PublicSource: Economic, crime disparity among Pittsburgh neighborhoods difficult to bridge
January 24, 2016 12:00 AM
Carol Speaks holds a photo of her grandson Antwann Smith, who, at 19 years old, was shot and killed in 2013.
By Jeffrey Benzing / PublicSource
The street where Carol Speaks grew up is only blocks from where her grandson Antwann died.
At 19 years old, he was shot 17 times, according to Ms. Speaks, in front of witnesses just down the street from Pittsburgh Westinghouse Academy.
Homewood used to be a nice place, she said, walking past boarded-up windows, pointing out where neighbors used to live and looking for bullet holes.
These are from September, she said, and were made during the second anniversary of her grandson’s death. Shooters advanced down the block, firing at a vigil where bystanders, including her 12-year-old niece and a 3-year-old boy, were struck by gunfire.
From here, it’s a short walk to Hamilton Avenue where Ms. Speaks’ son, Charles “Squeak” Speaks, then 37, was murdered in 2010. There are dozens of other murder scenes in Homewood, and with every shooting she hears about, she recalls the helplessness she felt waiting for the coroner to come for her son.
“It takes me back to that. Over and over and over,” she said.
The violence is within walking distance to some of Pittsburgh’s most affluent neighborhoods, like Point Breeze and Shadyside, and to luxury apartments going up at Bakery Square.
This is the second installment of Public Source’s series on unsolved homicides in Pittsburgh. This story further explores the racial and economic divides surrounding murder, gun violence and the cases that do and don't get solved in the city.
PublicSource, in collaboration with 90.5 WESA, examined the ongoing tragedy of unsolved homicides in Pittsburgh.
“You want to say what part of that is for me?” Ms. Speaks asked of the redevelopment, keenly aware of the racial divides in the city and how that quickly changing community seems indifferent to the tragedies in her part of town.
Herman Watson, president of the Northside Public Safety Council, describes two Pittsburghs.
One is doing exceptionally well, he said.
The other is “getting the crumbs off the table.”
Mayor Bill Peduto has talked about subsidizing homeownership in areas like East Liberty, where more than 7,000 are on a waiting list for Section 8 housing.
Mr. Peduto did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
A recent report by the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., called the economic disparity between black and white in Pittsburgh “staggering.”
Unemployment for black residents with at least a high school diploma was more than twice that of white residents from 2007 to 2011, the report said.
Margaret Simms, an Urban Institute fellow and co-author of the report, said Pittsburgh, which is roughly a quarter black, has one of the most segregated metropolitan areas in the country.
Divisions, she said, could worsen with redevelopment because job candidates are expected to have specialized skills and education.
The report, commissioned by The Heinz Endowments, also a funder of PublicSource, examined economic barriers facing black men.
Allegheny County, however, looked specifically at violence in 2014.
Most local residents feel safe in their communities, according to the report on street violence prepared by the county’s Department of Human Services.
But there are pockets of violence where chronic shootings make “families fearful about allowing their children to play outside and older adults afraid to walk to the bus stop.”
In Pittsburgh, only certain neighborhoods bleed.
PublicSource mapped every homicide in the city from 2010 through 2015. The results show a geographic division — and clear racial disparity — in who suffers the brunt of the violence.
There were no killings in Shadyside. None in Point Breeze.
There were no murders at all in the huge area — mostly white and affluent — south of Penn Avenue down to Interstate 376. The murder-free zone runs to the borders of Bloomfield and Oakland.
But from Penn Avenue and above — from East Hills through East Liberty — there were 94 homicides during that six-year period. More than half remain unsolved.
The Hill District had 42 homicides. More than half remain unsolved.
Neighborhoods across the North Side have seen similar violence, as have several South Side neighborhoods.
Violence and silence
Homewood North, which covers less than half a square mile, has had 19 murders since 2010.
Antwann’s death is one of those. It’s a common scene here, to lie dead from gunshots just a short jog from home.
Born Anton Smith, he was known as Antwann to the family that took him in as a foster child for years and adopted him in 2010. He was an aspiring rapper with hopes of attending the Art Institute.
Around 9 p.m. on Sept. 16, 2013, police responded to a call for shots fired. Antwann was found among bullet casings in front of a home on Mount Vernon Street.
By his grandmother’s telling, problems started years back after he wrote a song mocking losers in a school fight. This situation, like many others, escalated into a string of shootings.
One of those occurred just days before Antwann was killed. Carol’s son, Jason Haddock, now serving a prison term, critically injured a 92-year-old jitney driver in a shooting while trying to hit someone else.
Carol said she thinks Antwann was shot in retaliation. There are witnesses who could say as much, she said. But because of disdain for police and fear of being called a snitch, she said they won’t come forward.
There were also witnesses at the Phase Bar in Homewood where Ms. Speaks’ son had been before being shot outside.
“Until you’ve got to stand and wait for the coroner to come pick up your kid, you don’t know what it’s like,” she said.
Eighty-five percent of Pittsburgh homicides have had a black victim. These include “random innocent victims that are just in the path of flying bullets,” said Karl Williams, medical examiner for Allegheny County.
Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay said that when he arrived in 2014 he felt that police and the community had become acclimated to violence.
"Not everyone in Pittsburgh enjoys the same quality of life,” Chief McLay said recently. “There’s a victimology here that is completely unacceptable."
Chief McLay said the outrage should be shared by everyone.
Under the chief’s leadership, officers have tried to rebuild damaged relationships with the community. Unless residents feel safe from violence and have basic faith in the justice system, police acknowledge that their work can be impossible.
Chief McLay said he feels progress has been made. Building trust takes time.
A Pittsburgh problem
Tamara Williams left for Texas.
Her brother Mark “Bizz” Williams, 48, was shot and killed on July 31, 2014, on Bennett Street in Homewood.
“There’s too many windows, and there were too many people out that night,” for someone not to have seen the shooting, she said.
After more than a year, there’s been no arrest.
She’s taken it on herself to keep interest going in the case. She posts many times a day to a Facebook group and is offering a $30,000 reward.
There’s been some progress, she said.
But there’s a familiar frustration. Violence deeply affects a family, but elsewhere, the city seems to be indifferent.
“We need other people to be outraged and say this is going on in our city,” Ms. Williams said. “Not just Homewood, the Hill District or North Side.”
A grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism funded this PublicSource project. Reach Jeffrey Benzing at 412-315-0265 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jabenzing. Megan Harris of WESA and freelancer Ryan Loew contributed to this report.
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