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A New Neighbor Introduces Herself

Posted by Elwin Green on October 18, 2017 at 4:55 PM Comments comments (0)

NOTE: Daren A. Ellerbee is the director of the University of Pittsburgh's Community Engagement Center, scheduled to open in Homewood next spring.

I come from a family of phenomenal women.

My grandmother was a nurse at Aliquippa hospital and ran a food bank out of her home. My mother is a recently retired social worker and has volunteered for organizations too numerous to list. Growing up I was often reminded verbally and by example that “we are called to take care of each other.” I grew up knowing what I was expected to do and the woman I was expected to become.

I am the director of Pitt’s Community Engagement Center in Homewood. My mother reminds me that I have been groomed for this opportunity my entire life. It is her words that continue to play out in my head as I approach a month in this new role. I do not take her expectations, and the expectations of the residents living in and around Homewood lightly.

The first of its kind in the Pittsburgh region, the CEC (short for community engagement center) is a place-based strategy that helps Pitt be a better partner to the community. It creates a “front door” for Pitt in the neighborhood and is a place where community and university people come together to work on projects and programs. The CEC is different from the organizations already in Homewood and isn’t meant to replicate or replace programming already happening. It’s a place where Pitt can align student projects with community efforts, faculty research with community concerns, and teach Pitt faculty, staff, and students about the history and life of the neighborhood so they can effectively participate in efforts throughout the community.

Even though the CEC is new, Pitt’s involvement in Homewood is not, and one of the reasons Pitt wanted to develop its CEC in Homewood was to build on the strong relationships created between the School of Social Work and the Homewood Children’s Village, School of Engineering and the Manufacturing Assistance Center at 7800 Susquehanna Street, and years of community-guided student projects, such as the English Composition class that worked with Mr. Green on this very blog.

I am charged with being Pitt’s main point-of-contact in Homewood, bridging the community’s interests and agendas with the University’s mission of teaching and research. Upon accepting the position, I was proud to learn the level of university wide buy-in from all 14 schools at Pitt who have signed-on to support the Center including my beloved College of Arts & Sciences. (I forgot to mention that I am also a Pitt alum who studied Communication and Rhetoric & Africana Studies, class of 2004.)

While the nature of projects and programs of the CEC continue to be refined as we receive community input, we have an opportunity to leverage legal workshops from our School of Law, a diversity of health services (such as occupational therapy, physical therapy, and pre-sport checkups) that complement the services available at Alma Illery Medical Center, and business development and acceleration through our Institute of Entrepreneurial Excellence, just to name a few. My job is to bridge the community and university, and to help identify opportunities for collaboration between the two.

It’s important to me that as many people as possible are knowledgeable about the CEC, and that they know the center is accessible to them. Though the CEC will not open until spring 2018, we are arranging a temporary office for me in the neighborhood. Until then, I can often be found at the Everyday Café or the Carnegie Library. You will also see me during many community meetings. Stop by and say hello. I truly want to hear from you!

You can also find out more online by visiting our website or following us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

The success of this Center is contingent upon community support and trust. I look forward to building both. Why? Because not only will the community hold me accountable, but my mother most certainly will. I do not want to be on the bad side of either.


To reach Ms. Ellerbee, drop her a line at [email protected], or give her a call at 412-852-7551.


If you find value in Homewood Nation, please help it to continue by using the button at the right to make a donation. Thanks!

Planning Commission Meeting Could Be Critical

Posted by Elwin Green on September 27, 2017 at 12:45 AM Comments comments (2)

A meeting of the City's Planning Commision this afternoon could be a critical turning point for a mixed-income housing development being planned for Homewood.


The proposed 58-unit development, dubbed Kelly-Hamilton, has been winding its way through the pre-construction process for more than a year. But sustained opposition to the development may cause the developer, Keith B. Key Enterprises (usually referred to as "KBK") to miss deadlines to apply for Pennsylvania Housing Finance Authority tax credits that would be critical to the project's financing.

