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Street Sweeper

Tony Ceoffe brushes aside critics on his way toward cleaning up Lawrenceville

"Big morning," says Tony Ceoffe, head of Lawrenceville United, on June 22. He is standing behind his desk at LU headquarters on Butler Street, glancing at his computer, fielding calls on two phones. "Some idiots went out and flattened about a hundred car tires here last night. I'm sure Channel 2 and Channel 11 will be out here before noontime. But the good part about it is: Our video surveillance worked. ... We should have an arrest pretty soon."

Ceoffe (pronounced "choffee") has been the only paid employee and the very public face of this neighborhood group since November 2004. Police and civic leaders laud him and Lawrenceville United for helping to fight drugs and other crimes, and LU's membership has been expanding dramatically. Ceoffe's work, meanwhile, has gained the group money and friends in high places ... and some detractors along the way.

This morning Ceoffe is counting on upsetting a few people by choice ... whoever took a knife to the tires along Lawrenceville's crowded streets. He hops in the group's white pickup and heads to Keystone Street, to meet WPXI-TV's Kimberly Easton.

The truck's magnetic door placards announcing "Lawrenceville United" are lying face down on the passenger-seat floor. "We don't always want the bad guys to know who we are," Ceoffe says.

He takes the circuitous route to where Easton is waiting, showing off some of LU's work along the way.

In the 5100 block of Dresden Way, one of the alleys the group views as a problem, he spots a skinny blond woman in a black T-shirt at the far corner. "This is one of our neighborhood hookers here, and druggies," he says. At the end of the block, he stops beside a young black woman on the cross street. "And this is one of our volunteers. How are you doing? All right, baby."

Farther down Dresden, he throws the vehicle into park and tosses a red shopping cart into the truck bed with a cab-shaking clatter. "Another one to add to the collection," he says. It's a stray from the local Family Dollar; there is a line of such carts nested behind the LU office. Ceoffe is holding them hostage until the store can keep the carts from being taken from its lot in the first place.

Ceoffe glances down the street, reeling off the history of each property, its place on the LU to-do list: Here is the tiny lot where they've removed a trouble house; here is a home LU already owns.

"This is an active drug house now," he says, pointing farther down the street, then moving on: "Slum landlords got to these first." But LU has bids on three other houses in this one alleyway, Ceoffe says: "You can see, if we take a few more out of there, we'll be in good shape."

Over on Keystone, meanwhile, things are not so good: There are flat tires everywhere. Channel 11's Kimberly Easton is waiting with a cameraman. She has lined up two victims to interview, but they're sporting Cleveland Browns hats and T-shirts. Ceoffe has to do something about that, Easton jokes. "You have to ... you're the man of power out here in Lawrenceville."

On camera, he hardly seems the part. He speaks quietly, standing in his logo-less black T-shirt and ball cap, shorts and sneakers.

"I just want to let people know about the video," he says. There are currently nine cameras pointed out the windows of LU members on six different streets and alleys in Lawrenceville, running all night. Ceoffe says one of the cameras caught six juveniles, 15-16 years old, around 1 a.m., slashing tires. One of the kids' faces showed clearly when he turned to face a light triggered by a camera's motion sensor.

"We do have one actor with a real clear picture," Ceoffe says for the camera, sounding suddenly like a cop. "We have turned that actor over to the [police]. ... At least we can take a little bit of solace in knowing we had video surveillance. Hopefully that one kid will turn over the rest."

Easton turns back to Browns-loving Damon Carter. "How does it feel to know you have somebody out in your community taking action?" she says

"It's refreshing to have that much information available to us that quickly," Carter says.

"Should we have more [surveillance]?" asks Easton.

"Absolutely," he replies.

Despite the incident, Ceoffe stresses, Lawrenceville is on the move up. "Now it's more like two steps forward and one step back," he tells viewers. "The neighborhood is trending in the right direction." In October, federal Weed and Seed program money will be coming here to beef up local police, among other benefits. It could result in the local U.S. Attorney's office learning about more criminal activity there ... and potentially leveling more federal charges.

