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Homewood Farmers Market Launches

Posted by Elwin Green on June 8, 2016 at 10:05 AM Comments comments (3)

Homewood resident Celeste Taylor (r), chats with YMCA garden program director Hanna Mosca (l) and Shiloh Farm manager Nick Lubecki of Grow PIttsburgh (c).

In a January post titled, "A New Script for Homewood," I wrote, “An alternative way of developing both people and land would be through urban agriculture.... Residents of a neighborhood with as much vacant land as Homewood has should never go hungry. Period.”

The movement to make agriculture a significant part of Homewood's economy made a step forward Saturday, with the grand opening of the Homewood Community Farmers Market.

The open-air market, conducted on the parking lot of House of Manna Worship Center on Frankstown Avenue, was presented by the Black Urban Gardeners and Farmers of Pittsburgh Co-operative.

A banner stretched across one of House of Manna’s windows proclaimed the group's mission: “to establish, educate and assist Black people for sustainability and food sovereignty.”

“Our people getting together to start urban agricultural groups is nothing new,” said organizer Raqueeb Bey. “Even after slavery, sharecroppers had to do it.”

The 25-member group was formed in June 2015, and is itself a member of the Pittsburgh Chamber of Co-operatives, an advocacy and networking group for worker-owned and member-owned businesses.

Bey said they decided to conduct the farmers market in Homewood because the neighborhood is a food desert, which she defined as “an underserved neighborhood where community residents don't have access to inexpensive, affordable, fresh groceries.”

“A lot of times their options are to go outside the neighborhood to a major grocery store. Sometimes even at the corner stores the prices are very high. And a lot of times the faces of corner store owners don’t look like us.”

Consistent with the group's ethnic focus, during an opening ceremony storyteller and master gardener Amir Rashidd of the Hill District offered libations in accordance with African tradition, pouring water onto the earth of a potted plant in honor of both ancestors and future descendants.

After that, it was time to shop among the small group of vendors, whose tents offered shade on a day that had turned sunny after raining earlier.

Grow Pittsburgh was there with a table that offered collard greens, kale (which sold out), and swiss chard, among other items, grown from two local gardens: one at the Homewood-Brushton YMCA , the other (Shiloh Farm) at Homewood Avenue and Thomas Boulevard.

“All this stuff was grown within a half a mile of here,” Shiloh Farm manager Nick Lubecki boasted.

I ran into Demi Kolke of Operation Better Block. During the organization's community planning process, urban agriculture emerged as a potential use for the vacant lots that make up nearly half of Homewood’s land parcels, a fact reflected in the final consensus vision plan unvelied last  November. Kolke reminded me that OBB operates agricultural space in the 7300 block of Frankstown Avenue, a block away from House of Manna — a set of four lots on which Homewood youth have begun growing corn, peppers and greens. So they may show up as vendors in coming weeks.

Meanwhile, Louis Smith was already there, vending under the name, “King of Spices.’ His setup offered dozens of family-sized containers of all-natural spices —- and caps, ties and purses on the side.

After 25 years of operating stores and restaurants, Smith, of Wilkinsburg, said he has focused on selling his wares at farmers markets for the past four years.

Republic Food Enterprise Center came the longest distance to be there, from the town of Republic, Fayette County. It offered an assortment of vegetables and packaged goods with names like "Grandma’s Old Fashioned Buttermilk Flannel Cake Mix" and "Ernie’s World Famous Chipotle Wing Sauce."

Being around food can make a person hungry, so culinary student Essence Muhammed-Howze was offering free samples of cornbread and vegan chili (which was better than it sounds).

There were non-food vendors as well.

Bey's Temple of Natural Products had a table set up to offer natural soaps, skin butters and bath teas — large bags of herbs to be placed into a hot bath. Owner Jean Felisor Bey, of Duquesne, said that he and his wife began creating the products because “we didn't want use the harsh chemicals” in commercial soaps to bathe their four children. They have been in business since Februrary 2015.

And there was a raffle for small prizes, including artwork and bottles of wine.

When I first learned about the market, I was afraid that it would be a one-time event, or that it might happen just a couple of times before fizzling out. So I was delighted to learn from Ms. Bey that the organization plans to hold the market every other Saturday through the end of October, and one day each in November and December inside the worship center.

The next market, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on June 18 will be followed by the group’s monthly meeting at 3:30 p.m.

The Homewood Community Farmers Market is a practical example of “ujamaa,” or cooperative economics, one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa. It’s good see that principle being practiced beyond the holidays, just as it would be amazing to see “good will toward men” practiced beyond Christmas.


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 June 9 - 15 issue of Print, Pittsburgh's East End newspaper. Pick up your copy Friday at Baker's Dairy, 7300 Hamilton Ave., then SUBSCRIBE for more of Homewood Nation and other East End news!

A Dinner In Homewood

Posted by Elwin Green on May 18, 2016 at 1:40 PM Comments comments (0)

Britee Clay, co-owner of Jones Printing, and Vernard Alexander, owner of The Minority Networking Exchange, welcome guests to a dinner held at Jones Printing that was part of 200 Dinners Pittsburgh.

