As residents of Homewood Brushton plan for the community’s future development, they can learn a lot from previous initiatives. Between the mid-1950s and the mid-1990s Homewood Brushton underwent a series of development efforts. Sometimes these efforts were complementary to each other, other times they were at odds. A different set of assumptions and values informed each development effort. Each effort also reflected changes in local and federal policy. On top of that, the differences reflected the diversity within the African-American population of the community; not all African American stakeholders in Homewood had the same interests.
From 1986 through 1988 I had an insider’s seat in the development process in Homewood; I was working at that time as the associate director of Homewood Brushton Revitalization and Development Corporation (HBRDC). I continued to follow Homewood’s development, through its ups and downs, in my capacity as a board member and later as a consultant for the Pittsburgh Partnership for Neighborhood Development (PPND). As a faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work, I continued to be involved in Homewood’s economic development. I have donated a collection of material from this period to the University Library System (ULS) of the University of Pittsburgh. The collection is titled “Homewood Brushton Revitalization and Development Corporation Records.”
When I became the associate director of HBRDC in 1986, there were three other community-based organizations. Each group saw itself as having an interest in community development. They were The Homewood Brushton Community Improvement Association (HBCIA), which Ruby Hord ran, Operation Better Block (OBB), run by Carrie Washington, and the Homewood Brushton Chamber of Commerce, led by a tavern owner by the name of Vivian Lane. The executive director of HBRDC was Mulugetta Birru, who went on to become the head of the Urban Redevelopment Authority of the City of Pittsburgh.
The approach that each of these organizations took to community improvement reflected their history and their key stakeholders. HBCIA was the oldest of the four groups. It had been around since the 1950s and was part of the conservative “community improvement” movement that was characteristic of that era. Property owners founded HBCIA in reaction to the relocation of former residents Hill District residents into Homewood Brushton, following the demolition of the lower Hill during Pittsburgh’s “Renaissance One” program. By the late 1960s, HBCIA reflected the anxieties of older, middle-class Homewood residents who were afraid that the arrival of younger, working class blacks would lead to increased racial segregation and deterioration of the overall community.
Early Efforts for Community Improvement
Ever since the first Great Migration of Blacks to Pittsburgh, from 1916-1922, the Hill District had been the core African American neighborhood and cultural center in Pittsburgh. At that time the Hill was racially integrated and a diverse cultural mix of many working class ethnic groups, including Jews, Poles, and Syrians. By the 1940s the Hill was primarily African American. The destruction of houses and business in an area, during “urban renewal” in the 1950s, displaced approximately one-third of the total community. Urban renewal scattered Black residents and businesses from the Hill District throughout the city, many relocating in the East End, including Lincoln, Lemington, Larimer, and Homewood. The mix of new and old residents created tension in the neighborhood.
Meanwhile, Homewood had been a racially mixed community. Black residents lived on a few blocks in southern Homewood. They mostly worked in the mansions of affluent Whites in Point Breeze and were regarded in the Black community as being middle-class. They were socialized and acculturated in upper-class ways and far removed from scraping and desperation of the recent migrants from the south who lived in the Hill District.
Many of Homewood’s Blacks lived in Pittsburgh for several generations. They had seen the days when Black people worked in the service industry, as barbers and tailors, with large clienteles of Whites. Although African Americans clustered in blocks within predominantly White neighborhoods there was little segregation until the southern migrants arrived during the first migration (1916-1922). Northern Blacks became concerned that Southern migrants would “bring Jim Crow with them” to Pittsburgh and tried to socialize and “acculturate” the new residents by establishing organizations such as the Urban League.
When Blacks from the Hill District moved into Homewood, by the late 1950s, they faced derision from the more established Black families who were already there. HBCIA had positioned itself to reflect the interests of the older and more bourgeois Black residents. Moreover, the 1950s was a conservative time for community organizing and social services. The conservative atmosphere was a reaction against the social activism of the 1920s and 30s. It also reflected intimidation and suspicion of such activism which the Army-McCarthy embodied. The only “safe” form of community organizing during the 1950s encouraged conformity and reflected the values of private property-owners.
A New Era of Community Activism
By the late 1960s, the population of Homewood had changed; the neighborhood had become overwhelmingly Black and working class. The younger generation of Homewood residents had little patience for the “bourgeois” concerns of HBCIA; they wanted to form a new community organization. HBCIA’s focus seemed out of touch with the needs of residents who believed their most immediate concern was for community mobilization and political empowerment. Young people also thought it was important to be in a position to take advantage of federal funds which were now available to address urban poverty. HBCIA could not exploit these changes.
