Pittsburgh’s East End is full of contrasts. It’s a place of prosperity and protest, of high poverty and high rent, of vacant lots and luxury condos. It’s a place of development and disinvestment, of renewal and abandonment. From block to block, its business districts are hard hit or high tech. While it’s full of unique neighborhoods and distinct communities, including East Liberty, East Hills, Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar, Larimer, and Homewood, they’re often lumped together and referred to as one “East End.” It’s a place of mom-and-pops and big box retail, of affordable housing and a lack of it. In many ways, the East End — with all its beauty, complexities, and challenges — reflects Pittsburgh as a whole: Old and new, rich and poor, black and white and more.
The East End is a place that’s both remaking itself and being remade by outside forces. And at its epicenter, says Josiah Gilliam, is Homewood. To learn more about the area’s long history and fascinating future, we caught up with Gilliam at the offices of the Homewood Children’s Village, where he serves as special assistant to the CEO, web and digital communications manager, and program manager for My Brother’s Keeper Pittsburgh-Allegheny County.
Can you tell us a bit about the Homewood Children’s Village and its work?
The Homewood Children’s Village is an education-focused nonprofit that serves the community of Homewood and the neighborhoods around it. In a lot of ways, we’re modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City — in 2008, some of our founders traveled there to see what could be replicated here. They created four Homewood Children’s Village offices: One focused on schools, one on afterschool time, one post-secondary attainment, and another on early childhood education. Those are the main buckets, and we still very much operate within that framework, but some of our philosophies have changed over time. We don’t have the resources to grow into the Harlem Children’s Zone, so we do a lot of convening, coordinating of services, capacity building, and trying to foster a sense of community. We interface with somewhere between 700 and 1,000 kids a day, and often with their families, too. Because if we just work with kids without acknowledging their lived environment and their families, we’re not ultimately going to be successful. So we’ve expanded beyond those original four buckets in order to engage the broader community.
What excites you about Remake Learning Days?
After last year’s Remake Learning Days, I think the idea this time around is, “Good, now more.” Last year was this great opportunity for us to celebrate all the distinct and wonderful programming that’s happening and to talk about it within this larger conversion about remaking learning. And because Remake Learning itself represents resources, capacity building, technical assistance, and lots more, it was a cool opportunity for individual groups to realize that they have access to this larger network.
This year, it’s all of that plus more. We have two weeks. We have way more people signed up to host events. And so many of the Homewood Children’s Village’s partners — like the YMCA Lighthouse Project and the Y Creator Space at the Homewood-Brushton YMCA — are hosting events, too.
For us as conveners, it’s great to show that our partners are part of this larger thing and to ensure that people have an opportunity to see everything that’s going on. Come to Homewood! See what’s going on. Support what you can.
Are there any particular East End events that you’re looking forward to?
Lots. I’m excited for 1HoodMedia’s Word! event. I’m also excited about the YMCA Lighthouse Project’s 10th annual end-of-year showcase. They’re going to have youth projects, performances, presentations, and works of art. The Y Creator Space is having a showcase, too, with technology and engineering projects, interactive stations, and other fun activities. I think the last time I was there, I was playing music on Tupperware — it’s that kind of fun, unusual stuff.
At last year’s YMCA Showcase, the kids had access to a drone that they could use for photography and video. The kids wanted to do a project about their community, and one student was thinking about this notion from scripture — the idea of heaven’s streets being paved with gold. She imagined her own community like that. So she captured this drone shot of Homewood, which is just one square mile, and altered it to make the streets look paved with gold. It says, “My block is beautiful.” I take a picture of it every time I see it.
What makes Homewood and other East End neighborhoods special?
The novelist John Edgar Wideman once said that that Homewood is the center of the universe. Obviously that stuck in my head, and I’ve thought about it a lot. Homewood is a community of 6,400 residents, down from a max of 30,000 or 40,000. Of those, 2,100 are kids. The median age of those kids is 3rd grade. You have a community that’s been disinvested in generationally for the past 20, 30, even 40 years, and now it’s at the epicenter of so much of what’s going on in the region. All that redevelopment activity — it’s coming here. Its a tidal wave.
That raises a lot of questions. Whether it’s the city trying to figure out development or the philanthropic community trying to figure out how to make programming succeed on the ground, so much of that work is happening here. This is truly where the rubber meets the road. If you say you want to be about disadvantaged youth, or equity and inclusion, or making Pittsburgh a more livable city for all, then if it’s real, it’ll be real here.
There are wonderful people here doing incredible work every single day at places like Operation Better Block, the YMCA, and the Community Empowerment Association. And the community’s leaders are increasingly working together — especially the emerging leaders. They’re not CEOs or executive directors, but they’re in pivotal, strategic positions, and they’re communicating.
We’re all committed to the work, and Remake Learning allows us to talk about what we do and learn about what other people do. In a very visceral sense, Remake Learning Days is two weeks for the community to look at all that and just have this positive moment — a time to celebrate all great things that have been done and all the great things to come.
To learn more about Remake Learning Days events in the East End, please visit http://remakelearningdays.org/east-end
This blog is part of “Neighborhood Navigators: Remaking Learning in Your Neighborhood,” a special initiative to connect children and youth in six Pittsburgh neighborhoods and parts of West Virginia to Remake Learning Days (May 15-26). Each week, we’ll spotlight a new community. In Pittsburgh, we’ll visit neighborhoods in the Northside, the Hilltop, the Hill District, the Mon Valley, the East End, and Hazelwood; in West Virginia, we’ll visit Morgantown, Charleston, and Wheeling.
Follow writer Ryan Rydzewski on Twitter @RyanRydzewski.