"If you do crime in Lawrenceville" after this fall, Ceoffe warns his TV audience, "you're going to do federal time."

"I think I made our neighbors feel a little better," he says later.

Lawrenceville is Pittsburgh in miniature: Hard by the Allegheny River it largely ignores, it's the site of mills long gone, but still full of the tiny, close-set houses that once held mill workers. The neighborhood begins where the Strip District ends, at 28th Street, and stretches to the 62nd Street Bridge, rising from Liberty Avenue and Butler Street to Penn Avenue. Today Lawrenceville is trying to recast itself as an arts destination, a boutique business district, even a place to buy a too-expensive condo ... all while remaining the sort of place where three generations of Ceoffe's family still live.

Lawrenceville is also as parochial as any city neighborhood, with rivalries among its three Democratic voting wards, the sixth, ninth, and 10th ... essentially lower, central and upper Lawrenceville. LU board secretary Mike Ceoffe, Tony's brother, recently moved to the ninth ward after 40 years in the sixth. But he seems to be only half-joking when he says: "If we were baring knuckles, I would be sixth ward ... believe me." The very name "Lawrenceville United" is meant to promote unity among the neighborhood's three sections, which a visitor can hardly tell apart.

Tony Ceoffe has been the group's most visible symbol ... and, many say, the most obvious reason for its success.

This 45-year-old lifelong sixth-warder ... previously a courier for now-defunct Airborne Express ... has grown LU by 20 percent in the last year, to 420 members, compared to 250 at its peak prior to 2004. Today the five-year-old group has five block watches ... including members patrolling the neighborhood by car overnight ... and a bi-monthly public safety newsletter. Perhaps more significantly, under Ceoffe it has succeeded in getting funding from the city, state and federal governments. "We have financial stability through at least 2010," Ceoffe says.

He sees LU as "a one-stop shop for quality-of-life deals in the neighborhood." For example, although he tries to avoid playing referee between unhappy neighbors, he says, he'll notify the city's Bureau of Building Inspection if someone's complaints of high weeds next door are ignored for too long.

Lawrenceville is classic Pittsburgh in another respect: the culture clash here between longtime residents, older and largely white, and a more recent influx of poorer residents, who are often black and living in the worst housing available ... those mill workers' alley houses.

"The only way we're ever really going to bring the neighborhood back to a healthy situation is to get rid of the alley houses," says LU board President Nancy Bittner. "The people who live in them are the most undesirable people ... not everyone," she is quick to add. But of the 20 worst houses for crime in Lawrenceville, she says, most were in alleys, and most were run by slumlords. "[T]hey're just chronic houses," Bittner says.

If the police report drug activity or violence at a property, LU tries to convince the landlord to evict the tenants, and to choose more wisely next time. If those tenants rely on federal rent help, known as "Section 8" vouchers, the process is different. The police, who cooperate closely with LU, turn the arrest reports over to the city's Section 8 office, which can have the federal assistance cut off. Such tactics have resulted in at least eight evictions by 2006, including six Section 8 tenants.

In the worst cases, LU simply tries to buy the properties and ask the city to demolish them. It has title to three alley houses today.

"If you evict tenants, other tenants will come if you have a bad landlord," says Kate Trimble, head of the business-oriented Lawrenceville Corporation, on whose board Ceoffe sits. "But if you tear the house down, it's a non-issue. They've been wildly successful with that strategy. ... They've done a whole lot with very little resources."

And that's just one of LU's activities. The group has also corralled senior volunteers to attend city Housing Court to advocate for Lawrenceville residents. LU works closely with the city's Nuisance Bar Task Force. And it doesn't forget to help with the Fourth of July at Arsenal Park, or Halloween at the Teamsters' Temple, or community clean-up events.

Ceoffe has a wall of support letters, including praise from U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan, who says today, "Tony has been a great partner to the U.S. Attorney's office. I wish we had more dedicated citizens like Tony. ... It would make my job a lot easier."

