Anyone who is familiar with the City of Pittsburgh knows that the Homewood section of town has been in decline since the 1960's, with a sharp increase in crime starting in the late 1980's, with the introduction of crack cocaine to the area. Since then, population in the neighborhood has dropped, and the number of vacant properties has increased. Until recently, many of the vacant lots were covered with weeds and brush, that afforded some cover for criminals seeking cover while firing weapons at cars and pedestrians.
Now, there is a concerted effort to clean up the area, primarily in removing those weeds, and replacing them with gardens. A few residents, fed up with the state of the neighborhood, have taken it upon themselves to start reclaiming the streets from criminals.
Homewood's population, predominantly black, dropped from about 30,000 in 1940 to 6,400 in 2010. The most recent data available from the city Planning Department show unemployment in 2000 ranged from 37 percent in Homewood South to about 43 percent in Homewood West, compared with 5.9 percent for the rest of Pittsburgh. Median income was $15,000 to $25,000.
The University of Pittsburgh's Center for Social and Urban Research reported in 2010 that Homewood had become home to more than 1,000 vacant houses.
Rhonda Sears, 46, who has lived in the neighborhood for most of her life, tired of waiting for outside help. Sears planted flowers in a vacant lot near her home using a $1,000 city grant. She received another Love Your Block grant this year to make a second garden.
“I had an interest just to beautify where I live, because it's a reflection on me when you see a vacant lot out there all covered by weeds,” Sears said.
A homicide on Race Street in 2008 prompted Elwin Green and others to band together for a street cleanup. Residents of the 21-block street mow vacant lots, clean up litter and plant flowers and trees.
Green, 61, who chairs the Save Race Street Committee, said his motives were spiritual and financial. As a Christian, he has a God-given duty to help his neighbors, he said.
“No. 2, I'm a homeowner, and I want to increase the value of my home,” Green said. “I realized 20 years ago that I have a $200,000 home in a $20,000 neighborhood.”
Green established a website, homewoodnation.com, to provide news and information and motivate conversation about Homewood.
In addition to these initiatives, there are two programs in the neighborhood that offer vocational training and apprenticeships for interested persons. These are geared toward both rehabilitating neglected properties, and teaching marketable skills to residents. City Councilman Ricky Burgess pointed out that these efforts alone will not rehabilitate Homewood, it is a step in the right direction. Burgess is right in stating that capital investments in the community will be necessary, however it is unlikely that anyone will be highly interested in investing money in businesses or real estate in the neighborhood before it is cleaned up at least a little more. If these grassroots efforts continue, and expand, there is a good chance that residents will be able to encourage businesses to return, and rebuild.