“Turtle Creek is changing … the whole Mon Valley is changing.” A woman campaigning for state representative said this to me in April 2018. I wanted this to be true because I wanted to continue living in this place I have called home for almost 10 years. My journey to confirm her statement has been incredible and full of intense reflection. It has called to mind a message I first received as a little girl listening to my mother’s box set of “Best of Luther Vandross” vinyl records.  

A house is not a home

This line became a proverb when my mom and I decided to live together as adults. We needed a place that would not only be structurally sound and occupancy ready. We needed one where our non-traditional family could build a life and grow that homeownership equity all the finance and credit gurus had preached to us over the years. I was struck by the seriousness in my mom’s voice when she said: “We should buy a place together, that way you’ll have something when I’m gone.” She had overcome several health challenges. We were both afraid that her apartment in East Liberty was too far from mine in Swissvale. We needed to be closer to each other. But her sense that a generational changing of the guard was part of our house hunting seemed strange to me. 

Tahirah Walker hugs her mom. (Courtesy Tahirah Walker)

As we started looking for the right balance of house and home, we found the Mon Valley Initiative [MVI]. The organization was flipping properties to create homeownership opportunities for folks who would otherwise find themselves priced out. My mom and I were drawn to a property in Turtle Creek with two houses on the lot. The first time we tried to mortgage the property, the deal fell through because the amount MVI wanted for it was more than its appraisal value and against the crest of the housing market crisis. Banks were simply not willing to loan more than a home was worth. At least not to me and my mom. A year went by and like many of the other homes in the neighborhood, the property we wanted was still vacant. We tried again. The numbers came into alignment, and in October 2012, my mom and I became joint homeowners. Before all that, I had only been to Turtle Creek once and knew very little about the borough that now became my home.

When the two of us are far apart

In the first week of living here, someone broke in.  One neighbor said his house had also been burglarized. He told me to send the police his way for more details. The police told me that the neighbor I spoke with was an addict, couldn’t be trusted. I froze. My father was a recovery champion who fought hard to shake negative stereotypes that lock others into thinking that people with addiction are irredeemable, cannot be trusted, cannot recover. The language they used and the whole situation nauseated me. I began to rely on isolation as a coping mechanism. I thought of it as minding my own business. My mom thought of it as fear. She knew how important it was to keep faith. She did not want to see me drift to the latter. She did not want us to be so close and yet so far apart.

We had all begun to settle into a routine when my house was burglarized again. That time I purchased an alarm service, cleaned up the broken glass and moved on, thankful that both times my mom’s place had been left alone. Thankful that she was still having a good time exploring her new neighborhood. Thankful that she kept encouraging me to explore and wrapping me in her optimism. It must have been hard for her to model because I know my mom was perfectly content to be in her quiet little one-bedroom house with her plants, books and visits from grandchildren to keep her busy. She felt that I should get out and see more of our new neighborhood. And she showed me by doing just that for herself. 

Not meant to live alone

By 2014, we began to notice our little borough getting more diverse, more lively and more compassionate. Kelley Kelley had become our mayor and her leadership provided a critical turning point for the community, including for folks in recovery. My mom pointed this out to me and kept up her drumbeat of told-you-so’s for our decision to move here. She cared deeply for our neighbors. She also had great admiration for the teachers in our community. For the first time in their lives, my daughters had a Black woman principal and several Black teachers at their new local school. This mattered to us because we knew it meant the children were more likely to have positive educational outcomes. My mom also loved the nearby park where she took the girls to play. “What park?” I asked her one time. “You gotta get out more,” she said. And she was right. 

In 2015, a group of volunteers working with Grow Pittsburgh added a community garden of flowers and vegetables to that park. Home Plate Garden is still one of Turtle Creek’s many multiplying gems. In 2016, the Chinese Alliance Church here with the ancient language proudly displayed at the front doors welcoming visitors also welcomed a new pastor. The once by-admission-only Woodland Hills Academy became a neighborhood school. 

