The Duquesne Place subsidized apartment complex first appeared on the radar of District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. in April 2011, when an 18-year-old male was shot and wounded over what investigators believe was a drug debt.
Mr. Zappala's radar lit up again in January 2012, when a 14-year-old, disabled boy was shot and killed when a gunman fired into the Duquesne Place apartment where the victim was staying with family members. His 14-year-old brother was injured by another bullet.
It was then that Mr. Zappala decided his office needed to take action to rid the 332-unit complex of the drug activity and violence that had become commonplace there.
He started by working with the owner, Moshe Eichler of New York, on safety improvements such as fencing, lighting and security cameras, and with the Allegheny Intermediate Unit to bring educational programs for young families to the site.
On Thursday, the district attorney held a news conference on a playground outside of the new Head Start classroom, which opened last year, to declare that Duquesne Place has experienced a turnaround as a result of his office's collaboration with the AIU and Mr. Eichler. He said the complex now is largely free of violent crime and that calls from the complex to Duquesne police now mainly consist of nuisance and domestic calls.
He credited the owner with making improvements that prevent outsiders from coming into the complex to commit crimes. The entire plan is now enclosed by a fence and there is one main, gated entrance at which visitors and residents must show identification to a security guard. The names of those who break the rules of the complex or commit a crime there are placed on a "defiant trespass" list and are barred from entry in the future.
"We are not going to let the bad people come in and take advantage of them," Mr. Zappala said of the Duquesne Place residents.
Mr. Zappala said there are 623 children under the age of 17 in the housing plan, and he decided to concentrate the on-site educational efforts to preschool years because he believes that's where the most difference can be made in the children's lives.
"We can reach children when they are this age," he said, adding that by the time they are 15 or 16 the course they are on is often "irrevocable."
The Head Start classroom for 16 children ages 3-5 operates in space provided by Mr. Eichler, who also will provide adjacent space for an adult learning center set to open later this year. The Head Start program opened in the fall of 2012, along with a Family Center program that serves about 14 single mothers between the ages of 18 and 25, helping them to prepare their children for entry into Head Start at age 3.
The Duquesne Adult Learning Center will offer adult GED classes and workforce development services and will be open to the parents of children enrolled in the Head Start and Family Center programs initially. It may later be expanded to include others.
Barbara McDonnell, acting superintendent of the Duquesne City School District, said the Head Start classroom will help the children of Duquesne Place enter kindergarten well-prepared, an opportunity they otherwise might not have had.
The Head Start classroom is one of 70 operated around the county and is funded with state money, said Chris Rodgick, director of Allegheny County Head Start.
The safety improvements were funded by the owner, along with about $15,000 for cameras from the district attorney's office, Mr. Zappala said.
In addition to the safety improvements and educational programs, Duquesne Place staff has stepped up evictions of disruptive residents. Complex manager Rose Moyle said there were 80 evictions this year, up from 25 the previous year.
A handful of residents showed up at the news conference to express their support for the changes at their complex.
"I've lived here for five years, and when I first came I wasn't too fond of it and it wasn't too safe. There would be fighting and shooting. A lot of people brought their issues up here," Jamie Lang said.
But since the changes, Ms. Lang said, "there hasn't been too much drama." She said moving forward "we all have to work together to make it a better community."
Wanda Hunt, a four-year resident, said the positive changes mean "our kids are now safer."
Mary Niederberger: firstname.lastname@example.org; 412-263-1590. First Published September 5, 2013 5:15 PM