Spring Garden hoping for boost in repairs

'It seems we're a neighborhood the city forgot.'

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When elderly residents made a public issue of sidewalk conditions on Spring Garden Avenue last summer, Ken Kasunick inspected the portion in front of one of his buildings and decided, he said, "to bite the bullet and put in a new one."

But his old sidewalk was quite passable compared to stretches of rubble and weeds that force residents in wheelchairs and on walkers to risk using the roadway.

"We need infrastructure and we need a plan," said Mr. Kasunick, owner of Kasunick Manufacturing and its subsidiary King Airline Tooling. "It seems we're a neighborhood the city forgot."

A city ordinance holds property owners responsible for conditions on sidewalks adjacent to their homes and businesses. An upside to being forgotten is that people aren't fined for conditions they can't afford to fix.

A shoehorn of land in the valley between Spring Hill and Troy Hill on the North Side, Spring Garden is 0.26 square miles of homes and light industry with a population low of 884 residents, 80 percent of them white, with no predominant age group. Twenty-five percent of the housing units are vacant. That's up from 16.7 percent in 2000, when the population was 1,254. About 500 more people lived there in 1990.

"People say, 'Where's that?' when I tell them were I live," said Jamie Sinclair Matasich, a Lawrenceville native who chose to rent and then buy in Spring Garden because properties "are dirt cheap."

She and her husband Robert live in a duplex they bought for $60,000 several years ago. They were lucky to find such a bargain that was move-in ready. The city has demolished 28 properties in Spring Garden since 2009 and has 13 on a condemnation list. Many others are in disrepair.

Ms. Sinclair Matasich, procurement manager for King Airline Tooling, is one of Mr. Kasunick's 20 employees.

There were 40 in the early 1990s, when his staff did a business census of the neighborhood's 70 companies and counted 800 employees.

A dozen manufacturers remain, including a candy maker, a T-shirt maker and a cabinet maker. The retail businesses consist of a pharmacy, pizzeria, two bars, a gas station/convenience store, a dollar store, a tobacco store, a check cashing business and a take-out cafe.

Bob Spehar grew up in the neighborhood in the 1940s and '50s when its retail took care of most families' needs. He said there are now more empty lots than buildings. Steps along the hillsides lead to foundations tangled in overgrowth.

Mr. Spehar, who owns Marshall's gas station and convenience store, said Spring Garden Avenue was well traveled "before [Interstate] 279 killed us."

The neighborhood's dejection was a long time in the making, and it didn't help matters that the former Spring Garden Neighborhood Council had gambled and lost on several ventures at a time when Spring Garden did have the city's attention.

In 2005, the Urban Redevelopment Authority loaned the council $150,000 to open a Shop 'n Save, and a year later, the store went bankrupt. The council had created an entity that bought houses cheaply to sell for profits that were supposed to have been plowed back into other properties.

The city gave the council $93,000 between 2004 and early 2007, but foreclosures on properties the council owned led to its dissolution as banks seized whatever they could recoup, including neighborhood flower baskets.

The Community Alliance of Spring Garden East Deutschtown formed in 2008 to pick up the pieces and to tie Spring Garden into the portion of Deutschtown east of Interstate 279 North.

Bob Herbert, a 50-year resident of Spring Garden, served on the board of the old council and is on the alliance's board.

He said the city has appropriated money to the alliance for Love Your Block projects and that the alliance contributes to the neighborhood food bank at St. Michael's Church, pays for flower baskets along the avenue and works with the police to monitor crime.

"Our crime rate is one of the lowest," he said, adding "a lot of people don't call [911] because they're afraid. But the violent and major crimes are practically non existent.

"We've had meetings with some of the mayor's assistants and have conveyed some of our plans," Mr. Herbert said. "The administration has only been in a few months, so it's kind of early to say the city is ignoring us."

What's still early for a new administration might be too late after decades of loss.

On a recent walk on the avenue, Ms. Sinclair Matasich pressed the toe of her shoe against a piece of orange plastic in a crevice of a manhole cover and said, "Oh look another needle cap."

Since Mr. Spehar opened his business 35 years ago, the last five have been the worst, with three holdups and about 25 burglaries, he said. But he has no plans to leave.

"Nobody will buy the place," he said. "I'll wait 'til it's paid for and walk away, I guess."

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

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