Hazelwood on the verge of change


Courtesy of Nick Mullen

A walk down Hazelwood’s Second Avenue gives off vibes of a changing neighborhood.

Zipcars are parked in front of the neighborhood branch of the Carnegie Library, which was relocated in 2014 to a newly renovated building across from the shuttered Dimperio’s Market.

Dimperio’s, one of the neighborhood’s last remaining grocery stores, closed in 2008 after almost 80 years due to several robbery attempts and incessant shoplifting.

A long vacant building surrounded by gap-tooth lots is remodeled — large bulldozers and piles of dirt sit on the sprawling 178-acre riverfront site south of Second Avenue. The redevelopment is taking place on the former LTV steel mill site, the last in Pittsburgh’s city limits, which was demolished in 1998.

The collapse of Pittsburgh’s steel industry in the 1980’s hit Hazelwood hard. The Second Avenue business district slowly vacated and crumbled, and the neighborhood’s grocery stores and all of its schools went with it.

Hazelwood is just the latest neighborhood in Pittsburgh that seems poised for a revival. In 2002, a partnership of private investors and the Regional Industrial Development Corporation, a privately funded non-profit, bought the riverfront site — dubbed Almono for the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers. Work began in 2015 to prepare the site for development, which is slated to host commercial, industrial and residential development.

Like many other revitalizing neighborhoods, locals are eager for redevelopment, hoping renewed interest will trickle into the neighborhood itself. But — as is the case with all of Pittsburgh’s development — some harbor concern that change is a false promise and could displace lifelong residents or further ostracize Pittsburgh’s lower-middle class.

Al Ferguson works the register at Dylamato’s Market on Second Avenue, the neighborhood’s only grocery store since Dimperio’s closed down.

In the four years he’s lived in Hazelwood, he said that he hasn’t seen much change, but believes the neighborhood is poised for a comeback.

“I would like to see it pick up, and I think it will,” Ferguson said. “I’d like to see some of the old houses get torn down and rebuilt. It’ll get there in a few years. This is going to be the next place to live.”

This tempered optimism is common among residents, who’ve been promised redevelopment for years — which never came — partly due to delays stemming from a looming but now defunct plan to extend the Mon-Fayette Expressway through Hazelwood.

Corey O’Connor, the city councilman for Hazelwood and District 5, said the residents’ attitudes about change is one of the challenges of revitalizing the community.

“There are a couple challenges … one is getting everybody’s mentality to say, ‘This is actually coming,’” O’Connor said. “If you’ve been promised something for 20 years and nothing happened, it’s hard to see it when it starts unveiling itself.”

Though development is in its early days, anxiety prevails over the fate of the neighborhood, especially its existing locals. Pittsburgh’s tenuous history of urban development does little to placate resident’s concerns.

Tim Smith, executive director of Center of Life — one of several Hazelwood community organizations — echoed O’Connor’s wariness.

“For many years, Hazelwood has been underserved, and no one’s been interested… and then all of a sudden when development begins to start and people step in to buy houses, there are mixed feelings,” Smith said.

Community groups like Homes for All, have sponsored petitions to let the city know locals want to be involved and informed through every step of the Almono development project.

Developers tread carefully, trying not to repeat mistakes made when the Waterfront in Homestead was redeveloped in the early 2000s. The change essentially bisected the neighborhood and the Waterfront, but failed to revitalize Homestead.

In East Liberty, developers and residents face the struggle to maintain a balance between new developments for higher-income urban pioneers and keeping affordable housing for longtime residents.

O’Connor stressed the importance of urban renewal done correctly, keeping people in place and remodeling blighted properties.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for … Hazelwood residents to be on a national level to show how we can have a diverse, blended community from all different ethnicities, backgrounds, heritages [and] incomes all living together,” O’Connor said. “We’re going to make Hazelwood the example of how these developments can be done.”

Smith is also the chair of the Greater Hazelwood Community Collaborative, an organization that meets once a month with potential developers, investors and community members, to foster communication and represent the best interests of both the community and the developers.

“The hope and the vision that we have as a community is that it’s one neighborhood,” he said. “The way we describe the Almono site is as the South Hazelwood flats. Our vision is not that we’re going to have two communities … we will resist that with everything we have in us. We don’t want to see another Homestead.”

Chuck Christen is a board member of the Hazelwood Initiative, but he’s also been a Hazelwood resident for 15 years. He said his organization and the Community Collaborative are trying to foster camaraderie between intervening organizations and locals.

“I’ve certainly been excited to see how the foundations have been working with the community to ensure that this is development that is not just separated from the Hazelwood community, but integrated [into it],” Christen said.

Not everyone is convinced the neighborhood is on a sure path to revival.

Michael Glass, a Pitt urban studies professor, said the Almono development indicates renewal, but it doesn’t indicate how.

Noting other communities in Pittsburgh where development has been uneven or unfinished, Glass said people shouldn’t get their hopes up.

“I don’t think Hazelwood is revitalizing,” Glass said. “They’ve barely broken ground on Almono, so come back to me in 15 years. Remember it took East Liberty 20 years between the Home Depot opening to the present angst over Penn Plaza’s redevelopment.”

Glass also stressed the importance of viewing Hazelwood, and Pittsburgh, in measured context.

“Gentrification involves displacement of lower-income communities by higher-income newcomers. That is nowhere close to occurring in Hazelwood,” Glass said.

He cautioned against “highly loaded” words like gentrification to describe changing neighborhoods in Pittsburgh.

Gentrification, he said, looks “much different in Pittsburgh than … New York, London, Vancouver or other major cities that experience real-estate demand at much different magnitudes.”

Ferguson,when asked about challenges to the redevelopment, stopped and pointed to the bulldozers and dirt patches of the fledgling Almono site.

“If they incorporate and build Second Avenue into it, it’ll be all right. Otherwise, Hazelwood’s going to be screwed,” he said.

Despite the seemingly endless construction, the community’s tempered optimism is a sign the neighborhood is finally on the rebound, if not architecturally then certainly on a personal level.

“I believe this is the time for Hazelwood to make its comeback,” Smith said. “People want to see something happen that’s going to benefit the community members, and empower the community members…The brick and mortar is one thing, but the people [are] a whole different story.”