Erica L. Upshaw-Givner was adamant.

“It is not a prevention, it is a deterrent. It is part of a solution.”

“It” referred to the installation of cameras along Homewood’s streets to make them safer. Upshaw-Givner had mentioned cameras in response to the question, “What do you want to see in Homewood?”, and had received pushback — not hostile, but strong — from other members of a small group of people who had gathered for dinner.

A fellow attendee spoke up in support.

“One of the ways they cleaned up Lincoln-Larimer was cameras. When (State Rep. Joseph) Preston put those cameras right there on the corner, them gangs, that drug dealing, was shut down,” Orrein Godfrey said to a chorus of agreement. “And nine times out of 10, drugs and gangs lead the shooting. You’ve got to start somewhere.”

The exchange was part of the conversation at a dinner held on Saturday, May 14, in an unusual location — a back room at Jones Printing, one of Homewood's oldest businesses. Founder Denise Jones was absent; co-owner Brittee Clay was our host.

Vernard Alexander, owner of The MInority Networking Exchange, organized the dinner as part of a much larger citywide event, 200 Dinners Pittsburgh.

200 Dinners Pittsburgh offered Pittsburghers the opportunity to host dinners throughout the city “focused on a discussion of ideas that will make Pittsburgh an even better place,” as the project's online FAQ put it. It was a collaboration between Vibrant Pittsburgh, a nonprofit working to build the region’s workforce diversity, and NEXTpittsburgh, an online news outlet.

The organizations created 200 Dinners Pittsburgh as a way for everyday citizens to participate in the Pittsburgh Bicentennial, which kicked off March 18 with a celebration of Pittsburgh receiving its incorporation charter from the state in March 1816.

(If you're thinking, “Didn’t we do that a few years ago?” it’s because in 2008 we celebrated the sesquibicentennial, or 250th anniversary, of the city’s 1758 founding.)

With a sofa and some small high tables, the room was just the right size for the gathering of 10 women and five men. A covered pool table served as a buffet table, where caterer Malik Jones (The King's Plate Soul Food Catering) laid out a meal - a very tasty meal - that included chicken wings, meatballs, green beans, mac and cheese and potato salad.

Alexander opened the evening by asking people to introduce themselves, including saying what part of town they were from, and their relationship to Homewood.

Besides Alexander, of Friendship; Clay, of East Liberty; Upshaw-Givner and her daughter Felicia Robinson, both of Lincoln-Lemington; and Godfrey, of Stanton Heights; the dinner was attended by Simone Arnold, North Side; NIckye White, Penn Hills; Greg Morris,  East Liberty; Amber McNeal, North Side; Stacey Luck, Penn Hills, Pareese Smith, Duquesne, and Denise Johnson, Hill District  — a group that, while all black, was at least geographically diverse.

Celeste Taylor and I were the only current Homewood residents, but some had lived in Homewood previously. All of us were invited as people who care about Homewood.

The 200 Dinners toolkit suggested five questions for hosts to use during the dinners:

1. What makes you proud to call Pittsburgh home?

2. How can Pittsburgh attract and retain the best and brightest to continue creating opportunity here at home?

3. What is one idea that would solve a problem in your neighborhood to make it better?

4. What is preventing Pittsburgh from tackling inequities in our communities?

5. What should Pittsburgh become and how do we get there?

But Alexander asked us a different set of questions:

What are your perceptions of Homewood? What would you like to see in Homewood (a bowling alley or other similar recreational spot; a program to allow youth to burn off aggressive energy through boxing or martial arts; cameras)? Are you encouraging your children to leave Pittsburgh? (Yes.) How many of you have white friends? (I think everyone raised their hands initially before opening a discussion on what “friend” means, which led to some saying they have, rather, white acquaintances).

He gave special time to Celeste Taylor, who has waged a campaign of peace since moving to the 7000 block of Monticello Street, where she owns and operates the Monticello Street Hospitality House. During her time there, the block has been the scene of multiple shootings, including one in September in which one woman and two children were injured. In response, she has organized block parties and started a community garden.

With all that she could have said about all of that, she spoke instead about Vanessa German’s Art House, where she volunteers three days a week.

“I'm noticing that mainly white people volunteer there,” she said, “and I'm wondering, is there something about us, in terms of volunteering and knowing the needs of our children — do we need a more formal way that people understand where the volunteer opportunities are?

“Are you looking for volunteer opportunities, and has it been easy for you to find ways to give back?"

As often happens, the answers slid away from the question, into explanations of why people don't volunteer more: volunteering has become less of a cultural norm than it once was; neighbors don’t know one another’s needs; people are too needy themselves. No one said they were looking for opportunities; the clearest suggestion for getting more volunteers was to let more people to know about the opportunities.

As the evening went on, certain topics — black-on-black crime, portrayals of black people in mainstream media — made their way into the conversation without being invited there by any of the questions.

