Appraising Grace | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper
When the police came for Grace Keller on May 6, they found her hiding in the rafters of her dream house.

Since last fall, Keller had been living like the Swiss Family Robinson with several housemates in a ramshackle yet still sturdy vacant house at the woodsy end of Beelen, a short, isolated street on a hillside overlooking the Parkway between the Hill District and West Oakland. In late March, a police officer had come to tell them that, in the eyes of the law, they were trespassing. Police had gotten hold of the legal owner, they said, and she would not give them permission to remain.

The arrest followed several months of police visits to the property, including two searches without warrants, Keller claims. During the first, police -- the young people say police accused them of being a satanic cult. At the second, incorrectly, it turned out -- feared Keller and her friends were making bombs.

Shortly after the trespassing warning, her housemates departed, one to a friend's place, another "into the woods," Keller says.

On the evening of her first trespassing arrest, Keller had been reading Bible stories, she recalls. "I'm probably the only Christian on the street" otherwise occupied by punk kids, says 20-year-old Keller, whose father is a minister now living in New Hampshire.

"At about 1 a.m., I look out and there's a paddy wagon and two squad cars," she continues. "I went upstairs and went to sleep so I wouldn't have to deal with them." She climbed a ladder past her regular bedroom and hunkered down in an attic loft with a lantern and some blankets.

"I can sleep through a lot," she adds. Keller first slept on the streets as a teen-ager while still living with her family, who took her from the anthracite coal region near Allentown to central Pennsylvania and Washington D.C. As an adult, Keller has been living essentially "outside of the cash economy," as she puts it, bartering with friends, scavenging for her various needs and working odd jobs. Until she moved into the house on Beelen, she says she was virtually homeless.

It didn't take police long to find her nest in the attic. "They had dogs, they searched everything," Keller says. She went into custody uneventfully and got bailed out of jail by friends two days later.

When she returned to the house the water and electricity, which had been in a previous tenant's name, were cut off.

Two weeks later, police arrived as Keller says she was writing in her diary. Again, she fled to an attic, this time in one of the houses behind her main dwelling. (Two other houses still stand behind hers; the ruins of several others climb the hill beside a concrete staircase.)

She was quickly apprehended, receiving a few scrapes and bruises in the course of her arrest that were visible a few days later.

According to the police report relayed by Commander Bill Bochter of Zone 2, Keller "became resistant and attempted numerous times to break free of the officers. Refused to walk midway down the stairs. One officer slipped and stumbled....Finally got Keller to stand up and walk the rest of the way without incident."

"I was trying to look at their badge numbers," Keller says. "The female officer started looking through my legal papers. I told them ‘I don't consent to this search, that's privileged and confidential attorney information.' It was definitely excessive force, because I've always been compliant in the past."

"This report doesn't indicate a search of the residence," counters Bochter. "Any time someone is arrested, usually anything within their immediate control is checked for weapons."

Keller faces hearings in July about both incidents.

From Keller's paint-chipped and softening front porch -- decorated with wooden cutouts of the moon and stars -- you can see abundant greenery, a single neighbor's house, the Monongahela River, the South Side Slopes and the tops of a few Downtown skyscrapers. Most of the people who live on Beelen are several hundred yards and a woods away from Keller's house, down where the street meets Kirkpatrick, a main road over the Hill. They're social-activist punks and Keller's friends.

But even among eccentrics, Keller's unusual. Her legal name is Luke Keller, her legal sex male; she hasn't, however, begun the process of physical transition. She hopes to get training and employment as a certified nurse's aid at a hospital that would subsidize her training as a registered nurse. Ultimately, she hopes to become a nurse practitioner or get a master's degree in public health.

She takes her nom de femme, Anna Grace, from her grandmothers' names. And her nom de punk is Grandma: "I got it from some street medics," she recalls, "because they said, ‘You're slow and old-fashioned and you're always getting sick and you take care of people.'

"I'm so vulnerable in my house," Keller says. Nonetheless, she adds, "I'm staying in this house and fighting for my rights. I have nowhere else to go" -- or at least nowhere she'd rather be. "I have so much love for this house. I want to make it a dignified house. I love this building the way I'd love a person."

