Desegregation destroyed Pittsburgh, as blacks who could afford to leave, did, and Interstate 75/85 cut off the southeast corner of the community. The population fell by more than half from 1970 to 2000. Now McDaniel Street was a wasteland, all of those businesses defunct, and the street notorious only for the “Pink Store” which sold junk food and lottery tickets, and where violent drug dealers hung out. Two men were shot to death in front of the store in separate incidents in 2014. The average price of a Pittsburgh home dropped to $13,000.
In May 2015, I stayed overnight with Ashlee and Caleb Starr, a young white couple, originally from Indiana, who moved to Pittsburgh in 2007 and bought their modern four-bedroom home on Mayland Circle in 2012 for $32,000. They had three children, Ava, 7, Jay, 4, and Lee, one. Ashlee, a social worker, had worked extensively with the homeless, and Caleb built homes for Habitat for Humanity. I was there for the weekly Wednesday neighborhood potluck the Starrs host, but in the late afternoon, Ashlee took me for a stroll through the neighborhood with baby Lee in a stroller.
It was disturbing. Although some houses were well-kept, there were many boarded up homes, some so overgrown with kudzu that you couldn’t see them from the street. When we walked past the Pink Store on McDaniel Street, Ashlee told me not to stare at the men hanging out, because it might be dangerous.
The potluck that night was crowded with African-American neighbors and children, including 90-year-old Lula Bailey, who lived next door. She still ran Bailey’s Beauty Shop out of her garage. She told me how five of her six children had died – one daughter soon after birth, another daughter of AIDS contracted through drug needles, a son who became a drug addict in the Marines and died in a fight, a son with high blood pressure, an overweight son with diabetes who ran his car into a phone pole. Her remaining son lives nearby and takes care of her. I said it was awful to lose so many children. “You know,” she said, “I had to realize that once they came out of my body, I had no control. The Lord gives breath and He can take it. And so far I’m still here.”
In the wake of her daughter’s death, someone had conned Bailey into signing up for an $80,000 loan on her home, which otherwise was nearly paid off, at 11 percent interest, so she was stuck with much higher monthly payments than the Starrs, even though her home was smaller and older…
In part because of the potlucks, the Mayland Ave/Mayland Circle area in Pittsburgh’s southwestern corner had a somewhat neighborly feeling, as exemplified by the Mayland Motivators Art Garden, which had been a vacant concrete slab at the corner of Mayland and Metropolitan Avenue where Jennings Grocery once stood. Toni Morrison-McBride and her husband Eddie had led the neighborhood drive to remove the trash, weeds, and spindly trees growing between the cracks. They painted every square inch with rainbows, roses, smiling faces, and signs: “Success.” “Learn.” “Lean.” “In Spirit.” “Love Your Block.” Pansies grew from the loose dirt. Caleb Starr built a bus stop shelter at the corner. They held a grand opening in May 2014, with music, dancing, and kids skipping ropes. Not much of a real garden, since only a few flowers grew there, it was nonetheless a symbol of community pride and caring, and it remained relatively clean and well-maintained.