Squirrel Hill still keeping blight at bay

Urban Coalition formed 40 years ago to stop decay

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Cities nationwide were thinning out through the 1960s, but the riots of 1968 became the collective symbol of 20th-century America's urban decline.

The vacant land, abandoned houses and moribund retail that blight so many neighborhoods today have been the target of community reaction ever since. But in Squirrel Hill, a group of activists got out of the gate in time to nip decline in the bud.

"In the end, we didn't have to reinvent ourselves," said Ed Grinberg, the first president of the Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition. The organization marks 40 years in a neighborhood that has made the transition between the last urban heyday and the present one pretty seamless.

"How much did we really accomplish?" Mr. Grinberg asked. "It's hard to assess. We were not poor, so we weren't susceptible to urban renewal schemes, but we had socioeconomic diversity, people with social capital" as well as financial.

The impact of any neighborhood advocacy group is hard to extract if they are not in the development game, but the commitment of influential residents in Squirrel Hill was and remains a great advantage.

"They have had the benefit of a large educated class from which activists emerged with expertise" in areas pertinent to community development, said Josette Fitzgibbons, the Main Street/Elm Street coordinator for the Urban Redevelopment Authority. "While they haven't had a strong community development corporation like East Liberty or Lawrenceville, they've had folks who can focus on an issue when they need to and be able to make the impact at that point."

Stronger than it thought it was

One of Pittsburgh's most thriving neighborhoods today, Squirrel Hill was beginning to see blight in the late 1960s.

"People were very concerned about urban flight and blight," said Ray Baum, the current coalition president. "There were some pretty bad buildings and so many people with talent and capacity. There was a lot we could do to help ourselves.

"It takes a lot more than that, but it helps."

Elsie Hillman, an original coalition member, paid for the group's storefront office rent through her foundation, "not because anyone expected it," she said, "but because I wanted to do it. Everybody got into the act. I think the neighborhood was stronger than it thought it was. It was a very strong Jewish community that was very involved in wanting to keep things the way they were or make them better, and that was a big plus. People really stood together."

At the same time, the early activists realized that about half of the neighborhood was not Jewish, "and we knew we needed to reach out, said Mr. Grinberg, who was then a 30-year-old lawyer serving on the community relations committee of the United Jewish Federation. "We reached out and, lo and behold, we got momentum.

"The Jewish population in Pittsburgh was predominately in Squirrel Hill," he said. "Cities throughout the country saw a mass exodus of Jews to the suburbs, but it was different here. We realized we had such an investment in Squirrel Hill. All our institutions were there, our synagogues. Rather than have to move, the challenge was to fight to keep what we had.

"I didn't want to move to the suburbs, and I think everyone else had the same feeling," he said. "We loved where we were. It was a grass-roots effort. We knew if it got too bad it would be too late.

"We raised money to rebuild the streets because Murray and Forbes were deteriorating. We got landlords to fix up their stores. We raised lots of money. We worked with the city. We created a bumper sticker that read, 'Follow me to Squirrel Hill.' "

Today, Squirrel Hill's retail corridors remain strong largely on the strength of the neighborhood, said Ms. Fitzgibbons. "That's not to say there aren't issues or ups and downs, but it has maintained that vitality."

Mr. Baum said people are still concerned about the retail, mainly because it lacks the variety it once had. "We have plenty of coffee shops, banks and small restaurants," he said.

But retail and housing markets are competitive enough that the coalition can focus on issues its founding members might never have imagined, from crime to stormwater mitigation.

"It is interesting that after all the work that kept Squirrel Hill from turning downward, 40 years later, stormwater issues are one of the biggest challenges," Mr. Baum said. "A lot of homeowners have flooded basements, and most business owners with basements are very concerned."

The coalition agreed to work with developer Wayne Zukin on a two-story addition to the building that houses the Rite Aid at Forbes and Murray Avenues "if he agrees to more trees, a green roof and $15,000 toward a parking and traffic study," Mr. Baum said.

Such a study would update a 20-year-old master plan and contribute needed data to the coalition's plan for more residential development on Forbes and Murray to include rentals."

A proposed condo and hotel complex at the Forward-Murray gateway several years ago failed to get funding during the recession, but the gateway now has new lighting and street trees, Mr. Baum said. "We worked with the city to get that, and there is new interest from developers there. We hope they think big. We can help."

From gritty to glossy

From the focused early effort to save Squirrel Hill from disinvestment, the coalition branched out in committees on education, long-range planning and development, care of the parks and trees and public safety.

Since 1995, the coalition has supported a citizens patrol of volunteers who use their own cars to travel assigned zones four nights a week with radios, magnetic antennas, searchlights and zone maps of Squirrel Hill and Point Breeze. They report suspicious activities to the police.

Detective Ashley Thompson, who worked with the patrol 10 years ago when he was in crime prevention, said the volunteers may have deterred some crime, which fell in Zone 4 during that time. "You'd like to think so," he said. "Their vehicles had a sign on them. Mobile blockwatch has proven useful in crime prevention, and we appreciated them."

The coalition also has its glossy side, as publisher of the quarterly Squirrel Hill Magazine and sponsor of the annual "Treasures" banquet at which it honors four people and/or places for their contributions to the neighborhood.

Those treasures have included artist Robert Qualters, the Manor Theater, former Mayor Sophie Masloff and the corners of Forbes and Murray avenues.

The URA has not been very involved in the neighborhood because it hasn't needed to be, Ms. Fitzgibbons said.

"We are now planning to get involved with the business district through a small grant to help address some issues with vacancy, design," she said. "Some facades need to be improved" and some properties need to be brought under code, she said.

The coalition "has been really active in addressing some of these issues."

Mrs. Hillman, who remained active for five or six years, might have been the coalition's wealthiest member, "but I don't remember that being a big issue," she said. There were others who contributed financially, she recalls. "Some people had clout. And clout was important."


Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk. First Published November 25, 2012 5:00 AM


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