Over the course of her nine months here, she'd made it livable, with water, electricity, a wood stove and lots of cleaning; her ambition was -- and still is -- to give the property a proper historic restoration. Obtaining a legal right to do so might be more difficult. Yet Keller maintains that she already has one: She did ask permission to be in the house, and even got a "sweat equity" lease, from a neighbor who, she says, presented himself as the owner.

Unfortunately for Keller, he's not.

Keller's claim to tenancy hinges on the word of her and her then-housemates and an awkwardly typed "lease agreement" signed by her and Craig Bethel, who owns two rowhouses at the bottom of Beelen, one of which is rented to some of Keller's friends.

"Luke Keller has exchanged labor at the property for tenancy and has paid Craig Bethel one Dollar," the agreement reads in part. "Luke Keller's tenancy is in good standing."

According to the county Recorder of Deeds office, Lisa M. Edwards is legal owner of Keller's house. Edwards, however, insists that, "I'm not the owner. I'm getting it straightened out in court....I just want to get this albatross off my back."

Keller says she only learned about Edwards this spring. She maintains that she has been dealing in good faith with the person she thought was the owner -- or at least the party responsible for the house.

Last summer, the house was vacant following the death of the previous tenant, Keller says. She asked Bethel if she could live there in exchange for fixing the place up and he agreed. At the end of September, she began to move in and clean the place, which had been neglected and filthy. She covered the hole on the roof and put down new tarpaper using several buckets of tar that she found in the basement.

Bethel refused to answer questions about the property or his relationship to Edwards, saying that it could hurt his standing in a messy divorce proceeding underway. "Why they got to bother him?" Bethel says of Keller. "What's he done to anyone?

Before police visited Keller's home, the city's Bureau of Building Inspection learned that the property was open and unsecured through an anonymous tip to the mayor's service center. They sent a condemnation notice -- which detailed the property's tax liens and demolition costs, explains bureau head Ron Graziano -- to several addresses on file for the owner of record, Lisa Edwards.

Shortly thereafter, Graziano received a letter from attorney Lee R. Golden on Edward's behalf, insisting that she "never was the owner of these properties." The letter describes the deed, which bears Edwards' name and purported signature, as "fraudulent," and says that Edwards did not sign it. "Ms. Edwards was a carpenter's apprentice with Mr. Bethel many years ago," the letter also mentions.

Police Commander Bochter maintains that it doesn't matter if Keller tried to present her lease agreement with Bethel to police when facing arrest for trespassing. The officers had already been to the house and informed her that the legal owner was Edwards and that Edwards didn't give permission for Keller to be there. "The officers used discretion by waiting -- they did not have to give any time," Bochter says. "They could've stood by while all the belongings were taken off."

"I was doing so well for a while," Keller says, looking around at the house where she was arrested. "I was learning so much. I was in the most dignified housing [situation I'd had] in a while. The house reflected my personality. I had friends come to visit, I cooked dinner. I could keep my files, I could lock it. There was a view of the river, a woodstove -- what more could I want?"

In May, honeysuckle vines were floridly in bloom, scenting the city steps down to Fifth Avenue and the entire street like a teen-ager's drugstore perfume. In June, fat purple mulberries literally fall from trees. Barely obscuring the Parkway from view, wild grape vines cover everything, including the residents' many found-object sculptures, "street art" paste-ups and stencil-paintings. At least in early summer, the area looks like fairy-tale lost Pittsburgh, complete with evil, oily poison ivy glistening in dark corners.

In fact, Beelen was once home to an artist who appreciated screenprinting as much as the punks. Biographer Victor Bockris has identified Keller's house as one of the tenements rented by Andrei and Julia Warhola -- Andy Warhol's parents -- in the early 1930s. A picture of the house appears in Bockris' Warhol. Andy's eldest brother Paul remembers that Julia, a dabbling folk artist herself, would make flowers out of tin cans and he would help her peddle them. A row of similar aluminum-can pinwheels decorates the stoop of Keller's friends' house on lower Beelen.

