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Rankin: Fighting ‘the depressed mindset’

January 19, 2019

RANKIN, Pa. (AP) — The smell of barbecue, the chef’s hat on James “Cube” Weems’ head, the earnestness on his son Jaden’s face as he passes out samples of steaming meat — it all conspires to give a festive feel to Rankin Borough Council, where the mood is sometimes darkened by talk of the creep of coyotes into the overgrown lots of this old mill town.

Mr. Weems, 45, and Jaden, 14, have come with meat, and with a plan: They’ll pour the father’s entrepreneurial experience and the family’s energy into the long-disused concession stand down by the borough’s weedy baseball field. It could become Cube’s Chop House, Mr. Weems says, passing out a black business card featuring the pitch: “Delivering exactly what your CHOPS want.”

Rankin is starving for business, for revenue, for a reason to believe that, after 30 years as a pocket of poverty, there will be something here for the kids who make up nearly a third of its population.

This half-square-mile borough, nestled between Braddock and Swissvale, looks quaint as you gaze across the Monongahela from The Waterfront’s eastern edge, or look left from the top of the Thunderbolt. But half of Rankin’s kids live in poverty. Most adults haven’t attended a day of college. The town limps along on the county’s leanest tax base.

Our region’s fragmented governmental structure leaves places like Rankin — and far-flung towns from Arnold in Westmoreland County to Uniontown in Fayette County — with lots of poor kids and without the resources to support and protect them, let alone to lift them up.

Allegheny County’s actions and inaction have contributed to Rankin’s problems.

Starting in the 1940s, the county pushed low-income housing developments into Rankin — a practice that’s now discredited but hasn’t been reversed. The county provides human services in Rankin and grants for demolitions and roadwork but hasn’t yet redeveloped the vast Carrie Furnace site along the borough’s riverbank.

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“It’s a depressed community. It’s the mind, the depressed mindset. It’s hurtful being from here.”

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The result is a feeling of waiting for a ship that may or may not arrive. It affects even those families — like the Weemses — that are not in poverty but are striving to climb the ladder of opportunity.

The concession stand is Mr. Weems’ third swing at making money in the Mon Valley. He takes this shot as his equally entrepreneurial son is inching toward college age and toward decisions about what he’ll do and whether he’ll live here.

“This is where my family was raised, and I believe that if people understood the benefits of the location and the quietness of Rankin, it would make a serious turn,” Mr. Weems says.

It’s hard, though, for a place to shake off decades of rust. There’s something invisible that weighs down every effort — a characteristic of his hometown that he hopes his kids won’t absorb.

“It’s a depressed community. It’s the mind, the depressed mindset,” he says. “It’s hurtful being from here.”

The best place ever

It may be awhile before Jaden Weems puts his trumpet to his lips and belts out a certain soaring movie theme as the high school band marches down the field. “When I’m going to be a senior is probably when we’re going to play Black Panther,” says the Woodland Hills freshman.

He talks about going to college in Alabama, moving to Los Angeles, launching a just-in-time clothing business, buying a plane or two.

“When you get in the clouds, you see small images,” he says. “That’s when my head runs wild.”

Jaden flew a lot in nine years during which his father led the family out of the Mon Valley to Minneapolis, Columbus and Mobile, Ala. They often returned to Rankin, which took on mythical status, thanks to the patriarch’s upbeat take on his hometown.

“Rankin is the capital of the world,” Mr. Weems would tell his two sons and daughter. “It’s the best city — the best place ever!”

Five years ago, in response to family health problems, he and his wife, Melinda, told the kids that they’d be leaving their big, bright house in Mobile, forsaking the yard with its orange trees, inground pool, trampoline and running space for Tinsel, their Akita. They’d trade that for an 80-year-old house, in the family for half a century, on a 2,420-square-foot lot in Rankin.

Three days before the move, Tinsel darted into the path of a car and died.