The conversation was lively enough so that we went well past the scheduled end time of 8 p.m. (“There's a lot of strong personalities in the room,” Alexander said during the opening), and the event as a whole was of a type that I would like to participate in more often — small gatherings to get acquainted and to explore topics of interest.

But I fear that not much of the conversation that was generated suited the larger purpose behind 200 Dinners Pittsburgh.

In focusing on Homewood, we didn’t expand the conversation to talk about making Pittsburgh as a whole better. I wish we had done more thinking together about Homewood being a part of Pittsburgh, and how Homewood can participate more fully in, and benefit more equitably from, the transformation of Pittsburgh.

Still, I am glad to have met a whole group of smart people who are all working hard to make life better for themselves, their families and the world.

And with the power of social media, we are just a few clicks away from having new conversations whenever we choose.

I look forward to those.


A print version of this piece appears in the May 19 - 25 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!



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

The shortest survey ever.

Posted by Elwin Green on May 3, 2016 at 11:50 AM Comments comments (0)

What are you reading, and how is it helping you?

Lecture To Examine Faith-Based Entrepreneurship

Posted by Elwin Green on April 27, 2016 at 5:50 PM Comments comments (0)


Carnegie Mellon University Fellow Dr. Stephanie C. Boddie


A lecture this evening at Carnegie Mellon University will explore the intersections between faith and commerce in the Black community.


In "Unfinished Business: Black Religion and the Entrepreneurial Spirit," Homewood immigrant  Dr. Stephanie C. Boddie will highlight the work of three pastors - Richard Allen, Chalrs Albert Tidley and Leon Sullivan - whose congregations developed businesses that impacted local economies. In doing so, she hopes "to lift up this idea of entrepreneurial spirit versus the more traditional appraoch to being involved with community and community work."


Boddie acknowledges that entreprenurship as a path to community development runs counter to the more common conception of the entrenpreneur as rugged individualist.


"It's really more about people working together to promote initiatives that are both innovative and...really address issues that serve the common good.


"I'm not interested in 'the Oprah effect,' where you have one person who becomes tremendously successful and then typically leaves the community."


The lecture will be held at 5 pm at CMU's Steinberg Auditorium, Baker Hall A53, following refreshments at 4:30.


Dr. Boddie is the 2015-16 Postdoctoral Fellow in CMU's Center for African American Urban Studies and the Economy (CAUSE).

Born and raised in Baltmore, her mother insisted that she apply at Johns Hopkins University, not because of its stellar reputation as an academic institution, but because it was readily accessible via public transportation. After completing her degree in natural sciences there, with a focus on biomideical engineering, she began working as a tissue culture lab technician.

One day, she cut her hand in an accident. Being unable to do lab work with one hand bandaged up, "I had to go get a job I could do with one hand." That turned out to be a job with the Lutheran Mission Society of Maryland, as the director of one of their Compassion Care Centers, located in Havre de Grace, a small town on the Chesapeake Bay.

Thus began her career in social service work. While working at the Mission Society, she began her studies in social work at Eastern University. Then she transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, moving to Philadelphia to complete her masters in social work, then a doctorate in social welfare.

She began making her mark as a scholar by publishing journal articles and co-authoring four books

Besides her work at CMU, she serves as  an adjunct professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and a faculty associate at Washington University’s Center for Social Development. She is also a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Program for Research on Religion & Urban Civil Society and the Robert A. Fox Leadership Program.

Her strong interest in the role of faith-based institutions in rebuilding underserved communities made it natural that she would cross paths with Dr. John M. Wallace Jr., the University of Pittsburgh professor who, as pastor of Homewood's Bible Center Church, was working to bring the insights of sociology to bear on the church's community work. The two met at a conference in 2003 and kept in touch afterward.

She moved to Homewood in 2012 to participate in a program, "Healthy Living, Healthy Learning, Healthy Lives," a joint project of the University of Pittsburgh and the Homewood Children's Village, of which Wallace is the co-founder.

She had visited Homewood prior to that, and one of her visits coincided with the annual Good Firday prayer walk that House Of Manna, pastored by Rev. Eugene Blackwell, initiated in 2010.

The convening of people from all faiths impressed her.

"There seemed to be some potential for united efforts to transform the neighborhood and reach the aspirations that the community had for itself," she said.

As a result, "I could always see Homewood as a community that had vitality, that had life and energy."

A Last Minute Note

Posted by Elwin Green on April 22, 2016 at 4:45 PM Comments comments (0)

It's not too late to register for The Each One Teach One Music And Radio Conference, an annual gathering that brings together musicians, techies, writers and others to explore a range of topics.

The conference, being held tomorrow, will include panel discussions on "Starting A Record Label," and "What Is News?"

Homewood native Kevin Amos, recently described Pittsburgh City Paper as "among Pittsburgh’s longest-serving radio DJs and perhaps its most eclectic," produces the conference, which is in its fourth year.

After a networking hour at 9 am, the FREE event will run from 10 am - 4:30 pm, at Bloomfield-Garfield Community Center, 113 S. Pacific Avenue.