The opposition has mostly come from the Homewood Concerned Citizens Council, a group of Homewood residents headed by Cherylie Fuller. Fuller lives on Hamilton Avenue, close to where the new homes would be built.


Fuller and HCCC made the news when they protested at the May 4 groundbreaking for the project. The Post-Gazette's story about the event includes this:


“Talk to us,” said Cherylie Fuller. “Sit down with us. We don’t want what they’re ramming down our throat.”


The most recent expression of opposition came at the Planning Commission's Sept. 12 meeting (the Commission meets every two weeks), where it is reported that Fuller and Judith Ginyard spoke against the project.


What's especially interesting is that the Commission has a 1 pm briefing, which is off the record, and a 2 pm meeting during which the public may comment. According to my source, Fuller and Ginyard spoke during the briefing.

(EDIT, 9-27-17: Please note my friend Ann Belser's comment befow, and my response."


Fuller's plea - or demand - to "sit down with us" is, on the face of it, perplexing.


According to Jerome Jackson, executive director of Operation Better Block, KBK has attended at least four meetings of OBB's community clusters, as well as OBB monthly community meetings, and at least three HCCC meetings.


I don't know whether or not he's counting the November public meeting hosted by HCCC, at which Mr. Keys gave a detailed presentation on the project.


This raises the obvious question, "What does a developer have to do to gain community support?"


It also suggests a less obvious question, "Whose support does a developer need in order for them, or anyone, to say that they have community support?"


The project is supported by the Homewood Community Development Collaborative, an affiliation of Homewood-based non-profits that includes 


  • Building United of Southwestern Pennsylvania
  • Community Empowerment Association
  • Homewood-Brushton Business Association
  • Homewood-Brushton YMCA
  • Homewood-Brushton YWCA
  • Homewood Children's Village
  • Operation Better Block
  • Race Street 2050 (formerly Save Race Street Committee)


Fuller's group, HCCC, was a founding member of the Collaborative, but withdrew in January.


Members of the Collaborative spoke in favor of the project at a meeting of the Urban Redevelopment Authority on January 12. And we (I am president of Race Street 2050) will be at the Commission meeting this afternoon.


It should be interesting.


There's a lot more to this story; stay tuned for Part 2.

A Day At The Cafe

Posted by Elwin Green on September 23, 2017 at 12:50 AM Comments comments (0)

When the young man first rushed into the Everyday Cafe today with his hand to his face, I thought he had a nosebleed.

But there was too much blood. There was way too much blood. Going all over the floor and splashing across the front of the counter as he walked dazedly in a small circle.


"Call 911! I need an ambulance!" Not loud, but urgent. Desperate.

His face, not his nose, was bleeding from an open wound, his one visible eye wild with fear.


I had been sitting with employee Dorian Robinson, who rose to help. I got up, too, but he was closer, and the two women workers - one whom I know as Ms. Shar (spelling? Char?) and one whose name I don't know - were looking for a phone and I grabbed one of mine and called 911 while they sat the young man down and tried to talk him down from panic and tried not to panic, themselves.


And later we were grateful for being the only ones there, so that there was no mass panic, just the three of them tyring to help the young man and me answering the 911 operator's questions, some of which I had to ask the young man.


"How old are you?"


"Where were you when you were shot?"

"I don't know."


A string of questions for me to answer or to re-ask, and the women losing patience with the 911 operator and the 911 operator seeming to be about to lose patience with me because I was responding to both them and him.


While the young man bled and asked for help and asked them to hurry.


Too many questions. Way too many questions. I know that he was doing his job, but the sooner that he would have said, "The ambulance is on its way," the sooner I could have said that to the young man and to the women and imparted a sense of calm.

I was still on the phone with the 911 operator when the first police officers arrived. They asked questions and looked the young man over prepared him for the ambulance, which came soon after.


And the ambulance took the young man and the officers said, "He'll be okay."


The best news of the day - he'll be okay.


Physically, at least. Psychically? Hmm. Let's see - he's walking down the street and suddenly one side of his face is ripped open and there's all the pain that a bullet causes and he doesn't know who did it.


