Brightwood hopes for brighter future

Residents see church purchase of nuisance bar as a first step

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When the Home Plate Bar had finally become indefensible, owner Jim Cowan called the New Hope Church to offer first dibs on buying it. Like the owner before him, he had struggled with a problematic clientele.

The corner, at Shadeland and Woodland avenues, had become malignant, a betrayal of Marshall-Shadeland's history as a solid, blue-collar neighborhood. Along the Ohio River on the North Side, it is also known as Brightwood and claims about 5,500 residents.

The bar closed four weeks ago under the pressure of resident complaints and scrutiny of the nuisance-bar task force. New Hope for Neighborhood Renewal, the church's development arm, closed on the property Thursday, paying $105,000 for it.

"It was more than we wanted to pay," said the Rev. Rodger Woodworth, New Hope's pastor. "But we're buying more than a building. We're buying a corner. It's an investment in redemption."

Paramedic Mark Bonasso was impressed by the transition. Days after the bar closed, Mr. Woodworth walked into Ray's Barber Shop, where Mr. Bonasso was getting a buzz cut.

"Are you the pastor?" Mr. Bonasso asked.

"I am," Mr. Woodworth replied.

"The difference is amazing," said Mr. Bonasso. "A couple Friday nights ago, we were on our way back to the [fire] station, and there was no one on the corner."

New Hope will renovate the bar into an ice cream parlor and coffeehouse, with either upstairs apartments or space for performing and recording, said Mr. Woodworth.

Like every neighborhood that has lost investment over many decades, Marshall-Shadeland has an uphill march. And like many struggling neighborhoods, it has been further demoted by the closing of its school and the fire station across the street, which the paramedics occupy.

Although one property isn't likely to make or break a neighborhood, Ed Brandt, director of the Brightwood Civic Group, called the buying of the bar "a pretty big action. Certain things can have a major impact."

The bar's impact was an example.

"Its closing will probably be significant," Mr. Brandt said.

City police Officer Forrest Hodges, of the North Side station, has noted an improved sense of well-being in the neighborhood. He did not supply requested crime statistics for comparison.

"We had a very big problem with Woodland-Shadeland," he said. "They started a block-watch program last year, and it's a different world over there now. It's really cleaned up."

"We're trying to shore up the market," said Mr. Brandt, whose civic group has built and renovated homes, as has New Hope. The city's Urban Redevelopment Authority is soliciting bids for construction of 17 homes where apartments used to be.

"When you put money into housing, hopefully there is a spin-off," said Mr. Brandt.

The community leaders say they want a good use to come for Horace Mann Elementary School, which the school board closed last year. Mann was a 100-year fixture that residents fought hard to keep open.

Within the same two blocks of Shadeland are the school, the fire station, the church, the Home Plate, a convenience store and Ray's Barber Shop. New Hope's congregation established there in 1993 with the purpose of activist outreach, said Mr. Woodworth.

"We wanted to plant a mixed-race congregation," he said. "Most middle class whites had pretty much left. Fifty percent of our congregation is working poor."

His family lives in the neighborhood, and several congregants have moved there, too. Ken Hale left Greenfield four years ago to move into the house he bought with his wife, whom he had met in the congregation. Mr. Hale is co-chairman of the block watch.

"We're going to take some steps forward and some steps back," he said of the area. "But you can see the community forming. People are stepping up, and the police have stepped up their attention. It has made a big difference."

He said block watch meetings draw 30 to 40 people, including Officer Hodges. Many come because they're frustrated by drug dealing, litter and disrespectful children on the streets.

"It's been an open forum for people, and it's empowering," he said. "A lot of times, people feel like they're the only ones" sticking their necks out.

"But now, when five, six or seven people are out talking," troublemakers get a sense of a growing solidarity. For one thing, he said, "they can't identify who is calling the police."

A neighborhood cleanup Saturday is the next step, he said. Drawing on support from PACleanways and the Pennsylvania Resources Council, it will start at 9 a.m. and the Home Plate will be the hub for signing up, lunch and a raffle.

"Part of the reason for cleanup day," said Mr. Hale, "is to send a strong message to those who don't care for the neighborhood from those of us who do."

Volunteers for the cleanup may call Ginette Vinski at the Pennsylvania Resources Council, 412-488-7490, or Ed Brandt at the Brightwood Civic Group, 412-732-8152.

Lake Fong, Post-Gazette
Ed Brandt, left, of the Brightwood Civic Group, chats with the Rev. Rodger Woodworth, far right, of New Hope Church, outside the Home Plate Bar in the city's Marshall-Shadeland neighborhood. The church bought the problem bar last week. Looking on is Ken Hale, 32, of the new block watch, and his 3-year-old daughter, Malaika Hale.
Click photo for larger image.

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Diana Nelson Jones can be reached at djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626.


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