Uphill Climb: Perry Hilltop struggles to keep pace with changes on the North Side | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Uphill Climb: Perry Hilltop struggles to keep pace with changes on the North Side

"You can't just give money to a community and expect to change it."

Rachel Canning (left), the Perry Hilltop Citizens Council and residents have a long road ahead if they hope to revitalize the community. (Also pictured, from left: resident Shawnelle Wilson, council treasurer Maria Haley and vice president Jennifer Owen.)
Rachel Canning (left), the Perry Hilltop Citizens Council and residents have a long road ahead if they hope to revitalize the community. (Also pictured, from left: resident Shawnelle Wilson, council treasurer Maria Haley and vice president Jennifer Owen.)

To climb up Perrysville Avenue is to see the traces of a once-bustling neighborhood: rows of rusted parking-meter poles, overgrown lots and dilapidated buildings all signal a community that has withered. 

Such is the scene in Perry Hilltop, which — like a lot of North Side neighborhoods — has suffered from population loss, a depressed housing market and deteriorating infrastructure. But unlike nearby communities, some of which are showing at least rudimentary signs of economic rebirth, it is hard to see evidence of change coming around the corner. 

Perry Hilltop, otherwise known as Perry South, is one of many Pittsburgh neighborhoods that have yet to recover from decades of population loss, according to Mark Fatla, executive director of the Northside Leadership Conference. 

"Perry Hilltop is emblematic of the larger issue of Pittsburgh: We have a population that is a fraction of the size it once was," says Fatla. What's more, he adds, "Some neighborhoods are going to get hollowed out more than others."

Indeed, between 1990 and 2010, Perry dwindled from 6,300 to 4,100 residents. That's a population decline of more than one-third; the city as a whole, meanwhile, lost just less than 6 percent of its population during the same time.

The job of turning those numbers around begins with the Perry Hilltop Citizens Council. But the organization's newly elected president, Rachel Canning, says the neighborhood's problems are too large for the 12-member group to handle alone. 

"The issues are much bigger than us," she explains. "It's not just about getting people to come out to meetings.

"There's this inclination to blame the city because they're not doing enough. But really, we need to get our act together," Canning adds. "Our board right now just does not have a vision; people want things to happen, but they don't know what to do."

That lack of consensus has cost Perry Hilltop. Last fall, according to figures provided by the city, numerous North Side neighborhoods received federal community-development dollars. Nearby Fineview, for example, received $29,000; the Central Northside Neighborhood Council garnered $45,000. Perry Hilltop, meanwhile, did not even apply for a federal grant; it still has roughly $15,000 in unspent funds — including a $12,000 federal grant made in 2010.

"We need to work through some planning and development issues," Canning says. "You can't just give money to a community and expect to change it — there has to be a strong network of support."

Rob Stephany, the executive director of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, agrees. The URA is charged with helping to rebuild struggling communities, but Stephany says reductions in money from the state and federal government mean the agency must be especially cautious. "We don't have that money right now, so people who want to do something have to hit the nail on the head."

That's difficult to do without a strong neighborhood vision, he adds. "We're at our best when we have good leadership. [Perry Hilltop is] more than welcome to pick up the phone and call us. We'd love to work with them."

Tidying up the neighborhood's appearance is a start, says PHCC secretary Janet Gunter. PHCC council members and volunteers in the past five years have planted trees, preserved green spaces and carried out block-by-block trash clean-ups.

"If we can't get brick-and-mortar changes, at least we'll make our neighborhood look good," says Gunter. "It's just a reflection that someone cares."

Indeed, a couple organizations are already helping to stitch together Perry Hilltop's social fabric.

The Open Door, Inc., a nonprofit group that leases out rooms to homeless and HIV-stricken individuals at a reduced cost, continues operating out of a property on Charles Street, according to Open Door board president Dana Davis.

The nonprofit, she says, serves the community's "vulnerable population," which includes those with HIV as well as impoverished residents struggling with substance-abuse and mental-health challenges.

Another nonprofit, the Pittsburgh Project, has partnered with PHCC for the past five years in carrying out community clean-ups and seasonal food drives. The organization is also offering mentoring and tutoring programs for neighborhood youth. The goal, says Pittsburgh Project community-outreach director Will Thompkins, is to "develop young leaders in the community."

For Thompkins, the desire to see the neighborhood flourish is a personal one. He's from this area and remembers better times. 

He recalls playing Pony-league baseball in the 1960s at a now-vacant baseball field near Wilson Avenue, and is nostalgic for a neighborhood brimming with businesses and homes. 

"It was just a vibrant area," he says, referring specifically to the intersection at Perrysville Avenue and Charles Street. "Sometimes my brothers and friends will reminisce [how on] every vacant lot there used to sit a home or a business.  

"But, of course, it is what it is now," Thompkins continues. "I don't believe the area will ever revisit its heyday."

But that doesn't mean he's willing to settle for what it has become.

"We have a primary footprint, you could say, in the Perry Hilltop area," Thompkins says. The organization's headquarters on Charles Street occasionally hosts PHCC meetings. "We're trying to be a beacon in the community, street by street, block by block," he explains. "We're doing things that will enhance the quality of life for those living in the neighborhood."

Such efforts can be building blocks for a larger effort, say nearby community leaders, who tout their own success at weaving together networks of support.

"When neighborhoods collaborate and leverage the resources that they have there, it will help," says Ed Louis, program manager for nearby Brightwood Civic Group and Fineview Citizens Council. "Funders are really looking for that collaboration."

"It really has to start with the citizens of the community," says Central Northside Neighborhood Council president Chris D'Addario, who's helped orchestrate multiple renewal projects throughout the Central Northside. 

D'Addario himself participated in two dozen public meetings to devise the Central Northside's "master plan," a list of community-wide goals. "We don't expect the city or the URA, or anyone else, to recognize or fix our problems — the citizens have to do the heavy lifting."

But they'll need help. 

Canning, of the Citizens Council, says her organization will seek support from Pittsburgh's Community Technical Assistance Center, a nonprofit that provides community groups with organizational training and financial guidance.

"We need some technical assistance to get up to speed and advocate for our neighborhood," Canning says. Among her top priorities: honing a financial plan, and making use of the resources the organization already has. "My plan is to use all [$15,000] this year — we're going to use it now."

For starters, Canning hopes to pursue renovation and development schemes with Southern Tier Environments for Living, a New York-based nonprofit agency providing psychiatric services and affordable housing. Canning also hopes to increase voter registration among residents.

"It'd be good to get people politically involved — it will bring respect," she says. "Politicians look at how many people vote in neighborhoods, and that'll bring their attention to us."

In the meantime, development throughout the North Side serves as a promising precursor for Perry Hilltop's renewal, says NSLC's Fatla.

"All the North Side neighborhoods benefit from those high-profile investments," he says, noting his organization is focusing on restoring East Ohio Street's business district and polishing up Western Avenue — two of the North Side's most frequently traveled streets.

But in the end, Fatla says, only diligent, long-term commitments from neighborhood leaders and residents will nurture Perry Hilltop back to life.

"The neighborhood didn't get in the condition it's in overnight," he says. "It's not going to get out of it overnight, either."