When Lynn Glorieux moved to East Allegheny in 1992, the narrow alley adjacent to her Lockhart Street apartment was a sea of trash, cresting at her knees.
She didn’t hesitate to reach for her broom and dustpan. A lesson from her mother — a Girl Scout leader and stickler for cleanliness — rang in her ears, just as clearly as the day it was passed down in the 1950s.
“She would always say we should at least pick up the aluminum foil because that never decomposes,” Glorieux said. “That was before plastic, when I was little, you know.”
Thirty years later, Glorieux still sweeps that alley every week as part of her neighborhood cleaning circuit — with help from her “litter pick-up sisters.”
It’s her way of connecting with her community. Before her eyes, residents have come together over the decades to revitalize East Allegheny. The parking lots on Cedar Avenue became apartment complexes; the dilapidated storefronts along East Ohio Street became revamped businesses; the empty houses surrounding hers became family homes.
Where is East Allegheny?
Yet every time Glorieux empties stamp bags and broken guns from her dustpan, she’s forced to confront the neighborhood’s duality and the cycle of violence imbued in its history. There were five victims of homicide in East Allegheny this year, including an April shooting, where gunfire at an Airbnb killed two teens and wounded eight others during a crowded party, and an October shooting, where gunfire in front of a gas station left three dead and another wounded. Police have charged three men in connection with the October shooting, but have yet to make an arrest for the April shooting.
“This problem didn’t arrive yesterday,” said Mayor Ed Gainey during a press conference about citywide gun violence on Dec. 2. “We’re not going to solve it tomorrow, but we will solve it in the future.”
Gun violence stems from more than a merciless politics of retaliation. Research shows that the root causes of shootings are historical factors and inequalities forged through decades of failed promises, persistent disinvestment and fragmentation within communities. In East Allegheny, these gnarled roots extend back to at least the 1960s, when urban renewal projects — including the construction of the Allegheny Center Mall and Interstate 279 — inflicted socioeconomic scars that have yet to fully heal.
As residents band together to promote solutions and resilience, they’re urging the Gainey administration, City Council and police to help them address the historical skeletons that continue to perpetuate the gun violence crisis in their neighborhood today.
“The North Side had to continually be the comeback kid,” said Councilman Bobby Wilson, whose jurisdiction encompasses East Allegheny. His own grandparents were displaced twice as a result of urban renewal projects splintering East Allegheny and surrounding neighborhoods. “We continually have to revitalize ourselves now.”
Why East Allegheny?
An Airbnb. A gas station. Public greenspaces. Shootings often occur on the fringes of the East Allegheny community and rarely involve its residents, so what draws the violence here?
Across the North Side, police believe that gunfire most commonly erupts between “groups” — cliques with only a handful of teenagers and young adults as members. Rivalries between groups often form through social media fights, which escalate to in-person violence.
Gainey said group violence stems from legacy forces, particularly the consequences of previous generations glorifying violence in pop culture. “They’re too young to create a culture of violence,” he added. “That culture of violence had to be established by the previous generation, meaning all of us. All they did is inherit what we left them.”
Unlike the gangs of generations’ past, groups often act in neighborhoods they do not live in because they are not tethered to a geographic turf. “These groups are fluid, and they intermingle and they move, so you can’t just focus on one area and think, ‘OK, I got the problem solved,’” said Pittsburgh Police Major Crimes Commander Richard Ford during a Nov. 10 press conference.
Zone 1 Commander Shawn Malloy said he believes that the drug markets within East Allegheny, especially along East Ohio Street and Allegheny Commons East Park, may draw violent groups to the area. Once one group attacks another, it kickstarts a cycle of retaliation.
“With these groups out there that are dealing the drugs, they’re armed, they have beefs with each other over territory, things of that nature, and money,” Malloy said.
Bisected by I-279, East Allegheny sits within a web of highways, which makes the neighborhood incredibly accessible to outsiders. Wilson said the highways can indirectly abet gun violence and criminal activity because they provide entry points and escape routes. “East, north, west, south, you can hop on at all different points of the compass within a block from where you can access those different things.”
Public spaces within the neighborhood, like Allegheny Commons East Park, have dim lighting, heavy tree coverage and little supervision, which long shielded combatants from law enforcement.
Crime clusters along East Allegheny’s business corridor, high-rise and greenspace
Click each dot to see the most common crimes that occurred nearby since 2016. Map excludes data for which the city provided incomplete location information.
There’s a universal assumption underlying where violent groups choose to act, said Mary Ohmer, a social work professor at the University of Pittsburgh.
“They don’t go where they think, ‘Oh, I’m going to get caught,’” Ohmer said. “I’m going to go to a place where I think I can get away with this behavior.”
Ohmer said characteristics like minimal supervision can make any area a prime setting for gun violence.
From innovation to infighting
Blaine Workman spent his teenage years watching films with his brothers at the Garden Theater as its halcyon days sunset in the 1960s — it’s where he first saw Disney’s “Pinocchio.” They’d kill time between working shifts at their family’s bridal store on East Ohio Street and visiting their grandparents a few blocks away.
