A backhoe's claw tore into one of the Homewood row houses known as the "killing fields" on Wednesday, unleashing a thick cloud of dust and hope for a neighborhood's rebirth.
The start of demolition came more than a decade after Sarah Campbell and other activists began pressuring the city to rid the neighborhood of the dilapidated buildings that symbolized the neighborhood's long decline.
"We've done everything, including prayer," said Ms. Campbell, who stood with Mayor Luke Ravenstahl as the backhoe began demolishing 610-618 Collier St.
Later this spring, Mr. Ravenstahl said, crews will be back to tear down the rest of the "killing fields," the row houses at 613-619 Collier and 7306-7384 and 7506-7546 Formosa Way.
"The 'killing fields' are coming down," he said.
Mr. Ravenstahl called the demolition a "long-awaited step forward" for Homewood, which has large numbers of abandoned houses, low property values, a high rate of tax delinquency and a reputation for crime.
The row houses straddle about two blocks of Formosa, from North Braddock Avenue to Collier Street.
They became known as the "killing fields" in the early 1990s because of a rash of homicides that still stand out in residents' memories. But residents noted that other crimes, notably drug activity and prostitution, also occurred on Formosa and contributed to Homewood's image problem.
While activists kept up pressure on the city, officials spent years sparring with out-of-town landlords, who had to be sued, tracked down, served papers and given a chance to salvage their investments.
Two of the four buildings are owned by RFS Investments of Los Angeles and New York. Two are owned by businessman Chaim Templer. Officials said they made unusual efforts to serve Mr. Templer with court papers.
"We went to Israel to get him," Councilman Ricky Burgess, who represents Homewood, said.
City Solicitor Daniel Regan said the city hired a private investigator in Israel to find Mr. Templer, who was "going to great lengths to avoid process. We went to similar lengths to locate him and get him served."
An attorney for RFS could not immediately be reached. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was unable to locate a phone number for Mr. Templer, and court filings do not indicate whether he has an attorney.
As late as November, attorneys for RFS pleaded for more time to renovate the buildings, saying they were in better shape than others nearby. But Common Pleas Judge Alan Hertzberg approved the demolition.
The future use of the "killing fields" site has not been determined. After the row houses are demolished, RFS will retain ownership of its lots, Mr. Regan said. He said the city intends to take over ownership of Mr. Templer's lots, which are tax delinquent, this summer.
Homewood resident Mary Haith Savage said the site might be ripe for "more houses, maybe not so close together, maybe individual houses" with backyards.
Lee Green, who lives near the row houses, wondered about the likelihood of awakening outsiders to Homewood's potential.
"They don't believe it can change. But I believe it can change," Mr. Green said.
Some residents already are making change happen.
Although there's little interest in the neighborhood's existing housing stock, there appears to be interest in new construction. The Rev. Samuel Ware, executive director of Building United of Southwestern Pennsylvania, said the nonprofit has a waiting list for houses it is building in the Finance Street area. He said a Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh branch and busway access are among the selling points.
"The future is bright," he said.
Joe Smydo: email@example.com or 412-263-1548.