How Allegheny County is trying to move on from the legacy of blight

Scattered remnants from Pittsburgh’s steel era still dot the hills in Allegheny County, where at its peak more than 1.6 million people lived and worked. Almost 60 years later, nearly 400,000 people have left without replacement, but the homes they forged remain.

According to the most recent census, there are 50,000 vacant homes in the county. Of these, 16,428 properties are blighted, exhibiting signs of deterioration that pose threats to human health, safety and public welfare.

Local governments cannot afford to maintain every lawn or board up every window. Unpaid property taxes pile up, even as irreparable houses are demolished. Meanwhile, nearby homeowners watch their property values fall.

“People want to be able to control a little bit more of the universe around their home,” said Mark Masterson, an expert on blight from Pittsburgh’s North Side.

Local efforts may have the potential to improve forgotten blocks in Pittsburgh and surrounding boroughs — whether through a state-regulated land bank, community efforts to transform vacant lots into green spaces or grassroots preservations.

While there is no single cure to uproot the causes of blight, PublicSource examines some measured approaches that treat its symptoms.

When Lena Andrews moved from Friendship to East Liberty, she was enamoured with her new neighborhood’s array of restaurants and shops, easy access to transit and its diversity. The lack of parks and gardens puzzled her, though.

At the time, trash covered the corner of East Liberty Boulevard and Mellon Street: empty cans, bottles, fast-food paper bags. When the city mowers would cut the grass, they would mow right over the garbage, crushing it into the earth.

The litter sent the wrong message.

“It makes people who are passing by think it’s OK to throw more litter or to insult your neighborhood — and it’s not,” said Andrews, a planning and development officer at ACTION-Housing.

Since the rectangular corner lot seemed unruly with tall patches of browning grass, it was the perfect place for passersby to drop whatever garbage they were carrying. More fast-food bags, plastic lids and shopping bags littered the perimeter.

More than 27,000 lots of land sit vacant, often sites of formerly blighted homes that have been demolished.