Unkempt homes in Wilkinsburg cause concern
Share with others:
When the third floor of an abandoned house on the 1400 block of Cresson Street in Wilkinsburg collapsed last year, the damage wasn't contained just to the property. It also damaged the home of neighbor Elizabeth Johnson, and the elderly woman had to pay $1,700 out of her own pocket for repairs.
Now she frets that unstable bricks will come crashing into her glass patio windows and cause more damage.
On July 11, Mrs. Johnson had enough. She came to the council meeting prepared for battle. She brought photos of the building and her compelling story of fears that what's left of the structure won't survive another winter.
"It's something you just don't want to live by," she said. "There's a big note on the house stating it is a health hazard. It is unhealthy to live there. ... Something has to be done."
She left with council's assurances that they would try to scrape up emergency dollars to do something, despite dozens of other abandoned, derelict buildings scattered across the borough.
"These kinds of issues are constant here," council president Jason Cohn said. "There is a much greater supply of buildings that pose serious problems than there is money."
Last week, council approved an Allegheny County Community Development grant application that calls for the demolition of 39 properties located across the borough.
If the funding is approved, dangerous and abandoned structures along streets such as Belmont, Hill, Boggs, Franklin, Swissvale and Laketon will be leveled. The funding is expected sometime next spring.
But Mr. Cohn said this long list still doesn't touch the total number of abandoned structures on the borough's list.
"We have to be judicious about how to spend the money," he said. "Even then it can be subjective. ... There are always questions about which properties we choose."
These questions even come from council members themselves. Pamela Macklin was among the most vocal council members who questioned the criterion used to select which buildings were demolished.
"I know it is difficult, but we should focus on one street at a time if we are ever to stop the slide," Ms. Macklin said last week. "It feels like we are still selecting houses at random."
Mr. Cohn said the code enforcement office grades abandoned properties on a scale of structural soundness.
"But conditions are changing constantly," he said. "A big storm can roll through and a building that was graded a 'five' -- on a scale of one to six, with one most dangerous -- and suddenly that building is a one.''
Mr. Cohn said leveling abandoned buildings isn't necessarily a solution.
"The architecture here is one of our greatest assets. And one of my wishes is to find a way to preserve it, rather than let it get into such a state that we have to tear it down," he said.
When Mrs. Johnson and her late husband bought their home on Cresson Street in the 1960s, Wilkinsburg was a hot spot with ample public transportation, proximity to thriving factories and Downtown offices.
"The neighborhood was one of the best," Mrs. Johnson said.
Wilkinsburg boasted of a great high school. Ditto for the elementary and middle schools. The homes were beautiful and well-appointed, she said.
The Johnsons raised three daughters there and invested in additional properties, hoping their offspring would want to keep Wilkinsburg their home.
Two daughters have long since moved away; a third daughter lives in Murrysville.
Five decades later, the neighborhood is drug-infested. The working middle-class family homes that once lined the street are long gone, replaced with Section 8 housing. Several homes have already been torn down -- or boarded up to prevent entry.
"My daughters call me two or three times a day because they are scared for me," Mrs. Johnson said.
But she is emphatic when she says she has no intention of giving up on a home full of wonderful memories.
Borough officials say there are residents such as Mrs. Johnson all across the community.
"Mrs. Johnson and countless others in the community have lived here for decades and stayed here, despite pockets of problems with crime and blight -- those folks are the most admirable people I ever met," Mr. Cohn said.
"It is easy to run. And sometimes, you have to run, but Wilkinsburg is better off by far than it would be if not for people like her who say, 'This is my house and this is my neighborhood, and I am not going to give up.' "
He said it was the unique architecture and affordable homes that first drew him and his wife to the borough. But it was that civic spirit that has kept them here.
"When we moved here, we only saw the tip of the iceberg," he said. "This is a community of people who are very dedicated to the place where they live. It is something like I have never experienced and why I wanted to call this borough home."
In the case of the fallen-down property on the 1400 block of Cresson Street, Mrs. Johnson's persistence has paid off: Mr. Cohn said he expects council to approve funding for its demolition at the next board meeting.
But he is quick to admit that too often, it isn't that easy.
"In this case, we all recognized that something needed to be done. It was a strange demolition, not one of our normal cases," Mr. Cohn said, adding that he can't say how long it will take to complete the work that should have been finished several years ago.
First Published July 19, 2012 4:51 am