It's safe to say that Willie Murchison is well established in the Central North Side. The 89-year-old retiree has lived in the same Armandale Street home for 52 years. A veteran of World War II, Murchison was around to usher in the opening of Martin Luther King Elementary in the 1970s.
He's been a member of the local community-based organization, the Central Northside Neighborhood Council, since the group was founded almost 40 years ago. But when he runs down the list of 19 people seeking the seven available board of directors seats May 12, he sees few names he recognizes.
The Council is a nonprofit corporation that often negotiates with developers on major projects in the area and represents the community on the board of an umbrella group, the Northside Leadership Conference. But until now, Murchison says, few residents have taken much interest in it.
"I've been wondering about that," he says. "I don't understand why all these people are getting on the board. It's strange when you see a lot of strange people coming about and you don't know much about them."
Maybe if Murchison spent more time on the Internet, he'd have a better idea of where they were coming from.
"I think [our] number one priority should be to take over that organization," wrote board hopeful Kirk Burkley in a Jan. 14 post to an online message board. "I don't mean that we do that in some sort of coup de ta [sic], but that the [Mexican] War Streets make its presence known on the CNNC board through elections."
The message board, which is no longer public, is a Yahoo! extension of the North Side Neighborhood Coalition -- a community organizing group founded by Burkley and fellow North Sider Paul Carson last year.
Originally spawned by concerns that a homeless facility was expanding near the Mexican War Streets, the group has since raised questions about the CNNC's emphasis on providing affordable housing. Hostilities between various factions have been mounting steadily.
"It's become so emotional that people can't think rationally," says board nominee Khari Mosley, who is also the national political director for the League of Young Voters. "I think that mistakes were made among all groups as far as communication."
"This is the most contentious election ever," says CNNC staffer Morgan Ress, who has also been a board member for the past two years. "Usually it's pulling teeth to fill vacancies."
Not this time. The CNNC board is composed of 14 elected members, seven of whom are up for election each year. There are 19 names in the hat this time around, with the candidates falling broadly into two camps: supporters and opponents of the incumbent board.
But "people are complex and this election is complex. There are a lot of different layers to it," says Kimberly Walkenhorst, a board candidate who is backed by the current board, and who is part-owner of Beleza Community Coffeeshop. "I think it's going to be a whole new ballgame because tons of people have just joined the CNNC."
That much, at least, seems inarguable. At the CNNC's September 2007 meeting, 18 members showed up; the April 2008 meeting had more than 100. Any of the CNNC's approximately 300 members who attended a meeting in the previous fiscal year will be eligible to vote for seven candidates on May 12.
"I kind of have a feeling a lot of people in the city, other North Side groups are watching [this election]," nominee Randy Zotter says. "And they're kind of curious what the outcome will be."
Zotter is one of seven nominees endorsed by Burkley's Coalition. The other five are Bill Buettin, John Augustine, Chris D'Addario, Randi Marshak and Greg Spicer.
The Coalition was created last year in response to the Salvation Army's plan to purchase a Greek Orthodox church on North Avenue. Some Coalition supporters worried that the Salvation Army would expand its homeless services in the Central North Side.
In early December 2007, the CNNC prepared a letter of agreement – which was to be voted on by the full membership – naming its terms for supporting the purchase, among them, that the Salvation Army's homeless drop-in center "will not be relocated to the [church] location."
Shortly afterward, the Salvation Army dropped plans to purchase the church. But Burkley and others took offense with the Council's handling of the situation, claiming they were kept out of the process. As a result, a usually sleepy board race has mushroomed into a battle royale.
"Prior to the Salvation Army issue, the CNNC was under-attended," says Buettin, a vice president of investment real estate at First National Bank of Pennsylvania. But after the CNNC was perceived to be negotiating with the Salvation Army, "people had their eyes opened to what this organization was about, what kind of power they had."
Still, he says, "the Salvation Army was not an isolated issue."
Indeed, what's prompted much of the dispute has been the role the CNNC plays in providing affordable housing to the area. Part of the organization's mission is to "ensur[e] a sense of community cohesiveness by developing affordable housing." But skeptics say that the neighborhood has more pressing issues -- and that the neighborhood should celebrate the higher real-estate prices in neighborhoods like the Mexican War Streets.
