In Wilkinsburg's Hamnett Place, a quiet, predominantly black neighborhood with centuries-old Victorian homes ripe for renovations, residents are often a real estate agent's strongest selling point. In an area known for a mix of longtime homeowners and idealists hoping to spark an urban revitalization, it's not uncommon for residents to warn passersby heading for the East Busway if a P1 just flew by. When 19-year-old resident Kevin Geyer was murdered in October 2010, Hamnett Place residents mobilized to make sure grief counselors were available at the Landmarks Housing Resource Center on Rebecca Avenue for no charge.
There's little question that home extends beyond the front yard in Hamnett Place. However, stepping only a few blocks away from the enclave can mean stepping completely away from that sense of community cohesion and protection.
George Spencer is a Wilkinsburg resident who founded the Greater Pittsburgh chapter of MAD DADS (Men Against Destruction Defending Against Drugs and Social Disorder). He noted the experience of a resident on the other side of the borough. He said the young man, only 19, had witnessed two murders on his street but hadn't sought counseling because he had no idea where to go.
"A young fellow in the neighborhood had just gotten shot and he prayed the Lord's Prayer with him as his life was expiring. When I asked him if he was OK, he said 'That was the second time I've done that,' " said Mr. Spencer.
"He lives in a neighborhood where he's seen two murders himself and doesn't know where to turn. And [Hamnett Place], which rarely experiences that type of violence, they have the Resolve Crisis Center there for them as soon as it happens. That's definitely something that needs to improve."
Widely disparate experiences in a single community aren't unusual in Pittsburgh, where views on neighborhood relations can change on a block-to-block basis. But in the region's black communities, which suffer disproportionately higher unemployment, higher crime and lower home-ownership rates than other communities, negative views can outweigh the positive and reflect a broader dissatisfaction with the region at large.
According to the PittsburghTODAY Regional Quality of Life Survey, conducted with the University of Pittsburgh's University Center for Social and Urban Research, black Pittsburgh residents see the region, their neighborhoods and their own neighbors in a more negative light than residents of other races.
Shunning years of most-livable designations, 43.9 percent of black respondents rated quality of life in the region as either fair or poor, compared with 65.1 percent of respondents of other races who rated quality of life as excellent or very good. Roughly half of black respondents, 50.4 percent, said it was somewhat or very likely they would move from their neighborhood in the next year, compared with 34.6 percent of other races.
Black residents had mostly positive views of neighbors, but still expressed negative views at a higher rate than other races. Nearly 19 percent of blacks disagreed with the statement "The people in my neighborhood are willing to help their neighbors," compared with 9 percent of respondents of other races. About 27 percent of blacks said they never or rarely visit their neighbors, compared with 15.5 percent of other races.
Stress factors affect response
While the deviations in responses are significant, they're far from surprising and not unique to the Pittsburgh region, according to Robert Sampson, the Henry Ford II Professor of Social Sciences at Harvard University and author of "Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect."
During the course of more than a decade of research in Chicago's black communities, Mr. Sampson's team revealed attitudes surrounding neighborhoods and community connection that mirrored those of blacks in Pittsburgh. However, once the study controlled for crime, violence, poverty and other detrimental features that were persistent problems for the neighborhoods, the disparities evened out.
He said the concentration of negative stress factors in black communities, not race itself, was the source of the responses.
"Distrust of the police, cynicism about the law, cynicism about neighbors are all being driven by real conditions that exist in the neighborhood as opposed to being a racial effect," he said.
Beyond poverty, a high rate of renters can also affect how a neighborhood interacts, according to Larry Davis, dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work and director of the Center on Race and Social Problems,
"When you do that it automatically makes the population more transient and makes it relatively less stable. When people move, all kind of things happen. They're in and out of the school district, in and out of their neighborhood and it lessens cohesion in most neighborhoods," he said.
But even in middle-class neighborhoods surrounded by homeowners, neighborly bonds are no guarantee. Lamont Wynne, a Penn Hills resident who has been living at his Althea Drive home for five years, described his neighbors as simply "nice."
Penn Hills, while not a predominately black community, has seen the number of black residents jump from 15 percent in 1990 to 34.6 percent by 2010.
Mr. Wynne said residents speak if they cross paths and would probably help him out in a time of need, but don't really go out of their way to forge deeper ties.
He said "friendly, but not friends" is an accurate way to describe the scene and he's just fine with that.
"I've lived in Pittsburgh for all of my years except undergrad -- I have enough friends," he said.
But when pressed for details of how those friends were made, Mr. Wynne's indifference turns to nostalgia. During his childhood in Homewood during the 1960s, everyone knew one another. He couldn't look left without a team of fathers, mothers, friends and clergy in the neighborhood telling him to look right before crossing the street. Generations packed into single-family homes but there wasn't a latchkey child or neglected grandparent to be found. In Mr. Wynne's Homewood, people knew they were being watched over. They knew they were loved.
"In the early '60s it seemed like everyone was happy with whatever little they had. Now the trend seems to be somewhat reversing," he said.
Being a neighbor
If he'd ask Paulette Davis, a Homewood resident who purchased her Race Street home in 1990 after living in the community through the early '80s, she'd tell him less has changed than he thinks.
There's no denying there's been an increase in crime and violence and that a loss of residents has increased blight. The Save Race Street Committee was established in 2008 in response to a rash of shootings that had taken place on or near the street. However, over the years the committee has evolved from being mainly a violence prevention initiative to one that addresses neighborhood commerce, beautification, education and the need to come together as residents.
When Ms. Davis saw a flier promoting the committee's cause when she first moved into her home, she thought of the next door neighbor who pushed her to join Operation Better Block and help with a community garden when living on Homewood's Monticello Street in the 1980s. She thought of chats on her porch with her current neighbors and how they made sure her newspaper was delivered right to her door when she broke her legs and couldn't make it down the stairs.
She thought of the Homewood she has always known and the Homewood it could become if more residents extended a helping hand the way her neighbors have. Then she signed up for the committee.
Today, Ms. Davis is the person passing out fliers and posting meeting notes to the Save Race Street Committee's Facebook page.
And while she hopes her efforts can ignite a spark in current residents, she also hopes spreading word beyond Homewood will encourage potential homeowners to take a chance on the place she's called home for more than 20 years.
"People don't know about the committee and what we have been doing and that's a challenge. I'm convinced that if people knew what's been going on with us they would move back into Homewood," she said.
"The first time I had to distribute fliers on the street, it broke my heart to see how many of my neighbors are gone."
Deborah M. Todd: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1652.