"The community is blessed that they have Tony," says Aggie Brose, who heads the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation and whose community faces concerns similar to those of Lawrenceville. "His [crime] strategy is right on the dime. He is working with all the right people ... the enforcement agencies and the administration. I think they have all the pieces down there now to make change."

Lawrenceville's city councilor, Len Bodack, couldn't work more closely with Ceoffe's group: LU rents the office next door to Bodack's, in a house the councilor owns with his wife.

"I love his work," Bodack says. "A lot of the young people, like him or not, respect him as a figure of authority."

"Whatever [Ceoffe] needs he calls into the station and we try to get it for him," says Zone 2 police officer Janine Davis. "We make an arrest in a home and we'll let him know. It helps to get rid of some of the people. If there's a domestic situation, I'm not going to give that out, nor does he ask for it. But ... prostitution and drugs, I will give him that information."

Almost every sort of crime has decreased in the neighborhood over the past year, according to statistics Davis provided comparing May 2005 to May 2006. But monthly fluctuations can obscure the scope of a community's problems: Clearly the fact that there were zero prostitution arrests in May 2006, as opposed to three in May of 2005, doesn't mean prostitution has been stamped out in Lawrenceville. And does the 133 percent increase in drug violations mean more arrests ... a boon for the neighborhood ... or simply an increase in offenses?

When the six tire-slashing teens were caught ... most turned themselves in ... a week after the June 22 incident, the LU videotape was crucial, Davis says: "I don't know, if it wouldn't have been available, if there would have been an arrest so quickly."

Bittner emphasizes that the organization thrives not just on Ceoffe, but on the volunteer board of 12, and on its committees. Many of them prefer to work "behind the scenes" on crime issues, she says, for fear of retaliation. But she is happy to have him as the public face of LU, particularly in its battle against crime.

"People believe in us now," she says. "And a lot of that is due to him."

Ceoffe steers his truck up narrow Almond Way. He stops in front a house highlighted in LU's March 2006 Public Safety Newsletter as the scene of "numerous drug arrests ... unfit for human habitability." The door is open, and Ceoffe recognizes the owner, whose name and address were published in the newsletter.

"Stay right there," Ceoffe calls out as the owner approaches the pickup's door. The owner offers vague plans for the house's future, but Ceoffe remains unconvinced.

"One way or another ... it's coming down," Ceoffe says. "You [owe] back taxes on it?" Ceoffe already knows ... that was highlighted in the LU Newsletter too.

"A thousand dollars," the owner says. If he sells it, "I'd like to get eight."

"What if I offered you five right now?" Ceoffe says.

A brown-haired woman at the end of the street wanders vaguely toward the house ... one of its troubled tenants, Ceoffe says. She pauses at the front door and peers in. "They done stole my bike," she says. Both men ignore her.

"Five thousand dollars cash, we'll do the deal in three days," Ceoffe continues. "As soon as the title search comes through."

"You want it the way it is?"

"I don't care. Whatever way we can get it."

The owner says he'll consider the deal. Ceoffe pulls away.

"You know how much of a hero I'd be if that goes through?" he says.

A week later, he has a signed sales agreement ... LU will pay $6,000 for the place, with money from a $27,000 fund provided by Bodack's office.

It's a strategy LU plans to pursue in a larger way with some of the alley houses near Keystone, using part of $150,000 in state funds awarded LU and other Lawrenceville groups in July.

The process isn't entirely smooth. LU owes a year of back taxes on two of the three houses it already owns in the area. "We wouldn't be able to carry all those properties if we had to pay taxes on them until they were torn down" by the city, Ceoffe says. The group is trying to get the county to declare those properties tax-exempt, like LU itself.

LU's toughest current tactic, using police reports against tenants and landlords, doesn't always work perfectly either.

On Jan. 5, the Liberty Avenue office of District Justice Ron Costa Sr. was the scene of a strange spectacle: While one Section 8 tenant from Keystone Street was arrested in the middle of Liberty on drug charges, state Sen. Jim Ferlo stood inside, trying to pay the court fees to start her eviction procedure. Beside him, 20 LU members crowded into Costa's chambers to hold a completely unofficial, non-hearing hearing before Costa on the woman's case without her even present.