Go here to register.

Homewood Children's Village To Report Out

Posted by Elwin Green on April 22, 2016 at 1:45 PM Comments comments (0)

 Fred W. Brown Jr., president/CEO of the Homewood Children's Village

This evening, the Homewood Children's Village will host its "Today and Tomorrow" quarterly community gathering, the second in a series of events designed to keep residents informed about HCV's work.


The event, to be held at Bethany Baptist Church from 5:30 - 7 pm, will include a report in the form of a scorecard that grades the organization's performance, both internally and externally.


This will be HCV's second time offering such a scorecard for public perusal. The first was in December, at a similar gathering held at Bible Center Church.


The quarterly reports are one of the more obvious changes made by Fred W. Brown Jr. since becoming president and CEO in August of last year. His predecessor, Derrick Lopez, left the organization in September, 2014.


Brown came to HCV from The Kingsley Association, having served as associate director of program development from January 2009 until he began at HCV.


A native Homewoodian, he received his bachelor's degree in education from Indiana University in 1987, and his master's in social work from the University of Pittsburgh in 1988.


I think I first met and became friends with Fred when we both attended a weekend training event given several years ago by Transition US, an organization devoted to helping communities lead the nation in a move away from fossil fuels. He went on to become a trainer with the organization.


So when we met in August, some two weeks after he began at HCV, it was not just as interviewer and subject. It was as friends getting caught up. We spoke over lunch at the Fireside Caribbean restaurant in Wilkinsburg.


I already knew the Village's stated mission, which is "to simultaneously improve the lives of Homewood’s children and to reweave the fabric of the community in which they live." So I fired up my phone's voice recording app, and asked about goals. And he said (this is verbatim, from the recording),.


"The goal of the Village in the next few years is to realign our internal processes so that we create four distinct institutions to serve as pillars to Homewood, to better interface with the existing ecosystems of programs and projects and institutions, so that we help support a holistic delivery system that changes the caliber and capacity of community residents to actively engage in the change process from the ground up to interface in a vertical and horizontal way at the micro- meso- and macro-levels within our systems."


That is Fred Brown - a man whose conversation may repel you if you're dislike language such as "interface," "ecosystems" and "holistic.".Or whom you may find intriguing if it doesn't.


Either way, it reflects both the training and the sensibility that he brings to his work: a training that allows him to easily cite "The Big Rethink," a 2012 report on Pittsburgh's community development system, which stated that 80,000 Pittsburghers live in communities the report described as vulnerable - and then to add to it: "what the report doesn't go into greater detail and discern, is that in those communities where there's 80,000 vulnerable people, up to 44,000 are on probation or parole." And a sensibility that leads him to describe HCV's work largely in terms of relationships, and to describe relationships as either "transactional" or "transformative," expressing a preference for the latter.


The Homewood Children's Village was incorporated in August, 2009. I was on the steering committee that met for a year before that to design it; it would be another year before its unveiling to the public in a community meeting held in September, 2010. The two years of planning resulted in the organization getting off to good start in terms of funding. It received $165,731 in its first fiscal year, running from July 1, 2009 to June 30, 2010. The next year, its first full year of operation, it landed nearly $2.2 million in funds. In FY 2011, it received $1 million, and in FY 2012, $2.1 million.


In FY 2013, the Village received $2.3 million, and had expenses of $2.5 million. Most of that - $1.9 million - went to salaries for 41 employees.


Now, Brown said, there about about 25 full- and part-time employees, in addition to interns.


"We have several PhDs working in our community, in our building," he said. "I find it compelling that those individuals could have taken jobs anywhere in the country.


"I don't recall in my lifetime as a child or as a young man, that I could knock on the door of a facility in our community, interface with four or five PhDs that are willing to help me with my homework, help me understand what quantum physics means, help me learn how to aggregate data."


That kind of interaction between staff and children is intrinsic to the work done by four divisions of the Village - the "institutions" he referred to back in August: its Full Service Community Schools program, the Office of Promise Fulfillment, the Office of Child and Community Health, and the Office of Evaluation and Research.


The scorecard that will be shared publicly at the "Today and Tomorrow" meeting will grade the work of all four offices. And if the first scorecard is any indication, it won't be pure self-congratulation. "Transparency" is another one of Brown's favorite words, and in December, an "F" stood out like a sore thumb from the list of As and Bs. The lapse was under the heading, "Community of Health," with this simple note:


"There have been a lot of snacks this month, few of which have been very healthy."


It may sound like a punch line, but Brown is serious about having employees, and the organization itself, pay attention to small things "so that we can model a behavior that transforms a community, not through an event, but through an ongoing process that gets down into the sinews of who we are as human beings."


He places all of this within the context of Homewood's redevelopment, and sees an opportunity for Homewood residents to learn from our neighbors in Larimer (whose work resulted in a $30 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development), "so that we're not weak sisters at the table, but strong partners - not just by our assets and volunteer hours...but by our latent skills and our ability to understand systems, resource allocation, land that can't be created.