In the weeks that followed the move, neighborhood kids tested Jaden, then 10, Miranda, 7, and their older brother Jalen, 19. “It was rough for them,” Mr. Weems said. “They were like, ‘Why are these kids fighting with us?’”

The kids’ Alabama drawls and manners stood out.

“When they first heard my voice, they were so confused. They were like, ‘Why do you sound country?’” Jaden says. “They were saying, ‘Why is he saying ‘thank you’ all the time?′ I said, ‘That’s how my parents taught me, to say please and thank you.’”

With a master’s in business administration, experience with GlaxoSmithKline, Target and Praxair, and entrepreneurial chops he’d honed running a cigar shop in Mobile, Mr. Weems took stock of the family’s assets.

He owned a hulking, 117-year-old house in Braddock that he bought in 2002, just after marrying Melinda. With a foundation like “a bomb shelter,” as he puts it, and 3,300 square feet of living space, across the street from the Braddock Carnegie Library, it proved a great place to start a family. “We loved it,” he says.

When they left town, they rented it out. But in 2010, a kitchen fire destroyed much of the interior.

“I cried like a baby when I walked into that house after it was burned up,” Mr. Weems says. He boarded it up, but people ripped off the planks and stole pipes and appliances. Every effort to fix it was reversed by thieves and vandals. “It’s been hell on wheels with that house.”

Insurers declined to cover the house, putting the brakes on his efforts. “If I put any money into it, and it gets burned down, I’m going to lose everything.”

Finally, in September, the county condemned the Braddock house because it was blighted and vacant. With that, after 16 ½ years, the Weems family lost title to its first home.

That was a blow. But by then, they’d already pinned new hopes on “the best place ever.”

Few avenues out

Named after grocery wholesaler Thomas Rankin, the borough was chartered in 1892, when it was described in the Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette as “one of the busiest as well as one of the wealthiest of the smaller boroughs.” Rankin was blessed with the Carrie Furnace, the Braddock Wire Works, the Fort Pitt Tannery, the Braddock Glass Co., and a half dozen other industrial concerns.

Fiercely independent, Rankin was the scene in 1911 of a rally at which candidates railed against a “plot” by Pittsburgh Mayor W.A. Magee to annex nearby boroughs.

In 1941, the fledgling Allegheny County Housing Authority opened Hawkins Village, a low-income housing complex named after Col. Richard H. Hawkins, a University of Pittsburgh law professor. Rents averaged $14.25 a month.

By 1953, the borough was no longer “one of the wealthiest” but rather a “grimy industrial community,” per a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article. Two days before Christmas in 1957, a fire destroyed 40 homes. In reaction, the county moved 470 families to make way for Palisades Plaza and Palisades Manor, two privately owned low-income housing complexes, with a current total of 137 apartments.

Add the 39 Rankin rentals supported by Housing Choice Vouchers — sometimes called Section 8 — and nearly 1 in 3 of the borough’s homes are subsidized. That housing drives Rankin’s child poverty rate.

Some move up. Mr. Weems spent his high school years in “The Village” but now lives in what’s called “Up Rankin.” Over the decades in between, though, the gravity of poverty took its toll throughout the borough.

When Mr. Weems came home from Mobile, there was just one place to go out for drinks in Rankin, and it was sporadically open. Business at Deb’s Place swooned after 2013, when an argument there turned violent, and Darryl Reaves, now 40, fatally shot Tyrone Milton, 50.

Mr. Weems approached the owner about buying the place. For nine months, he worked behind the bar, redecorating and trying to shake the bad vibes from the 2013 tragedy. Finally, the prior owner sold him the building. But she balked at transferring the liquor license, which Mr. Weems called a violation of their agreement. He sued but didn’t prevail, leaving him with the building — and its back taxes and debts — but not the license he needed to make money from it.

He closed up shop and promptly faced some of the same problems he’d had with the Braddock house. “They broke into (the bar) a few times already, messed my pipes up,” he says. He has since put up boards or bars at most potential entry points.