Federal rules prohibit "any drug-related criminal activity on or near the premises" of a Section 8 renter, and arrests are damaging, even without a conviction; the tenant in question, Mazell Holiday, awaits formal arraignment in August on three of the four charges, while one has already been dropped. Holiday has since lost her Section 8 subsidy. But despite her arrest, and those of her two minor children, she still lives in the same house, paying full rent. Her landlord, Richard Burge of Turtle Creek, is convinced Holiday should not be kicked out.

"I think they mean well," he says of LU, "but they're very forceful, and they want it done their way. If they make a miscalculation, I think they're hesitant to admit it." LU was pressuring him to evict Holiday before she'd even had a chance to plead her case, he says. "Mazell is one of my best tenants" among the 20 city properties Burge owns.

"It's unfair to me and my family and other Section 8 tenants," says Holiday today. "Section 8 tenants are being targeted. The Web site speaks for itself," she adds: LU's site ( includes the city's contact for "Section 8 problems" in a list of "Useful Numbers."

Holiday still faces harassment charges filed by LU, which alleges that she authored a death threat against Ceoffe ... a threat that was someone's response to the letters Ceoffe sent to landlords on behalf of LU. Pittsburgh Police send the letters now.

Anonymous letter-writers aren't the only critics of Ceoffe's practices. Loretta Millender, a longtime black Lawrenceville resident and former LU board member, believes the attention to Section 8 properties is suspect. While praising LU's overall effectiveness, Millender says, "To me, there's a lot of racism there. Why center on certain people in Lawrenceville?

"At one time in Lawrenceville, when I moved here, I would say that the code word for black was 'Section 8,'" says Keith Harriott, a current black LU board member who has lived in the 10th Ward since 2001. "It's not so much now. That's not to say there isn't a race problem ... this is Pittsburgh, after all." But now, he says, the problems are "social, cultural issues" with younger people bearing Section 8 vouchers who "don't know how to live outside of public housing."

"I think [Ceoffe] is trying to do the best with what he has," Harriott says. "But I do feel that race is an issue we will have to address," particularly by increasing the group's black membership. Board leader Nancy Bittner, who heads the LU membership committee, says LU has 16 percent black membership; according to the 2000 U.S. Census nearly 20 percent of the neighborhood itself is black.

The LU board, whose 12 members include two African Americans, is similarly representative, and achieving the current level of black membership did not happen "without us reaching out," says Bittner.

"I really don't know" why African Americans seem wary of the organization, she says. "There's some suspicions we're in cahoots with police and we target people. I know that it seems that way. But it's not true. ... It's not like we're this Big Brother organization, targeting certain people. Those tips are called in to us ... and the police do their thing. There has to be something going on for [police] to go in.

"Unfortunately, it seems to be ... that it has been primarily the African-American people who have been affected," she concludes. "But it's not without cause. That's the reality."

Ceoffe dismisses allegations of racism as "a joke"; the Section 8 campaign has resulted in a loss of subsidies for as many whites as blacks, he says. And he's made efforts to reach out to some of Lawrenceville's newest residents: some 25 Somali families who fled conflict in Africa to settle in Lawrenceville, mostly last fall.

Shannon Mischler, who works with the Somali families through her position at the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council, credits Ceoffe for taking an active interest in those families' futures. Ceoffe, she says, began attending meetings between the Literacy Council, Catholic Charities and other agencies. "He made it very clear that services to these folks were disjointed ... and that he really wants to see something done about medical, housing, employment and education," Mischler says. "Then there was a housing issue. ... That's when I saw a lot more of him."

According to Ceoffe, the Somali families were hoarding hundreds of pounds of rice, as if for the next famine, and storing it improperly, causing a pest problem.

LU teamed with other agencies to create a Housing 101 course, taking it directly to seven Somali homes this summer. LU bought the families cleaning supplies, using a $1,500 Pittsburgh Foundation grant. Mischler recalls a meeting about the Somali situation that Ceoffe attended, with few other participants: "He said, 'I don't want them to be cleaning for my children 10 years from now. I want them to have the same opportunities.' I just enjoy working with Tony. I think he cuts through all of the B.S."