And then he does this thing that he does - he elides seamslessly from the practical to the conceptual, from the political to the metaphysical.


"Now, this causes us to rise to a different frequency, to discern our dharma, our purpose, right?

Einstein said energy can never be created or destroyed, but simply altered. Right? So are we truly cognizant that..." and here his tonality changes, so that what started out as question becomes statement, "that we are spiritual beings having a human experience and at this time in the universe we are here to perform a service, because the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.


"Are we really cognizant how we should be living our life?"


A print version of this piece appears in the Aprll 21 - 27 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!


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 Matter Of Equity

Posted by Elwin Green on February 24, 2016 at 2:05 PM Comments comments (2)

This is a piece about equity - the portion of a home's value that truly belongs to the homeowner as they pay down, or pay off, any mortgages or other encumbrances against it.

It is also about equity, as in fairness, impartiality or the quality of being just.

As I write this, the National Association of Realtors' website lists three houses of similar design for sale in the zip code 15208, which includes Homewood.

They all appear to be in the American Foursquare style, of brick construction, two-and-a-half stories high, with a second-story bay window above the porch. Just like my house.

House A, which sits in Point Breeze, has five bedrooms and two baths, and is listed for $307,000.

House B, around the corner from House A (a one-minute walk, according to Google Maps), has four bedrooms and three baths, and is priced at $414,750.

House C is in Homewood, 1.5 miles away from the first two. It has six bedrooms and two baths.

Its price? $69,900.

The fact that the list price for House C is between 16% and 23% of the list price of similar homes less than two miles away is bad news for the seller. But it gets worse: House C has been listed nearly for a year. That suggests that the market value of House C is even less than $69,900.

I dare not guess how much less.

Some would say that the lower price is to be expected in a neighborhood known to have some of the highest crime rates in the city. But the disparity between home prices in Homewood and those in other neighborhoods predates the increase in crime here. It also typifies a pattern that is common across the U.S. - homes in predominately Black neighborhoods sell for less than similar homes in predominately white neighborhoods.

In a lengthy 2014 piece for The Atlantic, “The Case For Reparations,” columnist Ta-Nehisi Coates explains that the disparity in the value of homes owned by Blacks and homes owned by whites is neither natural nor accidental, but is the continuing result of policies embraced and practices engaged in by developers, financial institutions, and government, up to the federal level. Indeed, the notorious practice of”redlining” began with the Federal Housing Administration, created in 1934. The agency insured private mortgages, resulting in reduced interest rates and down payment requirements. But not for black homebuyers:

“The FHA had adopted a system of maps that rated neighborhoods according to their perceived stabiilty. On the maps, green areas, rated 'A,' indicated 'in demand' neighborhoods that, as one appraiser put it, lacked 'a single foreigner or Negro.' These neighborhoods were considered excellent prospects for insurance. Neighborhoods where black people lived were rated 'D' and were usually considered ineligible for FHA backing. They were colored in red. Neither the percentage of black people living there nor their social class mattered. Black people were viewed as a contagion. Redlining went beyond FHA-backed loans and spread to the entire mortgage industry...”

Eighty years later, the consequences continue to reverberate. One consequence is that the rate of homeownership among blacks stubbornly lags that among whites.

Another is that black homeowners enjoy less equity: homes in black neighborhoods – even middle- and upper-class black neighborhoods – sell for less and appreciate more slowly than homes in comparable white neighborhoods.

To put it simply, homeowners in Homewood and neighborhoods like it have been cheated of equity, for generations. The distribution of equity has lacked equity.

That may not matter to someone whose view of finances is limited to income and expenses, and who is operating in survival mode. But for anyone who wants to build wealth, or to leave a legacy, equity is hugely important.

For most homeowners, the equity in their home is the biggest part of their net worth. It may also be the part that grows fastest: it grows as their mortgage principal shrinks, and grows even more as their home appreciates in value. This equity growth can serve as the cornerstone for wealth building, creating a windfall when the house is either sold or passed on to heirs as part of the homeowner's estate.

Home equity also provides a household safety net that can help families to ride out unanticipated financial bumps in the road.

Finally, for entrepreneurs launching their first business, home equity is the primary source of startup capital.

But when your home's value starts out low, grows slowly, then plateaus or even drops, all of those benefits shrink.

My home was passed down to my wife and me from her father. Her family moved here when she was seven years old (she says the neighbors were mostly Italian then). Her father paid off the mortgage decades ago.

In 2011, I had an idea for an online game. I tapped a home equity line of credit to put $30,000 into the game's development, with the goal of having the game itself generate enough cash to fund further development.

The game didn't succeed, and I let it go fallow because I didn't have any more money to put into it. That $30,000 effectively maxed out the line of credit.

If my house were worth as much as its counterparts in Point Breeze or Squirrel Hill – say, ten times as much as its present value – my home equity line of credit could have funded a second $30,000 round of development. And a third, and a fourth, and a fifth - and I would still have used only half our equity. Maybe multiple iterations would have produced the game I saw in my head. Maybe that game would made lots of money (Farmville, anyone?), maybe not. The point is, with more equity, I would have had more of a shot.

