Clarke Thomas: The Mon Valley's promise
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Pittsburgh's ongoing gentrification may be affecting the Mon Valley, as displaced low-income Pittsburghers use Section 8 vouchers to obtain housing there. That is one of a number of observations I heard after surveying agencies involved in rebuilding the valley, an area that 25 years ago -- in the striking phrase of University of Pittsburgh historian Ted Muller -- was "thrown on the trash heap of capitalism."
I started with the West-to-West Coalition, comprised of officials from 22 municipalities extending from West Homestead to West Elizabeth. I checked their opinions with such other agencies as the Steel Valley Authority and the Steel Valley Enterprise Zone, which try to keep and attract businesses to the Mon Valley; the Steel Valley Council of Governments, which coordinates municipal activities; the Mon Valley Initiative, which works on housing, and the Mon Valley Education Consortium. The following is a rundown of the varied responses.
While the Mon Valley has never fully recovered from the collapse of the steel industry, there are numerous bright spots. An obvious instance is the blossoming Waterfront complex on the onetime Homestead Works site, with benefits beginning to spread to Homestead's Eighth Avenue. Hundreds of jobs have been created there and at the American Textile Company in Duquesne and the Book Country Clearing House in McKeesport. Braddock, North Braddock, Rankin and Swissvale are emphasizing "green development," including promoting an arts community, launching community food gardens and a community bread oven, and pushing development of the Carrie Furnace site.
The valley has many fine old homes that should match in price those in more affluent neighborhoods of Allegheny County, and in some cases these are attracting young middle-class home buyers. Unfortunately, there are places where, as one official puts it, "The copper in the house is worth more than the value of the house." Still, a Mon Valley official who also teaches at Pitt says she is finding that for the first time more people in her classes are choosing to stay in Pittsburgh after graduation. They are able to land jobs and find affordable "starter" homes in places like the Mon Valley.
But officials worry that the many remaining problems are being exacerbated by a large influx of Section 8 families from Pittsburgh into some neighborhoods. (Section 8 is a federal program which provides housing subsidies to low-income persons.) The inflow puts a strain on police, fire and emergency services. The problems are augmented by County Executive Dan Onorato's freeze on assessments at the 2002 level, which means less tax income from burgeoning suburbs and therefore a greater and unfair load on static-value homes in the Mon Valley.
"This [in-migration] would be all right if there wasn't too much density, where sometimes entire blocks become Section 8," one official explained. "It's not that people don't want to work; the problem is with single mothers working and two-parent families where they hold three jobs and don't have the time or resources to raise their children to be ready for the modern economy." Another said, "We've taken the welfare approach -- subsidization -- rather than concentrating on getting jobs, preparing people for work, training people to give them dignity."
More comments: "There needs to be more jointure of services. The Homestead Waterfront is about the only example of a real cooperative endeavor."
Some officials look longingly at Pittsburgh's Crawford Square mix of market and subsidized housing. "We don't have the equivalent of an Urban Redevelopment Authority in the valley to make that happen," commented one official.
More consolidation of schools is also on wish lists, both for improvement of Mon Valley education and to corral school levies, by far the biggest part of most tax bills. The success of sending Duquesne High School students to West Mifflin and East Allegheny high schools, despite initial qualms at the prospect, shows the possibilities.
Completion of the Mon-Fayette Expressway is a high priority with most officials.
Solutions? How about a Marshall Plan for deindustrialized regions, "not just for the Mon Valley, but across the country, similar to what the U.S. did in Europe after World War II, channeling resources into a multifaceted approach?" A good idea to help stem a looming recession, but given the current Wall Street bailout, prospects for a massive federal financial outlay are dimming by the week.
Opinions differ on whether a one-stop development shop is needed, or would it be another splintering distraction? Some feel it is best to have different agencies tackling various valley problems; others would prefer a more unifying force.
Maybe a summit of all the parties involved? In the turf-conscious Valley, the West-to-West Coalition is not everybody's favorite, but who better than its core of elected officials to coordinate the many worthwhile efforts under way and those yet to come?
First Published October 8, 2008 12:00 am