By Nafari Vanaski
Let’s say you’re in McKeesport, one of the many suburbs in western Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County. You want to get to Pittsburgh, but want to avoid the incessant construction on I-376. So when you get to Fifth Avenue, instead of proceeding to Route 30 and the parkway, you pick up the East Pittsburgh-McKeesport Boulevard to Main Street, to Center Street, Bell Avenue, through East McKeesport, East Pittsburgh. Traffic’s humming along, considering you’re driving through a residential area. Suddenly, you realize why. After you’ve passed the Jehovah’s Witness building on your right, you see a massive rock structure, and then a house with a loud paint job that is still decorated for Christmas – and it’s spring. And then you drive an entire city block and it’s clear that every house is abandoned. And another. And another.
You’ve just been down the main drag of North Braddock, population 4,835. Like many of the suburban communities in this region, it has yet to recover from the loss of local factory jobs – or the loss of two-thirds of its population. You get out and stand on Kirkpatrick between Anderson and Hutson streets and you entertain the strong possibility that you are the only living person on the block. It’s unbelievable, but it looks as though someone might have forgotten there’s a town here.
But that can’t be right. Because if you turn onto Anderson, you’ll see a large brown building and it looks official, so you go in and walk around until you find a man sitting behind the desk, talking to two other men. You identify yourself and say, “So, I was wondering … it seems as though there are a lot of abandoned houses around here?”
The guy behind the desk is Doug Marguriet, and he’s the borough manager of North Braddock. He snorts and raises his hands in a gesture that seems to say, “Duh!” He walks over to where the other men are sitting and pulls a giant white binder out of a drawer. The white sheet tucked into the binder cover plastic reads BOROUGH OF NORTH BRADDOCK ABANDONED PROPERTIES.
* * *
Before North Braddock was officially North Braddock, there was steel. In 1872, Andrew Carnegie chose the area to build his first steel mill, the Edgar Thomson Works, but the borough wasn’t incorporated until 1897. By that time the steel industry was drawing in residents, and by 1930 the population was more than 16,000. But as with many Mon Valley communities, when the mills began to close, people left in search of the next job.
These days, about 350 of the houses here are abandoned and many of those are considered dangerous. The houses have to come down. No one disputes it. They are a monument to blight. They are safety hazards, havens for crime and criminals, and a deterrent to anyone who would consider moving to the borough. So why are they still standing?
For the answer, you have to follow the money. In North Braddock, there is none. The population has been dropping precipitously since it’s 1930s high, and taking along with it the tax money that could go toward the estimated $3 million officials say they need to demolish the houses.
“Understand that the 350 houses we’ve identified are beyond repair. It’s not a good investment for anybody. They’re just shells of houses.”Marguriet says that for a long time, they could count on money from the state for demolition. But over the years, they got less help from the state. Right now, though, he says, at the county level, a renewed effort is underway to address the problem, because it touches several other municipalities, some of which some have gotten creative.
Braddock, which borders North Braddock, has a 30 percent vacancy rate, according to a University of Pittsburgh study. In 2004, Mayor John Fetterman (now seeking a U.S. Senate seat) moved into an abandoned warehouse in Braddock to live. It needed a new roof, new wiring, new everything, but he did it. Michael Cherepko, the mayor of McKeesport (18 percent) touted the borough’s vacant housing program by building a house on one of the lots. Last summer, Wilkinsburg (20.8 percent) kicked off a vacant housing tour to lure buyers to homes in disrepair.
Marguriet knows all of this. When asked if the borough would consider trying these approaches, he responds: “Understand that the 350 houses we’ve identified are beyond repair. It’s not a good investment for anybody. They’re just shells of houses.”
* * *
It isn’t as though the entire borough looks this way. Some stretches, especially along the Grand View Golf Course, are quite nice. That area is called Upper St. North Braddock with a wink, a reference to the tonier Upper St. Clair. From the course, the surrounding rivers, bridges, and buildings unfold before you. It’s a spectacular view, and if you were going to build something in this borough, it would be here. In fact, someone had that idea.
In the early 2000s, the owners of six vacant acres near the course suggested building 50 or 60 new townhomes there as part of a $7.5 million development. It was a huge undertaking that would have also involved properties owned by Allegheny County, the borough, the Woodland Hills school district, and some of the properties that were tax delinquent. The new home buyers would be lured in with the promise of a 10-year, 50-percent property tax abatement, although even with that, the borough stood to bring in more than $20,000 a year in taxes. It took at least two years to get every duck in a row, but finally, they were aligned just so. All that was left was the approval of borough council, and in 2004, they did agree to approve the project.
Then they didn’t.
Upon further consideration, some of the council members decided it wasn’t fair that some people would be allowed to pay less in taxes, so they voted down that part of the project, which effectively killed it. In an old Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story about the decision, one council member at the time said, “Let them pay their taxes. We had to pay our taxes. My dad would be turning over in his grave. He never got free taxes.”
No one knows how that project would have changed North Braddock, but it is an account that comes up in every conversation about the abandoned homes. Thirty-year resident Steve Liptak, Jr., references it when asked about how this situation might have been avoided, saying, “The borough officials based their decisions on the past and not the future.”