Then, while he was working for a catering company, inspiration struck: He could convert the bar into a commercial kitchen. He posted a banner above the bar door: Cube’s Chop House.

Now he just has to clean up, build out the kitchen, and find a solution for the near-total lack of parking. “It’s got a lot of potential,” he says, “it just sits in a bad space.”

Trouble by the tracks

Packing impoverished families into dense “projects” has been officially out of vogue since 1993, when the federal government started financing the replacement of old public housing with mixed-income communities. Locally, a 1994 consent decree mandated improvements to communities, including Hawkins Village, and efforts to desegregate and disperse subsidized housing.

Still, today Hawkins Village is entirely subsidized housing, in long, low, six-unit buildings, last upgraded in 1994.

Kymarii Howard, 26, is raising four kids — all under the age of 9 — in a Hawkins Village apartment with roaches, loose floor tiles, water-stained plaster and broken cabinets. “I’ve been asking for three years to be transferred to another house,” Ms. Howard says.

Housing authority executive director Frank Aggazio would love to do “a complete modernization” of Hawkins Village, but funding for big rehabs is hard to get. Instead, he plans $2.8 million in repair work on the roofs, windows, chimney, parking lots and sidewalks next year.

Meanwhile, conditions have slowly eroded.

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development inspected Hawkins Village in December 2017, finding clogged plumbing, damaged door and window locks, inoperable ranges or stoves, and missing or broken hand railings, and estimating that there were 476 health and safety deficiencies in the complex. On a scale in which 60 is a passing grade, HUD gave Hawkins Village a 55.

Aggazio said that when residents move in, they get a fully intact, safe, clean unit. In a June response to HUD concerns about Hawkins Village, he wrote: “The residents at Hawkins are generally rough on their units.”

“Sometimes I come here in the morning, and there’s all kinds of trash, and I think, ‘How are you living like this?’” says Ava Johnson, who was raised in Hawkins Village, brought up five children there, and led the resident council in the 1980s. She now lives elsewhere in Rankin but works in Hawkins Village as a housing authority service coordinator.

Decades ago, the resident council planned parties and cleanup days and brought in programs for the kids, including Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Around 2005, though, participation petered out.

Johnson scheduled an August meeting for residents interested in reviving the council. No one showed.

Azzie Todd’s lingering affection for the complex coexists uneasily with her ambition to leave.

“I walk around this neighborhood. You see kids outside playing. You see people barbecuing,” says Todd, 49, of Hawkins Village, where she and her husband raised three daughters, now grown, and a son, who is in high school. She gets “a warm feeling, to see the camaraderie of the community. . Usually, I don’t see any crime.”

Sometimes, though, you hear it. Her son Jared, 16, says he was playing the video game Fortnite just a week prior, in late November, when he heard a real gunshot. Through his headset, he told his gaming buddies, ”‘Another shooting happened.’” In the week that followed, he said, “It was lingering in my head. Did someone get shot? I hope no one got shot.”

“I used to go outside every day,” Jared says.

A few years ago, though, they were transferred from the front of the complex to the back, near the wooded railroad right of way. “Then, like, all the chaos started breaking loose and my friends stopped coming outside,” Jared says.

On July 4, 2016, the Todd family came back to Hawkins Village following a day trip to Presque Isle. “We went in the back door, saw flashing lights and heard people on our porch,” Ms. Todd recounts.

A 14-year-old boy, Kennir Parr, of Swissvale, had been shot in the head just a few yards from their door. He had come there to join aunts, uncles and cousins in setting off fireworks.

In the days that followed, the Todds attended a vigil and balloon launch. “We had a talk with our kids about safety,” Ms. Todd says. “And then life goes on.”

There’s a pile of stuffed animals, deflated footballs and burned-out candles marking the spot where he fell.

On Oct. 17, 2016, Richard McClinton Jr., 26, was shot fatally in Hawkins Village. On Oct. 15, 2017, a 12-year-old boy was injured in a drive-by shooting. And on June 19, Antwon Rose II, of Hawkins Village, was killed by three shots fired by an East Pittsburgh police officer, in an incident that happened two neighborhoods away but spurred protests here.