And he's 16.


When I was 16, I barely survived the slightest hint that my girlfriend did not love me as crazily as I loved her.


This is where I rant about how adolescence SHOULD be the last surge of childhood, not a time to dodge, or fail to dodge, a bullet. But we all already know that, so I won't.


I'll say that the young man should be okay, and that I pray that he truly is.


And the Everyday Cafe folks got busy cleaning up the blood and detectives came and asked questions and by the time I left, a few of the many officers (there was a fleet of cruisers by then) had a suspect in custody. The second best news of the day.


Marred slightly by the fact that he looked like he might be 16, too.

EDIT, 9/24: Police now say that the gunshot victim may have been victimizing someone else when he got shot.

Pitt Community Engagement Center Rollout

Posted by Elwin Green on July 26, 2017 at 2:35 PM Comments comments (0)

Those of you who have liked Homewood Nation's Facebook page may have seen this already. For those of you who haven't like our page  (a situation that you need to correct immediately!), sorry this is so last-minute. I'm working every day to get better. 

Anyway, here you go:

Deadline Day For Biz Owners To Apply For Pitt Program

Posted by Elwin Green on May 26, 2017 at 7:50 AM Comments comments (0)

Today is the deadline for Homewood business owners to apply for a University of Pittsburgh program designed to help them grow their businesses.

The "Community Power to Prosper" Program, launching June 6, will offer classes on strategic thinking, financial analysis, marketing and social media, among other topics. Its 13 sessions will run through November 14, with classes being held every two weeks (substituting June 27 for July 4), from 8 a.m. - 10 a.m.

The program is being offered by The Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence, part of Pitt's Innovation Institute, and is underwritten by The Heinz Endowments.

Nicole M. Hudson, program manager for the Institute's Urban and Community Entrepreneurship Program and Entrepreneurial Fellows Class, said that this will be the seventh go-round for the program, which has been offered previously in such locations as Hosanna House in Wilkinsburg and the Riverside Center for Innovation on the North Shore.

This time, classes will be held at Bible Center Church, 717 N. Homewood Avenue.

"Because of all the revitalization taking place in the Homewood area," she said, "we thought that it would be a great opportunity to work with the local business owners, to make sure that when all these new things take place, that they are ready for that change.

"We want people to be able to embrace the change and be prepared for it when it comes."

That desire to help business owners be prepared led to an extension of the application deadline, which was originally May 1.

The program is open to owners of businesses that have at least one full-time employee other than the themselves, and have been operating for at least two years.

The two-page application asks for "approximate annual sales," with check boxes that start at $50,000, but Ms. Hudson said that owners of smaller businesses should not let that throw them off, "as long as you are progressing, and you are moving forward, and you are ambitious, and you are serious about your business."

Just above the signature line on the application is a pledge: "If accepted, I am fully committed to attending all sessions and coming prepared to embark on a journey of lifelong learning that will result in the success of my business."

As a fan of lifelong learning, I applaud that, and hope everyone who gets into the program does indeed remain on that journey.

To apply, download the application form, complete it and return it to Ms. Hudson at [email protected]

Choosing Life, In Homewood

Posted by Elwin Green on March 30, 2017 at 1:50 PM Comments comments (2)

Hey friends,

You may have noticed that this website has been pretty quiet for a while. In fact, it's been so quiet for so long that you may have stopped bothering to check in here.

The first thing I'm going to say is, sorry about that. The fact is, there's a ton of stuff happening in Homewood these days, things that you deserve to know about.

So why has Homewood Nation, the website, been so quiet? Because I, Elwin Green, have been going through stuff that's made it harder and harder to take care of business here.

Over the past week or so, all of that stuff came to a head, and I thought about suicide.

Obviously, I decided against it.

Earlier today, I published a post about that on my personal blog. Now I've decided to share it here, because it touches on things that I believe affect Homewood as a whole. So here it is.