In the activist spirit of the late 1960s and early 70s, younger residents formed Operation Better Block (OBB). A coalition of Homewood organizations called “Forever Action Together” initially ran the agency. OBB emphasized a strategy of empowerment through block-by-block mobilization and coalition-building across Homewood’s institutions, human services, and community-based organizations. HBCIA saw OBB as an impatient young upstart that was moving in on their territory.
From the 1970s through the early 1980s Homewood continued to deteriorate. The Fair Housing Act enabled middle-class Black families to challenge discriminatory housing policies in nearby White middle-class neighborhoods such as North Point Breeze and Penn Hills. Many of Homewood’s businesses closed due to the rising crime rate and the drop in potential customers in the immediate area. In addition to all of this, federal funds dwindled under a series of fiscally conservative Republican and Democratic administrations.
The remainder of Homewood’s businesses could not compete with newer and flashier malls that were opening in nearby suburbs. Two developments, in particular, put pressure on small businesses in Homewood: the Monroeville Mall in 1969 and the Waterworks Mall, near the Allegheny River, in 1982. The development of the Shakespeare Street Giant Eagle in nearby Shadyside, as a huge multi-service grocery store, put competitive pressure on plans to revive smaller neighborhood stores in Homewood.
OBB, which once had leverage through its ability to mobilize grassroots voters and through its political connections, no longer fit the anti-poverty strategies of the 1980s. While the city continued to access federal block grants for blighted areas, community-based organizations were being pressured to come up with sustainable plans for economic development. These strategies had to include plans for business district revitalization, market-rate and subsidized housing and the ability to attract funding from local and national private foundations. With OBB’s focus on mobilization for political empowerment, many of Homewood’s strongest Black-owned businesses did not believe that the organization was up to the task. In 1983 these owners pulled together to form a new entity called Homewood Brushton Revitalization and Development Corporation (HBRDC).
Business-Oriented Approach to Community Development
HBRDC’s strategy distinguished it from its predecessors. Unlike HBCIA, the new organization would engage in comprehensive economic planning. Their primary focus would be on the development of small businesses, but they knew they would have to rebuild the neighborhood’s housing stock to have a consumer catchment area that business owners and their lenders would find attractive. Unlike OBB, the new organization required a higher level of technical skill in their staffing. They would have to work in close collaboration with city planners, private financial institutions, developers, and entrepreneurs. When HBCIA realized that OBB saw the new organization as a threat, they realized that HBRDC could be used to vindicate their conservative strategy for community improvement. HBCIA agreed to have their director sit on the board of HBRDC.
Not all of Homewood businesses, however, were happy with HBRDC’s approach to development. Homewood’s bar and tavern owners were determined to remain a force in the community. The decline of traditional family-oriented businesses in Homewood, along with the exodus of most of Homewood’s Black middle class left the tavern and bar owners as the dominant business activity in the area. They knew that Homewood’s middle-class residents and family-oriented businesses were wary of them. Homewood’s middle-class families and family-oriented businesses associated the tavern and bar owners with organized crime, public drunkenness, fights, and violence.
The city frequently cited many of the owners for building code violations. The owners accurately suspected that HBRDC had tipped the building inspectors off to shut down their shops. They were also aware of the fact that there was money available for business development and the tavern owners wanted to get their share of the “action.” Unable to compete with the technical skills of HBRDC, the tavern and bar owners used their strong social network, superior organization skills, and sheer numbers to take over the Homewood Chamber of Commerce.
In an attempt to placate the tavern and bar owners, HBRDC offered the Chamber of Commerce, free office space and access to some of the organization’s resources. The owners continued to feel excluded, however, by the Community Development Corporation (CDC), charging HBRDC with favoritism toward richer blacks over poorer blacks, blacks who benefited from intergenerational wealth over blacks with newly acquired wealth, and lighter-skinned blacks over darker-skinned ones. Since part of my job involved community outreach I used to get an earful of these complaints every time I met with them.
Meanwhile, OBB, HBRDC and the Chamber of Commerce each pursued different strategies for neighborhood development, putting them on a collision course. HBRDC fought to preserve abandoned housing so that the CDC could acquire such dwellings and rehab them for re-sale. OBB, on the other hand, lobbied the city to demolish these structures, arguing that they were eye-sores and had become targets for vandalism, havens for drug addicts, and infested with vermin. While all of this was happening HBRDC and the Chamber of Commerce fought each other over building code enforcement and HBRDC’s persistent efforts to identify and close down “nuisance bars” associated with public drunkenness and fighting.
