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Hazelwood Initiative, ‘A seed that grew into a tree’ | The Homepage

Homer and Ursula Craig remember the community development corporation’s early days

By Cassandra Harris, staff writer

Two white-haired people on a porch with a brick wall behind them. One, in a black t-shirt with red and white artwork, is sitting, the other, in a white t-shirt with black and yellow artwork, is standing.
Ursula (standing) and Homer Craig on the front porch of their home on Monongahela Avenue. Photo by Cassandra Harris

This year, Hazelwood Initiative marks its 25th anniversary. In honor of this milestone, The Homepage is featuring stories of the organization’s history as told by those who were there. The first installment, featuring former board president Kris DiPietro, ran in the January issue.

The Hazelwood Initiative was not always a registered nonprofit with an office that had full-time employees. At one point it was just a group of volunteers who went out into the community, trying to make a change.

“At first it started with task forces from the city,” said Homer Craig, Hazelwood resident of 85 years, Army veteran and former Pittsburgh police officer. “It was a seed that grew into a tree.”

Mr. Craig was a K-9 officer with the Pittsburgh Police and the third man placed onto a police task force to contain the civil rights riots in Hazelwood in 1968. He described his effective way of stopping a riot.

“There's always going to be agitators in any crowd and what I found out during the riots is there was always a guy in the back saying get them, go get him, but he’s in the back,” Mr. Craig said. “The task force was outnumbered by maybe 100 to 1, but when you pushed through the crowd and put a gun to the head of the guy yelling, he said, ‘Back up! Everybody back up!’ If you get the guy with the big mouth, usually you get the guy that's causing the problem. ”

His task force was assigned to protect the community from damage and vandalism, he said. Often, instead of using force or making arrests, they would try to change people’s attitudes.

Police officers outside of Mr. Craig’s task force used to call him and the other members social workers because the way they decided to police was unique. The nickname, he said, was not a friendly one.

“They never called us that to our face, they did it behind our backs,” Mr. Craig said. “It was a bad term as far as they were concerned.”

At the time, people in Hazelwood came together to protect, clean and volunteer for the community through a youth task force, economic task force, civilian and police task force before Hazelwood Initiative was even an idea.

According to Mr. Craig, when these task forces came together, it became known as the Hazelwood Initiative.

‘People just came out and helped’

His wife, Ursula Craig, whom he met on deployment in Germany, began to volunteer in Hazelwood when she moved there with him 1968. The two raised their family in Hazelwood on Monongahela Avenue and continue to volunteer throughout their retirement by going to the food bank, attending meetings and helping with neighborhood cleanup.

Ever since Mr. Craig lost his sight while in the police service, he hasn’t been able to help in the community like he “used to” but Mrs. Craig still volunteers, he said.

“When we started it was 10 to 15 people; when we did the cleanup people just came out and helped,” Mrs. Craig said. “It was a nonprofit; we didn’t have no money.”

At first, meetings were held in the senior community center where they didn’t have to pay rent.

The Craigs, with other residents, would hold events to bring the community together and raise money. They sold cookbooks and did bake sales. Mrs. Craig credited Hazelwood resident Jim McLaughlin for running the initiative’s T-ball program and for going around Pittsburgh to collect donations for Halloween.

They came together to clean up empty lots and get permission to plant flower gardens in their stead. One of these was on Hazelwood and Second Avenue and another near the gazebo, Mrs. Craig said.

“It was not one or two people, but the whole community working together with people that ordinarily wouldn't even be sitting in the same room at the same time,” Mrs. Craig said. “You see, all they had to do was call and people showed up. Everything was donated.”

According to Mr. Craig, he started a group called the Hazelwood Rainbow Writers Club. Meetings were held at the Carnegie library on Monongahela Avenue.

He said that he decided on the name based on the diverse group of people who used to come to the meetings.

“We had everything — boys, girls, black, white, old and young,” Mr. Craig said. “Our oldest member was 89 years old.”

At the time, the city council member let them print copies of the club’s writing in the city printing office. Each of the kids got 10 to 15 copies of the 30-page book, he said.

In the summer, the initiative would run competitions and games with rewards and give away school supplies to kids who won. Mr. Craig said that they used to beg stores for donations so they could give away things like backpacks and rulers. One summer they were able to give boys free haircuts for a day and take children around on a horse named Bella that cost them $1,000 to rent, according to Mr. Craig.

“It was just a really community-oriented organization,” Mrs. Craig said. “The main thing was about cleaning up and helping people.”

Cassandra Harris is a rising junior at Point Park University and a Pittsburgh Media Partnership summer intern at The Homepage.

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