Thoughts On Not Committing Suicide

This week, I decided to remain on Earth rather than leave for Heaven.

To put it non-theologically, I decided not to commit suicide.

Decided again, that is.

Let me hasten to add, I have never attempted to commit suicide. I don't have scars on my wrists or any such thing.

But I have thought about it, and decided not to attempt it, more than once.

The fact that I have never attempted it may lead some people to say that I have never thought about it seriously enough for it to count. To you I say, "That's okay."

On the other hand, the fact that I have thought about it at all may totally freak some people out. To you I say, "Please don't make it more than it is, or was: a thought, a consideration of a possibility in the midst of emotional pain."

In my view, the most important thing about having thought about it is that I decided, "Nah."

I don't know whether the very fact of thinking about it qualifies me for a diagnosis or a prescription. I have thought, this week, that I would probably do well to talk to a therapist, because I don't think that people who dwell entirely within the spectrum of normal think enough about committing suicide so that they have to decide against it. Entirely normal people don't think about it at all, right?


If nothing else, a therapist might help me understand whether my thoughts and feelings are simply a matter of temperament, or of actual brain chemistry. So, yeah, that could be useful. I totally hate the possibility of becoming drug-dependent, but taking pills may be better than what I've gone through.

For some people, my saying all this will certainly feel like the ultimate in TMI. And someone will certainly think, if not say, "Why would he tell the world this?"

I mean, it's not exactly something to put on your resume as you prepare for total global domination.

So why say it? Why tell?

Because I want to help create a culture in which it's okay to say it; a culture in which it's okay to tell. A culture in which there is no shame in expressing certain types or degrees of pain.

I think that the more people feel free to talk about suicidal thoughts or feelings, the more likely they are to decide not to act on them, to not become one of the 100+ Americans who die by suicide EVERY DAY.

I admit that talking about suicidal thoughts and feelings after they've passed is not the same as doing so while they're present. But I hope that it can be a useful start.

Beyond that - and this may really qualify me as flat-out crazy - I am telling this because I think there's a value that can be found in having considered suicide, and decided against it.

Most people who woke up today did not truly choose to do so. They simply have not considered the alternative.

This week, I considered the alternative, and chose to keep waking up.

I consider that enormously valuable.

I have made that choice enough times now so that I expect to continue making it, until the day I non-suicidally die. If at times that means living with persistent fear, piercing loneliness and an overwhelming sense of abject failure, then so be it. I'll accept those feelings as simply part of life, until I learn to annihilate them (I'm working on that, and consider myself close).

But just in case my brain throws me the ultimate curve ball, I've memorized this number: (412) 420-HELP. It's the local crisis and suicide prevention hotline, listed at www.suicide.org.

If you're in the Pittsburgh area, and need a "just in case," say it with me: four-twenty help. Four-twenty help. Four-twenty help.

If you're outside the Pittsburgh area, and need to know what number to memorize (or to carry with you), go to www.suicide.org.

It seems only right to say why I've chosen to remain here when I identify with Paul's line that to be with Christ would be better.

Here's why: when I first considered committing suicide, I decided not to because it would dishonor God. This week I decided not to primarily because it would also hurt my wife so deeply. When I feel most strongly like leaving, God and my wife are my reasons to stay, even more than the considerable amount of work I have to do (thinking about the work doesn't help when I feel unable to do it).

I wish each of you confidence rather than fear, satisfying intimacy rather than loneliness, and success rather than failure. But most of all, if any or all of those things fail, I wish you reasons to stay here anyway.

Meanwhile, let's all decide now that if we ever feel too weak to decide later, we'll dial four-twenty help (or the number in your area).



That's the blog post. Now here's my question for us to think about - how many other people in Homewood are struggling with suicidal thoughts and feelings? And how many of them are afraid or ashamed to even say so?

If you're one of them, please leave the shame behind. Call (412) 420-HELP.

If you're not one of them, then please share this with family, friends and neighbors, because one of them may be.

To all of my neighbors, I say, " LET'S LIVE, HOMEWOOD. LET'S CHOOSE LIFE."


