North Side plagued by new violence
From left, Greg George, designer; Joan Kimmel, and the Rev. Le Saunders talk about discussing the creation of a community master plan for the Central Northside during a meeting on June 17, 2009 at the Mattress Factory
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It was a brazen act of violence that has baffled and frightened the close-knit community of the Mexican War Streets on Pittsburgh's North Side.
On the sunny afternoon of June 14, a blue car came to a stop near the intersection of Jacksonia Street and Garfield Avenue, and someone pushed out 22-year-old Deray Pearson.
"I got shot! I got shot!" he yelled.
Nearby, dozens of people, including children, were attending a party for families under a white tent at the Mattress Factory. Many neighbors heard Mr. Pearson's cries and came onto the street, and one person tried to administer CPR. Mr. Pearson later died at Allegheny General Hospital from a gunshot wound to the chest.
Police have made no arrests in the killing.
"What are they dying for?" asked the Rev. Le Saunders, who lives next to the art museum and whose daughter called 911 when she saw Mr. Pearson in the street. "It's becoming so routine, I don't think people even blink their eyes anymore."
Yet with several recent high-profile shootings in North Side neighborhoods breaking months of calm, many residents are clamoring for ways to stop the routine of gun violence.
Since the beginning of the year, there have been six killings throughout the North Side (and 23 in the city as a whole). Shavaughn Wallace, a pregnant 18-year-old who was a student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, was shot in the back May 22 as she ran from a gunman on the 200 block of Alpine Street.
On June 10, three people were wounded in a shooting in the Elsdon Street area of Perry Hilltop, and one of the victims led police on a vehicle chase, slamming his black Chevrolet into a bus shelter near the corner of Brighton Road and West North Avenue.
Police believe the shooting stems from a feud between rival gangs and was retaliation for another recent shooting on Elsdon Street that left someone with a gunshot wound to the leg.
Two or three people are involved with the majority of the shootings, said police Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson, but witnesses are reluctant to come forward and testify in court.
"Without witnesses, it's hard to have a successful prosecution," Chief Donaldson said.
The violence comes at a time when the "Flats" area of the North Side continues a renaissance, with the $15-million Federal Hill development project on track to bring as many as 60 new townhomes to the area. The first round of homeowners will be moving in next month.
"We understand these most recent shootings are part of a kind of turf battle that pits law-abiding citizens of all colors, ages, social classes and family types against criminals who seek to push us out and regain turf lost from improving conditions in the neighborhood," Greg Spicer, president of the board of the directors of the Central Northside Neighborhood Council, wrote in a letter to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl last week.
"Their efforts must be met with all the means at the disposal of city government ... or all of the gains made here on the Northside in recent years will be lost."
During a Tuesday night meeting of Mexican War Streets residents, Cmdr. RaShall Brackney of the Zone 1 police station faced angry questions. Some complained that the mayor has been slow to follow up on his promises of safety enhancements in the neighborhood, including security cameras, that came in the wake of the shooting last year of a letter carrier on North Taylor Street.
But Mr. Spicer said the community needs to work with the city on long-term solutions, such as programs for children and the creation of mixed-income housing that can target isolated areas of poverty throughout the North Side.
The Rev. Saunders, a minister at the Metropolitan Baptist Church and an anti-violence advocate, agreed.
"It takes a whole village to attack the problem," she said. "We can't keep looking to the mayor's office and the police. We have to act as a community."
Dissecting the roots of violence on the North Side, a vast area making up 16 percent of Pittsburgh's landmass, is a difficult task.
The area consists of 18 neighborhoods, according to the city department of planning.
The North Side had 15 percent of the city population in the 2000 census. It encompasses both the stadiums along the riverfront and the housing complex of Northview Heights.
Like many parts of the city, North Side communities have seen a steady population decline over the last several decades, and several major urban redevelopment projects -- such as Allegheny Center Mall and Interstate 279 -- isolated neighborhoods and contributed to further loss of residents.
The Central Northside has broken that pattern in recent years, Mr. Spicer said. It is one of few city neighborhoods that attracts substantial numbers of new residents from outside the region. (Mr. Spicer moved to the Mexican War Streets from Squirrel Hill five years ago.)
Yet on the hillsides above, crime and poverty are rampant.
"I wish I could sell it. But who would buy a house in this neighborhood?" said Arlena Jackson, 32, as she stood in front of her four-bedroom home with faded white vinyl siding on the 300 block of Chester Avenue, near the site of this month's Elsdon Street shootings.
In the three years since she moved in, her home has been struck by gunfire three times. One bullet crashed through her bedroom window. Another struck the back of the house and lodged itself in a china cabinet.
Ms. Jackson, a school bus driver who has two daughters, called police both times.
Both times, she said, police made no arrests.
Two weeks ago, she was locking her front door when she heard shots coming from the corner of Chester and Wilson avenues. She dove under a table on her front porch. A tree in her front yard stopped the bullets.
This time, she didn't call police.
"I don't think nobody around here calls the police now," she said. "I make sure I say my prayers at night."
That attitude deeply concerns Cmdr. Brackney. She implores all North Side residents to contact police if they see illegal activity. Even if investigators can't solve a crime quickly, they can collect evidence, such as shell casings, and possibly find suspects in the future.
Also, crime reports are crucial when police officials compile citywide statistics and decide how to deploy limited resources.
"Most people want instant results. Policing is not instant," Cmdr. Brackney said.
In the Central Northside, residents may be more likely to call police with complaints, yet they aren't satisfied with the responses.
During a meeting of the Mexican War Streets Society last week, some attendees told Cmdr. Brackney that they routinely call the city's 311 complaint line with tips about suspected drug dealers, giving detailed descriptions and sometimes license plate numbers. But they don't see arrests.
"She's getting hammered from all sides right now," Janet Gunter, board secretary for the Perry Hilltop Citizens' Council, said of Cmdr. Brackney, who last year was transferred to the North Side from Pittsburgh's Zone 5 station, covering the East End, and is still getting to know her new territory.
"I think she tries as hard as she can," Ms. Gunter said.
Police had little information about the Pearson killing last week, although they suspect a drug connection. Some witnesses said they saw several white men in the car with Mr. Pearson, who is black.
Latira Miles of Verona, who described herself as Mr. Pearson's ex-girlfriend, said he had moved to the North Side a few months ago.
He recently received his GED and was working in the stockroom at the Target on McKnight Road, Ms. Miles said.
In late March, police arrested Mr. Pearson in the 1600 block of Sandusky Court on the North Side and accused him of throwing away marijuana when he saw officers approaching.
A drug possession charge was later dropped, and Ms. Miles said Mr. Pearson did not sell drugs. She doesn't know why he was in the blue car on June 14.
Police are continuing to investigate the Perry Hilltop shootings, and they expect to charge the driver of the black Chevrolet with drug possession after discovering marijuana in the car. They also are testing a handgun taken from the car to see if it was involved in the shooting.
The violence involves gangs from the Chester Avenue area, according to police and neighbors.
"We've had a drug trade on the North Side for decades. It doesn't go away in five years," said Christopher D'Addario, chairman of the safety committee for the Central Northside Neighborhood Council. "But I think eventually we will succeed."
Correction/Clarification: (Published June 23, 2009) A photo with this story as originally published June 22, 2009 about violence on the North Side showed Greg George, Joan Kimmel and the Rev. Le Saunders discussing the creation of a community master plan for the Central Northside during a meeting on June 17, 2009 at the Mattress Factory. The photo caption incorrectly stated the day and subject of the meeting.
First Published June 22, 2009 12:00 am