Episode 09 of Grapple takes you to Hazelwood. It’s a neighborhood in Southeast Pittsburgh that’s only four miles from downtown but hard to get to by public transportation. Besides feeling physically isolated from the rest of the city, residents in Hazelwood have watched other neighborhoods redevelop and cash in on Pittsburgh’s renaissance. But a big change is finally underway in Hazelwood, where a former coke and steel mill site is being turned into a huge site for tech research, commercial use and housing.
Black Soot Everyday
Mary Finke’s mother-in-law, right, and another woman sit in Hazelwood with the foundry behind them. (Image courtesy of Mary Finke)
Mary Finke was born and raised in Hazelwood when the coke and steel mill dominated this Southeast Pittsburgh neighborhood.
“Growing up with the mills, you saw the black soot everyday,” Finke says. “I would wash the porch on a Friday morning, and you could go out in half an hour, and the little black pieces of soot. Never heard the word pollution.”
Whether you call it soot-filled air or pollution, Mary Finke says people in Hazelwood didn’t really talk about what was coming out of those stacks.
Born in 1930 to Irish parents from Galway, Finke remembers Hazelwood being full of immigrants. She remembers gathering with Italian and Irish families in the backyard on some weekends. “One of the Irishmen played an accordion and they sang. And of course the Italians made their own wine.”
Finke’s father, like many during the Depression, was out of work. As the economy improved, he found work at a foundry in another neighborhood close to Hazelwood. He died from asbestos-related silicosis before he was 65.
Finke’s family stayed in Hazelwood, and she did too when she married and started raising her kids there. By the 1960s, Finke and her family were among the 13,000 people living in Hazelwood at that time.
But as racial tensions flared across the country, white flight from America’s cities was taking place. Finke’s friends moved out of Hazelwood. By 1971, Finke left, too.
“Hazelwood is a community that has been kind of ignored over the years; looked at or perceived as unsafe or unwelcoming, “ says Kris DiPietro. (Jessica Kourkounis for Keystone Crossroads)
Kris DiPietro knows what Hazelwood has gone through since she grew up there in the 1950s and 60s. She remembers a lot of stores, bars, churches and a bank that kept late night hours. She also says there was “an undercurrent in the community of racism,” in the 1960s that “kind of exploded” after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
“People were met by some racism that was in the community and had to deal with it. Some of them were frightened by it and some of us realized and understood that this was something that had been simmering for a long time. And it came out and it was done in a negative way, but we rebounded from that. We didn’t run away from it. We understood what it was and we grew from it. I think it was really difficult for a lot of African-American families that are here and have been here. Some of them remember the institutional kind of things. In a movie theater, they had to sit up in the balcony and certain places they weren’t welcomed. That’s hard for people in a community and it’s hard for Caucasians to recognize that that indeed did happen. That is part of our history.”
The neighborhood has been struggling ever since the old coke and steel mill shut down in the late 1990s when more than 900 people lost their jobs. Since then, it’s been a challenge to figure out what to do with the massive 178-acre brownfield site. It’s along the Monongahela River and is separated from the neighborhood by rail tracks.
Not too long after the mill closed, a group of foundations in Pittsburgh swooped in and bought the site. They rebranded it ALMONO, which is a made-up word that combines the names of Pittsburgh’s three rivers: the Allegheny, Monongahela, and the Ohio.
Today, Pittsburgh is banking on the ALMONO site to take off … and bring in new commercial, residential and tech growth to the city. Right now, the site is being transformed, as construction vehicles scoop up and move dirt around. Hazelwood residents hear the trucks from all over the neighborhood. It’s a reminder of how much this development is apart of everyday life in Hazelwood.
DiPietro is especially excited about one big name that’s launching a major new venture on the ALMONO site. The ride-sharing company Uber has chosen to set up a test-track for self-driving cars on a part of the old mill site. She’s dreaming big about ALMONO’s future.
“My hope is that it’s a bustling place. That it’s not just a daytime kind of thing. That there will be housing on there. That there will be jobs on there ... It will be part of our community. It won’t be a separate community. It will just be a part of Hazelwood that’s along the river. Whatever happens here it’s going to be something that the people here have waited a long time for and worked hard for and that’s what it’s all about.”
DiPietro, 69, says she’ll be 80 by the time the development is in full swing.
“My time will be gone. And my thing is to look at those young people who are as passionate and as committed to the community to start stepping up and realizing they too have talent that they can share with people and do things. It’s really important.”