If you find value in Homewood Nation, please help it to continue by using the button at the right to make a donation. Dollars, even small ones, say that this is worth doing; no dollars say that it's not. Thanks!

Business Grant Competition Winners Announced

Posted by Elwin Green on February 23, 2017 at 11:15 PM Comments comments (0)

Below is the text of a press release from Urban Innovation21; I will provide more context with additional reporting later. For now, I will note that Luminaria Productions, which publishes "Homewood Nation" and has its eye on film production, is one of the winners.

ADDITIONAL DISCLAIMER: Urban Innovation21 is a Homewood Nation sponsor.

Since 2012, Urban Innovation21 has recognized the strong entrepreneurial spirit in the Hill District and Homewood communities by hosting a Small Business Grant Competition. To date, $500,000 in grants have been awarded to 68 businesses in those communities. In addition to grants, Urban Innovation21 has provided these companies with a wide array of business support to help them grow their businesses. The non-profit works with many community-based entrepreneurs each year to create a cluster of successful businesses owned by residents of underserved communities.


Urban Innovation21’s president and CEO, William Generett Jr., believes that connecting the region’s success to economically struggling communities will ultimately provide wealth opportunities for minorities, women and resident-owned businesses. “This important grant competition propels business creation and growth in neighborhoods who will benefit greatly from the boost.”


Six Hill District’s businesses won: Living Juicy, ANS Billing, and Errands Made Easy existed previously while TDC Contracting, Communion LLC, and TDS Productions entered as start-up companies.


Nine businesses represented Homewood: Roland Ford Productions, The Professional Barber Institute, Knotzland, Strong’s Cleaners, and Big Lulu’s Trucking were pre-existing and Drafting Dreams, Natural Choice, Jazmeen Style, and Luminaria Productions (film producers and studios) were start-ups. Past grant winners are listed on Urban Innovation21’s web site.


Thomas M. Freyvogel, an attorney at the law firm Reed Smith and one of the judging committee members, stated “the field of competitors seems to improve every year. I was very impressed with the group of competing companies, who reflect a diverse talent pool of ambitious entrepreneurs in Homewood and the Hill District. The grant competition and Urban Innovation21’s program in general gives these entrepreneurs a well-deserved opportunity for both monetary support and professional guidance while either launching their new business or expanding their current one. 


The grant competition was made possible with support from the Richard King Mellon Foundation and UPMC Health Plan. Awards ranges from $5,000 to $10,000.


An informal reception will take place on Tuesday, February 28 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Energy Innovation Center, 1435 Bedford Avenue. Grant winners and members of judging committee are invited to attend.

ALERT: City To Distribute Water

Posted by Elwin Green on February 1, 2017 at 8:50 AM Comments comments (1)


Homewood's fire station is one of 11 locations that the City will use to distribute potable water to residents affected by a flush and boil advisory issued by the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority yesterday.

Fire Station 17, located at 7601 Hamilton Avenue, will be equipped with a 2,500 gallon water buffalo, and is expected to have water available at noon today. Containers will not be provided, so residents should bring their own sanitized, portable containers to carry their water.

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh Public Schools are closed today, so that the district can obtain bottled water, prepare food and cover water fountains. Schools are slated to reopen tomorrow.

PWSA  issued the advisory yesterday after a test by the state Department of Environmental Protection revealed that the chlorine levels in the Highland Park reservoir were low enough to allow the presence of gardia, a microscopic parasite that can cause cramps, nausea and diarrhea.

Besides the Homewood fire station, the following public safety facilities are serving and water distribution centers:

Pittsburgh Engine Co. No. 7, 4603 Stanton Ave.

Fire Station 6, 3958 Penn Ave.

Fire Station 8, 149 N. Euclid Ave.

Fire Station 10, 2501 Allequippa St.

Fire Station 12, 4156 Winterburn Ave.

Fire Station 14, 259 McKee Place

Fire Station 15, 7024 Lemington Ave.

