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Photographs by
Cornelia Karaffa
and Jason Togyer

Many residents who live just beyond the shadow of the Cathedral of Learning need help with everything from rodent control to after-school programs with children. Through a federally funded community-outreach program, Pitt has the chance to help make those nearby home addresses more desirable places to live.

Good Neighbor

Jason Togyer

 Neighbors gather for a concert in Pittsburgh's Homstead section sponsored by a community volunteer group staffed in part by Pitt interns.

The skies above Oakland are a Technicolor blue as Ruth Feathers sets out for a walk with her camera. Feathers is not sightseeing; she’s looking for rats. A resident called her office at Oakland Community Council to report seeing rodents scurrying from a nearby house in central Oakland; several dead ones are in the alley behind her house. Once Feathers finds out where the rats are coming from, she intends to document the problem and report the property owner to the city.

So far, the hunt isn’t going well. There are no rats at the address the caller gave, though trash and broken glass litter the yard of a neighboring property. Feathers (MPPM 2001 GSPIA) snaps several pictures. On a nearby street, she spies an elderly woman standing on the front porch, holding her grandson protectively on her hip.

Feathers, who two years ago received her in public policy management from Pitt’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, introduces herself. “We got a call from one of your neighbors up here,” she says. “She saw rats. Have you seen any rats?”

“Oh, my, yes,” the woman says in Italian-accented English, pointing up the block. “Those people up there, they throw food every place; they throw garbage every place.” Shaking her head sadly, she confides that she and her husband have considered moving. “I don’t know how much longer I can take it,” she says.

A check of tax records later reveals the woman is one of a handful in the neighborhood who still owns and occupies her home. For now, Feathers tries to reassure her: “We’re going to do something about this,” she says.

Then, down the block, an elderly man carrying groceries leads Feathers to a vacant lot. “The rats come out of that hole,” he says. Sure enough, it’s near the house with the garbage outside. There’s a foul smell coming from the overgrown grass.

“Oh, wow,” she says, spying two dead rats. Out comes the camera. Back in her office, Feathers will track down the appropriate agencies to make sure the vacant lot gets cleaned up. Maybe soon, the grandmother can let her grandson off of the porch.

A few years ago, Feathers worked as a commercial underwriter for a large bank, a job she found unrewarding because she felt distant from the community. She returned to Pitt to pick up her degree in urban planning. There, her advisor, Sabina Deitrick, an associate professor of public and urban affairs in GSPIA, recruited her to become part of the University’s Community Outreach Partnership Center (COPC). Pitt’s COPC, directed by Deitrick and Tracy Soska, a lecturer in the School of Social Work, was formed in November of 2000 to extend a helping hand from the University to three Pittsburgh neighborhoods that border its Oakland campus.

In January 2001, COPC placed Feathers in an eight-month internship at the nonprofit Oakland Planning and Development Corporation (OPDC), where she made computerized maps of housing ownership and conditions in sections of Oakland. They illustrated an alarming problem: Absentee landlords were charging high prices for rental properties that were falling apart. Longtime residents no longer felt safe and were selling their homes, in some cases to those same landlords.

“A neighborhood is physical as well as people,” Feathers says. “You need to have a safe neighborhood in order to have a strong community. What COPC has given me are the new skills to help build a neighborhood.” Her mapping work at OPDC led to her position at the community council, which serves as a planning agency for the neighborhood and intervenes on behalf of residents with local officials and agencies.

Helping Pittsburgh-area nonprofits on quality-of-life issues is nothing new for students and faculty at Pitt, says Soska, principal investigator for the University’s welfare-to-work initiative and a community-organizing training program. But there was little coordination of Pitt’s efforts; many were done on an individual basis. As students or faculty moved to new projects, community-University connections were lost.

Worse yet, critics often dismiss university efforts at urban planning as nothing more than products of “ivory towers”—where people are treated like guinea pigs. One steelworker, quoted by William Serrin in his 1992 book, Homestead: The Glory and Tragedy of an American Steel Town, talked with scorn about the sociologists who flooded the town as the mill there closed. There were more graduate students than steelworkers in the local bars, he said.

Still, there are obviously resources in abundance at colleges and universities—talent, knowledge, and people willing to help. With that in mind, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development created a carrot-and-stick approach: In exchange for three-year grants of up to $400,000, schools would assist local groups with job training, economic development, mentoring, and technical assistance, through the so-called COPCs. The catch was that ideas had to be generated within neighborhoods, not universities.

That was not a problem for Pitt. Pittsburghers have long felt a sense of ownership of “their” university, back to the Depression, when schoolchildren saved pennies for the Cathedral of Learning. Community groups never hesitated to ask for help. COPC, Soska says, could unify Pitt’s community outreach and provide a central contact point.

Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg’s strong interest in the project helped launch COPC. He allocated $100,000 to the program, supplementing HUD’s grant to Pitt of $400,000, part of $45 million that HUD has disbursed to more than 100 colleges and universities for COPCs since 1994.

Projects coordinated by COPCs differ depending on local needs. At the University of Southern California, for instance, students and faculty provide credit counseling for first-time home-owners and create a computer network of grant and loan applications for entrepreneurs in Los Angeles. In Colorado, the COPC at the University of Denver offers after-school tutoring and literacy programs and training for future small-business owners. The COPC at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, New York, sponsors an annual job fair.

Pitt’s COPC application promised help for small-business development, health care, career mentoring, neighborhood revitalization, and job training. That’s an unusually wide range of tasks; but Pitt’s size—and range of specialties—give COPC access to a network of resources unavailable at most universities. Need legal help? There are students in the School of Law interested. Health and wellness problems? School of Medicine and Graduate School of Public Health are ideal partners. Twelve departments, schools, or centers contribute to Pitt’s COPC, which in the spring hosted the national conference of university outreach centers in conjunction with Duquesne University’s COPC.

“Our goal is not to go out in the University and eat up every other project,” Soska says. Instead, he says, faculty members see COPC as a way to involve students in community endeavors where they can gain experience. COPC also gives community projects visibility throughout the campus, which, he says, “builds internal support and networking for linking service to teaching and research. Getting that reputation both on the outside and the inside was very important,” he adds.

As with most urban campuses, the harsh realities of the world are not far from Pitt. Within three blocks of the Upper Campus sit the city’s Oak Hill sections—a 1.6-mile sliver of Pittsburgh where Oakland overlaps the Hill District. According to the US Census, a single parent heads 32 percent of families there, and roughly 30 percent of the residents live in poverty. A kid doesn’t have to look hard to find drugs or crime.

Yet, instead of hanging out on street corners, dozens of teenagers gather on the second floor of Breachmenders Ministries, a community-development organization founded more than two decades ago by a nearby church. Pencils in hand, some crammed into chairs too small for their growing frames, they put their dreams down on paper. One student wants to work at a radio station. Another wants to join the US Air Force. Several want to become doctors or nurses; one hopes to be a civil engineer. One young man has a simple goal: “Be successful and make a lot of money.”

It’s the first time many of them ever planned their futures, says Ann Solic, development director of Breachmenders, whose mission includes both literacy and youth education programs. “Some of these kids don’t have the support mechanism they need,” Solic says. “What happens when they drift? They get caught up in strong currents that can be pretty destructive.”

Breachmenders had some after-school programs for children and job training for young adults, Solic says, but many teenagers fell between the programs. They went through high school with no idea about what courses they needed to achieve their career goals or go to college.

“They’d say, ‘I want to be a doctor, but I hate science,’” says Karla Stallworth, director of youth programs for Breachmenders. When they graduated, they were ill-prepared for the working world or higher education.

Through COPC, Breachmenders linked with Pitt Education Assistant Professor Kay Atman, who in 1991 developed a system for testing students to help them match their aspirations with their aptitudes. “Each one of these kids is born with a natural kind of talent,” she says. “Sometimes people find their talent, but many times, they overlook it.”

Once Breachmenders identifies students’ interests, it matches them with suitable mentors. Not only do the mentors provide support and guidance, but Breachmenders uses foundation grants to pay for internships so students can work alongside them. Thanks to COPC, Breachmenders has placed many students with mentors at Pitt or UPMC Health System.

After a rocky start, the School-to-Career program has blossomed, Stallworth says. The number of students enrolled jumped from 18 to 47, and the program has a waiting list, largely because of good word of mouth in the community.

The good word is spreading, too, in Hazelwood, just below the Oakland campus, where COPC has partnered with a nonprofit organization called Hazelwood Initiative.

When the last remaining steel-related mill within the City of Pittsburgh closed in 1998, more than a piece of the region’s heritage was lost. For Hazelwood, it meant the smell was gone. LTV Steel’s Pittsburgh Works once stretched along both sides of the Monongahela River and manufactured everything from raw iron to finished steel. By the early 1990s, operations dwindled to a by-products plant in Hazelwood that supplied LTV mills in other cities with coke—coal with the impurities cooked out—to fuel furnaces.

Where did the impurities go? Into the air. During the summer, a sulfuric cloud that burned the eyes and nose smothered Hazelwood’s main street. Though the mill meant jobs to steelworkers, over the years many of them left Hazelwood for the suburbs and clean air. Houses, hard to sell because of the pollution, were abandoned; businesses moved away. The neighborhood was in serious decline when the coke works finally closed.

The remaining residents saw the closure as a chance to reclaim LTV’s 177 acres of riverfront property for use in a “main street” development of homes, offices, retail stores, and green space. But the steel company suddenly announced plans for a new company to construct another coke plant on the site. Residents, to put it bluntly, raised a stink.