Lifelong Hazelwood resident Jourdan Hicks (Jessica Kourkounis for Keystone Crossroads)
Jourdan Hicks is one of those residents who want to keep living in Hazelwood. She’s in her 20s and hopes Hazelwood can maintain its unique character as the redevelopment gets under way.
Hicks calls herself a “fourth generation Hazelwoodian.”
“I think that residents are a little leery of it because we’ve seen the trail of development throughout the city. And when these developers come and all these businesses come, they really don’t benefit the community. There’s like a separation, there’s like the old and the new.”
When asked about the diversity and history of racism in Hazelwood, she says “I don’t think I’ve ever experienced racism firsthand in Hazelwood. But I grew up hearing stories of race riots on Second Avenue, or needing like a guide or protector to walk down the street after a certain time.”
Hicks said you can still see segregation between what’s known as black neighborhoods and white neighborhoods in Pittsburgh today.
“You see the disparities and you see that based on the houses, who lives there, the stores that are there and things like that. I think now there’s been an opportunity for that conversation and people are willing to have it.”
“We are definitely on the precipice of an amazing time in Hazelwood and no one wants to miss out based on wounds from the past.” Hicks adds, “here you can be proud of your roots and still be a part of the community fabric.”
Alexander Bodnar sings as he serves his family-style meals at his restaurant on Second Avenue in Hazelwood. (Jessica Kourkounis for Keystone Crossroads)
Alexander Jozsa Bodnar, who’s in his 70s, spends most of his time at his restaurant Jozsa’s Corner, cooking by request for groups. Inside you’ll find a giant pizza oven, oddly full of books; and lots of trinkets and pictures on the walls.
Bodnar first came to Pittsburgh when he was a teenager after fleeing the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Years later, in 1974, Bodnar moved to Hazelwood. He worked in advertising and spent some time in the 1980s with the local chamber of commerce trying to boost business in Hazelwood, which he says was starting to decline. Then in 1988, he opened his restaurant near where the coke works used to be.
Staying in the Community
Coincidentally Alexander Bodnar was the first person Tim Smith ever met in Hazelwood. “I was driving down Second Avenue, and Alex was in the middle of the street selling meat pies. I stopped and bought one. He was really friendly and his food was so good. And I thought this is special. You just don’t see this everywhere,” said Smith.
Tim Smith is the pastor of the Keystone Church in Hazelwood, and he also runs the Center of Life community empowerment organization for families and kids in the neighborhood.
“The community was always a very close-knit community where everybody knew everybody. The problem that we had in the community was it had been underserved for so many years.”
Over the years, Smith has seen the neighborhood go through some tough social and economic changes. And while Smith is hopeful about the ALMONO development, he’s worried Hazelwood’s residents could possibly get pushed out.
“We know that as development starts, the taxes are going to go up. It is going to be difficult for people to handle the real estate tax. It is going to be hard to live here. People who are landlords are going to go up on their rent. A lot of things are going to happen. We are already addressing those issues ... we’re telling people to hold fast, don’t give up becasue we have a system in place through which if they want to stay in Hazelwood — they can stay in Hazelwood.”
Smith says that Hazelwood has an agenda and that every single resident who lives in Hazelwood should be able to benefit “to the fullest” from the development and revitalization. He says the community is looking “to own our own homes ... make a dignified salary, have a job — a really good job — or make a job. Our agenda is to control our own economy.”
Near where the ALMONO development is taking place, there’s also some investment along Second Avenue. That’s Hazelwood’s main commercial corridor where there are just a few businesses including Dylamato’s Market.
Dianne Shenk owns Dylamato’s and sees the ALMONO development as a positive for the neighborhood. But like Tim Smith, she’s concerned about residents being able to stay.
“I think that the challenge is to prevent displacement. And so in working with small businesses — creating income for folks that are already here — maybe we can create enough income that they won’t be displaced as the neighborhood gets better. I imagine that there will be hopefully dozens of small businesses up and down Second Avenue, and I can only benefit from that. Right now I’m the only small business in this part of Hazelwood ... If ALMONO is developed as it was designed so that retail stays on Second Avenue, I think it can only be a positive thing. It’s going to raise the quality of life in Hazelwood. It’s going to bring a lot of new residents. I think it’s a very good thing for the neighborhood.”
Music: Tony Trov and Mike Vivas
Audio Engineers: John Knapp and Charlie Kaier
Reporters: Irina Zhorov, Margaret J. Krauss, and Jessica Kourkounis
Executive Producer: Stephanie Marudas
Host, Editor: Naomi Starobin