PENN HILLS, PENNSYLVANIA
Penn Hills, Pennsylvania is a community in transition. As a first-ring suburb, it currently faces issues of population loss and aging infrastructure. And how innovative its municipal government can be with its limited resources will greatly determine how Penn Hills will move forward. The neighborhood of Lincoln Park’s place in Penn Hills is even more precarious. Most recently, for example, the residents of Lincoln Park defeated a redistricting measure that would have taken their neighborhood out of Penn Hills and moved it into a poorer, adjacent district. Despite these challenges, what remains special about Penn Hills is its vibrant community, and residents who have a strong sense of civic pride.
- Into the Wild: Santiago Street -
When I parked my car at the end of Santiago Street in Lincoln Park, I half expected to find a cul-de-sac devoid of houses. That’s because days earlier, during a conversation with Chris Blackwell, principal planner from the Penn Hills Department of Planning and Economic Development, he told me how his department had demolished nearly all the street’s blighted properties in recent years. “There’s almost nothing left down there,” he said. “Almost” was the key word.
Once a quiet suburban cul-de-sac that boasted upwards of 20 or more homes, the housing stock on Santiago has dwindled to almost nothing in the last two decades. Today only four houses remain on the street. Two are vacant, with broken windows and kicked-in garage doors, weeds sprouting from gutters and trash bags lying heaped in the driveways. Two are not.
In one of the homes that appeared to be inhabited, I heard a TV set blaring and could see the dull glow of its screen. There were no signs of people, however. Allegheny County assessment records show that a man named Martin Lloyd owns the home. I would have walked the steep staircase leading to the front door, knocked and introduced myself explaining that I was a journalist working on a story, but for whatever reason, my fear won out. Maybe it was my knowledge of Lincoln Park’s sordid history that gave me pause, or knowing that people who live in isolated areas sometimes do so for a reason. However unfounded my fear may have been, I listened to instinct. Instead I walked the empty street taking photographs, waiting to see some signs of life. When I returned to my car, I opened my notepad and jotted down house numbers.
The legacy of Santiago Street and its near-death is most likely tied to foreclosures or owner abandonment that took place sometime back in the 1990s, Blackwell said. He assured me it had nothing to do with the recent string of mortgage foreclosures that have plagued the Pennsylvania suburb in the wake of the Great Recession. Regardless of how it came to be, the municipality of Penn Hills — where Santiago Street is located — now owns much of the vacant property.
Santiago Street is located off Mount Carmel Road and dead-ended on one side by a massive property housing a demolition and excavation company. That essentially makes Santiago Street, and its surrounding streets and alleyways, their own micro-province. That day the tall weeds lining the hillside at the end of Santiago swayed like prairie grass, moved by the warm August breeze. Wild rabbits darted back and forth between overgrown hedges. In the near distance, beyond a sign that discouraged dumping trash or parking your car, I heard two dogs howl, followed by a man’s voice that occasionally yelled to quiet them. But still I saw no one.
* * *
Matthew Newton is a writer, journalist and editor from Western Pennsylvania. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Esquire, Forbes and Guernica, among other publications. He’s currently at work on No Place For Disgrace, a series of nonfiction stories about the life and death of the suburban dream. You can find him on his website blog.matthewnewton.us, or at the journal he founded, Annals of Americus.