We are a group of students from Westinghouse High School who were born and raised in Homewood.

When we think about Homewood, we think about comfort because we are familiar with the area. It is home. There is a connection among people who live here, like distant relatives or a dysfunctional family. We connect through the trauma that we go through, but we meet that with humor and support each other. We are held together by our experience of living here and of being neglected by the city and discriminated against because of where we live.

Walking around Homewood, there are people in some areas who use drugs as well as vacant and rundown lots. In the last couple of decades, Homewood has been a place that produces a lot of abandoned houses and buildings. Stores and old businesses stand abandoned. 

Ny’Ela (black shirt) and Ny’Jai Chapman (white shirt), both 18, in their neighborhood of Homewood on Friday, May 12, 2023. The two were part of a group of Westinghouse Academy students on the Youth Research Advisory Board of the SPIN (Space and People In Neighborhoods) Project, delving into quality of life in Homewood by exploring the links between violence, support and stress in spaces and later investigating who owns the land. (Photos by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

We have seen pictures of how Homewood used to look: busy, put together and cared for, but we have not experienced that. Currently, people are abandoning houses, and no one is taking care of them or rebuilding them. Trash collects in the front yards.

We — about 11 of us students — have been part of the Youth Research Advisory Board of the SPIN Project for the last five years. We have been working with Jaime Booth, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh, to understand how Homewood youth feel in different  locations around their neighborhood.

In a study that we conducted right before the COVID shutdown, we gave youth cell phones and asked them to tell us how they experience (i.e. violence, support) areas around the neighborhood where they typically spend time and how they feel in the space. Using this data, we were able to map how youth were feeling in the neighborhood. 

Map produced by the The Youth Research Advisory Board [YRAB] of the SPIN (Space and People In Neighborhoods) Project, showing data collected on places of comfort and places of stress, plus city-owned abandoned property. (Courtesy of YRAB/SPIN)
Map produced by the The Youth Research Advisory Board [YRAB] of the SPIN [Space and People In Neighborhoods] Project, showing data collected on places of high and low stress, plus city-owned vacant property. (Courtesy of YRAB/SPIN)

In general, they were feeling supported and positive at family members’ houses, the library and the community center and were more stressed at school and while walking on the street. When we looked at the results, we were not surprised, but we were gratified that our experiences showed up in the data.

Vacancy and violence

In 2021, to think about how we could create a safe space for youth in Homewood, we started to look up vacant properties in the neighborhood and who owns them. We were surprised to find that most of the vacant properties were owned by the city and were bought in the last five years. 

Recently, an article came out that Homewood and the neighborhood next to it (Larimer) have the highest number of city-owned vacant properties in Pittsburgh, a shocking 1,067 total in those two neighborhoods. In Homewood, 21% of these vacant properties have building code violations. 

Homewood has also experienced a lot of violence lately, and we believe the two things are related.  

A flyer asks for information on the recent fatal shooting of Jaylen Martin, as it hangs from a telephone pole along Kelly Street on Friday, May 12, 2023, in Homewood. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

The mayors always say they will tear the vacant buildings down and put something more useful in their place, but nothing ever happens. The city is always trying to fix the main street every couple of years and the most visible streets while neglecting all the other streets. When they do tear down a vacant building, the lot stays barren for months or even years. 

The neglect by the city makes us not trust them to keep their word, see us as people and take our feelings and opinions into consideration. Because of this feeling of neglect and lack of positive work opportunities, some people feel like they have to turn to illegal things to provide for their families. 

As an example of the unfulfilled promises, the city has said it will reopen an abandoned roller rink in the heart of Homewood for a while now, and no progress has been made. The city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority owns the rink. After four people proposed ideas and it was whittled down to two finalists, the URA ultimately canceled the process in October. As a matter of fact, we noticed recently that it looks like it has been shot up. 

Ny’Jai, left, and Ny’Ela Chapman, both 18, stand for a portrait in front of a vacant roller rink owned by the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority, on Friday, May 12, 2023, in their neighborhood of Homewood. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)
Ny’Jai, left, and Ny’Ela Chapman, both 18, stand for a portrait in front of a vacant roller rink owned by the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority, on Friday, May 12, 2023, in their neighborhood of Homewood. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

No matter what the facts are about why it is being held up, it is clear that nothing has happened. We are sure that there is a creative solution that engages the community, meets the community’s needs, is affordable and sustainable.   

[Editor’s note: PublicSource reached out to city officials with several questions about the assertions made by the youth group in this essay. The mayor’s administration did not respond.]

Take responsibility and follow through

The city needs to build instead of just destroying buildings and leaving them. There are big open green patches after tearing down, and we feel like they don’t know what to do with them.  

Seeing these lots is depressing and shows the neglect the city has for the community. The elementary school we graduated from, hair stores and food places that we went to growing up are now closed. It makes us feel like they gave up on making our neighborhood better and just left it broken. 

Ny’Ela and Ny’Jai Chapman, both 18 and of Homewood, and Jaime Booth, an associate professor with the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work, walk past vacant lots and grab some after-school water ice in Homewood on Friday, May 12, 2023. (Photos by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

This devaluation makes it easier for influential business people to buy the land and drive us out, making it hard for us to stay to make a change. This affects youth by taking away the familiar comforts, which define Homewood, and making them feel bad about themselves. 

What we want is a space that we can call our own where we can just be ourselves and don’t have to pay or do anything, in particular, to spend time in that area. We want youth to help design it and decide how it is run so that they feel like they are cared about, listened to and have ownership over the space. 

In this space, we want to have some adult support for youth who are having a hard time. We know that there are some places to hang out in the neighborhood like the library and the Community Engagement Center, but there are a lot of restrictions on time and places, with some places charging a fee for entry. We like to hang out at the library, but the Homewood Library does not have resources for the teen space.

We feel like the people in power need to take more responsibility for their properties and understand how their neglect affects the youths who are living and growing up here. The city is currently putting all of the money and energy into violence prevention but doesn’t seem to understand that the way they are treating their properties in Homewood is communicating that they don’t care and that Homewood does not have value. 

As adolescents growing into adults, our voices are not often heard; they are more pushed to the side. Even though adults feel like their voices are more important than youths, our voices are just as significant because we are the next generation.  You should listen to us when we speak and act on your responsibility as the city. If you want us to trust you, you need to do what you say you will do.

The SPIN Project Youth Research Advisory Board is a group of 11 Westinghouse High School students and an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh. To send the group a message, email firstperson@publicsource.org.

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