But that would change as the neighborhood — like the theater — slipped from a state of decline into disrepair.
In 1961, developers waltzed in to create the Allegheny Center Mall complex — now Nova Place — which would include office buildings, housing and an indoor shopping mall with major stores like Sears and Ames Department Store. Workman remembers the developers’ assurance that their plan would attract commercial activity and launch a community renaissance.
But their vision had a price. Hundreds of houses, businesses, churches and roads were swallowed and razed amid the mall’s construction, including the three-story brick home of Workman’s grandparents.
“That mall cut the heart out of the community,” said Workman, who is now the executive pastor at Allegheny Center Alliance Church. “That was the first major blow here and that helped fragment and disconnect the North Side in such a significant way.”
Citywide, urban renewal projects from the 1950s through the 1970s aimed to revitalize neighborhoods and attract more residents, but inflicted devastating consequences, displacing thousands of longtime locals.
“Those things were considered innovative for their time, but they weren’t always really good,” Ohmer said. “Our innovations don’t always work.”
The failure of these projects catalyzed poverty, distrust and scarcity of affordable housing that leave communities most vulnerable to becoming hotspots for gun violence, Ohmer said.
A few years after the mall opened, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation delivered a second, more detrimental blow to the East Allegheny community: they broke ground on I-279. The project demolished a vertical strip at the neighborhood’s centerpoint, shrinking the main commercial corridor on East Ohio Street and displacing more than 1,400 homes and businesses across the North Side.
“When they opened that highway, I couldn’t drive on it, it made me sick,” said Barbara Burns, who grew up in East Allegheny and now runs the Sweet Time General Store on East Ohio Street. “You can’t take elderly people, totally remove them from where they live and act like shoving them in a high rise was an answer.” Yet that’s what was done.
Burns said that many families who stayed in East Allegheny after the construction of I-279 only did so out of necessity. They couldn’t afford to join the suburban exodus.
They devolved into factions.
“There was just a lot of infighting in the community — businesses and residents, residents with different views on what was and wasn’t appropriate,” Workman said. “Those who felt like every building should be restored historically, and others who just wanted to see positive movement in the community.”
Community engagement is one of the most powerful forces preventing gun violence from taking root in a neighborhood. “If there are relationships in communities — people know their neighbor, their norms and values — they’re more willing to intervene to prevent violence,” Ohmer said.
Without this type of cooperation, prostitution and nuisance bars ramped up. The highway provided outsiders with increased access to the neighborhood, allowing them to fuel its underground economies, including drug markets. Absentee landlords scooped up cheap properties, and as they overcharged tenants and failed to make necessary repairs, affordability and living conditions suffered.
“It was just an every-person-for-themselves environment,” Workman said about East Allegheny in the 1970s. “We lost the sense of community.”
The two sides of neighborhood improvement
On a May evening in 1978, a few East Allegheny residents gathered around Burns’ dining room table to discuss the future of their community. By evening’s end, they formed the East Allegheny Community Council in hopes of propelling the neighborhood toward revitalization.
“We organized as a community to save ourselves,” Burns said. “To make sure that big institutions and institutional buildings, the highway — all those things that other people were making decisions about — that we had a seat at the table.”
In those first few years, the group sought grants and launched initiatives to improve public safety, development and economic growth. Over decades, little victories began stacking up, including restoring several dozen historic homes and organizing cherished annual festivals.
But over time, the perception of who was considered part of the community changed, preventing efforts from equally reaching all areas of the neighborhood, said Leeann Younger, the lead pastor of Cityview Church on Tripoli Street near Turtle Way.
“Neighborhood improvement has two sides to it: the folks who define the need and the folks who end up being pushed out because improvement is about leaving them behind,” Younger said.
Today, most crimes, including gun violence, cluster around Allegheny Commons East Park, the Pressley Street High Rise and the portion of East Ohio Street closest to I-279 — areas generally outside of where community advocates target their efforts.
East Allegheny’s western border is Cedar Avenue, and although city records depict the neighborhood stretching east to Vinial Street, community groups have long focused on the portion west of I-279. Everything east of the highway is considered East Deutschtown.
East Deutschtown boasts a few food-centric small businesses, but its economy never revived after the construction of I-279. Eric Vanistendael, the executive director of the Community Alliance of Spring Garden and East Deutschtown, estimated that half of the real estate in East Deutschtown and Spring Garden remains vacant today.
“There’s a lot of actual violent crime that has nothing to do with the neighborhood, but it scares people away,” Vanistendael added.
As a six-year resident of the Pressley Street High Rise, a public housing tower tucked between East Allegheny’s Giant Eagle and I-279, Aim Comperatore knows how it feels to be isolated and excluded from community life.
“Our community does not understand that there is an internal struggle and an internal battle right here in the building, trying to keep the good and the bad in check,” Comperatore said.
Comperatore described being beaten up inside the elevators twice since moving in, and has noticed an influx of trespassers entering through the building’s back door, along with an increase in drugs exchanged in the hallways.
