Wilkinsburg weeds through residents’ concerns to seed action

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Blight, education and safety were just a few of the major concerns expressed by Wilkinsburg residents at the Everything Counts community forum held on June 23 by Weed and Seed community initiative, in conjunction with the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, at South Avenue United Methodist Church.

“We would like our initiative to be community- driven,” said Gail Mitchell Hall, site coordinator of the Wilkinsburg Borough Weed and Seed Initiative. “We’d like to see what the residents’ needs are. We will hold (forums) on a regular basis and we feel they are important.”

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COMMUNITY COMMITMENT—Gail Mitchell Hall of Weed and Seed discusses how the organization is working to improve the life of Wilkinsburg residents.

Weed and Seed has been in existence since 2002 and is a state-funded strategy initiative to bring together residents, local government and business owners to create strategies of solutions to increase the quality of life for the Wilkinsburg community. After the former coordinator left, Hall took over in July of 2009 as the full-time coordinator after being hired as a consultant in March of the same year.

“We have been getting a lot of feedback from residents and a lot more participation than we thought,” Hall said.

Winford Craig, a chairman for one of the Weed and Seed boards and director of Information Technology for the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, said, “This (improving Wilkinsburg) is a process and we are moving in the right direction. The collaboration of the Wilkinsburg borough, Wilkinsburg community and Wilkinsburg schools, all these collaborative entities are working to identify the problem and then working toward the solution.”

Hall has been working to revamp the group and has been getting more involvement from leaders. “We’ve gotten key players (in the community), like residents, the mayor, the chief of police and business owners to attend monthly meetings (and get involved),” she added. The initiative will address the community and its needs through four key components. They are Law Enforcement, which address drug activity, crime, etc.; Community Policing, which involves engaging the community and the various organizations; Prevention, Intervention and Treatment; and Neighborhood Restoration, which works on improving and revitalizing the community.

One of the major concerns of the forum was the community’s physical blight and the growing number of vacant and boarded up homes and businesses. Hall said although it is more of an issue that has to be addressed by the Community Development Corp., Weed and Seed is doing its part through an initiative that will work with youths taking part in a summer job program, and provide them with jobs cleaning up some of the vacant lots in the Wilkinsburg community.

Edith McCallum, a resident of Wilkinsburg for 45 years, said although she has seen the community get worse and her children try to encourage her to move, she has no intention of leaving the community she has been a part of for years.

“I pray hard to God that something will happen to turn the (Wilkinsburg) community around,” McCallum said. “For years they (various community leaders) have been telling us that they are going to revitalize Wilkinsburg and nothing yet. We keep waiting and keep trying to be patient. But Ms. Mitchell is pushing very hard to turn things around and I will help the best I can.”

She said that the vacant buildings have become an issue because of the need for pest control. “The vacant homes need to be demolished and replaced with new homes like they have in East Liberty. We have big rats in them and yards. I look out my window and all I see are (overgrown) weeds and trees. I continue to beautify my yard and just hope it rubs off on others.”

Wilkinsburg was once known for its thriving business district, but McCallum said it’s not flourishing like it used to. “We had nice shopping stores nearby and a drugstore close for seniors to get their prescriptions. There is a soul food restaurant and barbershops there. Now, you just see a lot of men just standing there. It does not look safe. I think they are from the Labor Ready waiting for jobs, but what are they going to do but stand there, if there are no jobs.”

Wilkinsburg Mayor John Thompson said funding has been received to develop the business district and landmark capital for community training and housing. He also said the borough is working to bring people back to the community and get vacant homes into the hands of people who can take care of them.

Along with the blight, Craig said public safety was also a major concern of the residents. They said they would like to see more police officers doing foot patrol. “It makes residents feel safer and it deters more crimes from being committed.” He said Wilkinsburg Police Chief Ophelia Coleman, who failed to return numerous calls for the story, attended the forum, representing the police and spoke about the goals to make residents feel safer.

Hall said that Weed and Seed is working with the police force to put a face on their officers in the community in order to establish better relationships.

Education was also one of the major concerns expressed. “We have physical blight, but we also have what I like to call educational blight. We have low proficiencies and kids reading at lower grades,” said Craig. But there are programs working to make better opportunities for students.

Andre Tucker, who attended the forum and grew up in the Wilkinsburg area is also the founder of the proposed Leadership Academy for Mathematics and Science Charter School in Wilkinsburg. The application for the charter school is currently under review. Tucker said he first thought of the school after he read reports that found students in the Wilkinsburg School District had low-proficiencies and decided he wanted to do something to address it.

“There are not enough opportunities and resources for kids. The more opportunities and resources available, then there will be a decrease in crime. We had youth groups and summer jobs when I was growing up. There was always something to do. But when people wake up and see dilapidated buildings, blight and negativity, it takes a toll. We need to show them there is more and that the community does care.”

Hall said Weed and Seed is in the process of planning a Youth forum for the community’s young people to see what their needs are. While Tucker said there are not enough resources, Hall said Wilkinsburg is full of resources and it’s just that not a lot of people know what is available but they are working on a way to identify the resources and get the information out to everyone so that they can utilize them.

“If we tighten up and do more as a community and organizations come together, then we can get it back to the way it was,” said McCallum.

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