Keller says having the punks settle on the street improved it: She and her friend Ron Douglas, who recently bought a house on the street ("the retired punks home," Keller jokes), say that the secluded street had been a hangout for drug users and prostitutes. The fact that the young residents are constantly hanging out in front of the houses has discouraged most of that activity, they say.

"Offhand, I can't say we've noticed a reduction" in crime on Beelen since the punks settled, says Commander Bochter, but "anytime you have activity in the area, it's gonna reduce prostitution and drug use, [which] is a good thing." Police haven't received any complaints from neighbors about the group, he says; instead, it was officers' observations of "obvious safety code violations" that drew their attention to Keller's house.

"The front houses, we can bring to code," Keller says. "The only major code expense is rewiring. It's exposed between the walls and the squirrels have chewed it." Wiring in the basement that's near the gas line also presents a fire hazard, Keller says. She kept the gas off but also had "lots of fire extinguishers."

For heat, Keller and her housemates built a woodstove from a barrel and an antique cast-iron stove door and placed it in the basement. But even basic living took work: Lots of junk had to come out, lots of scrubbing was required. The floor of one room, Keller says, "was covered with hair and urine."

The front house where Keller lived has a dingy basement bathroom; an outhouse -- complete with an empty flask half-buried in the dirt -- sits behind the rear house. Keller used neither: She built a composting "toilet" in one of the remnant house foundations on a nearby lot in the woods. "And I did a good job!" she says, showing it off. "Do you see any flies? Do you smell anything?" It's true: Without an intimate inspection, you'd never know.

"I love living so close to nature. We've eaten roadkill turkey and deer. Ron [Douglas] wants a Mon Duck! He says that's about the nastiest thing he can imagine eating. There's squirrel, possum, raccoon. Maybe, even rat."

Keller's live-off-the-land adventure was the first thing that got her in trouble with the police. In mid-February, she butchered a roadkill deer found on Forbes Avenue. For the hell of it, she nailed the legs to the door, which, as luck would have it, was already emblazoned with the ominous slogan "The End" (just because it's the last house on the street, she says). There was also a cooler containing the deer's head sitting behind the house -- Keller had planned to use the brains to tan the hide, using a Native American method still practiced by modern artisans.

Police showed up on Feb. 22. Keller and a housemate say the police accused them of running a "Satanic cult" and searched the property. Police Commander Bochter told City Paper in March that occupants gave permission for the search; Keller disagrees. Her roommate was held in a squad car during the incident, but the presence of Satan or his unholy legions was never confirmed.

"Well, Satanism's not a crime," Bochter adds good-naturedly.

Another, more frightening police visit occurred on March 19, when at least 14 police vehicles showed up and imposed a search without a warrant, citing "exigent circumstances" -- suspected bomb-making, Keller was told. (See City Paper News Feature, "Police and Punks," March 25.)

Keller and her then-roommate are members of Three Rivers Action Medics, a group of "street medics" who provide first aid and health education, especially at protests. Earlier that evening, they had been preparing for the next day's anti-war march in Oakland on the anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Police say officers thought they'd observed the residents filling Thermoses with kerosene and feared a fire hazard. Keller says they were merely cleaning Thermoses with water. They were also checking a kerosene heater, which would warm a first-aid tent at the rally.

There were no bombs. But residents say police questioned them about their tenancy, demanding to see IDs and a lease, and warned them that they could be arrested for trespassing in the future.

Before and after the dead-deer incident, Keller and several other Beelen residents say police patrols and questioning has been heavier. "Yeah, [police patrolling] has definitely escalated," says Ron Douglas, a three-year resident. "They didn't do anything to anybody, but they wouldn't leave us alone, either: ‘Where are you going? What's your name? Where do you work?' There's no doubt we're weirdos down here, but that's not a crime."

Commander Bochter says the street isn't patrolled more heavily than others. "The officers in Zone 2 strive to hit every street as often as they can," he says. Keller's experiences beg the question: If you've got an unorthodox living situation already, why not try to look normal?