Basic safety concerns are long left unanswered. Although the broken thermostat is set to 70 degrees, a barometer confirms that Comperatore’s apartment was about 85 degrees on a November afternoon and reached as high as 98 degrees over the summer.
This week, the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh [HACP] intends to replace 25 thermostats that were deemed to be “no longer in optimal condition” during a recent inspection of Pressley Street High Rise.
As of December, HACP is in the process of improving security in and outside of Pressley Street High Rise, including replacing the fence behind the building and potentially installing gated access to its parking lot. HACP is also having guards monitor the building’s front doors, providing patrols throughout the building for eight hours a day, upgrading its video surveillance system to include common areas like elevators and expanding patrols for its parking lots, entrances and outdoor common areas.
Comperatore said attempts to contact community groups for help improving safety within the building have been met with silence.
“I never see those people,” Comperatore said. “I’ve emailed them. Never have gotten anything back. The community of East Allegheny needs to communicate with this building.”
Finding their ‘beacon of hope’
On a graying November evening, the Hampton Battery at the center of Allegheny Commons East Park was silent, save for the rhythmic scratching of Glorieux’s broom.
From her first days in East Allegheny, the Hampton Battery has served as the heart of the neighborhood’s drug economy. She’s watched as neighbors, police and city officials have experimented with a litany of efforts to deter sales — building benches, increasing police patrols, installing lamps and trimming low-hanging tree branches to improve visibility. Although activity waxes and wanes, it always persists.
“You notice people aren’t walking through here very much,” Glorieux said. “They got out of the habit.”
Police investigated drug dealing in the park and along East Ohio Street primarily from July through October, making more than 80 arrests and confiscating 16 firearms. “I’m not going to say we eliminated the problem there, but definitely we’ve made drastic headway there with the open-air drug dealing in that area,” Malloy said. “I think the community feels a lot safer right now.”
Gainey and Wilson walked through Allegheny Commons East Park in October two days after the fatal shooting in front of the Sunoco across the street on Cedar Avenue. Soon after, the city installed a fence around the Hampton Battery and in the weeks since, Glorieux has noticed it has helped deter illegal activity in the park.
Brandon Jackson lived a stone’s throw away from the Hampton Battery in the Allegheny Commons Apartments throughout the 1990s and 2000s, and now works a few blocks away as the manager of Bistro To Go on East Ohio Street. “[The park is] packed right now, but they’re not children,” Jackson said. “That’s something that we definitely need to help out with.”
In the last decade, Jackson’s seen groups like the Urban Impact Foundation help create space for youth in the park today through their sports programs. Allegheny Center Alliance Church is also in the process of constructing a community hub on the edge of the park, which Workman hopes will promote connectivity and safety in the park.
“That really is our hope, that at least in this piece of the park, there’s going to be a new level of peace because people are going to be using it and there will be eyes on it,” Workman said.
The community, especially youth, need a “beacon of hope” amid the trauma of recent shootings, and Jackson said that religious institutions are working to help promote resilience throughout the neighborhood.
As a pastor at Cityview Church, Younger said she isn’t “always convinced that what’s happening inside the walls of our houses of worship is overflowing to the street.” But she’s hopeful.
“I hope it is injecting compassion into the conversation about who needs help and how they get that help,” she added.
Malloy said he hopes to increase police officers’ engagement with the East Allegheny community, including by hosting a community day for officers and residents when the weather gets warmer. In the spring, he plans to launch an initiative to embed officers within each sector of the North Side so they can build trust with residents, starting with distributing door hangers with information about crisis resources.
Local businesses are also helping to strengthen community engagement within East Allegheny.
In East Deutschtown, the Garden Cafe quickly became a local staple after opening in 2020. Paintings from local artists line the walls, a free library is tucked into the shop’s front window, a community fridge is stocked in the back and neighbors even drop off plants for others to take home. Owner Gayle McGarrill said that if anything, recent violence has “made people more determined to prove that this is a nice neighborhood.”
On East Ohio Street, Bistro To Go provides meals to people experiencing homelessness and facilitates a mentorship program for youth, where students at local schools work at their restaurant four days a week for two hours, sometimes leading to full-time jobs.
And Glorieux plans to continue sweeping the litter and leaves until snow obscures the sidewalks. She looks forward to tending to the perennials and petunias in the community garden come warmer weather.
“It’s good therapy for me, I just feel good after.”
Correction (12/20/22): The Urban Impact Foundation is an organization with multiple partners. A previous version of this story mischaracterized its affiliation.
This story was fact-checked by Abigail Nemec-Merwede.
This reporting has been made possible through the Staunton Farm Mental Health Reporting Fellowship and the Jewish Healthcare Foundation.
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Through Dec. 31, the Wyncote Foundation, Loud Hound Foundation and our generous local match pool supporters will match your new monthly donation 12 times or double your one-time gift, all up to $1,000. Now that's good news!
Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're proud to provide this important service for our community. We work hard to produce accurate, timely, impactful journalism without paywalls that keeps our region informed and moving forward.
However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.
Your MATCHED donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.