Fire Station 17, 7601 Hamilton Ave.

Fire Station 18, 5858 Northumberland St.

Fire Station 19, 159 Homestead St.

Fire Training Academy, 1402 Washington Blvd.

City personnel will also be coordinating this morning the delivering bottled water to schools, community centers, senior centers and by home delivery to residents in need on a priority basis. City of Pittsburgh residents that are unable to access water distribution centers should contact the 311 Response Center for assistance. All calls to 311 are answered by a live operator from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. In the City of Pittsburgh, dial 3-1-1. Outside of Pittsburgh, call 412-255-2621.


If you find value in Homewood Nation, please help it to continue by using the button at the right to make a donation. Thanks!

1,000 Eyes - A Public Safety Proposal

Posted by Elwin Green on January 15, 2017 at 10:15 PM Comments comments (0)

In the first week of 2017, one man was killed and two injured in two shootings in Homewood.

Gregory McLeod, 28, was killed around 5 a.m. the morning of Tuesday, January 3. Three days later, on Friday, Jan. 6, this time around 9:30 a.m., two men were injured. Both were hospitalized; one reportedly in critical condition.

Both shootings were reported to emergency responders as occurring in the 7700 block of Frankstown Avenue, which runs between Brushton Avenue and Hale Street.

There are only seven structures on that block, four of them vacant, as are three of the four corners at the intersection of Frankstown and Brushton. But one of the structures in the 7700 block of Frankstown is Earl's, a popular bar; the building on Brushton Avenue nearest the intersection is home to a convenience store that stays busy; but the vacant lots themselves are often attractive to those looking to commit crimes.

It is possible that at 5 a.m. Tuesday, no one saw anything, but it is almost certain that at 9:30 p.m. Friday, someone did. But if the prevailing pattern continues, the people who saw something will say nothing to police.

I propose that we break that pattern.

Breaking it requires understanding its dynamics. When people who are not involved in wrongdoing see it and say nothing, it is typically because they fear retribution.

One way to combat that fear is by allowing people to share information anonymously. We can use both the silent complaint form and 311 to do that. There is a measure of safety in anonymity.

I propose a campaign that would increase that measure of safety by adding the safety of numbers.


By having so many people ready to provide information that when someone does, no one can tell who did.

Here's how I see it working (I invite you to suggest improvements):

The campaign begins with a gathering in a large space, with every news outlet in town on the scene.

Everyone who enters receives a silent complaint form. During the meeting, someone teaches us all how to use them, and how to use 311 to make anonymous tips.

And before we leave, the entire room stands and recites a pledge that includes: "When I see something, I will say something. What I know, law enforcement will know."

The pledge would also include language about holding law enforcement accountable, by also saying something when we see police misconduct.

The primary message will be that we, as residents, are stepping outside our fear into a realm of exercising greater responsibility -- or to put it another way, that we are claiming our power, and refuse to feel powerless again.

The secondary message for wrongdoers will be: There are more of us than there are of you. Many more.

That is why the campaign must involve a large number of people. A group of 15 or 20, no matter how passionate, can't deliver that message.

To really put wrongdoers on notice, I'd say we would need at least 500 participants taking the pledge at the kickoff event. The reason for inviting every media outlet to cover the event is to make it known that a lot of us are taking the pledge.

(At the same time, we would require the media's cooperation in protecting participants by not showing the faces or giving the names of specific individuals, other than speakers.)

Then what? How can we keep those 500 people engaged, encouraged, and confident that what we are all doing together will work?

The main way to stimulate engagement would be by flooding the neighborhood with silent complaint forms, so that when you pay for your haircut at the barber shop, you get a silent complaint form; when you buy something at a convenience store, you get a silent complaint form; when you apply for social services, you get a silent complaint form; when you go to church, you get a silent complaint form. And when you attend any kind of meeting in Homewood, you get a silent complaint form.

Notice that I'm saying, "you get." In all of these contexts, you don't pick up a form; someone hands it to you. This would require the participation of merchants, heads of nonprofit organizations and church pastors, for starters.