Todd describes the effect on Jared: “So it was like a resignation. ‘I’m not going out there anymore.’”

He takes the bus to and from Propel Braddock Hills High School, where he is a junior, then comes straight home and plays video games, draws — cartoon characters, hands, flowers, things he sees on YouTube — or writes poems.

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“So it was like a resignation. ‘I’m not going out there anymore.’”

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“The shootings is kind of how I come up with some of my art,” Jared says. “I wanted to write a poem about the shooting that happened a few days ago.”

“We’ve had an increase in (criminal) activity out there,” says Allegheny County Housing Authority police Chief Michael Vogel. “I attribute it to the age of the young girls moving in there.”

Mothers as young as their late teens can get their own public housing units, he notes. “They’re so vulnerable, and they bring these young guys in, and that’s where the trouble begins.”

Rankin police Chief Ryan Wooten estimates that 80 percent of the 911 calls in Rankin come from Hawkins Village. “When something critical happens in Hawkins Village, everybody knows about it,” the chief says. “But you know that ‘no snitching’ thing?” Major crimes, including Kennir’s death, go unsolved.

The housing authority has posted surveillance cameras in Hawkins Village. But most of the trouble happens where the complex meets the tracks.

“Anything can come from the train tracks,” Ms. Todd says. “And people can run to the train tracks, to get away from something they’ve done.”

She works full time handling phones at a community living center and hopes her communications degree from Carlow University, completed in 2013, will help her to move up. She and her husband, who is disabled, assist their three grown daughters, all in college, and try to save enough money to leave Hawkins Village.

After Jared finishes high school, she said, “Who knows? Maybe we move across the country, to Arizona.”

No paving this year

A Rankin police officer resigned in August. Then another in September. A third in October.

Chief Ryan Wooten tries not to take it personally. He can pay new members of his part-time, dozen-officer force only $9.75 an hour, and he doesn’t blame them for looking for better-paid, full-time, easier work.

From 2013 through 2017, Rankin reported about the same number of violent crimes as Shaler. Shaler, though, has 13 times Rankin’s population and 12 times as much money budgeted for policing.

Last year, Chief Wooten’s departmental budget was $372,162, of which $316,266 covered personnel costs, leaving little for vehicles, gas, supplies, training or anything else. He goes hat-in-hand for equipment, like the computers he just bought with a $3,000 state grant.

That’s how Rankin survives. The roof leaks in the borough building? Apply for a grant. Need a house torn down? Ask the county for money. The basketball court begs for refurbishment? Let local employer Triton Industries pick up the tab. Want to repave a few streets?

“So, no paving this year,” Rankin Borough Council President William “Lucky” Price laments, as he presides over the November meeting of his seven-member body, attended by about a dozen residents. He names a cratered block. “I wanted to get it done this year.”

“The money was approved. The contracts were let out. But Mother Nature didn’t cooperate,” says William Pfoff, council’s vice president. Because of wet and cold weather, the low-bid paving contractor never got around to Rankin.

The borough has a $1.6 million annual budget and has been under state financial oversight for three decades. It shares a public works operation and volunteer fire department with Braddock.

Mr. Price tells his kids and grandkids to stay put. “I didn’t want them to leave, because I always said, we’re going to rebuild this community,” he says. “We’ve got to get a team together, that we can work together to rebuild this community.”

Betting on the concession stand

When Mr. Weems worked at Target’s corporate headquarters in Minneapolis, he loved the “pedal-to-the-floor” pace. Rankin has a different tempo.

It was July when he and Jaden showed up at the council meeting with barbecue and a proposal to turn Deb’s Place into a kitchen and lease the nearby concession stand as its parking-rich outlet for steaks, ribs, chicken, hoagies and pizza.

