Mix of longtimers, young professionals, refugees gives neighborhood a new profile
April 12, 2014 11:19 PM
Robert Davis clowns around with his son, Aaden Leskowak, 3, while they play football Thursday outside their home on Hatteras Street in Troy Hill.
Robert Davis, left, plays football with his son Aaden Leskowak, 3, as, from left, his mother Jenn Leskowak, brother Isaiah Davis, 9 months, and aunt Sammie Leskowak watch Thursday outside the Davis’ home on Hatteras Street in Troy Hill.
By Diana Nelson Jones / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A recent homicide in Troy Hill triggered a rash of online comments that ranged from the neighborhood changing "from Mayberry to Somalia" to raves about its strong weave of community.
In the mid-20th century, it was a permanent-press knit of Germans, Swiss and Eastern Europeans. But it has blended to look more like America today -- majority white and multi-ethnic, with blacks, Mexicans, Burmese and Bhutani refugees mixed in. In the past five years, increasing numbers of young professionals have bought homes they could not have afforded in the first-choice neighborhoods of their cohort.
Crime rates citywide have fallen in the past decade, according to annual police reports. Those in Troy Hill fell from 170 in 2010 to 142 in 2012, with a drop in violent crime by almost half.
But perceptions have been trending downward for a number of years, sometimes based on real crime, sometimes on racial biases. North Side neighborhoods have had particularly persistent negative jabs, which intensify after a violent crime.
The murder of 18-year-old Rasheed Strader on March 24 in front of his mother's home on Goettman Street shook everyone in the neighborhood, but at Allegheny Youth Development's after-school program at Schiller Middle School, too many of the teen boys in the program absorbed it with a stoicism that's heartbreaking to see in children, said Dana Bose, the after-school program coordinator for AYD.
Gun violence may be rare in Troy Hill, but it's an all too common reality in the lives of black youth, no matter the neighborhood.
"We have to find things for kids to do," Mr. Bose said. "They want structure, they want guidance, and we give them that. It's why so many guys stay here late."
Wherever a killing happens, the trickle-down effect on residents becomes a defense: "That's not who we are."
Everyone who agreed to be interviewed for this story spoke of Troy Hill as "a great neighborhood." There is spirited love for the place from lifetimers, longtimers and newcomers. They say it is a great place despite the here-and-there of blight, irresponsible landlords, nuisance behavior, drug deals and the two fatal shootings of Rasheed Strader and his brother, Sherief, four years earlier at the same site.
"The many good things that happen in a place never catch the attention of the public the way a shooting does," said Tony Benvin, a Troy Hill native who returned after decades away. "I suspect most people who have come here recently have done so because it has been established as a safe neighborhood.
"Has it changed? Yes," he said. "No place hasn't. Robberies, shootings, yes. They are more frequent now as opposed to zero in the first 22 years of my life; it's relative. I've always enjoyed the neighborhood and the camaraderie. There are neighbors I have known since I was a child and it's exciting to see all the younger people coming here, too."
Some in Troy Hill's old guard aren't so welcoming, said Matt Stidle, whose own grandfather was a Troy Hill old-timer. He said there is occasional tension between the longtime and new residents.
Mr. Stidle, president of the Troy Hill Citizens Council, grew up in the city's Mount Oliver neighborhood, "which has a horrible perception and I had kind of an idyllic childhood there."
When he returned to Pittsburgh after college, he and his wife bought the duplex his father grew up in.
"There was the affordability and allure of the family homestead," he said. "Plus Troy Hill is a really interesting micro world within Pittsburgh.
"I get obsessive about statistics, and I read the Zone 1 report every week," he said. "In the week before the shooting there was one simple assault among 2,500 people," Troy Hill's population. "That's a day-to-day reality that's no different than anywhere."
Troy Hill always could boast its convenience to Downtown and solid housing stock, but today it is priced in the dream range for people from larger cities.
Patty Renwick, a native of Washington, D.C., moved to Pittsburgh seven years ago for a job, she said, "and Troy Hill was close to work" on Washington's Landing. "You can buy a house here for $40,000, live-in ready. I got mine for $110,000 but it's on a triple lot with a three-car garage."
Holly Coleman, a Troy Hill native, has lived in Lawrenceville, Point Breeze and Millvale. "I came back in '99," she said. "I chose to live in Troy Hill. It's a great community." In a blog post in 2011, she described the people who live "at the top of that crazy steep hill," Rialto Street, as "Good people. Steelers loving, Pirates tailgating, stoop sitting, parallel parking, 'Yinz need a ride?' people."
It is that, she said, and more.
Ms. Coleman works for the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council and knows of about 50 Bhutanese refugees who took English classes there who now live in Troy Hill. One group of Bhutani men went together to buy a house.
"I knew the neighborhood had morphed a little over time," said Jeff Bergman, whose maternal grandparents lived in Troy Hill and who also works on Washington's Landing. He bought a home on the hill in 2008, "sick of the commute" from the northern suburbs, he said. Besides being a walk away from work, he said, he found a three-story brick neo-Colonial with a yard for $62,000.
"We have the best neighbors," he said. "We shut the street for block parties, we have neighborhood cleanups and a great diversity."
Nicole DeMan discovered Troy Hill while house hunting online, wanting something affordable and small with a little land. She came to Pittsburgh from Harrisburg for college 20 years ago. After renting for 11 years in Regent Square, she found her Troy Hill home in 2008.
"I live across the figurative tracks, with smaller houses and more renters," she said.
One day, a neighbor's dog attacked her while she was walking her dog and she began screaming, she said. "A neighbor ran out to help me. I have never felt such a sense of community in Pittsburgh in 20 years."
It is typical for people to run out of their homes in response to commotion, Ms. Coleman said.
"People get involved here. If you're going to do wrong in public, people are going to come out," she said, citing an instance in which late-night shouting prompted her and others to run out and stop one man from beating another.
Two years ago, when a thief snatched a purse on a pew during communion at the Most Holy Name of Jesus parish, parishioners chased and tackled him, leading to his arrest.
The night of the recent murder on Goettman Street, people came out. They reported two people running away. The police reported two shooters and have an outstanding warrant for one suspect's arrest.
Although Mr. Strader had run afoul of the justice system in previous years, 14-year-old Sonnie Watts said he had gotten a job and "had changed back to the old Rasheed," the young man he had looked up to. "He told me not to smoke or drink. He was a positive role model."
"It sounded like he was trying to get back on the up and up," said Alaina Spanoudakis, who was Mr. Strader's eighth-grade teacher.
Sonnie said he has always felt safe in Troy Hill, where he spends a lot of time on the basketball courts and ballfield at the end of Goettman Street. Asked if he still feels safe, he nodded eagerly, then tilted his head and said, "Kind of."
Diana Nelson Jones: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.
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