On a separate online message board on March 3, Burkley wrote: "Simply put, there is no 'need' to provide affordable housing in our neighborhood or the City at large. ... [This is] based on the cold hard fact that plenty of housing exists in our region that is 'affordable.'
"I would argue that we need ... to start seeing the issue as whether making affordable housing our raison d'être is a judicious use of time and resources."
In an interview, he stood by that stance.
"I don't see that to be in contrast [with the CNNC's mission statement]," Burkley says. "There is an abundance of affordable housing in our neighborhood."
"If you can only afford an $80,000 home, yet the home on Resaca [Place] is $350 [thousand], is it wrong that you can't buy that house?" asks Zotter, a former vice president of the CNNC who's lived in the area since the early '80s. "No, that's the market."
While some fear such market changes will bring about gentrification -- the pricing-out of lower-income families in neighborhoods where housing prices rise -- Zotter says there's no shame in the neighborhood's pockets of success. "For 30 years we've been working on improving the market values, and now the market values have gone up. That's a good thing, not a bad thing."
There have been signs that neighborhood priorities have shifted. In January, the CNNC said it was exploring the possibility of establishing a "land trust" in the Central North Side.
Through the land trust, the CNNC would buy blighted properties, revitalize them and then sell the buildings, while maintaining ownership of the land beneath them – thereby being able to place restrictions on the homeowners' resale prices.
But a community survey found that more residents were concerned with safety issues than housing, and in April, CNNC executive director Michael Barber told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review the organization was taking the idea "off the table for now."
Still, the challengers running for board seats say the Council has become disconnected from the community, and unwilling to listen. A real-estate and bankruptcy attorney, Burkley says he's a "fresh blood" candidate, who like the other Coalition-endorsed nominees brings skills the CNNC board currently lacks.
"We have approached the leadership of the board with a number of issues and they have usually been rebuffed," Burkley says.
"The part of the mission about being open and communicating and providing an open forum, all that stuff is clearly not there," Buettin adds.
Such talk has upset some current board members. "Somehow this small group has decided they need to picture us as being incompetent or secretive," says Joan Kimmel, a board incumbent. "In my mind, they've excited people by getting them worried and afraid."
And if the challengers were elected, "I'd be surprised that they would be willing to work with the board," Kimmel adds. "They could do huge damage to the reputation of the Council."
Along with Kimmel, the board is backing six other nominees: Fred Fortson, Nancy Niemczyk, Ed Kinley, Lydia Wade, Kimberly Walkenhorst and Audrey Woods. (Five other candidates are running without the formal backing of either group: Willie Murchison, Khari Mosley, John Rhoades, Andrew Sulka and Glenn Woodard.)
Board president Claudia Keyes, a retired teachers' aide who is not up for re-election this year, is offended by Burkley's characterization of the current board. Their statements "mischaracterize the volunteer efforts by neighborhood advocates whose only interest is serving the neighborhood," she says. "Board directors have worked really diligently to rightly represent this neighborhood."
Some nominees also worry that the newcomers will downplay the Council's historic emphasis on providing affordable housing.
"I don't see that they want to continue this mission," Kimmel says. "If we want affordable housing, then we have to make it affordable to more than just the first buyer."
"I have strong doubts that anyone wants to change the mission of the organization," Buettin counters. "That's what the insiders of the CNNC want people to believe, but I don't think that's real."
No matter what the result of the May 12 election, some fence-mending may be in order.
"I think that's one of my biggest fears, that there's going to be a split in the neighborhood," says Ed Kinley. "I think some people are having a hard time setting aside personal feelings. ... It may be time to put everything on the table."
"I think the election will be very tight and I think it will be contentious," Buettin says. "[But] at the end of the day, we'll all still be neighbors."
"Look, it's good that there's a debate and there's discussion and a tension of ideas," says Mark Fatla, executive director of the Northside Leadership Conference. "The strongest organizations are not the ones that agree all the time, they're the ones that know how to disagree."