerns and to thoughtful recommendations for amendments from community groups and residents of the neighborhoods that would be most affected by the operations of a land bank.

Audio of conversation on 02/10/14. (20 minutes)

I’m currently editing recorded conversations with Council Member Ricky Burgess of District 9, with Marimba Milliones, CEO of the Hill District CDC, and with Rev. John Welch, former President of the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network and police chaplain. All three have been working for many years to address the impacts of blight and  abandonment with their neighbors and allies in their home communities – and the long histories of top-down planning and gentrification that many fear may replay if safeguards for community inclusion and empowerment are not codified in the legislation.

There will be a public hearing on the land bank legislation this coming Thursday, February 20th, starting at 6pm in City Council Chambers. You can call 412-255-2138 to sign up for three minutes of speaking time.

Public Safety: Vacancy as Vortex

By Helen Gerhardt

This past Sunday, I bundled up in many layers against the cold of the polar vortex and walked over to Larimer, from my row house rental on Borland St., down East Liberty Blvd, left on Frankstown, left on Lowell. I didn’t take a bus to where I was going. I wanted to walk alone through streets that are riddled with vacancies, empty houses, empty churches, empty businesses, empty lots. I needed to walk on foot through the larger scene of two deadly crimes, one last year, one last week.

Window 2I needed to look at this window, again, after a full cycle of seasons. Very early last year, in the first few days of January of 2013, I stood on the other side of that glass, inside the apartment. I stood and looked at a pool of dried blood under the Christmas tree that had not been taken down. I looked at the larger pool of blood near the window, where a few nights before, the police had briefly spoken to man who was not quite yet a murderer through the thick panes of glass.

Further inside, farther back, away from the window, unseen, a woman waited for the help she had called for.

But before I write about that night, about the many years of choices and layers of systems that helped set the stage for that particular shooting of a friend I loved, as I consider the particular reasons for the murder of Hosea Davis by assault rifle just a little over a week ago, just around the corner from this spot, I think it is important to listen to Hosea’s cousin, Michelle Gilmore, as directly quoted in these two new stories I’ve linked to.

“People don’t understand the struggle we deal with every day, living in the inner city, hearing gunshots every night. There’s not an easy night that somebody can sleep,” Gilmore said. “Different gunshots, like, every hour. We just want the violence to stop. You’re tired of burying your kids, you’re tired of violence every day, you’re tired of murders being unsolved…Till you live in our area and know how we feel, can’t nobody walk in our shoes. People have no respect for human life these days. It’s got to stop somewhere. We need to take back our streets. We need to stand up and take our kids back.”

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Empty lots everywhere.

It was important for me to walk through the physical streets where Michelle Gilmore said those words. I needed to pull back and look at those physical vacancies that reflect a larger vortex of choices and consequences, a deeper poverty of root and branch, a long-time corrosion and corruption, not only of the Pittsburgh Police Bureau, but of the very fabric of what we sometimes too lightly call “community” in this city.

In her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs wrote about some of the causes of corrosion and vacancy, I see all around me here in Larimer, the combination of fear and detachment that I hear in the voices of the neighbors along this block when I ask about the murders, of my friend, last year, and of Hosea last week.

Abandoned home, former owner deceased.

Abandoned home, former owner deceased.

….Today barbarism has taken over many city streets…It does not take many incidents of violence on a city street, or in a city district, to make people fear the streets. And as they fear them, they use them less, which makes the street still more unsafe…

…The barbarism and the real, not imagined, insecurity that gives rise to such fears cannot be tagged a problem of the slums. Nor is it illuminating to tag minority groups or the poor, or the outcast with responsibility for city danger. There are immense variations in the degree of civilization and safety found among such groups and among the city areas where they live. Some of the safest sidewalks in New York City…at any time of day or night, are those along which poor people or minority groups live….the public peace – the sidewalk and street peace – of cities is not kept primarily by the police, necessary as the police are. It is kept primarily by an intricate, almost unconscious, network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, an enforced by the people themselves….the problem of insecurity cannot be solved by spreading people out more thinly…

Blind eyes painted on the walls of abandoned church.

Blind eyes painted on the walls of abandoned church in Larimer.

…A well-used city street is apt to be a safe street. A deserted street is apt to be unsafe….there must eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street. The buildings on a street equipped to handle strangers and to ensure the residents of both residents and strangers, must be oriented to the street. They cannot turn their backs of blank sides on it and leave it blind.

“The basic requisite for such surveillance is a substantial quantity of stores and other public places sprinkled along the sidewalks of a district; enterprises and public places that are used by evening and night must be among them especially. Stores, bars and restaurants, as the chief examples, work in several different and complex ways to abet sidewalk safety.067

“First, they give people — both residents and strangers — concrete reasons for using the sidewalks on which the enterprises face. 

“Second, they draw people along the sidewalks past places which have no attractions to public use in themselves… Moreover, there should be many different kinds of enterprises, to give people reasons for crisscrossing paths.

“Third, storekeepers and other small businessmen are typically strong proponents of peace and order themselves; … they are great street watchers and sidewalk guardians if present in sufficient numbers.

“Fourth, the activity generated by people on errands, or people aiming for food or drink, is itself an attraction to still other people. (Jacobs, 30-37)

I can’t know if a thriving neighborhood with watchfully engaged neighbors and regular small business traffic would have made the difference in the continued life of my friend, or of Hosea Davis. But as I considered the well-being of other friends, neighbors, and co-workers in other neighborhoods facing similar challenges of vacant, abandoned, and blighted properties which are tied up so closely with overall public safety, I resolved to pay close attention to the recently introduced legislation for a land bank proposed by City Councilwoman for District 7, Deb Gross, evidently partly informed by Transition Team recommendations which assess such legislation as one of the best chances for bringing such properties back into circulation, and back to shared life.

I was tired after looking at that window from where the police stood and talked to Anthony Brown through the glass, far more tired than my short walk through the snow would have explained. I decided to take the bus back home. As I caught the 82 Larimer, the bus driver spoke to me with notable concern and welcome: “Take your time, now, and be careful,” she said as I stepped through the thick snow at the curb, out of the bitterly cold vortex into the warmth of the bus. I stood with her a moment, told her I was writing about the needs for change in Pittsburgh, traveling across the city by bus to hear people’s concerns, ideas, hopes.

I didn’t tell her about my current focus on this general Transition Team topic of Public Safety, but her response met the weight of my own memories and concerns halfway. “Here on this bus,” she said, “I try to do whatever I can to make people feel safe. I want them to feel safe on here, wherever they’re coming from, wherever they’re going.” As she took me back home, again and again she spoke with people she’d come to know over many, many days of taking them to work, to school, to shop, to church, to all the necessities and pleasures of life and back home again. She asked about what was going on with them, how their families were doing, how their jobs were going. She watched and responded to what was happening on the streets she was driving through, commented to the passengers standing at the front of the bus. Again and again, as they got off, she said, “Take your time, stay warm, be careful now.”

When I got off the bus, I felt safer.

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