"I was renting a house," Keller says, referring to her agreement with Craig Bethel. "I didn't think I needed to hide what I did. I thought that as secluded as my house was, I was OK. That's why I live here instead of on a street in a row of houses. I thought I had privacy. I feel pretty naked now."

Keller and former housemate Scott Gray started planning to try to buy their house from Lisa Edwards when they learned of her existence. Gray spent hours Downtown researching the deed and liens. Although they spoke briefly with Edwards, they never had a chance to make an offer.

Since then, Gray has bought in with another punk household. Keller now wants to pool funds with a different friend and buy the house for what Edwards -- at least according to county deed records -- paid for it in 1998: $2,250. According to the county, no one has paid taxes on the property at least since 2001. Keller says the debts add up to about $8,000. The tax liens, however, are based on a hugely off-base assessment at $48,000. If the property were reassessed, Keller says, buying it for the cost of re-calculated back taxes would be reasonable.

Last week, Keller had a small down payment in hand: She'd just been a guinea pig at Pitt for geometry-tutoring software, and, rap-star style, flashed an extremely modest wad of cash. "I worked today!" she beamed to the punks hanging on the stoop near the bottom of Beelen.

A friend and fellow punk, a Montreal machinist named Amber, has talked about buying the house with Keller to help fix it up. "Amber owns a backpack full of clothes and two steamer trunks of tools. Then we'd really have to rewire it, for her tools!" Their dream: to shore up the inside, fix the plumbing, rip out the walls and insulate new ceilings, doing basic rehab in the back and historic preservation on the front. In the second year, they'd fix the porches, and in the third year, rebuild the roofs. "So it's ambitious," Keller concludes.

But as many before her with delusions of original woodwork can attest, abandoned houses can be among the hardest to obtain. The City of Pittsburgh will often forgive its tax liens, according to the city's Ron Graziano, but other creditors -- utilities or credit card companies -- can hold judgments against a property. Liens, debts and legal fees can quickly add up to more than the house is worth. "A lot of people, when they see that lump sum, they say ‘Forget it,'" Graziano says. "That's the worst part of our business."

Keller isn't staying at 55 Beelen right now, but much of the house is as she left it. On the wall above the stairway is a collage of family snapshots, a sweet one of her brother and several group shots of her unpretentious Pennsylvania family, including one in which every corner of a crowded kitchen is filled with relatives.

Keller took the bus to visit her grandmother and extended family in eastern Pennsylvania over Memorial Day weekend. Maybe Beelen Street makes her think of home: Her relatives live near Tamaqua, a Schuylkill County coal town. Just as talking about her city homestead conjures an earnest infatuation, Keller describes her great aunt and uncle's backyard, which, at the end of the property, faces a stunning mountain of coal waste.

"We used to play on that," she recalls. "What drew me to Pittsburgh was [that] the kids were the type I'd want my grandparents to meet. If they were here for two days, they'd get over the weird hair and clothes. A lot of places, punks are really oppositional. Here, even though they use oppositional rhetoric, they aren't really."

Reflecting on her odd saga, Keller says, "I never intended to do any of this. I just intended to live in a house. In acting back [against police orders and pressure], I've set my other organizing back. They all know who I am now, and that makes doing some things harder. I want to talk to people about [public] stairs in Pittsburgh, about the Mon-Fayette Expressway, about the Betters project in Hays" -- the proposed slot machine and racetrack development. "But at the same time, I'm trying to get a nursing job, be a homeowner -- normal things! I just see so much injustice and I want to stop it. It's like it's easier to stop mountaintop removal than to get a job.

"On the other hand, I've gotten some affirmation, people have heard me, people come up and ask me what's going on. If I can become an owner, I'm sure the harassment won't stop: Then it'll be over codes. Not malicious, it's legalistic -- ‘it's the law.'"

When she was visiting eastern Pennsylvania a few weeks ago, Keller recalls, "My grandpa said, ‘You're just a hobo, you don't have any responsibility.'" But after she told him what she'd been up to lately, "he tells me, ‘You're not a hobo. You've got responsibilities now.'"

Squat's Landing

Comments (0)
Comments are closed.