Council members sampled the barbecue but made no commitments. In the months that followed, Rankin spent $1,334 adding lights and outlets to the stand.

In November, Mr. Weems stands in the cold and dark Deb’s Place, with, as yet, no contract for the concession stand. “From what I know, they’re working on a lease,” he says. When will it be complete? “Probably when Prohibition comes back.”

Rankin is taking things one deal at a time, Mr. Price says after his council’s December meeting, at which members voted to lease a different lot to another entrepreneur. The concession stand is next in line.

Mr. Weems is getting antsy. After a broken hand cost him a job as a caterer, he found work with a health care system, and Melinda works for a bank. But they have two kids approaching college age, and he knows what it’s like to go to college with a scholarship but not much else. His first bid at higher ed ended after one semester, when his family couldn’t cover expenses. He served three years in the Air Force before returning to school.

Given the restaurant-driven revival in neighboring Braddock and the potential redevelopment of the Carrie Furnace site, he’s ready to place one more bet on “the capital of the world.”

“If the concession stand does nothing, and it’s just flat, then whether it has a good location or not, Rankin is just dead,” he says. “So I sell (the bar), I take my loss on that, and I just walk.”

50 acres, shovel ready

Pfoff, the council vice president, hates the fact that he has to cross the river, to The Waterfront, to buy something as simple as a paint brush.

“Prior to the two Palisades being built, you had doctor offices here, you had a hardware store, you had a meat market, Mellon Bank on the corner, and really whether you needed a paint brush or a stapler or a dentist, you didn’t have to leave Rankin,” he says.

Carrie Furnace produced metal from 1907 until 1978 and provided Rankin with jobs, taxes and payments for the water it used. In 1988, U.S. Steel sold the site, along with the rest of the shuttered Homestead Works, to the Park Corp. That Cleveland-based developer transformed the Homestead side into The Waterfront but did virtually nothing on the Rankin side.

For 13 years, the county has been slowly preparing for redevelopment of the Carrie Furnace site, using federal funds to build a $10 million ramp from the Rankin Bridge, paving a road to the old mill, improving the sewers and raising most of the site above the floodplain. On Nov. 14, the county invited developers to submit plans for the Carrie Furnace site. The deadline is April 26.

“The Carrie Furnace development, when it’s developed, it’s going to be more or less a wave coming through the community,” predicts Mr. Price. “So we’ve been waiting on that wave, for something to start down there so we can get something going on up here in the community.”

Caught in the middle

“I just found a name for the store: Dress And Go,” Jaden Weems announces, as he describes his latest entrepreneurial concept, in which customers would go online to design anything from sweatsuits to formal wear, made-to-order.

“Instead of having it made in China and delivering it, it’ll be made in that store,” he says. “As soon as you order it, we’ll be like, ‘OK, we’ll have it prompt in like three or four hours.’”

Mr. Weems loves his son’s ambition and his daughter’s drive to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Sometimes, though, he worries that his kids, both of whom take advanced courses at Woodland Hills, occupy an uneasy bridge between two worlds. “We’ve got Forest Hills on one end and Rankin on the other end. And we’re in the middle. And you can’t really be both. But I want them to be both.”

He can feel the tension between Rankin’s inertia and his efforts to improve his family’s situation. Push too hard? “You become the smart-ass. You become the know-it-all.” That can blow back on the kids.

So as he mulls expanding the family home, putting in a dormer and a deck, a new kitchen and a larger bathroom, he has to think about how that will be viewed. “That’s something that doesn’t really happen around here, so you’ve got to be careful,” he says. A big, visible home improvement can cause “issues (for the kids) at school. ‘Oh, ya’all think ya’all got money.’”

He looks out his front window, to the empty lots across the street that wait for the wave to come up from the furnace site below. That urge to invest in “the best city” surfaces again.

“We could buy that space and build there,” he muses. “But do we want to spend the rest of our lives in Rankin? I don’t know.”

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Online:

https://bit.ly/2FtwpvW

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Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com