Interfaith group pushes Hill cleanup

Members of Holy Ground project seek to improve their communities

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It was a perfect summer evening for a stroll, but the 100 people who made a circuit of Schenley Heights last night weren't seeking the stunning view from Sugar Top, which crowns the neighborhood in the Upper Hill District.

They gathered at a section of collapsed sidewalk, which exposed a gaping storm drain. Plywood placed over it had also shattered.

Earlier, at a Holy Ground campaign meeting inside nearby Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church, church member Connie Bethel put Michael Kenney, director of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, on the spot about the hole that was large enough to swallow a child. In the packed church hall, she demanded to know if he would make sure that the drain was repaired before October.

"Yes," Mr. Kenney answered, to applause and cheers.

Holy Ground is a project of the Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network, a coalition of congregations seeking to better their communities. The initiative provides training for congregations to identify serious problems in their neighborhood and then to do the work required to solve those problems.

Grace Memorial sits at the height of Sugar Top, which was historically the home of the city's most prosperous black residents. Some of that glory is still visible in stately homes of brick or Victorian gingerbread. But even the best streets are marred by boarded up, abandoned houses and empty lots with enough overgrowth to hide a crime scene. Drug dealers and other criminals have invaded, making it hard to attract stable residents.

Church members canvassed the neighborhood to identify problems, including the storm drains, missing stop signs and abandoned lots and houses. They have already begun conversations with three city departments that all sent representatives to last night's public meeting.

Local residents "want to restore the village atmosphere, where people really care for one another, as opposed to being fearful of drug or gang activity," said the Rev. David Thornton, pastor of Grace Memorial.

"What is the difference between Shadyside and other neighborhoods? Abandoned properties," said Hillard Jordan III, a Schenley Heights resident who addressed the meeting.

He pressed Sergei Matveiev, director of the Department of Building Inspection, on a list of properties that Holy Ground wants to see boarded securely or demolished by Oct. 15. The group applauded when Mr. Matveiev said that a contract had already been awarded for the demolition of the worst offender. He promised to notify the Redd-Up task force in the Department of Public Works about the ones that needed to be boarded up.

The informal parade of activists filled a city block as they toured the neighborhood, singing gospel songs.

At the corner of Anaheim and Camp streets, Victoria Gardner stood outside her tidy brick house with hanging baskets of flowers on the porch, and pointed to garbage dumped from an abandoned house next door. It blocked her front steps. Both she and her elderly mother are lifelong residents of the community but are ready to give up on it, she said.

"No one is encouraging these children to clean up for themselves except us, and then we become targets of eggs," she said. "When my mother purchased this place 12 years ago, it was with the understanding that the Urban Redevelopment Authority was going to do development in the neighborhood. It's been 12 years and there's been no development. There's been deterioration."

Ann Rodgers can be reached at or 412-263-1416.


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