Homeplate Garden in Turtle Creek. (Photo by Clare Sheedy/PublicSource)

While Turtle Creek does have some excellent mental health support services, access to the kind of health care my mom needed to manage her seizure disorder and Type 2 diabetes was not as accessible. She had to travel outside of Turtle Creek to see her care providers. Her transportation options were limited, and she often had a sense that our zip code didn’t exactly weave her the biggest welcome mat at the clinical door steps. Eventually, my mom’s health started to decline again. This time, proximity to me was not enough.

And one of us has a broken heart

One spring afternoon, my daughter found her nana passed away in bed at the quiet back house. A new neighbor heard my daughter’s cries and came to her aid. She sat with her until I arrived home from Duquesne University. That drive on I-376 was a blur to me. I know it was long enough that the neighbor could have left once the police arrived. I know that given the police were incredibly kind and attentive that day, she would have been well within reason to leave my 17-year-old girl to wait for me. She did not. When I arrived, our neighbor was rubbing my daughter’s back saying, “I am so sorry.”  This was my mom’s Turtle Creek. Everyone from neighbors to the mail carrier mourned her loss and expressed their condolences. We all hoped that she had at least been at peace. That was in May 2016. I decided to finally devote myself to exploring this borough my mom had found to be a friendly home. 

Not long after, I saw Trump campaign signs go up around my neighborhood, challenging my renewed commitment to the area. No one on my own block posted them but the election data tells me that some people here were constituents of his and I began to worry once again that I didn’t belong here. My daughters did not worry. Instead, they began lives of activism at Woodland Hills High School. The woman we met on a campaign stop in April 2018 had inspired them. Summer Lee reminded us of what my mom had been showing me for years: This was our home and we do belong here. Lee became our state representative later that year. 

Tahirah Walker, photographed with her mom and daughters. (Photo by: Ahmad Sandidge/Courtesy of Tahirah Walker)

Darling, have a heart

The same year, Black Lives Matter signs went up when our community mourned Antwon Rose II. The demands for justice signaled by those flags were louder than the black and blue ones dotting the landscape. The calls for justice increased in 2020 when Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic claiming the lives of people (disproportionately poor people and people of color) throughout our country. In 2020 and 2021, two trans- and minority-inclusive Pride flags were raised in my neighborhood. I saw this as a clear call to end the rampant violence against TLGBQ+ folks, committed at alarmingly high levels against Black trans women. Rainbows would have been enough to make me smile, but this was a sense of inclusivity and care that I could never have dreamed of in 2012. 

Just a couple months ago, U.S. Steel began to be held accountable for that awful smell that sometimes works its way over here. Turtle Creek is indeed changing. I hope these changes mean better educational, health and economic outcomes for the folks who have lived here long term and for those who are here temporarily. I also hope the changes here mean better outcomes for the people whose signs might indicate that they don’t want that kind of equity. I imagine they could benefit from the progress, too. 

Homeplate Garden in Turtle Creek. (Photo by Clare Sheedy/PublicSource)

Turn this house into a home 

So, after nearly 10 years here, I’m getting better at taking my mom’s advice. A few months ago, I was on a drive around the Woodland Hills Academy area. I recognized the name of a nursery from some receipts my mom had kept in her car. She had been buying feed there for her little garden. I parked and bravely went in, fighting back tears of grief that surfaced as I thought of my mom making her way down to this little place on Airbrake Avenue where she found an oasis of plant lover items. I was greeted warmly and left with some organic soil for my indoor peace lilies. This spring, I think I’ll go back and ask for help planting a backyard tree in honor of my mom. I wasn’t sure 10 years would find me still living here. I don’t know if I will be here 10 more. But I do know that my sense of community has changed right along with Turtle Creek and that change has been rooted in relationships with neighbors who care. As I approach my 10-year Turtle Creek anniversary, I hope my own contributions to the community can grow and thrive.

Tahirah Walker is a writer and a teacher, creating her liberation story in the Pittsburgh area. If you want to send a message to Tahirah, email firstperson@publicsource.org.

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