Shootings in Garfield dampen the community’s rejuvenation

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In the first six months of 2017, Garfield surpassed all Pittsburgh neighborhoods in shootings.

The neighborhood shows promise, drawing lively crowds to Penn Avenue, but only blocks away, parts of the neighborhood are pocked by abandoned lots, crumbling sidewalks and occasional gunfire.

In early June, Pittsburgh’s Zone 5 Police Commander Jason Lando said recent shootings didn’t seem like a significant spike compared to the previous year. Police statistics, however, show that by June 2 Garfield had already surpassed the shootings total for all of 2016, which includes a combination of fatal, non-fatal shootings and shootings without injury.

Through the summer, police strengthened their response, stepping up patrols near two hotspots and talking with community leaders to create a more refined public safety plan they’re hesitant to discuss publicly.

“Right now, the strategy that we’re working on is not open to the public because we want it to work,” said Aggie Brose, deputy director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation.

Lando stresses that violence is not random in Garfield. He said much of it is related to known “nuisance” properties and activity near the top of North Atlantic Avenue and near the corner of North Aiken Avenue and Hillcrest Street.

Jerry McKeithen, 64, of Garfield, is a member of the Community Ambassadors, a neighborhood volunteer group focused on public safety. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Jerry McKeithen lives on a quiet street, up the hill from Garfield’s bustling Penn Avenue corridor. He warns newcomers to avoid the North Aiken corner.

“Two young dudes tried to rob me,” said McKeithen, 64. “I knew exactly what was happening. Soon as the dude left the street and came around me, I swung around with my dog.”

In January, a teenager was struck by gunfire near the intersection. In July, a 20-year-old was fatally shot in the head there.

Last year, police tallied 13 shootings in Garfield. In 2017, police have so far investigated at least 17 shootings in the neighborhood, including the non-fatal shooting of a woman in her 50s whose head was grazed by a bullet at home on Aug. 14.

With four months remaining, this year’s violence surpasses annual shooting totals since 2012. That year, police tallied 20 shootings in Garfield, including three fatalities and six shootings with injuries.

Progress and abandonment

Rev. John Creasy sees Garfield’s vibrant potential. But he fears violence will stifle progress.

“This isn’t just a one-time shooting,” said Creasy, associate pastor of The Open Door Presbyterian Church and director of the Garfield Community Farm. “This is happening again and again and again.”

The Garfield Community Farm is a lush 2.5 acres, clumped with heirloom tomatoes, squash, zucchini, herbs and greens. Open Door and nearby Valley View Presbyterian Church planted the farm’s first crop in 2009 as a way to offset the sense of abandonment in the neighborhood, which lost more than 6,000 residents since 1970.

Rev. John Creasy is the director of the Garfield Community Farm. He said violence in the neighborhood won’t just go away on its own. “Some people are starting to speak up,” he said. “More of that has to happen.” (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Today, Garfield shows clear signs of rebirth. The neighborhood’s section of Penn Avenue is a vibrant corridor of shops and galleries. Its monthly art gallery crawls draw crowds from across the city. But only a few blocks up the hill, Garfield can seem disconnected, almost rural in some patches, and far removed from the glut of new investment in neighboring East Liberty and Lawrenceville.

Lasting signs of abandonment mark the neighborhood. Sidewalks in many places are either overgrown or crumbling – if they exist at all. And with sparse foot traffic, tangled brush and patchy lighting, it’s easy to see how nearby areas attract criminal activity.

In January, an 18-year-old died at the edge of the community farm after being shot multiple times on the street nearby. In May, a mother of two sets of twins was found shot to death on the hillside behind her apartment, only a few blocks west.

Both are unsolved, as is the July murder of the 20-year-old.

Creasy said he feels safe in the neighborhood, but he knows nearby families have felt the impact of violence. He recently heard a gunshot in the middle of the day, and he cautions the farm’s workers against walking to certain areas alone. In September 2016, a 17-year-old who’d been at the farm was gunned down between home and a juvenile probation van.

Violence won’t just taper off, Creasy said. He says community leaders need to take action, reach out to youth with interventions and stop looking the other way when teenagers carry illegal guns.

“There are people throughout the neighborhood who know that next door there’s a 17-year-old with a gun and historically have just let that go,” said Creasy, who lives in neighboring Stanton Heights.

“Some people are starting to speak up,” he said. “More of that has to happen.”

Source of violence

In early June, Lando said his officers were keeping an eye on the area, but explained that they’d need more data to determine if this year’s shootings were a blip in an otherwise downward crime trend or reason for deeper concern.

“It’s not enough data to tell us, ‘Oh boy, this neighborhood, it’s turning around again negatively,” Lando said.

PublicSource made inquiries after analyzing this year’s shooting data and comparing totals to previous years.

In August, Lando said police had been patrolling more frequently after hotspots were identified and that the bureau is coordinating with the community, local prosecutors and other city offices to reduce crime, using tools beyond making arrests.

“We definitely have some nuisance properties that seem to be the source of where most of the violence is coming from,” Lando said.

In McKeithen’s case, he says he feels safe on his block and he knows all of his neighbors, many of them young homeowners who’ve bought in recent years after older neighbors passed away.

McKeithen said he wishes officers would actually walk the streets and talk to residents instead of driving by, but he was awed by the clear increase in police presence.

“I said, ‘Who are they looking for, Billy the Kid?’” he said at a June 27 Community Ambassadors meeting, describing a rush of police cars from the day before. The Community Ambassadors, a neighborhood volunteer group focused on public safety, was founded after a meeting late last year focused on reducing violence in the neighborhood.

If community efforts work, this year’s spike in shootings will be an anomaly. At the community farm, Creasy stresses that the work needs to be done, and that a gun death every few months can’t be tolerated.

“It’s easy to just say, ‘Oh, that’s Garfield. It’s normal,’” he said, “and that’s not OK, because it’s going to be another teenager.”

Reach Jeffrey Benzing at jeff@publicsource.org or (412) 515-0062. Follow him on Twitter @jabenzing.