Hilltop residents looking for help
Judy Hackel, middle, president of Allentown Community Development Corp., walks alongside Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, right, during a neighborhood sweep of Allentown on Thursday. Citations were given out throughout the sweep.
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Judy Hackel began agitating for a police station at the former Pittsburgh International Hostel at Arlington and Warrington avenues "three mayors ago," she said recently.
Last week, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl announced that the Zone 3 station would move from the South Side to 830 Warrington Ave., in Allentown, by Jan. 1.
The mayor credited Ms. Hackel, in part, for getting her neighborhood on the short list of code-enforcement sweeps that he and his public-safety entourage have made in the past two weeks. The neighborhoods are chosen based on the number of 311 calls from residents and what safety inspectors know, said the mayor's spokeswoman, Joanna Doven.
Ms. Hackel said she encourages people to call 311 "whenever they have issues."
Sweeps of Oakland and Larimer preceded Allentown's, and the mayor will tour California-Kirkbride on Thursday. These sweeps are just the beginning of sweeps the mayor plans throughout the city, said Ms. Doven.
The Hilltop has garnered the most citations of all so far -- 177, mostly for weeds and debris.
Ms. Hackel may be Allentown's squeakiest wheel. Working full time in the audiology department at Children's Hospital, she has been active for 30 years in her community council. She says now that part-time advocacy isn't enough.
"We need someone up here who can do this work" full time, she said, citing the advances that professional staff at nonprofit groups in East Liberty, Lawrenceville and the South Side have made with economic development.
During a recent walk with a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter and photographer, Ms. Hackel stopped at Millbridge and Excelsior streets, where an old house she remembered as a child had become tagged with graffiti, its facade and entrance trashed with weeds and garbage.
"How much would you invest in a home beside one with all this garbage?" she said.
"When I moved to my street, it was all owner-occupied," she said of the stretch of about 14 homes. "Now there's three of us."
Her critics say Ms. Hackel promotes Allentown's troubles too loudly.
"Allentown is a pretty decent place," said John Connors, a funeral director who admitted to having past grievances with Ms. Hackel. He said her detractions hurt an already impugned neighborhood. "My feeling is, don't knock Allentown."
The Allentown Community Development Corp., which she heads, should use its money to clean the streets, he said.
"The place is filthy and they do nothing about cleaning the streets. If you keep your home dirty and filthy, rats move in."
Ms. Hackel said the group operates on less than $8,000 and does not have a budget for street cleaning. "We asked for it in the [Community Development Block Grants] request this year," she said, but the request was denied last year.
One big hope was a plan for 50 new houses, many of them on Beltzhoover Avenue. It is a project of the Hilltop Housing Initiative and the Southside Local Development Inc.
Three years ago, eight houses had been built, and Rick Belloli, executive director of the South Side nonprofit, said at the time, "We want to make sure the market responds" before building more. Today, two houses are occupied by owners, the other six wait for buyers, and three posts, signifying the site of new homes, poke up through a sweeping lot of Queen Anne's lace. Across the street, weeds are creeping toward a sign that includes the pitch, "50 affordable for-sale homes."
"That was going to save us," Ms. Hackel said.
Carol Foster-Allen of Northwood Realty Services said a person from the neighborhood has a contract pending for a third home. The houses are selling for $122,000 to $132,000 but with a deferred second mortgage to people whose incomes qualify. Both Allentown and Beltzhoover, which share the avenue, are tax-abatement neighborhoods for investors.
"The more people we get in there, the better off the neighborhood will be," Ms. Foster-Allen said. "It takes a little faith."
Ms. Doven said the mayor "recognizes that building new houses in a neighborhood does not mean revitalization. For neighborhoods such as Allentown, we have a serious problem with vacant structures and lots. Folding greening into the public safety process is a key part of the puzzle."
Mr. Connors said the police, with the move of the Zone 3 station, have been responding with more patrols to the Hilltop and have had some impact on a prostitution problem. Moving the station isn't what Allentown needs, he said. "All we need is more policemen."
City Councilman Bruce Kraus, who protested being left out of the loop on the decision to move the police station, has supported more law enforcement on the Hilltop.
"Continuing gun violence is why my Hilltop is falling apart," he said in a recent interview. "The No. 1 key to turning a neighborhood around is safety. It takes political will to allocate the money."
First Published July 28, 2008 12:00 am