New Pool of Resources | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

New Pool of Resources 

Without a rec center, East Liberty and Lincoln-Larimer were wrecked too. The Kingsley Association hopes to bring the neighborhoods back to life.

Last summer Pittsburgh's city-budget ulcer caused the closing of 19 recreation centers and 32 swimming pools. Next year, when most of those rec centers and pools won't reopen, many neighborhoods will experience what Lincoln-Larimer and East Liberty lived with for the past 25 years.


The Kingsley Association, a community service organization, has kept roofs over families' heads and their young people occupied for 110 years. But the Kingsley House recreation center, which provided the East End with sports programming, living quarters and home economic classes, closed in 1978.


Kingsley executive director Malik Bankston recalls meeting with Mayor Tom Murphy a couple of years ago about his plans for a new community center, complete with gymnasiums and swimming pool. Murphy was ecstatic about the building, says Bankston, but questioned the need for a swimming pool.


This summer Bankston bumped into Mayor Murphy in Squirrel Hill not long after the mayor announced those rec center and swimming pool closings. Bankston says he joked with the mayor, "Us having that pool doesn't sound like such a bad idea now after all, does it?"


Says Bankston, "The mayor chuckled."


By 1978, the 55-year-old Kingsley House community recreation center and lodge in Lincoln-Larimer was totaled -- the cost to restore it outweighed the value of the building. Piping, wiring, lighting and heating were all faulty, and most rooms in the block-long edifice were either not up to code or uninhabitable.


But what Rose Brown remembers, as a social services worker there since 1975, was the deleterious effect the closing had on local youth.


"The kids had a place to go and didn't have to run the streets," says Brown. "When they tore it down, that's when young people didn't have anything to do, so they would hang out on the corners. They began selling drugs."


A slow drive down Larimer Avenue lends credence to Brown's theory. Amid the boarded-up buildings with stapled hazard notices are the children. Crime is no alien here; many of Allegheny County's near-record-high homicides occurred either in these streets or in neighboring East Liberty, Homewood or Garfield.


Though the rec center closed, Kingsley continued to live on in name and as an organization in smaller quarters. Today Kingsley occupies a nondescript brick structure -- the bottom dot of the question-mark-shaped Penn Mall bus station in East Liberty. The building -- a former art gallery -- is a mere tenth the size of the former Kingsley House. Most of the original programs from when Kinglsey housed gymnasiums and sports courts are gone.


Now, under the leadership of Malik Bankston, production of a state-of-the-art, multimillion-dollar facility -- complete with gym and natatorium -- is three-quarters complete. The building is scheduled to open in February.


The Lincoln-Larimer-Belmar neighborhood where the new Kingsley center will stand has the second highest number of blacks of any Pittsburgh neighborhood (4,924), according to a study by the University of Pittsburgh's University Center for Social and Urban Research. Neighboring East Liberty, Garfield and Homewood are first, third and fourth respectively. Lincoln-Larimer-Belmar is also No. 1 for black school dropouts, No. 2 for unemployed black youth (behind only North Oakland, which consists mainly of college students) and No. 2 for black youth unemployed and out of school.


Of Lincoln-Larimer's 5,195 residents, more than a quarter live below poverty level, and over half live below 200 percent of the poverty level.


When Rose Brown worked at the Kingsley House in the mid-'70s, most of the children and adults using the center were black also, some unemployed and some out of school. The classes Kingsley offered in reading, math, sewing, cooking, martial arts and more were designed, she says, to keep young people occupied.


"We had all our kids on Larimer Avenue working," says Brown, who ran the center's canteen, where teens prepared and sold food. "They said we couldn't do it but we had over 120 teenagers and every last one of them had a job."


Brown worked with Kingsley for 15 years, raising all seven of her own children through Kingsley. She's put most of her 16 grandchildren through Kingsley camps and classes too, and looks forward to bringing her 11 great-grandchildren up in the new center.


Beyond the classes in African dance, art and computers, as well as the workforce training, Kingsley is also popular for its Lillian Taylor camp 25 miles away in Valencia, where a 110-acre "fresh-air farm" hosts programs year-round. Brown remembers taking kids to the farm, and to other places such as museums or the airport -- places where these impoverished black youth could live new experiences. And there were less lofty activities that other affluent kids probably took for granted -- such as swimming.


The closing of Kingsley's pool, among other amenities the center provided, left many kids floating in idleness. They were fortunate to have access to a pool at all -- not least because, for the first half of the 20th century, the Kingsley Association would not allow blacks to use its pool.


When George Hodges opened up the original Kingsley House settlement at 1707 Penn Ave., in the Strip, in 1893, he was fulfilling his Christian Socialist reform beliefs championed by English clergymen Charles Kingsley, after whom the association is named.


