East Liberty couple sticking it out for good

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Almost 40 years ago, young mother Barbara Clougherty Walker stepped through the doors of a big house in East Liberty and knew it was right.

"It just smelled good,'' she told me at her dining room table, after she'd put a kettle on for tea. "It had such warmth.''

A big Italian family -- five girls -- had lived in the house for about a half-century, and now she and her husband Grover Walker are closing in on that record. Their son David is grown and gone with children of his own, but they're sticking. They lived through tough stretches in the 1990s when she and her neighbors would call the cops to report drug deals and sometimes confront the pushers themselves. But the Walkers wouldn't be pushed out.

"We always felt like this neighborhood was going to turn around," Mrs. Walker, 72, said. "Maybe I'm just a Pollyanna.''

Or maybe she reads the urban landscape better than most. Allegheny County records show her family bought the three-story, century-old brick house on Rippey Street for $20,000 in the fall of 1974, back when the neighborhood was filled with "lots of old people like we are now.''

Last year, a two-bedroom condominium across the street sold for $227,000. That condo in a 120-year-old building is a restoration project of East Liberty Development Inc. The organization's audacious credo: "Crime is a real estate problem and therefore requires a real estate solution.''

That belief is behind ELDI's purchase of more than 200 units in the neighborhood the past several years. It has targeted nuisance properties in crime "hot spots,'' and the recent report it commissioned from local consultant Numeritics, "East Liberty Crime Data Analysis,'' claims a 49 percent decrease in overall crime in the neighborhood's residential streets between 2008 and 2012. Not coincidentally, home prices more than doubled in the same span.

ELDI project director Eric Jester summed up the organization's surgical approach a year ago as "buy the ugliest building on the block.'' It can be seen as the residential complement to the neighborhood's more highly publicized commercial projects that have made headlines for a decade and a half: Home Depot, Whole Foods, Target, Google, etc.

Neighborhoods become more attractive when crime diminishes. Home prices go up, but so-called "gentrification'' has an undeserved bad name. ELDI has used federal low-income housing tax credits to keep East Liberty a mixed-income neighborhood even as the six-figure home sales multiply. Renters still outnumber homeowners by about 4 to 1, and census data show the racial makeup of the neighborhood hasn't changed much. Everyone's just safer.

"I want the neighborhood to stay essentially as it is,'' Mr. Jester said.

So does Mrs. Walker. In a sense, her family is East Liberty writ small: she's white and her husband is black. I mention that only for those who keep score; the Walkers judge neighbors on their actions, not their complexions.

"We had a very strong block watch,'' she said, recalling the days when she and others would go to the street, phone in hand, to tell a miscreant that they'd just called his landlord, or the cops. Sometimes she'd be telling off a kid who, a few years before, had swum in the Walkers' backyard pool.

Mr. Walker shakes his head when he recalls his wife's chutzpah. But she quotes their son, now a criminal defense attorney in Philadelphia, as saying that the last thing a drug dealer wants is to attract attention.

"I just hated the drugs, hated all that,'' she said.

Her and her neighbors' perseverance, stubbornness, guts -- call it whatever you like -- paid off.

"I could sit on the front porch this summer and not get mad about something I saw happening,'' she said. "It was so peaceful. I could sit there with the grandkids.''

Surgical real estate acquisitions and block watches take a neighborhood only so far. When the Walkers were across the state with their son's family over Thanksgiving, somebody broke in on Rippey Street through the back door. The burglar alarm clearly scared the burglar off, though, and nothing was stolen.

"Kids,'' she said, shrugging it off as one would a fender bender. Too many other good things are happening in East Liberty. What she always believed has proven prophetic: "This is prime property. This is prime land. Somehow this is going to get fixed.''

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.

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