The End of the Corporation
HBRDC thrived under Mayor Richard Caliguiri, a man who built his image based on empowering the city’s neighborhoods. Caliguiri was a forward-looking mayor whom the political and business leadership in Pittsburgh thought could help the city make the transition from an old industrial steel town to a modern and diverse commercial environment. In 1988 Caliguiri suddenly died in office, however, and was succeeded by a senior woman by the name of Sophie Masloff. Masloff had previously been the president of Pittsburgh’s city council, as a compromise candidate who was acceptable to younger ambitious factions within the council. Almost no one had expected Masloff to play a leadership role while in office. Young political upstarts saw her as a placeholder until they could build a strong enough power base to replace her.
While many Pittsburghers saw Masloff’s unpolished speech and mannerisms as endearing characteristics of Pittsburgh’s traditional blue collar ethnic communities, others felt that she was too old-fashioned, unimaginative and out-of-touch to steer the local economy into the post-industrial era. Young professionals in Pittsburgh found Masloff’s gaffes comical. When Bruce Springsteen came to town, she gushed about how thrilled she was that the city would be hosting “Bruce Bedspring.” Not knowing much about fans, known as “Deadheads,” who followed a band called the Grateful Dead around she warned the group that when they came to Pittsburgh, they had better keep their “Deadenders” under control. Homespun wisdom saturated Masloff’s plans to revitalize Pittsburgh’s economy. She promised to post street signs on every corner so that “no one will ever get lost in the city of Pittsburgh again.”
By the time the mayoral election rolled around, in 1989, Masloff was determined to build a political power base and make her mark on the city. In 1992 she sought to combat the image that she was out-of-touch by tapping HBRDC’s executive director, Mulugetta Birru, to run the city’s primary agency responsible for urban planning, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). Deprived of its leadership, and stymied by several executive directors under whose stewardship foundations and funding agencies raised questions about the organization’s missing money, HBRDC eventually closed down all of its operations. This was in the mid-1990s.
Pittsburgh historian Roy Lubove, in his book 20th Century Pittsburgh: The Post-Steel Era, argues that the rise in violent crime, during the early-through-mid 1990s, and increased concentration of poverty, made it difficult for businesses to function in the neighborhood. Lubove also argues that the inexperience of new business owners, even under the best of circumstances, have high rates of failure and that these were the primary factors that accounted for the undoing of HBRDC.
The internal weaknesses within the organization, along with steep challenges posed by the concentration of poverty, rising crime rates, and new small business owners with little experience, all contributed to the decline of Homewood’s business district following the brief success experienced during the heyday of the CDC.
There is another factor. Many developers, contractors, business owners and teachers pointed out that while it is possible to use grants and other subsidies to build or rehabilitate housing and refurbish commercial space the residents of a neighborhood must have disposable income to sustain commerce. Raising the minimum wage alone, they pointed out, will not provide this income because to the extent that they are capable of doing so, businesses will find ways to work around this, either through increased automation or by demanding higher productivity from a smaller workforce.
What can we learn from the history of Homewood’s development? Several lessons suggest themselves: Developers, contractors, and business owners argue that many young people and adults should prepare for the rigorous requirements for certification in the trades as electricians, plumbers, HVAC technicians, auto repair technicians and carpenters. Other young people should continue to prepare for white collar professional and paraprofessional work in legal services, medicine, health care, dentistry, accounting, etc.
Administrators for city government and program officers for private foundations argue that it is also necessary to pursue development strategies that emphasize the economic integration of neighborhoods that now have high concentrations of poverty and that are socially isolated from opportunities to enter the economic mainstream.
I would add that it is necessary to develop a national strategy for re-industrialization of the United States along with rebuilding and upgrading U.S. infrastructure, including ports, locks, dams, public drinking water, rail systems, power generation and electricity transmission lines. Rebuilding public infrastructure on a massive scale would create jobs, raise the standard of living and increase the nation’s productive capacity. These “external” factors are inseparable from sustainable community economic development at the neighborhood level.
C. Matthew Hawkins was associate director of Homewood Brushton Revitalization and Development Corporation from 1986-1988. He was on the board of directors of the Pittsburgh Partnership for Neighborhood Development from 1997-2002. He worked as a consultant on the development of Pittsburgh’s distressed neighborhoods from 2002-2003. He taught Social Work community practice at the University of Pittsburgh from 1995-2014 and American history at Carlow University from 1992-2014. He has an MSW from the University of Pittsburgh and a MS in Applied History from Carnegie Mellon University. In this article he blends his background and experience in neighborhood development with his study of local history to examine variations in the development strategies for Homewood Brushton community from the 1950s to the mid-1990s.