Walkabout: West Oakland aims to remain viable for residents, too

The neighborhood wants to preserve a residential identity while in the shadows of Pitt and UPMC

When Eugene Perry's students join him at the piano in the West Oakland community center, The Corner, competing sounds disappear.

You don't hear idling shuttle buses and cars just outside at Terrace and Robinson streets. You don't sense that the neighborhood is vulnerable.

In the storefront of the two-story duplex, bags of coffee beans hint at a cafe in the making. The upright piano sits in the backroom. Mr. Perry's toddler Elijah plays peekaboo from under a blanket on the sofa with Claudette McPherson, a resident of 44 years. Mr. Perry quietly intones "one two three, rest rest rest" as 14-year-old Travonne Henderson presses the keys.

The Corner -- the former property of Breachmenders, a housing rehabilitation nonprofit -- was bought by the Friendship Community Presbyterian Church when Breachmenders dissolved in 2009.

Barbara Brewton, a member of the church and the West Oakland Community Council, said the church wanted to make sure the building could become a resource: "We weren't sure at the time what we were going to do with it, but we didn't want to let it go."

The Corner represents a neighborhood stand, of sorts.

In Pittsburgh's big picture of population loss, West Oakland's shrinking numbers are ironic. The neighborhood has been consumed largely by institutions that are cited among icons of the city's comeback. In the shadows of the University of Pittsburgh and UPMC, Darragh and Buffalo streets and Robinson Court all used to have houses that Liz Bennett remembers from when she first moved to the neighborhood more than 30 years ago.

From 1980 to 2010, the neighborhood's housing units fell from 1,715 to 213; the population from 5,291 to 1,770.

Taking a stand "is something we wish we could do," Ms. Bennett said, "but the student population has increased so drastically. People are trying to hold on, but I really don't think the residential part is going to be here" in the long run.

"We've been meeting and talking about getting something viable there, like a coffee shop," she said. "I was asked if I would be willing to volunteer and I said sure, being that I'm part of the community."

The Corner has been open a year, the site of a community market, jazz sessions, a harvest party, music lessons and community meetings. It spawned the West Oakland Community Council and is looking for a commercial tenant. Rent from the retail use and two apartment tenants will support its programs.

With support from the McAuley Ministries since its inception, The Corner's mission grew out of a survey asking residents what they wanted the space to be.

"People felt the need for kids' programs, services for seniors such as snow shoveling and social connections," said Mark Kramer, the part-time executive director at The Corner. "We have a pilot coffee shop," with the hope of making one official this year. "We don't have basic conveniences here."

The West Oakland council mobilized most recently against an office park of high-rises proposed to occupy land at the base of Robinson Street between Fifth and Forbes avenues. Residents say traffic on Robinson is bad enough now, and they anticipate more cut-through traffic once the offices are built. The city's planning commission is expected to vote on the proposal today. The meeting is at 2 p.m. at 200 Ross St., Downtown.

Mr. Kramer said he and his wife committed to living in the neighborhood in 2010 after having joined the Friendship Church. The congregation includes members who made that commitment as long as 30 years ago.

Mr. Perry, a professional opera singer who also teaches voice, found The Corner through contacts at the church. He had been teaching at the Hill House Association, but that program ended. He donated a piano to The Corner and has it tuned. He charges $8 for a half-hour of lessons.

Travonne takes both piano and voice.

"Want to do 'Sing a Song?' " Mr. Perry asked the teen and sat at the piano to accompany him. As the young singer concentrated on pumping full vowels up from his diaphragm, Ms. McPherson swayed the toddler's arms on the couch and mouthed the words.

neigh_city - intelligencer

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk First Published March 19, 2013 2:45 PM


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