That may not be possible; but let's pretend that it is, and continue.

What else could help to keep the campaign going? Two things, for sure -- a name, and regular reporting.

If the target number for pledges is 500 people, we could call the campaign, "A Thousand Eyes."

Reporting could come in the form of a monthly report on the number and types of silent complaints submitted, to communicate the fact that the residents of Homewood are exercising a new level of power by telling what they know. This report would come to us as residents, but would also go out to media.

How long would "A Thousand Eyes" last? Until the data from the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police convince us that we've turned the corner on making Homewood safe.

However long that takes, I think it would be a good idea to celebrate a benchmark in crime reduction, giving residents an opportunity to say, "We did it!" -- as long as everyone understands that to mean, "Now that we have made Homewood safe, we can focus on keeping it safe."

Finally, if we move forward with "A Thousand Eyes", we must make it clear that it is about US. Everyone behind the campaign must understand, and communicate, that not only can residents do this, but that we are the ONLY ones who can. Other people can help, but only we can do.

That's it, folks; that's my proposal. If it sounds familiar, that's because I suggested it before. I still think it deserves discussion, but you tell me - does it deserve to move forward? Can you offer improvements? Visit Homewood Nation's Facebook page, and let us know what you think! 


If you find value in Homewood Nation, please help it to continue by using the button at the right to make a donation. Thanks! 


A print version of this piece appears in the Jan. 12 - 18 issue of Print, Pittsburgh's East End newspaper. Pick up your copy at Baker's Dairy, 7300 Hamilton Ave., then SUBSCRIBE for more of Homewood Nation and other East End news!

Everyday Cafe: A Place To Be

Posted by Elwin Green on December 20, 2016 at 11:20 AM Comments comments (0)

A print version of this piece appears in the Dec. 22 - 28 issue of Print, Pittsburgh's East End newspaper. Pick up your copy Wednesday at Salik's Hardware, 605 N. Homewood Ave., then SUBSCRIBE for more of Homewood Nation and other East End news!

My first visit to the Everyday Cafe, Homewood's new coffeehouse, was on Nov. 21, three days after its opening.

It immediately became one of my favorite places on Earth. I've been back multiple times, mostly for one-on-one meetings with friends old and new.

This is how my morning there went on Friday, Dec. 16:

At about 7:15, Ricky Burgess, Jr., the 9th District councilman's son, and I arrived (he had picked me up at home) for a get-together. We've had a couple of brief conversations and are meeting mainly to get better acquainted, but also to give him his first Everyday Cafe experience.

The cafe is billed as Pittsburgh's first cashless coffeehouse. Burgess orders a hot chocolate, and slides his card into the small processing device on the counter. (I order a lavender spearmint tea.) While the card reader does its magic, Burgess notices a sign that describes the different types of coffee drinks offered -- latte, cappuccino, etc. -- and tells Donna Taylor, our barista, that that's a really good idea, because not everybody knows how they differ.

Later, as we sit and talk, Donna asks him how he likes his hot chocolate. He raves.

"Tasty! Really, really good!"

He's beaming as he takes in the atmosphere of a clean, well-lighted place.

“It feels good to be here … it feels really good."

As we talk, Quincy Jones' recording of "Killer Joe" plays softly over the speaker system. Jazz, played at a volume that lets you hear it without it being a distraction, is an important part of the Everyday Cafe experience.

After Burgess leaves, I stick around to wait for a 9:30 appointment. A staffer from the Homewood Children's Village, whom I've met briefly before but never spent time with, comes in. Because I want to get to know the Village's people better, I chat with him a bit, and we schedule a meeting.

Not long after, a young couple who are members of Bible Center Church show up. I had spoken with the husband a few months ago, and we had meant to get together; now, we catch up as he orders his coffee.

In a little more than a month, the Cafe has already become, for me, a great place for serendipitous meetings. I'll be having breakfast or lunch with one friend, and another friend will walk in. If the two friends know each other, they then have a chance to connect. If they don't, they have a chance to be introduced.

