Group wants to spruce up Perry Hilltop

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For eight years, three federally confiscated properties in what was once Perry Hilltop's commercial corridor have sat vacant and boarded up. Last week, the Perry Hilltop Citizens' Council, after years of requests to see inside, was granted access by the U.S. marshal.

A musty cool wafted out from the unboarded doorways. Everyone who entered had to sign a waiver, even though a city building inspector had checked to make sure nothing too creepy or dangerous was lurking. In the former Family Store, a marshal's flashlight played over felled fixtures, rug remnants, broken glass, flattened cardboard and cords. A back stairway was barred by a fallen door and a broken basement window appears to have been used to dump trash through from the outside.

In the former Beeda Bea's beauty shop, a mannequin's head sat propped on a box and posters of black women with fashionable hairstyles lay on the floor.

Seeing the interiors was a "big first step" on the council's road to "breathe life back into the business district," said Sherman Culver, council president.

"It will take deep pockets," council member Janet Gunter said, "but we can't take the next step until we know if they're worth anything or nothing."

She said the mayor's office intervened to help the council get a look at what it's up against.

A quick assessment was that one of the properties isn't worth saving, but the other two might be. A fourth property in the 2600 block, a former coffee shop that was also seized in the 2000 drug raid that shuttered these buildings, is now owned by the city.

The most solid is the brick three-story Family Store. It served as a front for the heroin and cocaine ring of Oliver Beasley and Donald Lyles. The U.S. attorney's investigation -- Operation Family Store -- culminated in what former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft called the largest drug bust in Western Pennsylvania history. Mr. Beasley and Mr. Lyles are serving life sentences, and the property, in forfeiture, remains in the name of the Beasley Family Store Co.

All the properties are condemned, but building inspector Russell Blaich said their demolition is not imminent. He has 1,000 condemned properties to deal with and is one of three inspectors with condemnation caseloads.

"If the neighborhood wants to redevelop them," he said, "we won't move on them soon."

The Perry Hilltop council is a volunteer group that seeks investment in its neighborhood's properties, starting with the commercial blocks just a mile from housing and retail redevelopment on Federal Street in the Central Northside.

Three or four blocks of Perrysville on each side of Charles Street were once filled with stores, bars and restaurants, even a theater. Ms. Gunter said her elderly neighbors talk about the days when they would make "big trips" to East Ohio Street in nearby Deutschtown but otherwise found all their necessities without leaving the hilltop.

Disinvestment has failed the neighborhood over decades. In eight years, the federal government hasn't been able to unload the properties it seized. The assessed value of the Family Store building is $34,900, and the two other seized properties in the block are assessed at $22,000. Those are steep valuations for that market.

The most tenacious business in the corridor -- the only one left -- is Swinko's Market, a two-year-old enterprise that has been a convenience store off-and-on for years. The neighborhood council would like to see the whole corridor revive, said Ms. Gunter, but it is focusing on the three in the 2500 block because "they are so high profile."

"This is the face that Perry Hilltop shows to all the traffic that comes through here. And it isn't a good one," she said.


Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at post-gazette.com/localnews.


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