“They kept telling us it was going to be up-to-date and remodeled,” says Lucille Kennedy, who raised her five children in Hazelwood. Though the new factory would employ only 200 people, it would swallow up the last piece of riverfront property in Pittsburgh, she says. “We felt that was a vast waste.”

The new company underestimated the determination of residents like Kennedy, who lobbied officials to reject the project in favor of cleaner alternatives. When the school board refused to grant tax breaks the mill owners wanted, the project died. Three local foundations purchased the land for the kind of mixed-use development that most Hazelwood residents favor. Kennedy and her neighbors learned the value of organization.

“There were always people willing to speak out [against the coke plant],” says Kennedy, who serves as an executive board member of Hazelwood Initiative, “but one voice here, one voice there, doesn’t carry a lot of weight. It was our organization that brought them together.”

Keeping an organization together can be another matter. Deitrick says community groups rise and fall with their volunteers. “The organizations are so small, relative to what they’re trying to do,” she says. “A community development organization could be doing housing, business development, job training, social services, youth programs, and even education.” Even the most dedicated volunteers get bogged down, adds Soska, who spent many years running the Westinghouse Valley Human Services Center, east of Pittsburgh. “If you’re the director of a small nonprofit corporation, you do just about everything,” he says. “You’re basically a CEO without any of the perks.”

COPC takes some of the load off volunteers in Hazelwood by paying Pitt students to intern with the group. One student, an English major, helped greatly improve the community’s first newspaper in decades.

In 2001, through COPC, Deitrick’s graduate students spent four months interviewing residents, property owners, and community leaders in Hazelwood. The resulting report noted the area’s assets, among them its proximity to downtown Pittsburgh, but it also identified a myriad of neighborhood problems—including its highly fragmented population of single parents, young people, and the elderly.

The report, endorsed by city officials and the residents, has enabled Hazelwood Initiative to focus on the issues that residents determined were most important to them, including access to low-cost health screenings. COPC has helped Hazelwood Initiative tap into the corresponding network of social services and development agencies, says Jim Richter, the group’s executive director. He says Pitt faculty have been “very creative in terms of their ideas, and very supportive.”

The benefits go both ways, Soska says. Pitt students gain more from the experience than just picking up a few dollars from an internship. “They’re having to produce real documents for real people that will have real impact,” he says. “You can’t buy that kind of experience from writing a paper.”

The next challenge for Pitt’s COPC will be keeping the momentum going when the HUD grant runs out next August.

COPC could benefit from the University’s capital campaign; Deitrick and Soska are meeting with potential donors. They say a community-outreach endowment or donation would enable Pitt to maintain its links with the community, even if COPC as a formal entity goes away. In addition, HUD has a program called “New Directions” that provides grants for COPCs to expand their work.

“We’ve gotten so many good ideas [from the community],”says Deitrick. “We won’t have trouble putting a proposal together.”

Jason Togyer is associate editor of this magazine.


Besides forging links to government entities like the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and Pittsburgh’s Department of City Planning, the Pitt Community Outreach Partnership Center works actively with community groups large and small, including:

Allequippa Terrace Resident Council, which represents tenants of a public housing complex near the Oakland campus and operates a community food pantry, among other self-help efforts;
Breachmenders Ministries Inc., which provides job training and after-school programs and rehabilitates abandoned homes;
Community Human Services Corporation, which runs after-school programs, cares for the elderly, and provides low-interest loans to working families;
Fair Housing Partnership of Greater Pittsburgh, which mediates disputes between tenants and landlords and fights discrimination in housing rentals and sales;
Hazelwood Initiative, which coordinates community development and provides information about social services;
Housing Opportunities Unlimited, which helps public-housing communities make the transition to mixed-income communities of renters and homeowners;
Oakland Community Council, which advocates for community and government services on behalf of Oakland residents;
Oakland Planning and Development Corporation, which operates the Oakland Business Improvement District, develops affordable housing, and places residents in jobs;
Peoples’ Oakland, which offers mental-health services and psychiatric counseling; and
United Way of Allegheny County.

Partners within the University of Pittsburgh:

Office of the Chancellor
Office of the Provost
Office of Community and
Governmental Relations

Center for Social
and Urban Research

College of General Studies
Graduate School of Public Health
Graduate School of Public and
International Affairs

Housing Resource Center
Institute of Politics
Katz Graduate School of Business
School of Education
School of Law
School of Medicine
School of Social Work
Student Volunteer Outreach
UPMC Health System Community
Initiatives Department

Urban Studies Program

*Denotes an external link. Links to external Web sites are offered for informational purposes only and the information there is not guaranteed or endorsed by the University of Pittsburgh or its affiliates.

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