I wonder how many other entrepreneurs in Homewood would have more of a shot at growing their businesses if they had more equity. How much business development is being hindered by the devaluation of Homewood's homes?

I'm working to increase the value of my home, and of my neighbors' homes. I believe that all of us who have invested ourselves in the neighborhood over the past several decades deserve that.

But some of my neighbors may not want that. For some of them, increasing the value of their homes may mean having their taxes go up, without having a corresponding increase in income to pay them. A 60-something widow living on savings, Social Security, and maybe a pension – let's call her Jane Smith - may not care about net worth.

The good news for Ms. Smith is that tax relief is available through the City's Homestead program (Act 50), which can reduce her city real estate tax by $120.90 and her Carnegie Library tax by $3.75; the School District of Pittsburgh's Homestead program (Act 1), which provides a tax savings of $289.76, and the Senior Tax Relief program (Act 77), which for 2015 reduces a property's taxable value to 40% of the full value assessment (for more information, visit the City's website and scroll down to the sections on tax relief).

Homewood is in transition, and one predictable outcome of the change is that property values will increase. When they do, those who already own homes here will finally gain equity, in the financial sense. That's a given.

Will the distribution of that equity be done with equity? That remains to be seen.

Or perhaps it remains for us to decide.


What do you think? Let us know down below!

(For a book-length treatment of this and other economic issues affected by race, see “Black Wealth, White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality,” by Melvin L. Oliver and Thomas M. Shapiro.)


A print version of this piece appears in the Feb. 26-Mar. 3 issue of Print, Pittsburgh's East End newspaper. Pick up your copy Friday at Baker's Dairy, 7300 Hamilton Ave., then SUBSCRIBE for more of Homewood Nation and other East End news!

A Long, Hot...Winter?

Posted by Elwin Green on January 22, 2016 at 6:50 PM Comments comments (0)

The shooting last night of Ja-nese Talton-Jackson, followed by a car chase through Homewood into Wilkinsburg, capped a week of shootings and car crashes.


Last Friday night/Saturday morning, at around 3:15 a.m., a collision between a Saturn sedan and a Lincoln Navigator drove the Saturn through a front  window of the Homewood-Brushton Branch of Community College of Allegheny Country, and smashed the Navigator into a pole.


I came upon the scene while returning home from a night of driving for Uber. Officers weren't able to tell me much because it had just happened, and they were still investigating.


(My phone's camera is great for daylight or well-lit situations, not so much for nighttime photography.)

The next day, Sonya Toler, the Public Safety Department's spokeswoman, responded to my query with this an email containing this brief summary


At approximately 3:15 a.m. a 911 caller reported a two vehicle accident at the intersection of N. Homewood Avenue & Kelly Street. Three people were involved. One female with minor injuries was transported to UPMC Presby.


She also informed me that "crash reports do not need to be complete for 10 days after the incident."


Good to know, and that's that for that incident for now.


Saturday night/Sunday morning, 24 hours after the first incident, while returning home again from Ubering, I came across a scene where police had blocked off a section of Bennett Street where it intersects Dallas and Frankstown Avenues.


One car was smashed up in the middle of the street, another had ended up in someone's front yard. I saw some of the same officers from the night before, and was asked to keep more of a distance this time because this incident had involved shooting, making it not just an accident scene, but a crime scene.


Here's the report from the Zone 5 weekly community crime update:


Officers responded to a ShotSpotter notification that indicated eight rounds had been fired at the above location. Officers arrived to find a 2016 silver Chevrolet Malibu with several bullet holes, wrecked into a parked car. The occupants of the Malibu fled prior to officers arriving at the scene, but they left behind a Glock pistol and over (4) “bricks” of heroin (over 200 stamp bags). Officers began searching the area and soon learned that the driver had been shot (minor injury) and was awaiting EMS in the 500 block of N. Murtland Avenue. A second passenger was with him and was uninjured. The third passenger transported himself to UPMC East in Monroeville with a gunshot wound to the buttocks (minor injury). The three males were identified as Martel Maurice Bryant, 24, of Larimer, Tiere Maddox, 19, of Penn Hills, and Shawn William Taylor, 23, (Address unknown). All three were arrested on drug & gun charges. None of the males would give any information on the individuals who shot them.


On Wednesday evening, my wife and I were returning from dinner with friends  when we passed by the scene of the shooting in the 700 block of N. Lang Ave that we told you about earlier. UPDATE: Yesterday morning, Cmdr. Lando reported that  "The incident in the 700 block of N. Lang Avenue in Homewood was resolved late last night with the SWAT team taking the suspects into custody without incident or injury."

The Post-Gazette account is here. 

The obvious questions are, other than last night's murder, which seems to stand alone, are any of these incidents related, in a crime spree by people who are connected to each other? Or are a whole bunch of people just suddenly and independently going bonkers? Is it going to be a long, hot winter?