Not everyone in Lawrenceville feels that way, although many critics of Ceoffe or LU are wary of speaking on the record. LU's emphasis on eliminating undesirable properties, for example, is anathema to some members of Lawrenceville Stakeholders, a group focused on housing preservation and the neighborhood's history. And Ceoffe's personal style, to them, is worse.

Stakeholders member John Riegert recalls a 2003 proposal to the Urban Redevelopment Authority, in which Stakeholders sought funding to buy neighborhood houses and re-sell them to preservation-minded developers. He blames LU opposition for the URA's subsequent rejection.

"How [Ceoffe] hindered that going through was just crappy of him, and I think he's basically a thug," Riegert says. "He does some good things for the neighborhood and he has the neighborhood's best interest," but "There's a thing in Lawrenceville ... people think the way to be heard is to scream and yell at the person presenting at the meeting. I've been at a lot of meetings where he's tried to talk the person down."

Ceoffe, of course, has a different perspective: "At the time, their leadership was real staunch and hard-line," he says of Stakeholders. "'You're not tearing down nothing. We want to turn Lawrenceville into an entire historical district.' The neighborhood didn't want that." And while he says he wasn't opposed to Stakeholders' vision, Ceoffe says they couldn't show a viable timeline or funding source: "It was pie-in-the-sky ideas. It wasn't going to happen."

Absentee landlords are a huge problem, Reigert allows; as he spoke, he sat in his car in front of what he hoped was the office of the landlord who owns a house around the corner from his own, whom he's been trying to track down. "I think block watches are a great way to approach community problems. I just think Tony is sometimes heavy-handed."

And, increasingly, he's becoming a political heavyweight as well, at least at the neighborhood level. In the May primary, two of the five wards in his voting district elected a pair of Ceoffes as Democratic committeepeople: Tony, his wife Theresa, father Tony senior and sister Lisa.

"I don't foresee myself being the next councilman or state legislator," the LU leader says. "I felt the representation down there [in the sixth ward] was stagnant."

That would be Jim Genco and his wife Sandy, whom the Ceoffes defeated. Jim and Tony grew up together; Ceoffe's childhood home is almost visible from the back porch of the house Genco has lived in since birth.

Genco was never a member of LU but worked with the 18-year-old Lawrenceville Block Watch Network. He has a stack of plaques and press coverage attesting to his accomplishments in the neighborhood, including targeting crime in alley houses back in 2000.

"I've seen him scream at people, yell at them, instead of doing conflict resolution," Genco says of Ceoffe. "He got violent with me on Election Day, jumping in my face, telling me I never did nothing for Lawrenceville."

Genco displays a Ceoffe campaign letter, which includes a copy of the county assessment on a house Genco and his wife are building in Shaler Township, as well as a photo of the place.

"How well can they represent a community that they have already decided to leave?" asks Ceoffe's letter.

"It's none of his business," complains Genco. "That's what really irritated me. Everybody in the neighborhood got one." As for the new house, Genco says: "I could sell. I had offers for people to buy. He just took the assumption that I'm moving. It worked big time."

But Ceoffe's admirers play down the critics. "I wish I had Tony Ceoffe in East Liberty," says Rob Stephany, director of commercial real estate development at East Liberty Development Inc. further up Penn Avenue. A former LU board member who still lives in Lawrenceville, Stephany credits Ceoffe with "probably some of the most cutting-edge public-safety strategies and neighborhood-stabilization strategies I've seen nationally.

"Some of his successful quality is some of what people don't like: He can be an imposing presence," Stephany says. "[But] he understands what it means to be a good neighbor. He gives people a chance to work with him. ... He puts both menu items in front of everybody."

"[T]he people that I piss off [are] the ones I try to hold accountable," Ceoffe says. "This isn't a job where if you want to do it the right way, it's a popularity contest. If they don't like me, they're usually on the wrong side."

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