At one point, at least three meetings are happening simultaneously -- the HCV staffer, the Bible Center people, and at the table behind me, another HCV staffer, Ben Walker, is chatting with Westinghouse Academy 6-12 football coach Monte Robinson.

*    *    *

Bible Center owns the cafe, which is largely the brainchild of their pastor, Rev. Dr. John D. Wallace Jr.

Wallace, who is also a professor at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Social Work, was inspired by research on the importance of "third places" -- places other than home or work where people go to "just be." (in particular, he cites the book "The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community," by Ray Oldenburg.)

The original concept for a cafe on Homewood Avenue called for the renovation of a building at 524 N. Homewood Ave. that was originally a post office, then a church. Its location, yards from the Homewood Avenue busway stop, where thousands of people board and leave buses every day, seemed perfect. Despite an award-winning design by Carnegie Mellon University architecture professor John Folan, and buy-in from the Urban Redevelopment Authority, it was deemed too expensive, and gave way to Homewood Station, the senior housing building with retail spaces on the first floor. Only the facade of the original building remains.

Operation Better Block, Inc., charged with finding tenants for the retail spaces, went through several potential coffeeshop owners before Wallace brought the idea of owning and operating a coffeeshop to his congregation two years ago, to create a “third space” for Homewood. They bought into it, and the church partnered with OBB and attracted investment from Bridgeway Capital to make it happen.

The church connection is not evident -- there are no Christian symbols or artifacts. But "for the church to be the driver of it, I think, is also an important message," Wallace says.

Instead of ministry being limited to two hours on Sundays, "we're now 56 hours a week of ministry. This is our witness in the world."

And part of that witness lies in the diversity of people who come there -- black, white, Asian, old, young -- a diversity that Wallace says is "at least a partial reflection of the kingdom of God."

*    *    *  

I order a sausage, egg and cheese muffin and an orange juice -- my default Everyday Cafe breakfast.

After Walker finishes his meeting with Robinson, he joins me. We have a bit of business to transact, and are overdue to meet, so this is serendipitous. We conduct our business, and he heads off.

My 9:30 appointment doesn't show. But that's okay, because Andre Young walks in, orders a coffee, spies me, and comes over to chat. As it turns out, Young, a businessman who ran against Councilman Burgess in the last election, comes here often.

Some people have complained about the cafe being cashless. Young tells a story.

He and his wife were relaxing on a recent evening when she asked how often he's going to the Cafe. He asks how she knows, and she says she saw it on the credit card statement.

He told her, "They gotta start taking cash, 'cause I don't want you tracking me that much!"

And with that, he laughs the matter off.

Young knows a thing or two about coffeehouses -- he owns one at the airport.

"They have good product," he says. "We need to be concerned about the quality of the product."

And he doesn't just mean the coffee. He says he had a turkey panini for lunch one day: "Fantastic."

Besides breakfast muffins and lunch paninis (turkey and ham), the menu includes a variety of sandwiches, salads, yogurt, and desserts, among other things. As I meet with more people there -- or just visit to spend some time on my own, I expect to work my way through most of their edibles.

Young and I have a long conversation before I ask him for a ride back home, the kind of wide-ranging conversation that the Cafe hints at in its slogan: "Where great coffee and passionate people meet every day." (Wallace, the social scientist, says that when he sees people together there, "I really want to know, what are they talking about?")

For me, the second half of that slogan is blazingly true -- when I show up at the Everyday Cafe, I meet passionate people, whether by appointment or by chance, and have conversations that stir my own passions.

I can't say anything about the other half.

I don't drink coffee.


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Coming Soon...

The Homewood Chronicles

Oct. 2005 - March 2010

Reports from a community in transition

In October 2005, after a bullet came through his living room window, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Elwin Green began writing "My Homewood," the first blog on the P-G's website. For 4 1/2 years, "My Homewood" shared stories of tragedy and beauty, of perplexity and hope - stories that live again in "The Homewood Chronicles."

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