More after I speak with Cmdr. Lando.

Rep. Gainey's sister shot, killed

Posted by Elwin Green on January 22, 2016 at 4:45 PM Comments comments (0)

Ever since taking office as Homewood's state representative, Edward C. "Ed" Gainey has been a strong and consistent voice against the violence that remains too prevalent in our community.

Last night, his family fell victim to that violence when his sister, Ja-nese Talton-Jackson, was shot and killed. The alert issued by Zone 5 Commander Jason Lando does not name her, pending notification of her faimily. But that has happened now.

On 1/22/16, shortly before 2:00am, Zone 5 officers responded to an activation of the ShotSpotter system in the area of Upland Street & N. Lang Avenue in Homewood. Responding officers soon learned that a 29 year-old female victim had been shot in front of the bar at Upland & Lang. Moments later, officers enroute to the scene encountered a vehicle fleeing the area of the shooting. Officers attempted to stop this vehicle but the driver refused to obey commands and led officers on a pursuit through Homewood and Wilkinsburg.

The 41 year-old male suspect was eventually apprehended by Zone 5 officers at the end of the pursuit on McNary Blvd in Wilkinsburg. This individual was positively identified as the shooter from Upland & N. Lang. Tragically, the victim of that shooting succumbed to her injuries. Her identity is being withheld pending notification of family members. The suspect will be identified shortly and he will be charged with Criminal Homicide.


Ms. Talton-Jackson was 29; I have read, but have not confirmed, that she had twin daughters and a young son.

Here is the Post-Gazette's current version of their story about the incident.

I have a call in to Cmdr. Lando, and am awaiting his response. Meanwhile...

Ed and I go back some 25 years or so; my heart breaks for him and for all the family. 

I am grateful that the shooter has been apprehended and identified, so that this case will not join the too-long list of unsolved murders in Homewood.

I wish that I could make the criminal justice system work more quickly that it is likely to; there has always been something cruel about the fact that families of murder victimes, even when the killer is known, must wait so long to see justice served.

The alert doesn't say how the police identified the shooter (that will be one of my questions for Cmdr. Lando), but if witnesses helped to identify him, I commend them. WE NEED MORE OF THAT.

On the other hand, if witnesses did NOT help to identify the shooter, when they could have, then shame on them. And shame on us all for allowing a culture in which it is okay not to identify killers of innocent people.

All of us who have suppported Ed politically - and who have received his support as an advocate on our behalf in Harrisburg - need to support him now by showing up for him and his family in whatever ways they express they need.

A New Script For Homewood

Posted by Elwin Green on January 22, 2016 at 9:10 AM Comments comments (0)

Grab a cup of coffee, this will take a little while...

Homewood has become the focus of a great deal of attention by people who want to see it redeveloped. This focus has intensified both the danger and the opportunity that have been close at hand for years now.


A large part of the danger lies in the possibility that Homewood's redevelopment will follow a script that goes something like this:



  • ACT I. Residents wait for - and sometimes strive for - outside parties to come into a neighborhood to build new buildings that attract new businesses and/or residents.
  • ACT II. Some of them fight back when the buildings or new businesses are things that they don't want, or when the process of bringing the developers in looks shady.
  • ACT III. As property values, taxes and rents increase, lower-income people get pushed out.


The opportunity lies in the possibility of writing a different script. I hope that the Homewood Community Development Collaborative can do that. Meanwhile, if I could write the script for Homewood's redevelopment, I would eliminate the first part entirely, for two reasons.


First, because a neighborhood is more than real estate. A script that starts with real estate has started off on the wrong foot. A neighborhood is people. I would write a script that starts with people.


Second, because a script that starts with residents waiting has started off on a second wrong foot. I would write a script that starts with residents realizing that they have the power to initiate things without waiting for anybody.


How would development start? By surveying residents. There would probably be multiple surveys, but the first would ask questions that flow from one larger, leading question: "What do you have to offer?"


The survey would not include a single question asking what residents need. Why? Because focusing attention on one's own deficiencies tends to strengthen feelings of powerlessness, which is the last thing residents of Homewood and neighborhoods like it need.


Instead, the questions would be ones like,



  • What abilities do I have?
  • What am I especially good at?
  • How can I offer my abilities to the world - beginning with my neighbors?
  • What am I willing to receive in exchange for what I have to offer? (The most obvious answer is simply "money," but a more specific answer is more effective - for instance, "$20 per hour" or "$50 per job.")



Then I would communicate everyone's answers to everyone else in the neighborhood. "April Jones is good at working on cars. Bill Smith can knit like nobody's business - need socks?" And provide the appropriate contact info.


Thus, residents would have the opportunity to have some of their needs met by their neighbors.


In exchange, those neighbors could experience new sources of income. However - and this is a big however - sometimes the person receiving the goods or service offered might offer omething other than money in exchange: you repair my refrigerator, I paint a portrait of your kid. You change the oil in my car, I give you vegetables from my garden. Barter existed before money came along, and in a community characterized by too little money, it can prove to be a valuable substitute still.