“The borough officials based their decisions on the past and not the future.”It’s not likely that more developers will come knocking. But last year, drillers did, offering the borough money if natural gas drilling were allowed at the golf course. Officials were ready to consider the idea, but many residents turned up at the next council meeting to reject it, for reasons ranging from opposition to fracking to the possibility they might lose the view from their house as the work proceeded. Some houses still display anti-fracking signs, in and out of Upper St. North Braddock.
Still, not everyone is opposed. Liptak wouldn’t support fracking if he was convinced it had been proved detrimental to the environment. But, he says, “If you have a reasonable idea on how much revenue you can generate and it can remove a majority of the vacant homes, then you have to ask yourself, ‘What other option will ever provide us this opportunity again?’”
* * *
One way to fix the problem is to get the owners to fix it. That’s what Dave Andrews, borough code enforcement officer, does. Or, it’s what he tries to do.
It starts when he gets a phone call from a neighbor – the grass is too high, the structure looks iffy, there’s a weird smell.
When the call involves a structure that poses a problem for those around it, Andrews usually has to go in. The abandoned home that we go to is on Cliff Street. It’s one of the worse streets in the borough.
“Yeah, Cliff Street looks like Beirut,” Andrews says. He’s not kidding. On this stretch, if the house isn’t clearly abandoned, it looks as though it should be. The borough also has a high number of renters, and the upkeep of some homes is clearly minimal.
The person who last lived in the house on Cliff Street was a hoarder. The house is packed from floor to ceiling with junk, on all three of its floors. Andrews, a fairly big man, navigates the staircase between floors carefully.
“You could fall through,” he warns. This is why he always carries a radio. The radio is the only reason I decide to follow him up.
Others have probably been in the house as well in the years it’s sat empty. It doesn’t have any copper pipes any more – that’s the first thing people steal.
And there’s another thing. As soon as you walk in, the smell of urine is strong enough to wither the cilia in your nose. It’s a smell that doesn’t fade, Andrews says. It gets into the wood of the structure and stays there. It’s not the worst smell he’s ever encountered, though.
Once, he was summoned to a house that was home to another deceased hoarder. “They called me up … A lady had died in there …”
Even if the homeowner is among the living, it’s half of Andrews’ battle to track him or her down.
He points out a run-down structure, and as with every one of these houses, he has a story. “I take this guy to court, says, ‘Look, you need to tear this down.’ ‘I don’t own it anymore. I sold it.’ ‘O.K., who did you sell it to?’ Gives me a name. Guy’s address comes back to this house. He’s not living there. Nobody could live in there.”
If Andrews can bypass the runaround to find the owner and issue a citation, he or she is allowed 30 days to fix the problem. If the person doesn’t comply, then the complaint moves to downtown Pittsburgh, and it takes about a month or two to get a date at the appeals court. Usually, Andrews says, the magistrate often gives the person another 30 days to fix the problem. If they don’t, he’s back in court again, and the owner is ordered to pay the fine, but it’s pretty steep at this point – it could be as much as $1,000 – so the magistrate usually reduces the fine. In the case of those 350 or so houses, the fines go unpaid and the work goes undone and “you’re back at square one,” Andrews says.
He’s in court about twice a month, he estimates, trying to get people to fix their homes or pay the fine. Usually, those trips are fruitless, and he hears about it from frustrated residents.
“They think I’m not doing my job because nothing gets done.”
* * *
Under the circumstances, Steve Liptak Jr. might be considered fortunate. Only two of the 20 or so homes on his block are vacant. There was a time when most of the people who lived on the block were the homeowners, but seven of the properties are now occupied by renters. He lives in the borough’s first ward, where it used to be fairly quiet. Now, he says, you can hear gunshots more often.
“The vacant housing prohibits people from wanting to buy property and the criminal element thrives in the depressed area,” he says. “The vacant housing has caused an issue with juvenile criminal mischief, arsonist access to buildings, thieves taking copper pipes, and criminals having a place to hide.”
Liptak thinks the government could have done more to prevent this situation, even as early as when the steel industry moved out. But now that the problem of abandonment is in its advanced stages, he feels that most efforts to turn it around must come from the community.
Liptak started an online Facebook group – North Braddock Network – to share tips with residents about suspicious activities, events, and how they can help. Besides that, he said residents could volunteer to board up the dangerous vacant housing. “Neighbors could also take the time to landscape the vacant properties to maintain the appearance of the community,” he says. He also advocates lobbying the state and federal governments for funding.
Marguriet agrees. “It should be national policy … to do something about all these old industrial towns by eliminating blight,” he says, citing the efforts to clean up Europe after World War II.
“Then you give the markets a chance to revitalize. But if you don’t get rid of the blight, nothing’s going to happen. You can’t build new houses in the midst of blight.”
Nafari Vanaski, a Brooklyn native, pursued a journalism career in high school, despite all the warnings. She spent 12 years in various roles at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, including five years as a metro columnist. She is now an editor in Lakeland, Fl.
This month (January 2016) only, become a Lifetime Member of Belt! Never worry about renewing your membership again; save 50% on anything we ever sell, forever; and support local journalism and independent small press by enabling us to pay writers for their work.