Tory radicalism, as the movement was called, motivated upper-class Christian stalwarts to assist poor immigrant families exploited by labor industries. Settlement houses were set up by religious philanthropists in crime-ravaged immigrant communities, where high-browed socialites attempted to Americanize, Christianize and civilize Old European transplants. The wealthy and privileged believed living in the settlement houses with the less fortunate would, perhaps through osmosis, develop in them the social skills necessary for responsible citizenry.


Kingsley -- as a settlement house, the "Oldest Between New York and Chicago," a December 1968 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette headline claimed -- moved to the Hill District in 1901 for 22 years before transferring to Larimer Avenue. The gradual demographic shift in the Hill following World War I, from European immigrants to Southern blacks, is widely believed to be the reason for Kingsley's move. 


Quoting a 1920 Kingsley yearbook, writer Ronald Butera noted years ago that "After moving, the Kingsley Association admitted that ... the settlement 'had never been able to take up the Negro problem.' Fearing 'race antipathies' the association turned the settlement over to the American Baptist Society for use as a black settlement."


Photos from old Kingsley brochures from the first five decades show almost exclusively white children supervised by a mostly white staff -- reflective of what the Hill and East Liberty looked like then. In the 1960s, black faces begin turning up. By the late'70s the faces become almost completely black. However, even when Kingsley House closed, the board of directors was predominantly suburban whites.


"You had this landmark in the center of the community that suddenly closes and needless to say it was not well received in the African-American community," says Lourdes Karas, a youth programming director at Kingsley from 1978 to 1995. "The perception was that the organization was again abandoning the African-American community."


Another perception, says Karas, was that the board of directors wasn't representative of the community, and that in the settlement house movement "you see an elitist attitude." But, "in its more recent history they were more responsive to the needs of the community." 


Recalling her years at the old Kingsley House, Brown says she remembers no board members showing hesitancy to serve blacks. But she does understand the perception.


Says Brown, "If I live in a mansion and you live in a roach-infested house, how can I come and tell you how to live and how to act when I don't have to go through what you go through?"


The Kingsley of 1893 would hardly recognize itself today. Turhan Shabazz and Shirley Wilson greet you adorned in African garb. An art exhibit by local black artist Biko displays black and African paintings, sculptures, dishes, figurines, bumper stickers and toys.


Two tables supply plentiful buffets of literature: One holds fliers announcing upcoming events in the city's black neighborhoods, while the other holds booklets representing historically black universities for Kingsley's yearly black college tour.


Throughout the year, Kingsley hosts town-hall meetings when violence in black communities escalates, teach-ins on the Iraqi war's impact on blacks, crownings of their Kingsley Knight Homecoming king and queen, and Mbongi community forums, where speakers conduct classes or lecture on African issues. It provides office space for the Black Political Empowerment Project to boost black voter registration. For years local rappers, deejays and dancers got their feet wet there at one of the city's first grassroots hip-hop showcases, called Theraputix. Kingsley has maintained tutorial and educational programming that's adamantly culturally relevant. And during the gang violence of the '90s, Kingsley provided a safe haven for children.


"There were young people who would come out to Kingsley after school and hang out there until the evening to do their homework, socialize, and it was at a time when the crime rate was not good statistically," says Karas.


Lamont Chatman was 7 years old when he came to Karas' Lillian Taylor summer camp program. Chatman runs the camp today, where they call him "Mr. Kingsley." Karas, now executive director of the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, was elated to find out recently that Chatman holds her previous position.


"I grew up under her," says Chatman. "And I even remember telling her when I was younger that one day I was going to have her job as camp director."


"That really touched me, that continuity," says Karas.


When Malik Bankston became Kingsley's executive director in 1998, he made finding space a priority -- even when, as he says, for the Kingsley board it was not a top goal. His aim was to produce the center without depending on government funding. For the $6.6 million new facility, only a few hundred thousand was sought up front from the government. The rest of the funds came through foundations, private donations and bank loans.


 Bankston took further chances by enlisting as master developer of the site an upstart company that hadn't yet handled a project of this magnitude: the black-owned Ebony Development, headed by Irvin Williams.


"Irv worked with me when no one else would and didn't get paid a dime for two years," says Bankston. "He put his money where his mouth was."


Beyond just a new gym and pool, the new Lincoln-Larimer Community Service Center will include child-care services, gallery space, computer labs and healthcare facilities. It will also restore all the programming lost with the old Kingsley House in '78.


"If this little small organization can figure out how to marshal resources and talents to make this happen," says Bankston, "imagine what could happen if we commit to working together as a community."



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