When there's too little money in a neighborhood, the more that people can accomplish without money, the better. The informal economy already exists all around us. This scenario merely suggests being more intentional about acknowledging and facilitating it to cultivate human capital.


I didn't come up with this approach on my own. I found it in a book, "Building Communities From The Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding And Mobilizing A Community's Assets," by John P. Kretzmann and John L. McKnight. They call it "asset based community development" (ABCD - convenient, yes?). You can learn more at the ABCD Insititute's website.


Encouraging and facilitating the informal exchange of value among residents would be Act I of my script. Act II would be encouraging resident entrepreneurship - helping residents to establish and grow actual businesses. This would involve partnering with the small business centers at the University of Pittsburgh and Duquesne University, working with the all levels of government to help neighborhood entrepreneurs to make use of incentives, and perhaps even lobbying for new ones.


The good news here is that recent years have seen the creation of at least two initiatives to encourage Homewood's entrepreneurs. The first is a grant program by Urban Innovation21, a public-private partnership created to connect underserved communities to the innovation economy. The agency is preparing to announce the winners in its third annual grant competition for Homewood entrepreneurs. Previous winners have received up to $10,000 to advance their businesses.


The second is the creation of the Homewood-Brushton Business Association, a membership-based organization for business owners created to provide them with opportunities for networking, professional development and advocacy.


These excite me, because the more successful our entrepreneurs are, the more likely they are, not only to ascend the economic ladder, but to bring others up by creating jobs. The more jobs that residents can create among ourselves, without depending on outside businesses relocating to Homewood, the better.


The first two acts of my script would focus on developing the people of Homewood. The third act would focus on the second great resource that Homewood possesses in abundance - land.


Homewood has lots of vacant land. Most of it is not cared for, and has devolved into blight.


What if all of it were cared for?


One of our residents, Mary Savage, has gained national fame among people who care about communities, for her work in planting flowers on Homewood's vacant lots. Among the awards recognizing her work is one from Baptist Temple Church, the Rev. J.A. Williams Community Leader Award. I was there when she received it in August, 2010, and will never forget her saying that if we wanted to, we could beautify all of Homewood "in a single season."


Imagine all of Homewood's idle land abloom with flowers and flowering trees. The simplicity of the idea belies the complexity of the work that it would take to pull it off - but what if residents of Homewood did that work? What would it take for residents of Homewood to do that work? What help could residents of Homewood get to do that work? Would the work need to be done on a purely volunteer basis, neighborhood-wide, or could some residents get paid to do some of it?


How much of Homewood's vacant land is available for purchase by residents for beautification? How much of it could residents assume stewardship over without purchasing it? The latter route is the one that the Save Race Street Committee, which I chair, has pursued since its founding in November 2008, during which time we have beautified lots in four blocks of our five-block street.


The Urban Redevelopment Authority has become one of Homewood's largest owners of vacant land. Would they reject an offer of, "We'll do the work needed to make your lots look pretty until someone builds something on them"?


Or, could we establish permanent gardens or groves on a scale that makes Homewood a tourist attraction? What might a Homewood cherry blossom festival look like? Or a Homewood dogwood festival?

I say, let's make the dogwood the official Homewood's official flower, because it is a symbol of resurrection. What do you say?


Of course, land is good for growing more than flowers. An alternative way of developing both people and land would be through urban agriculture. We have not yet explored that on Race Street, but we intend to, drawn by questions like, "How much food could be grown on one vacant lot?" and "How many people could we feed with the food grown on one (or more) of our vacant lots?"


Residents of a neighborhood with as much vacant land as Homewood has should never go hungry. Period.


Indeed, a neighborhood with as much vacant land as Homewood has could export food, and create jobs in the process. Building the enterprise for doing this at scale would require assembling a lot of expertise that may not exist within the community yet. But we do already have people who know how to grow food. That's a big start.


What would it take to develop Homewood Farms, an agricultural enterprise that has a retail store in the neighborhood, that sells to Pittsburgh restaurants who have made the city a destination for foodies and to supermarkets who want to buy local, and that ships everywhere?


Alternatively, how much land would it take, and what skills would residents need to learn, in order to establish (to keep the naming thing simple) Homewood Vines, an urban winery?


Could these businesses attract outside investment as needed, while residents maintain majority ownership? That would be key, so that as they grow, they would return profits to residents.


And that would be the driving theme of my script - the idea that residents who have more skills and knowledge than anyone realizes are capable of coming together to build enterprises that can lead the neighborhood out of poverty. Instead of being pushed out by rising property values, lower-income people can increase their income, and stay in place if they like.


And all without an outside developer taking control of anything.

What do you think?


A print version of this piece appears in the Jan 21-27 issue of Print, Pittsburgh's East End newspaper. Pick up your copy at Baker's Dairy, 7300 Hamilton Ave., today! Then SUBSCRIBE for more of Homewood Nation and other East End news!


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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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