It was the early 1990s, and Pittsburgh was dealing with gang violence. A number of East End neighborhoods were caught between turf wars. But there was one place in the middle of it all that was a safe haven.Bill Wade, Post-Gazette
The Kingsley Association's new facility on Frankstown Avenue in Larimer.
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Nobody wrote graffiti on its East Liberty building. Young people who were bitter enemies on the street left the bad blood at the door. Inside was a place where they were safe and where those turned away by other employers could earn a few dollars. It was a place where hope was found and opportunities given.
Now that place -- the Kingsley Association -- has a new home to carry on the service to Pittsburghers in need that it has provided for 110 years. It moved from its home on Penn Circle South to a new $8 million facility at 6435 Frankstown Ave. in Larimer two weeks ago. The three-story center is up and running and will be dedicated later in the summer.
The building has five times more space than the old Penn Circle location and will allow the association to expand its programming and offer more to the community, including a pool, gymnasium, meeting rooms and computer lab.
The Kingsley Association was founded in a Strip District rowhouse to help European immigrants adjust to American life. Today, an agency that once had a reputation for turning its back on blacks serves a mostly African-American population and is run primarily by African-Americans.
But no matter the face of the community, Kingsley has always stuck to its mission of providing support to families and neighborhoods through an array of social, recreational and educational programs. In the process it has become one of the premier social service agencies in the county.
Kingsley also houses other agencies, such as the East Liberty Family Support Center and, soon, a child care center. Community groups such as stroke survivors and Alcoholics Anonymous meet there.
But it's Kingsley's own programs -- football, basketball, soccer, cheerleading, arts and crafts, leadership training, nutrition education, dance instruction, tutoring, aerobics and the Selma Burke Art Gallery -- that leave an indelible mark. And now it gets to do all that in a new and bigger facility that fulfills a long-held dream of the agency's leaders.
"Kingsley has always provided a safe place for everybody, not just youths," said Carl Redwood, Kingsley's director of program services. "With the construction of this new center, it's a beacon of hope for development in this community. We're a meeting place that transcends neighborhood [conflicts]."
During the gang violence, there was a rule that neighborhood disputes were to be left at the door, and the students respected that code.
"We had kids from all over the place and [Kingsley] was a holy ground, neutral territory," said Stephen Chatman, the association's sports and recreation director from 1988 to 1998. "We never had gang situations in our building and we had some hardcore kids in the program. Young men from different neighborhoods played together on our football team."
One of those young men was Kristan Peacock, 23, of Swissvale. He says Kingsley may have saved his life. "It kept me off the streets."
During the early '90s, Peacock's mother signed him up for the football team. He came faithfully to lift weights and train. Even when the season was over, he was at Kingsley, relaxing with friends, hanging out in the recording studio, watching TV, participating in movie nights, staying out of trouble.
"They used to call me the Kingsley Kid because I was there so much. I'm not exaggerating; we used to go there all the time."
When he was 12, Peacock's mother died of a heart attack. The young man was devastated and had nowhere else to turn. "Steve looked out for me," he said. When he couldn't get work, Chatman offered him a job cleaning up and answering phones.
Peacock moved to Texas for a year and when he returned, he had no place to live. Chatman took him in as his foster son.
"I was surprised that he did it," said Peacock, a senior at Edinboro University. "Steve was a blessing. Kingsley was very important to me in my life at the time. It kept me from selling drugs. It kept me from using drugs. It kept me with money in my pockets."
Kingsley memories run deep.
Robin (Cook) Young, 33, of Wilkinsburg, traveled 3,000 miles back to Pittsburgh after her family moved to the West Coast in order to visit family and attend the Lillian Taylor Day Camp run by Kingsley in Butler County.
Aki Jamal Durham, 32, of Point Breeze, remembered being a shy, insecure kid until his mother sent him to the day camp where he was forced to meet new people and broke out of his shell.
The Kingsley Association began as the Kingsley House, a settlement house for European immigrants who came here to work in the city's thriving factories and mills. The house was named for Charles Kingsley, who co-founded the Christian Socialist movement in London's East End. Pittsburgh's Kingsley House opened on Christmas Day, 1893, at 1707 Penn Ave. in the Strip.
Leaders of the settlement house movement believed that organized social, educational and recreational programs would help bring solutions to the then-new problems of urban life.
By 1901, Kingsley House had outgrown its space and moved to the Montooth Mansion (now Connelley Technical Institute and Adult Education Center) at Bedford and Fullerton in the Hill District. In 1917, the Kingsley House Association became the Kingsley Association. After being accused of refusing to serve the black population that was moving into the Hill District during the Great Migration from the South in 1923, Kingsley moved to Larimer, where many Italian immigrants had settled. The house remained at that location until 1978.
By the 1950s, the black population in the East End began to increase. Then-Kingsley Executive Director Robert Haas asked the board of directors for permission to start serving the needs of the black community as well. The board agreed.
By the mid-1970s, the board scaled down its operation and moved to Medical Center East on Whitfield Street in East Liberty. The Larimer house was eventually torn down.
Dr. Ralph Proctor, who was hired as executive director in 1978 and served for nearly 20 years, said he initially did not want the job because of the board's reputation in the black community.
"I was so much into not wanting the job," Proctor said. "I was so laid back in the interview that I began interviewing the board. A couple days later, I got a call that I was hired."
During his first presentation to the board, Proctor said the community viewed them "as a bunch of rich white folks from the suburbs who don't understand poverty." Proctor told the board it could do something to address the needs of the community or walk away.
Through his directness and determined nature, Proctor revamped Kingsley with youth-based programs and hired political activist Elmer McClung to serve as program director. Under their leadership, Kingsley moved from a one-room office in the medical building to the former Selma Burke Art Center on Penn Circle South and began developing a reputation for effectiveness. The face of Kingsley's board also changed with more African-Americans added to it.
"I felt Elmer and I had a mission to accomplish," said Proctor, a history professor at Community College of Allegheny County. "It was a very simple mission -- serve the community and serve it well. What Kingsley meant to the community was we stayed the course. We showed that blacks were capable of running an organization and running it well."
Proctor, McClung and other leaders had long wanted to build a center that would allow them to do more for the community.
Malik Bankston, who grew up in the East End and used Kingsley services as a child, went after that goal when he became executive director a few years ago. Kingsley got seed money from the city, then was able to secure about $1.4 million in state money, $500,000 in city funds, more than $1 million from foundations and the rest in private financing and donations.
"I never thought I'd live to see it," McClung said of the new building. "It's about 26 years in the making.
"People say that you can't build anything in the black community without it getting messed up. That's not true. If people feel it's a part of them, they'll protect it. Kingsley is a beacon, and the community will feel a sense of ownership."
For more information on memberships, programs and activities, call the Kingsley Association at: 412-661-8751, or visit: www.kingsleyassociation.org.
Michelle K. Massie can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-2533.