Wilkinsburg’s spirit and resourcefulness shone in a season spent chronicling — in pictures, stories and a resource map — Pittsburgh’s eastern neighbor.
By Quinn Glabicki, Stephanie Strasburg & Rich Lord
Deola Herbert’s family greeted one another as they trickled into the main ballroom at Hosanna House along Wallace Avenue in Wilkinsburg. It was her birthday, and family had traveled from far and wide to celebrate her 90th orbit of the sun.
Points of Pride Wilkinsburg
PublicSource maps and chronicles the strengths of diverse communities
A line of Deola’s granddaughters and great-granddaughters, adorned with peacock feathers and gilded-age ornament, spooned heaping plates of mac and cheese, green beans and chicken onto the plates of similarly fancy diners. Later, seated atop a throne, Deola sang “Searchin’ for the kingdom of God!” a tune she perfected through a lifetime singing with her church choir and a family ensemble, The Gandy Singers, that toured many a church in the Pittsburgh area.
Back in the Roaring ‘20s — the era recalled by Deola Herbert’s party — Wilkinsburg had around 25,000 residents and was viewed as one of Pittsburgh’s up-and-coming suburbs. The borough’s official history puts its population peak in the 1950s.
“It was beautiful!” recalled Deola, who arrived with her late husband, a steel mill worker, in 1968. They bought a house on Glenn Avenue, where she raised her three children. “I really love Wilkinsburg.”
Now it’s a borough of 14,492 residents, per the Census Bureau. But if its population has diminished, its faith has not.
Ethel Mills, a longtime resident, has been praying to see her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren walk through the doors of Mulberry Community Church on Sunday mornings, and her prayer was answered.
“It’s exciting that I lived to see it in my time. These are things we pray for and we hope happen, but I’m actually seeing it,” she said. “Children won’t listen to you, but they will mark you. So I try to do what I think they’ll follow me doing.”
In February, PublicSource announced plans to deepen our commitment to meaningful, in-depth journalism, showing the richness, fullness and interwoven nature of our communities.
“Kids are coming from all over Wilkinsburg, Homewood, North Side, East Liberty, so hopefully they’ll get to know each other so they can interact with each other, so they can walk around freely,” said trainer Johnny Spell, of Penn Hills, who encourages young boxers as they spar at Weightmasters Gym in Wilkinsburg.
He strives to use boxing as a way to bridge rival neighborhoods and bring youth together. “They know who each other are.”
As one step toward enhancing our reporting, with guidance from the American Press Institute, PublicSource’s entire team is participating in efforts to reach out to diverse communities, learn about neighborhood assets, establish or deepen relationships — and, of course, inform our readers.
Wilkinsburg is a majority-Black neighborhood, but some 35% of residents are white, and there are meaningful Asian, Hispanic, multiracial and foreign-born populations.
When Tahar Ben Chaabani immigrated to the United States from Tunisia 30 years ago, he said, “I didn’t even speak English.”
“I come here, I went to community college and learned, I left the school, and I come down and create my own self,” he said. He has owned various businesses, including several pawn shops, in Wilkinsburg, and now runs Cash Flow Shop LLC, where he specializes in tire replacement.
“Living the American dream, it’s true for me.”
Just under one-quarter of Wilkinsburg residents live in poverty, but an estimated 43% of the borough’s children are in households experiencing poverty. They move through a landscape in which around 20% of buildings are vacant, as a result of population loss and systemic problems that discourage reuse of abandoned property.
While the borough continues to struggle with the problems created by abandonment, its people have seeded some of the vacant lots with community gardens, skate parks and urban farms.
Wherever they occur, population loss, disinvestment and poverty create problems that government often struggles to address. A recent Wilkinsburg Borough Council meeting included citizen complaints about a “terrible” field used by the Steel City Kickers kickball team, pothole-plagued streets, weed-choked lots and high taxes. PublicSource’s reporting this week will touch on the borough’s challenges.
Conversation in Wilkinsburg often turns to public safety, and the borough has seen tragedy, including a 2016 mass shooting at a backyard cookout. Even in the wake of that bloodshed, though, residents maintained that any perception of lawlessness was overblown.
“This ain’t really bad here,” said Karlos Street, a barber at Christyles Barber Shop in Wilkinsburg. “It’s bad if you walk with badness. If you put yourself into the badness, then the badness will surround you.”
Diverse communities are too often portrayed, in media, largely through the lenses of their tragedies. Not news: The longstanding sense in diverse communities, and especially Black communities, that the media does not cover their neighborhoods well, thoroughly or accurately.
PublicSource’s Points of Pride coverage, which launches with this package, takes a different approach.
Since February, PublicSource team members have been:
- Assembling information on Wilkinsburg’s many community assets — a process that will only continue. (If you are involved with a Wilkinsburg asset that isn’t yet on our map or see something that needs to be updated, please let us know via this email.)
- Calling, emailing and visiting community resources.
- Getting to know people, and not just as “newsmakers,” but as entrepreneurs, educators, athletes, activists, family members and residents.
- Writing about, and photographing, some of the people we’ve come to know.
This week at PublicSource.org, you’ll read about, hear from and see Wilkinsburg residents who are:
- Turning an abandoned and arson-plagued building into a training ground for baking entrepreneurs
- Transforming a school that saw its student body dwindle into a growing “village”
- Drawing on the experience of hunger to address the needs of low-income families in inflationary times
- Creating community around fun, sport and sisterhood.
Faith and practicality weave seamlessly through many conversations in Wilkinsburg.
“Don’t give up hope that we can be restored,” said Autumn Butler, of the Covenant Fellowship congregation and Wilkinsburg Christian Housing, one of several small-scale efforts to rekindle homeownership in a community where 70% of households currently rent. “There’s a need for revival, and it’s hard because there is a lot of abandonment and vacancy in the borough, but we need to strive and encourage and provide homes to those who are here.”
This week’s coverage is just a beginning. We hope and expect that the relationships we’ve established will deepen, and that the result will be even better, richer journalism.
And this effort will not stop at the Wilkinsburg Borough borders.
PublicSource is beginning outreach to other communities. We’ll build more bridges, establish more relationships and lean on them — not only to produce content like this week’s zoom-in on Wilkinsburg, but to infuse perspectives into our regular coverage of government, health, the environment, education, development and other issues of interest to communities.
Communities thrive on information, understanding and voice — a quality that’s prized in the borough.
“Every year that I’ve been here, particularly for the speaking parts, it has literally shocked me who steps up and suddenly is a performer,” said Christy Wauzzinski, education director since 2014 with the Pittsburgh Urban Christian School in Wilkinsburg. “It’s often the most shy kids in the class. They find a voice, they find themselves being able to perform.”
For a region that has struggled to hold on to its people, communities like Wilkinsburg could hold the keys to growth.
“Wilkinsburg’s greatest asset is its people,” according to Pastor Lawrence Smith of Mulberry Community Church. “That is why I chose to stay through the challenges, hurts and pains. … If I have anything to give, I hope that God allows me to be effective in the community of Wilkinsburg.”
We welcome your feedback, ideas or questions on this ongoing project. Write to Rich Lord, managing editor of PublicSource, via firstname.lastname@example.org.
Quinn Glabicki is the environment and climate reporter at PublicSource and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter and Instagram @quinnglabicki.
Stephanie Strasburg is a photojournalist with PublicSource who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Instagram @stephaniestrasburg.
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